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Labor chief calls on all center-left parties to merge ahead of elections

‘We will make a move that has never been made in Israel,’ Amir Peretz says in TV interview, urging united anti-Netanyahu front by Blue and White, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Camp

L to R: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Labor chief Amir Peretz and Gesher head Orly Levy-Abekasis in a meeting, November 14, 2019 (Facebook photo)
L to R: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Labor chief Amir Peretz and Gesher head Orly Levy-Abekasis in a meeting, November 14, 2019 (Facebook photo)

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

Labor chief said urged to merge with Meretz, prefers to join with Blue and White

Labor-Gesher party leader Amir Peretz is under heavy pressure to negotiate a potential merger with the left-wing Meretz party, but Peretz objects to the idea, the Kan public broadcaster reports, citing sources within Labor.

Peretz associates are quoted as saying the center-left party would rather unite with the centrist Blue and White party, saying internal polls predicts such an alliance could win 40 Knesset seats.

Blue and White currently has 33 seats and Labor-Gesher has 6.

Germany withdraws some troops from Iraq as tensions soar

Germany says it has temporarily withdrawn some of its troops deployed as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq, in the latest fallout over the US drone strike that killed a top Iranian general.

A total of 32 German soldiers based in Camp Taji near Baghdad have been flown by a military transporter A400m to the al-Azraq air-force base in Jordan, the German military says in a statement.

Three German soldiers stationed in Baghdad, the headquarters of the coalition fighting against the Islamic State jihadist group, have been transferred to Kuwait.

“These troops can be brought back at any time if the training in Iraq is to resume,” the statement adds. “The safety of our soldiers remains a top priority.”

— AFP

Jewish cemetery desecrated in southwest France

A dozen graves at a Jewish cemetery in the southwest of France have been desecrated, the local community says, after the latest in a string of recent attacks that have sparked concerns about a wave of anti-Semitism.

Deborah Loupien-Suares, the head of the Jewish community in the towns of Bayonne and Biarritz, says she discovered the damage on Sunday when visiting the graves of her grandparents.

A picture taken on January 7, 2020, shows the Jewish cemetery of Bayonne, southwestern France, where a dozen graves were desecrated a few days prior. (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

“There is significant damage to up to 10 tombs at the cemetery which have been smashed,” she tells AFP, expressing her “shock and horror.”

Tombstones were broken as well as a commemorative plaque for a girl who was deported during World War II.

Loupien-Suares says she will file a criminal complaint with police in Bayonne, where prosecutors have confirmed an investigation is underway.

“There is no anti-Semitic graffiti and I don’t want to inflame a debate. I want the investigation to take place calmly,” she says.

But she adds that the Catholic cemetery which “is situated just opposite and is more easily accessible” was not damaged.

— AFP

Death toll in Iran funeral stampede up to 40

The death toll in a stampede during the mass funeral of slain Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has risen from 32 to 40, the Reuters news agency reports, citing Iranian media.

“So far 40 people were killed and 213 others were wounded in the incident,” an emergency service official is quoted as telling the semi-official Fars news agency.

Zarif confirms UN informed him that US has denied him visa

Iran’s foreign minister says he has been informed by UN chief Antonio Guterres that Washington has denied him a visa for a trip to UN headquarters in New York.

“What we know is that the US State Secretary (Mike Pompeo), in a call to the Secretary General of the United Nations, said: ‘We did not have time to issue a visa for Mohammad Javad Zarif and we will not issue a visa,'” Zarif says.

“The secretary general responded by saying that it is Iran’s right to take part in this session,” Iran’s top diplomat says, quoted by semi-official news agency ISNA.

So far there has been no official confirmation from Washington that it has rejected Zarif’s visa application.

— AFP

Lebanon leader hopes US-Iran tensions won’t spread to its border with Israel

Lebanon’s president says the country is working to prevent rising tensions in the region from affecting stability at home.

Michel Aoun makes the remarks during separate meetings with the UN special coordinator for Lebanon and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force deployed along the country’s border with Israel.

A statement by Aoun’s office quotes him as saying it is important that calm continues along the Israel-Lebanon border and to “prevent negative developments from happening there.”

The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has said the US military will pay a price for killing Iran’s top general and Iraqi militia leaders in Baghdad last week.

— Agencies

Chief rabbi defends remarks about ex-Soviet immigrants, says they were distorted

Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef reacts for the first time to the public outrage caused by his remarks against immigrants from the former Soviet Union, defending his statements and claiming his words were being “distorted” by politicians.

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends the traditional selling of the the hametz (food containing leavening) of the state of Israel to a non-Jew before the upcoming Passover holiday, on March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I was clear and I say again: Alongside the majority of the welcome aliyah of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union… there is a minority of immigrants who are not Jewish according to Jewish law who came due to the Law of Return,” Yosef says in a statement.

“During my visits over the last month to the blooming Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine I was exposed to the strong criticism within those communities regarding the act of bringing many who aren’t Jewish to Israel.

“It is very unfortunate that there are some who feel offended from the way the remarks were presented while they were blatantly distorted by interested political figures who have been inciting for many months against Judaism and Jewish law.”

EgyptAir suspends flights to Baghdad this week

Egypt’s national airline EgyptAir has temporarily suspended flights to Baghdad. A statement by the country’s civil aviation authority says it is due to the turmoil that’s taking place there.

A spokesman for the authority, Bassem Abdel Karim, says the airline will halt flights Wednesday through Friday this week. He says authorities will then assess the situation and resume flights when they deem the situation safe again.

Governments and companies around the world are weighing how to respond to the rising tensions in the Middle East after a US airstrike killed Iran’s top military commander near Baghdad’s airport last week and Tehran vowed “harsh retaliation.”

— AP

Border Police bans officers from using Chinese app Tiktok over security fears

Border Police has banned its members from using a popular Chinese social networking app over concerns that it poses a security risk, Walla reports.

The security agency instructs officers not to use TikTok, a very popular app among teenagers and young Israelis used to film and share short videos, while wearing Border Police uniform or while they are in their bases or during operations.

Border Police says the content uploaded to the app and shared with the public could include information compromising Israel’s security and footage that could “compromise the values and image of the organization.”

Border Police says that while it has for years banned uploading content to social media in general, several videos shared on TikTok caused it to single out the Chinese app.

Last month, the US Navy and Army similarly banned TikTok following warnings by the Pentagon and lawmakers.

US sends B-52 bombers to Indian Ocean island, preparing possible Iran strike

The US is deploying six B-52 fighter jets to the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia in preparation for possible strikes against Iran as Washington-Tehran tensions skyrocket, the Telegraph website reports.

The secretive US base on the Indian Ocean island is located some 3,800 kilometers (2,400 miles) from southern Iran, putting the bombers within striking range of Iran but outside the range of most of Iran’s missiles, the British report says.

Putin visits Syria, claims ‘huge’ progress in talks with Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Syria today and met officials including President Bashar Assad, state media reports.

Putin hails “huge” progress made in talks with Assad, according to the reports.

Putin’s visit is the second to the war-torn country where his troops have been fighting alongside government forces since 2015.

The visit comes amid heightened tensions between Iran, a key Syrian ally, and the United States, following the killing of a top Iranian general in a US airstrike in neighboring Iraq.

— Agencies

Incendiary balloon apparently sent from Gaza found in southern Israel

For the first time in months, an incendiary balloon apparently launched from the Gaza Strip is located inside a community in southern Israel.

Police say sappers were called in as residents of a community in the Lachish region spotted a suspicious balloon. An initial examination revealed it is an explosive device attached to a balloon, and the sappers are neutralizing it.

Trump’s top peace negotiator met Netanyahu in Jerusalem yesterday — sources

US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, met in Jerusalem yesterday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, sources in Washington and Jerusalem have told The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also was present at the meeting.

American and Israeli officials refuse to confirm the details.

Berkowitz succeeded Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s top Middle East peace negotiator, in November. It is his first visit to Israel since taking over.

— with Raphael Ahren and JTA

More than 50 dead in stampede at Iran general’s funeral: new toll

More than 50 people have been crushed to death at the funeral of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in the southeastern city of Kerman, Iranian media reports, citing a morgue count.

The tragedy has left 212 people injured, a small number of whom were in a serious condition, semi-official news agency ISNA adds, citing Kerman’s emergency services chief Mohammad Saberi.

— AFP

Liberman’s party demands criminal probe into chief rabbi for alleged incitement

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party sends a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, asking him to open a criminal investigation into the Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, over “suspected incitement to racism.”

After Yosef’s remarks calling immigrants from the former Soviet Union “religion-hating gentiles” were exposed, the party — whose voters base consists largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and which has repeatedly clashed recently with the ultra-Orthodox — says in the letter that the remarks are “very severe.”

“There is great doubt whether he is fit to continue serving in this public position,” the letter says. “In the current circumstances we have no choice but to demand that you use your authority to bring the chief rabbi to justice.”

Mike Pompeo won’t run for US Senate in 2020 — source

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will not run for an open US Senate seat in Kansas this year, according to a person familiar with the top diplomat’s decision.

In this photo taken on December 11, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Pompeo met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday in the US Capitol “where he indicated he will not be running for Senate,” a source close to McConnell tells AFP.

“Leader McConnell believes Secretary Pompeo is doing an incredible job as Secretary of State and is exactly where the country needs him to be right now,” the source adds.

McConnell, according to US media reports, has courted the 56-year-old former CIA director for the Senate over the past year, as a way to boost the likelihood of Republicans holding the seat that opened with the announced retirement of Senator Pat Roberts.

— AFP

Honduras says it will recognize Hezbollah as terror group

Honduras announces that it will join Guatemala and other allied nations in declaring Hezbollah an international terrorist organization, the office of the Latin American country’s president announces.

The government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez is traditionally very pro-Israel, has opened a trade office in Jerusalem recently and is expected to move its embassy to Jerusalem in the coming weeks.

Last year, Argentina and Paraguay took the step against Hezbollah, prodding Guatemala’s incoming president to announce in November that his country would follow suit.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomes the move as an “important step in the global war on terrorism,” adding that Israel is holding talks with other countries such as Germany, Australia and Brazil in hopes they will follow suit.

— Raphael Ahren

Soleimani’s funeral renewed after delay, body taken to cemetery for burial

The funeral of Iran’s slain top general Qassem Soleimani has been renewed in his home city of Kerman, Iranian media reports, according to Reuters,

After a stampede during the mass funeral caused more than 50 deaths and delayed the funeral processions, Soleimani’s body has been transferred to the local cemetery for burial, the ISNA news agency is quoted as saying.

NATO says taking ‘some personnel’ out of Iraq

NATO says it will take “some personnel” out of Iraq because of the increased risk to their safety after the US killed a top Iranian general there.

The withdrawal is temporary but “the safety of our personnel is paramount,” a NATO official says. The military alliance announced on Saturday it had suspended its training mission in Iraq.

— AFP

Polish president says he’s skipping Holocaust event in Israel

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda announces he will skip a major Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem later this month because he was not invited to speak at the event while Russian President Vladimir Putin was, the Reuters news agency reports.

The move comes amid a bitter Russian-Polish disagreement over the history of the beginning of World War II.

Duda was widely expected to participate in the event, but this week indicated that he will only come if he is allowed to speak there.

“As the president I will not take part in the event that will take place on January 23 in Jerusalem,” he says after his request was apparently rejected.

France has no plans to pull troops from Iraq — source

France has “no intention” of withdrawing its troops in Iraq, a French government source tells AFP, as tensions soar over the US killing of a top Iranian general in Baghdad.

France has contributed around 200 soldiers to the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State insurgency group, of which 160 are tasked with training Iraqi military personnel, according to the defense ministry.

— AFP

UK says its forces will leave Iraq if Baghdad demands move

Britain will withdraw its troops from Iraq if Baghdad so demands, UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace says.

“We are… trying to get them to say that it’s in your best interest for us to remain,” Wallace tells parliament, according to the Reuters news agency. “[But] we will respect Iraqi sovereignty. If they require us to leave, that is their right and we will respect it.”

Netanyahu to head Likud elections campaign, again

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will again lead the ruling Likud’s campaign ahead of the March 2 Knesset elections, the party announces.

The field operations will be led by Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Culture Minister Miri Regev. The manager of the party campaign headquarters will be Lod Mayor Yair Revivo.

Source: Polish president skipping Jerusalem event not connected to Israel-Poland ties

An unnamed diplomatic source is quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying the decision by Polish President Andrzej Duda to skip a major Holocaust memorial event on January 23 “has no connection with the relations between Poland and Israel.”

“The President of Poland was invited to take part in the events in Jerusalem marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and the invitation still stands,” the source says.

Democratic Camp to run again in elections; Yair Golan confirmed as its No. 3

The left-wing Meretz party says it has signed an agreement to renew the Democratic Camp alliance for the upcoming elections as well, making MK Yair Golan — originally from Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party — No. 3 on the slate of candidates.

Democratic Choice chairman Yair Golan (L) and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz sign an agreement to run together as the Democratic Camp on January 7, 2019. (Courtesy)

With the sides branding the move as the “first merge” of parties on the left, Golan holds a press event with Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, who hails the agreement as “very gladdening and important.”

The party says more candidates will be publicly announced within days.

It calls on the center-left Labor-Gesher party to join forces to ensure both parties clear the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.

Iraq PM says received signed US ‘withdrawal’ letter yesterday

Iraq’s premier Adel Abdel Mahdi confirms he has received what the US said was a draft letter describing steps its military will take to “move out” of Iraq.

The Pentagon said an unsigned draft version of the letter was mistakenly sent, but the Iraqi premier says he has received signed and translated copies at 8:00 p.m. local time yesterday.

The letter discussed “redeploying with an aim to withdraw from the country. The expressions were very clear,” Abdel Mahdi says.

— AFP

Border Police officers filmed beating Palestinian in Jerusalem — report

Channel 13 airs footage it says was taken several months ago of Border Police officers beating up a Palestinian man near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

The TV station says there was no visible reason for beating the man, who had demanded to enter the security booth.

It says the Palestinian was left unconscious, and that the Police Internal Investigations Department last week stopped its investigation of the incident and closed the case.

Labor chief proposes merge of all center-left parties

Labor-Gesher party leader Amir Peretz proposes a merge of all three center-left parties to present a unified front against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming March elections.

“My proposal is to form a united bloc of Labor-Gesher, Blue and White and the Democratic Camp,” Peretz tells Channel 12 in an interview.

“We will create a move that has never been made in Israel,” he says. “One ballot for replacing Netanyahu, one ballot for replacing the government.”

Chief rabbi intensifies attack, accuses some immigrants of anti-Semitism

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef intensifies his attack on immigrants from the former Soviet Union, alleging that some of them have developed “anti-Semitic sentiment.”

In a new video released following the outrage caused by his remark earlier that some are “religion-hating gentiles,” Yosef says: “There are two sorts of aliyah from the Soviet Union: One is welcome by hundreds of thousands of Jews who suffered for their Judaism — them we accept with great love and affection.

“But there is another aliyah, we must not deny that, by those who are not Jews, who have developed anti-Semitic sentiment. They brought some, unfortunately, who have caused terrible incitement against Judaism,” he adds.

US interests in region ‘in danger,’ Iran’s Rouhani tells Macron

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that America’s interests in the region are “in danger,” his office says, after the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

“The United States must know its interests and security in the region are in danger and that it cannot escape the consequences of this great crime,” he says in an hour-long telephone call with Macron, quoted in a statement by the Iranian presidency.

— AFP

UK woman convicted over rape claim against Israelis leaves Cyprus

A British tourist found guilty in Cyprus of falsely accusing a group of Israelis of rape arrives at Larnaca airport to depart for the UK after receiving a suspended sentence in the case.

“We are delighted to be going home where we will continue the fight to clear my daughter’s name. The fight is not over to get justice,” her mother tells the Daily Mail.

According to the Mirror, some 100 supporters have greeted her at the airport, around half of them Israeli. The Mail reports that one Israeli told her: “The men you met are not representative of Israel.”

Earlier in the day a lawyer for an Israeli who was at the center of the alleged rape case in Ayia Napa told the Daily Mail he hoped the woman “learned her lesson.”

Netanyahu’s office said blocking construction of 2,000 East Jerusalem homes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is blocking attempts to promote the construction of some 2,000 homes in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The Jerusalem Municipality is trying to advance the plan with the backing of Mayor Moshe Lion, the report says, but the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is rejecting it due to “diplomatic difficulties.”

The PMO did not deny the report, Kan says.

An unnamed diplomatic source is quoted as saying in response: “Israel has built in Jerusalem, is building in Jerusalem and will continue building in Jerusalem — while exercising judgment.”

Police arrest 6 Muslims at Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Israel Police says officers have arrested six Muslims at the Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem after they disrupted public order and shouted “nationalist chants” at them.

“Israel Police will not allow the disruption of public order inside the Temple Mount, and will act to prevent any rioting or nationalist chants,” police say in a statement.

The site is the holiest in the world for Jews and the third-holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

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Honduras says it will recognize Hezbollah as terror group

Honduras announces that it will join Guatemala and other allied nations in declaring Hezbollah an international terrorist organization, the office of the Latin American country’s president announces.

The government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez is traditionally very pro-Israel, has opened a trade office in Jerusalem recently and is expected to move its embassy to Jerusalem in the coming weeks.

Last year, Argentina and Paraguay took the step against Hezbollah, prodding Guatemala’s incoming president to announce in November that his country would follow suit.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomes the move as an “important step in the global war on terrorism,” adding that Israel is holding talks with other countries such as Germany, Australia and Brazil in hopes they will follow suit.

— Raphael Ahren