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Ron Huldai announces new ‘The Israelis’ party, vows end to national ‘despair’

Tel Aviv mayor says he, not Sa’ar, is true alternative to Netanyahu and right wing; meanwhile, Gantz says he’ll keep leading ailing Blue and White, claims he ‘saved the country’

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Tuesday’s events as they unfolded.

Court orders prosecutors to hand over AG’s approval for probes against Netanyahu

The Jerusalem District Court orders prosecutors to hand over to lawyers defending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the authorization from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for a police investigation into the premier.

Prosecutors must hand over the documentation within a week.

According to the Haaretz daily, the court’s ruling applies to Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 against the prime minister after lawyers for the prime minister claimed permission for the probes was given retroactively.

The court rejects arguments by prosecutors that the authorizations are not materials related to the investigation, and therefore says they need to be handed over.

Lawyers for the prime minister had asked the court to cancel the criminal indictment against the premier, alleging Mandelblit didn’t authorize the probe that yielded the corruption charges for which Netanyahu now stands trial.

Netanyahu’s defense team has made several requests to cancel the charges against him, citing various procedural matters, but has been rebuffed by judges every time so far.

The state prosecution earlier this month dismissed the claim, saying “the investigations were approved according to the law.”

Russia, Turkey to develop military ties despite US sanctions – Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow and Ankara’s military cooperation will not be deterred by the United States imposing sanctions on Turkey earlier this month for acquiring a Russian missile defense system.

“We have confirmed our mutual intention to develop military ties with Turkey” despite “Washington’s illegitimate pressure,” Lavrov tells reporters following talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Moscow.

— AFP

French fashion designer Pierre Cardin dies aged 98

French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, hailed for his visionary creations but also for bringing stylish clothes to the masses, has died aged 98, his family tells AFP.

Cardin, who was born in Italy in 1922 but emigrated to France as a small child, died in a hospital in Neuilly in the west of Paris, his family says.

— AFP

Amos Gilboa, analyst and ex-head of top IDF intelligence unit, dies at 81

Amos Gilboa, a prominent defense analyst and a former head of the Research Department, one of the most central units of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, has died aged 81, Hebrew-language media reports.

Gilboa, who died of an unspecified illness, was also a researcher of Israel’s intelligence, an author and a columnist for media outlets.

Justice Minister Nissenkorn leaves Blue and White, joins Huldai’s new party

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn has decided to leave Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and join Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, which he is expected to launch today, according to a statement from a spokesperson for the Huldai campaign.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is the latest blow to Gantz, whose party has been steadily losing ground in opinion polls and could find itself out of the Knesset after the upcoming elections.

The statement says Nissenkorn informed Gantz of his decision.

“We will bring hope for hundreds of thousands of Israelis who feel like they don’t have a political home, and we will do so with actions, not words,” Nissenkorn is quoted as saying.

Gantz to fire Justice Minister Nissenkorn today — reports

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz will fire Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn from his post today after the latter said he is leaving the party to join Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, Hebrew-language media reports.

Gantz has previously fired other ministers from his bloc after they left Blue and White.

It isn’t initially clear who will serve as justice minister until the March elections.

Health Ministry says 21% of Israelis over 60 have received COVID-19 vaccine

The Health Ministry says 21% of Israelis over the age of 60 have already received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, with Israel leading the world in the immunization rate by a big margin.

According to the data, among those aged 60-69 there have been 146,046 shots administered. The number for those aged 70-79 is 114,931, for ages 80-89 it is 39,293 and for those aged 90 or over it is 5,655.

There have been tens of thousands of younger citizens who got vaccinated, mostly because they work in healthcare or other jobs with high risk of COVID-19 infection.

Some health providers have now told people aged 55-59 who have risk factors to book an appointment to get the shot.

Following criticism, Israel nixes forced hotel quarantine for travelers

After criticism, chaos and protests, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announces that Israelis returning from abroad will no longer have to quarantine in specially designated hotels.

The government had announced the controversial measure in light of the outbreak of more infectious coronavirus strains.

In a tweet, Edelstein says any traveler must immediately take a virus test upon their arrival and quarantine at home for 14 days, which could be reduced to 10 days if they undergo a second test after nine days.

Blue and White lambastes ‘conman’ Nissenkorn

Blue and White “sources” are quoted by various Hebrew-language media outlets slamming Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who announced his defection to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, reportedly to become its No. 2.

Nissenkorn “has proved himself to be a conman. He had not been worthy to receive Gantz’s backing,” the sources say.

“He didn’t even have the courage to leave in a decent manner and resign,” they add. “Nissenkorn is being ungrateful and behaving like a swindler rather than like a leader. Benny Gantz appointed him and backed him all the way. Everything he did in the Justice Ministry he did thanks to Benny’s power and support rather than his own. And in the end he made a personal calculation and turned his back.”

Offering advice to Nissenkorn’s new party leader, the sources say: “Huldai, watch your back.”

Court rejects ‘slanderous’ Likud petition against Ehud Barak, Wexner Foundation

The High Court of Justice rejects a petition by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which demanded an investigation into alleged wrongdoing in a payment by the Wexner Foundation to former prime minister Ehud Barak.

The petition has echoed conspiracy theories circulated on social media — including by Likud — of an alleged left-wing interference by the US foundation in Israeli politics, which makes use of the fact that sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein used to work for it.

It demanded a probe into a payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Barak in 2004-2006 for two research papers — one of which was never completed — while he wasn’t in politics.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-defense minister Ehud Barak attend a press conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The judges reject the claim and criticize Likud.

“The current petition failed to provide a minimal factual basis,” wrote Justice Yitzhak Amit. “The petitioner took ‘Wexner Foundation,’ added ‘Jeffrey Epstein,’ sprinkled a fair amount of ‘convicted pedophile’ and a pinch of ‘Lolita Express plane,’ and poured Defendant 3 [Barak] onto all of that — thus creating a dish that brings the aroma of social media to the courtroom. The petition is composed of hints, slander and speculation.”

Fellow judge Yosef Elron says no incriminating information was provided beyond the fact that the payments were made.

The judges order Likud to pay the state, Barak and the Wexner Foundation NIS 5,000 ($1,550) each.

Israel said aiming to allow tourists to visit starting April, conditionally

An initial government plan would see foreign tourist groups allowed to visit Israel starting in April for the first time in a year, according to the Ynet news website. However, visitors will face a series of strict conditions.

The report says the Health Ministry has reached understandings with the Incoming Tour Operators Association in Israel, which depend on the progress in the vaccination campaign and other factors regarding the pandemic.

The plan would require tourists to fill out a health declaration at the Health Ministry website before getting approval for the trip, take a COVID-19 test less than 72 hours before the flight, have special health insurance and register a detailed list of places and times for the trip with Israeli authorities in case quarantine is needed. Their movements will be monitored.

At first, only tourists from low-infection countries will be allowed.

The plan hasn’t been formally approved.

Gantz’s No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi set to leave Blue and White — report

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi will announce today or tomorrow that he is leaving Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, citing differences with the party leader, the Haaretz daily reports.

The Blue and White No. 2 is reportedly disappointed that Gantz is not vacating the top spot on the slate, and also believes Gantz didn’t share enough information with others as party leader.

Benny Gantz (left) and Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party arrive to give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He joins Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn in leaving the party, which is predicted to lose most of its support in the upcoming elections.

The Israel Hayom daily says three more lawmakers are expected to follow Nissenkorn in defecting to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, including MK Einav Kabla and MK Ram Shefa.

British woman, 90, becomes first outside clinical trials to get 2nd vaccine shot

Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old British woman, has become the first person in the world outside of clinical trials to receive a second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, BBC reports.

Three weeks ago, Keenan was the first person to receive the Pfizer vaccine as part of Britain’s immunization drive.

Netanyahu delays first trip to UAE, Bahrain days before takeoff — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has been delayed due to the Israeli lockdown that began Sunday, the Walla news site reports citing Israeli and Emirati sources.

It is the second time in a month that a historic first official tour of Gulf countries by an Israeli leader — following the recent normalization agreements — has been postponed days before takeoff.

The visit was scheduled to take place next week, the report says.

A trip to Bahrain planned for earlier this month was previously pushed off, reportedly at the request of the Bahrainis who wanted the visit to be part of a larger regional tour that includes the UAE.

Gabi Ashkenazi set to quit politics — reports

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is set to announce today or tomorrow that he is quitting politics, Hebrew-language media reports.

The Blue and White No. 2 will reportedly announce the hiatus due to the predicted downfall of his Blue and White party and Benny Gantz’s decision to continue heading it.

Gantz asks Nissenkorn to resign as justice minister

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has spoken with Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and asked him to resign from his ministerial post due to his defection to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, Blue and White says in a statement.

“Nissenkorn has chosen a new political home and is therefore expected to resign,” Gantz says. “The justice portfolio is one of Blue and White’s most important assets to safeguard democracy and the rule of law, and we will continue acting the same way we have thus far.”

EU chiefs to sign Brexit trade deal tomorrow

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel will sign the post-Brexit trade deal agreed with Britain tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. (0830 GMT), a spokeswoman says.

After that, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement is expected to be taken to London, where UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will add his signature.

— AFP

Liberman aims to be finance minister, favors coalition with Meretz over Haredim

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman says he will demand the finance minister position after the March elections, adding that he would be more willing to sit with the left-wing Meretz party in a coalition than with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

MK Avigdor Liberman meets with settler leadership in the West Bank, September 6, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The right-wing leader, who last year fell out with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and adopted a staunch secularist platform, says he will only join a government that approves public transportation on Shabbat, civil marriage and a mandatory non-religious core curriculum for all schools, including ultra-Orthodox.

“I will demand the finance minister [position] to rehabilitate the Israeli economy and the economic devastation,” Liberman tells Channel 12 news.

He says his party will also demand the health and public security portfolios.

Rights groups demand that Palestinian Authority release prominent DJ

Rights groups demand that the Palestinian Authority free a prominent disc jockey arrested after a dance event at a Muslim religious site near the West Bank city of Jericho.

PA police arrested Sama Abd al-Hadi, 30, on Sunday, the day after she performed at Nabi Musa, the traditional burial place of Moses under Islamic tradition. Video of the event posted on social media showed men and women dancing together at the gathering, sparking public anger and accusations of desecration of the site, where there is a mosque.

Ammar Dweik, director of the Independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights, says she was remanded in custody today for a further 15 days.

Dweik, whose organization was founded by the PA, says Abd al-Hadi had official permission for the event.

“We asked today for her release because her arrest is not logical,” he tells AFP. “She had received an authorization from the ministry of tourism. Nabi Musa is not only a religious site but also a tourist site. If electronic music was not appropriate for it, the ministry should not have given its authorization.”

Her family says in a statement that an application for bail was rejected.

She is considered by many to be the first Palestinian woman to have become a professional disc jockey.

At the request of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, a commission of inquiry was set up “to determine what happened at Nabi Musa.’

Shawan Jabarin, general director of Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, slams the “arbitrary arrest” which he says is aimed at satisfying a section of Palestinian opinion.

Asked by AFP for comment, police say the case is in the hands of the government. A government official says he cannot comment as the issue is subject to the ongoing commission of inquiry.

— AFP

Huldai, Gantz set for primetime election announcements this evening

Israel faces a series of high-profile political announcements this evening as the upcoming Knesset election campaign takes shape.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai will hold a press conference around 8 p.m. to announce his new party, expected to be center-left, which received a big boost today when Justice Minister Avi Nissernkorn joined it.

Around the same time, Defense Minister Benny Gantz will hold a press conference likely announcing that he is running once again as the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, even as his party crashes in opinion polls and many of his party members jump ship.

Gantz’s No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, could also reportedly declare tonight that he is leaving Blue and White and the political arena. That could also happen tomorrow.

Pompeo urges release of Wuhan citizen journalist, slams China

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demands that China release a citizen journalist jailed for reports from Wuhan, accusing Beijing of seeking to cover up the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We call on the PRC government to release her immediately and unconditionally,” Pompeo says of former lawyer Zhang Zhan, who was convicted over her early online reports of the mysterious illness.

“The Chinese Communist Party has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,” he says in a statement.

— AFP

Nissenkorn said to claim Blue and White is seeking merger with Yamina

After Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn announced his departure from the Blue and White party, a report quotes him as telling political officials that his decision stems in part from Benny Gantz considering a merge with the right-wing religious Yamina party.

The left-wing Nissenkorn says party leaders tried to discuss a Yamina merger with him, to form a center-right party, the Ynet news site reports.

Yamina denies it is holding any such negotiations with Blue and White.

“Nissenkorn is trying to explain his flip-flopping and we have nothing to do with it,” the party says.

In Israel, 1 in every 132 Haredi adults over age 65 has died of COVID-19

In Israel, as in the United States, ultra-Orthodox communities have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

Now new data from the Health Ministry shows that one in 132 Haredi adults in Israel over the age of 65 has died from the coronavirus, compared with one in 475 adults over 65 among the general population, according to the Israel Hayom daily. That puts the COVID-19 death toll among ultra-Orthodox adults over 65 at 3.6 times that of the general population.

Haredi families in Israel often live in cramped quarters, with large families in small apartments, allowing the virus to spread easily among family members. The communal nature of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle has made their communities particularly susceptible to the virus, as has continued resistance to social distancing measures and lockdowns. Even as the country has gone through several lockdowns, some Haredim have continued to come together for large weddings, funerals and other gatherings.

As the government has struggled to have the community comply with social distancing measures, they have flocked to get the vaccine.

“The response has been overwhelming,” a medical official familiar with the Haredi sector tells Israel Hayom, saying the lines to get the vaccine have been especially long in Haredi cities.

— JTA

UK registers record 53,135 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours

Britain registers a new daily high of more than 53,000 coronavirus cases, as concern mount about spiraling numbers of positive tests and pressure on health services.

Government figures show 53,135 people tested positive in the last 24 hours, up from 41,385 the previous day, taking the overall number of cases to 2,382,865.

A further 414 deaths have been recorded within 28 days of a positive test, increasing the country’s toll to 71,567.

— AFP

IDF says troops thwarted infiltration from Lebanon

IDF soldiers prevented several Lebanese men from crossing into Israel earlier today, the military says.

In a statement, the military says forces spotted suspects nearing the border fence, one of whom climbed over it and walked several meters into Israeli territory.

Troops shot in the air, and the suspect returned to Lebanon, with the suspects leaving the area, the IDF says.

Hundreds of COVID vaccines said thrown away as inoculation push ‘out of control’

Israel’s vaccination campaign is getting “out of control,” Channel 13 news reports, saying hundreds of vaccines have been thrown away in the south.

In the north, the report says, health providers have been openly immunizing young people, with no regard for current rules mandating that apart from special cases, only people over the age of 60 should get the shot.

‘Blue and White saved the country,’ Gantz says, predicts Netanyahu will lose elections

Benny Gantz opens his press conference by slamming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he caused the election, in a fiery appearance.

“Blue and White saved the country,” he claims, saying it committed an act of heroism for which it is now paying the electoral price. “We lay on the fence; some would say, we jumped on the grenade.”

He predicts that Netanyahu will lose power in the March 2021 elections — Netanyahu’s “fingers will be prised” from the leadership of Israel, he says. Blue and White’s “great achievement” will be “the ending of Netanyahu’s political path.”

“There was not one minute in this government when Netanyahu viewed us as partners or acted for the country’s benefit,” he charges. “Only the good of the country is guiding me, even if I pay a price.”

He justifies joining forces with Netanyahu earlier this year by saying the other options were more “dangerous.”

He casts his critics as “whiners.”

“While you tweeted, I safeguarded the justice system” and created a working mechanism to fight the coronavirus, thwarted “unnecessary lockdowns” and “saved democracy.”

Netanyahu, Gantz says, chose to break his word at the expense of Israeli citizens.

Gantz says he’ll lead Blue and White, create ‘alliance’ against Netanyahu

Benny Gantz says he will continue to lead the Blue and White party despite the fact that it has crashed in opinion polls and that many of its members have been jumping ship.

“You’re welcome to leave, the door is open,” he says.

Gantz says his party will preserve the current government until the election. After it, he says, there will be an “alliance” against Netanyahu — a likely indication that he intends to join forces with another party.

“As we knew how to save the country from Netanyahu, we’ll know how to steer the country to better waters,” he concludes the press conference.

Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai announces ‘The Israelis’ party, vows end to national despair

Ron Huldai announces he is running in the upcoming elections as leader of a new party which will be called “The Israelis.”

In a press conference, Huldai says the problem is that “we have grown accustomed” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption and divisive style of leadership, and says he will get Israel out of its current despair.

“We have grown accustomed to a crazy government. I will no longer stand idly by, I am here to announce a new party,” he says, recounting his history as an IDF fighter pilot, as an educator and — for the past 22 years — as the mayor of Tel Aviv.

“We can stop with the despair. I’m doing this for my children, and mainly for my grandchildren. Israel can and must be managed differently,” he says, declaring himsrelf — not right-wing politician Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors — as the true alternative to Netanyahu.

“I am also here to speak about values,” he says. “Why do you think Sa’ar and Elkin, or Bennett and Smotrich, are those who represent you?”

He says his party will safeguard democracy and the justice system, create socially-minded reforms, care for small businesses, for women’s and minorities’ rights, and oppose religious coercion, rampant violence in the Arab community. Huldai adds that he will oppose attempts to annex parts of the West Bank.

“Not being corrupt is nice but not enough. Elect someone you can trust, whom you can believe in,” he says, presenting his first recruit and No. 2, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.

Nissenkorn praises Huldai’s leadership and warns the justice system is under an unprecedented threat.

Likud wishes ‘luck’ to Huldai, Gantz while Netanyahu ‘gets Israel out of virus crisis’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud issues a relatively tame response to the fiery speeches by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“We wish Gantz and Huldai luck while Prime Minister Netanyahu brings millions of vaccines to Israel, gets Israel out of the coronavirus crisis and revives us,” the party says in a statement.

Russia opens probe against Navalny, alleging ‘fraud’

Russian investigators open a criminal probe into Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, alleging he spent more than 356 million rubles ($4.8 million) of donations to his organizations on personal acquisitions.

The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, says in a statement that Russia’s most prominent opposition figure used the money for acquiring “personal property [and] material assets and paying expenses [including holidays abroad],” saying that the donations were therefore “stolen.”

— AFP

Sa’ar says his new party will include minorities, possibly including Muslims

Gideon Sa’ar, leader of the right-wing “New Hope” party formed recently after he left the ruling Likud party, tells an Arab-Israeli television station that he intends to have members of minority goups join his party, possibly including Muslims.

“I have five more weeks until the slates are submitted, but we will include minorities in our Knesset slate, it’s important to me,” Sa’ar tells Hala TV.

Asked if he also means Muslims, Sa’ar answers: “Why not? The question is a question of values.”

Gideon Sa’ar, seen during a visit to Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
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Gantz’s No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi set to leave Blue and White — report

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi will announce today or tomorrow that he is leaving Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, citing differences with the party leader, the Haaretz daily reports.

The Blue and White No. 2 is reportedly disappointed that Gantz is not vacating the top spot on the slate, and also believes Gantz didn’t share enough information with others as party leader.

Benny Gantz (left) and Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party arrive to give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He joins Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn in leaving the party, which is predicted to lose most of its support in the upcoming elections.

The Israel Hayom daily says three more lawmakers are expected to follow Nissenkorn in defecting to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, including MK Einav Kabla and MK Ram Shefa.