Incendiary balloon sparks fire near Gaza border
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US says Mideast conference in Bahrain to go ahead despite Israel snap election

State Department says June 25 summit won’t be delayed by Knesset disbanding; Netanyahu emphasizes close friendship with Trump in bid to downplay political chaos

(L-R) Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, Trump adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Israel's US envoy Ron Dermer, at a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, in Jerusalem, on May 30, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)
(L-R) Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, Trump adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Israel's US envoy Ron Dermer, at a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, in Jerusalem, on May 30, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)

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

Relaunching campaign, Gantz says ‘political exploitation’ led to election rerun

Launching his Blue and White Party’s election campaign, opposition leader Benny Gantz criticizes the “cynicism” and “political exploitation” that led to the Knesset disbanding and a second election this year.

“Everyone sees with their own eyes that those who are in charge do not care about their welfare,” he says in a Facebook post a day after the Knesset voted to dissolve itself in a 74-45 vote and set a new election date for September 17.

Head of the Blue White political party Benny Gantz speaks to supporters at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

“The entire country woke up this morning exhausted, disappointed, unable to believe that because of the incompetence and weakness of a single man, we are headed to new election,” he says.

“Several months ago I reenlisted to serve my country, and now, because of the cynicism and and political exploitation of Israelis… we are setting out again,” Gantz says.

The Knesset disbanding last night comes just a month after it was sworn in and sets the stage for a second election in the same year — a first in Israeli history.

The new election gives the anti-Netanyahu forces in Israel led by Gantz another shot at toppling the longtime leader.

Likud minister calls for Ayelet Shaked to join party slate for new elections

Welfare Minister Haim Katz says his Likud party should invite outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to join the party and run on its ticket in the September 2019 elections.

Katz, a member of the Likud Central Committee, says Shaked would strengthen the ruling party as it gears up for an unprecedented second election in a single year.

Shaked co-founded the New Right party ahead of the April elections together with outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Despite predictions of a major role in the next government, the New Right fell about 1,500 votes shy of passing the electoral threshold in the April 9 vote, leaving Bennett and Shaked out of the 21st Knesset.

Following the election, there has been media speculation that Shaked was preparing to return to Likud, where she began her political career as an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Saudi Arabia asks Muslim nations to respond to Iran with ‘firmness’

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister is urging Muslim nations to confront recent attacks in the region that the US and its allies have blamed on Iran with “all means of force and firmness.”

Ibrahim al-Assaf makes the comments at a meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation ahead of a series of summits in the kingdom beginning earlier today.

Al-Assaf says the alleged sabotage of boats off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels requires the region to “make more efforts to counter the terrorist acts of extremist and terrorist groups.”

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf (R) and The Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Dr Yousef Al-Othaimeen (C) chat before a family photo during a meeting of Islamic and Arab Foreign Ministers in Jeddah on May 30, 2019 (BANDAR ALDANDANI / AFP)

“We should confront it with all means of force and firmness,” al-Assaf says.

Iran has denied being involved in the attacks, which come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the US An Iranian official was at the meeting where al-Assaf is speaking, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.

The US has accused Tehran of being behind the string of incidents this month, which also included a rocket strike near the US Embassy in Baghdad.

— AP

In second time today, fire breaks out in southern Jerusalem forest

For the second time today, firefighters are battling a brush fire in a wooded area in southern Jerusalem known as the Peace Forest.

Five firefighting teams and at least 2 firefighting planes are working to put out the flames before they spread to nearby houses.

According to reports, several vehicles in the area have been damaged by the fire.

Netanyahu assures Trump team political ‘event’ won’t affect ties

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Trump’s top Mideast advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt that US-Israel ties will not be affected by yesterday’s political “event” that saw the premier dissolve the Knesset and call a second election after failing to form a coalition.

“Even though we had a little event last night – that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to continue working together. We had a great, productive meeting which reaffirms that the alliance… has never been stronger,” Netanyahu says according to a recording released by the US embassy.

“I have to say that I am tremendously encouraged by everything that I hear about how the United States, under President Trump, is working to bring allies together in this region against common challenges, but also to seize common opportunities.

Kushner and Greenblatt arrived in Israel last night on a trip to lay the groundwork for the economic section of the administration’s peace plan, hours before the Knesset voted to dissolve and hold new elections in September.

The Trump administration purposefully set its peace plan launch for after coalition negotiations, when Israel would have a functioning government, and it isn’t clear if the date will change now that the country is again going to the polls.

Kushner praises Netanyahu for strengthening US-Israel ties

Kushner hails close US-Israel ties under Netanyahu during a meeting in Jerusalem this afternoon, as the senior White House adviser tour the region to drum up support for the administration’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan.

“We appreciate all of your efforts to strengthen the relationship between our two countries.” Kushner tells Netanyahu according to a statement.

“It’s never been stronger, and we’re very excited about all the potential that lies ahead for Israel, for the relationship, and for the future.”

(L-R) Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, Trump adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Israel’s US envoy Ron Dermer, at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 30, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)

“This was my first time in Israel since the President recognized the Golan Heights, which was a very important announcement.”

“The security of Israel is something that’s critical to the relations between America and Israel, and also very important to the President, and we appreciate all your efforts to strengthen the relationship between our two countries,” Kushner says.

Kushner, accompanied by Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt and Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, arrived in Jerusalem after earlier stops in Morocco and Jordan.

He is a key architect of the Mideast peace plan the White House says it intends to present in the coming weeks.

Palestinian teen nabbed at West Bank court with pipe bombs

Police say a Palestinian man was arrested earlier today for trying to smuggle to pipe bombs into an Israeli military court in the northern West Bank.

According to a police statement, officers discovered the explosives were hidden underneath the man’s shirt during a security check at the entrance to the Samaria Military Court.

The court and the surrounding area in Palestinian the town of Salem was briefly cordoned off while police sappers diffused the pipe bombs.

Two pipe bombs a Palestinian suspect alleged tried to smuggle into the Samaria military courthouse, May 30, 2019. (Israel Police)

No injuries are reported, and the 18-year-old from Jenin, was detained for questioning by security forces.

Palestinian suspects have attempted to smuggle explosive devices into the Samaria Military Court on several occasions.

Lamenting new Israeli elections, Trump hails Netanyahu as ‘great guy’

US President Donald Trump says he’s sorry to see Israel forced into an election rerun, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition.

“It’s too bad what happened in Israel,” Trump tells reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “It looked like a total win for Netanyahu,” he says , praising the Israeli leader as a “great guy.”

“They’re back in the election stage. That is too bad.”


Trump acknowledges Russia helped him get elected, quickly backtracks

US President Donald Trump briefly acknowledged in a tweet that Russia helped him get elected but quickly backtracked in comments to reporters.

Trump until now has said adamantly that he won the 2016 election fair and square, downplaying the impact of what US intelligence agencies say was a concerted Russian effort to meddle in his favor.

“Russia, Russia, Russia! That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax,” Trump tweets a day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller spoke publicly for the first time since the release of his report on collusion during the election campaign and possible obstruction of justice afterward.

“And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” Trump adds. He again complains of being a victim of what he called presidential harassment.

Trump later appeared to recognize the lapse, telling reporters on the White House South Lawn, “No, Russia did not get me elected.”

Mueller in his remarks declined to clear Trump of obstruction of justice.


IDF seals Hezbollah’s ‘flagship’ cross-border tunnel

The Israeli military is sealing off a cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnel from Lebanon, which it says was the largest and most technically advanced passage dug by the Iran-backed terrorist group.

The tunnel, which began in the Lebanese border town of Ramyeh, is being closed off with concrete and other sealants, “after an intelligence-operations investigation throughout the tunnel was performed in recent months,” the army says.

According to the IDF, is was Hezbollah’s “flagship” tunnel, which was longer, dug deeper and contained more advanced components than the other five cross-border attack tunnels that the military said it found in Operation Northern Shield, an effort to find and destroy these passages in December and January.

The army says the tunnel was dug to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet), was a kilometer (3280 feet) long and penetrated 77 meters (250 feet) into Israeli territory. It began close to the Lebanese village of Ramiya, the IDF said, with an exit close to the Israeli villages of Shtula and Zar’it.

IDF reveals what it says is the longest cross-border attack tunnel dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon into Israel, May 29, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF believes that this tunnel — and the five others found this winter — was built with the specific purpose of allowing thousands of Hezbollah terrorists to stage an infiltration attack on military and civilian targets in northern Israel as a surprise opening maneuver in a future war.

— Judah Ari Gross

Austria gets first female chancellor as interim head

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen appoints the head of the country’s constitutional court as Austria’s first female chancellor to lead an interim government until elections in the autumn.

Brigitte Bierlein will now be tasked with forming a cabinet after the previous government collapsed spectacularly over the so-called “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal.

“I will seek to win Austrians’ trust,” Bierlein says alongside Van der Bellen in a televised statement, saying she would hold talks with political parties and civil society organizations in the coming days.

The appointment comes after Sebastian Kurz became the first chancellor in Austrian history to be thrown out of office by a no-confidence vote of MPs earlier this week.


Deri accuses Liberman of extorting coalition with ‘delusional demands’

Shas chairman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri lashes out at Avigdor Liberman, accusing the Yisrael Beytenu leader of extorting him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the recent coalition negotiations.

“For reasons of rivalry and hatred, he decided to drag the entire county into this whole situation,” he says at a Shas faction meeting. “It’s over,” he said of their relationship.

“It’s difficult to describe their demands, but we agreed to them,” Deri says. “This is the first time in my life that I have ever felt extorted, but extorted in the most obvious sense of the word.”

“And yet despite this, we did everything possible to form a government. Every time we approached them, we were greeted with another delusional demand — and I have no doubt these demands were made intentionally for us to say no — but each time we said yes, there was another demand.”

“I feel very hurt and disappointed that he used us these past 40 days instead of just openly saying that he doesn’t want Netanyhau as prime minister.”

Incendiary balloon sparks fire near Gaza border

An incendiary balloon launched from Gaza sparks a fire in an open field near the border with the Palestinian territory, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Hamas leader says Iran ready to help strike Tel Aviv if Israeli ‘aggression’ continues

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar says that Iran supplies the Gaza-based terrorist group with the rockets it fires at Israel from the Gaza Strip.

“Iran provided us with rockets, and we surprised the world when our resistance targeted Beersheba,” he says according to reports in Arabic-language media. “Had it not been for Iran, the resistance in Palestine would not have possessed its current capabilities.”

Palestinian members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror movement, display Qassam home-made rockets during an anti-Israel military parade on August 21, 2016 in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“If the enemy continues its aggression, the resistance will strike Tel Aviv and other cities with exponentially more rockets, and with Iranian assistance,” Sinwar says according to reports.

He also slams the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan, saying the proposal is bound to fail. “The conflict will not be over until the occupation is removed from all of our land,” he says.

Suspect in Lyon explosion claims ties to Islamic State group

A man arrested for a bombing outside a bakery in Lyon, France, that injured 13 people has told investigators that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

A judicial official says the suspect claimed to have acted in the name of IS. The group has not issued a public claim of responsibility for last week’s explosion in France’s third-largest city. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Soldiers of French anti-terrorist plan “Vigipirate Mission,” secure the access near the site of a suspected bomb attack in central Lyon, Friday May, 24, 2019. (AP/Sebastien Erome)

The suspect was identified as Hichem M. His parents were also detained, but the Paris prosecutor’s office said they were released Thursday without charge.

Hichem and one other suspect remain in custody as part of an investigation into attempted murder in relation with a terrorist undertaking.

— AP

Israel takes part in regional evacuation drill in Cyprus

Cyprus’ foreign minister says 21 countries are taking part in a drill organized by the east Mediterranean island nation that involves the possible evacuation of civilians from Middle Eastern nations.

Nikos Christodoulides says during the drill’s final phase, given its proximity to the Middle East, that Cyprus has an important role to play as a regional “safe transfer hub.”

Taking part were warships and aircraft from countries including the US, France, Israel, the UK and Germany. The drill involved various rescue operation scenarios during the transport of civilians to a Cypriot port.

Christodoulides says the growing number of countries participating in the annual exercise is indicative of the international recognition of its value.

In 2006, Cyprus was used as a “safe haven” to evacuate nearly 60,000 civilians from Lebanon.

Downplaying concerns of new elections, PM shows off Golan map gifted by Trump

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempts to downplay concerns of new elections after the Knesset’s dramatic dissolution last night, instead focusing on his strong relations with the US.

He shows a US map from Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, which shows the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Trump captioned the map: “Nice!”

“And I say to that: very nice,” he tells reporters at a press conference in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu: Liberman ‘obsessed’ with sabotaging right-wing governments

Benjamin Netanyahu accuses Avigdor Liberman of “systemically sabotaging right-wing governments” at a press conference where the prime minster addresses failing to form a coalition and opting instead to hold an unprecedented second election.

“Liberman systemically topples right-wing governments,” he tells reporters at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem. “He is the national saboteur when it comes to toppling the right. He’s obsessed.”

Netanyahu says that he offered Liberman “everything he wanted,” but he still refused to join his government. “All of the sudden he’s against the ultra-Orthodox… he’s been making deals with them for 20 years.”

Netanyahu says the Yisrael Beytenu chief scuttled the negotiations because of a personal vendetta against him.

The prime minister says that as a result of Liberman’s refusal to join, his party is “bleeding support.”

Poll shows new election results to be nearly identical to April vote

A new poll indicates that the results of September’s election will be very similar to April’s vote, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud narrowly beating out Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.

The survey conducted on behalf of the Kan public broadcaster has Likud in the lead with 35 seats and Blue and White with 34. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is expected to win 8 seats, ultra-Orthodox Shas party 7, Hadash-Ta’al 6, Meretz and Labor with 5 apiece, and the New Right, Union of Right-Wing Parties and Ram-Balad with 4 each.

Like in the last election, the Zehut and Gesher parties do not cross the electoral threshold, according to the poll.

Other than the New Right passing the Knesset threshold, Liberman’s party is the only one to show major changes in public support in the wake of the coalition crisis over his refusal to join Netanyahu’s government, jumping from 5 seats to 8 in the September vote.

Hitting back at Netanyahu criticism, Liberman says PM ‘again spreading lies’

Responding to Benjamin Netanyahu’s address, Yisrael Beytenu releases a statement saying that the prime minister had “failed in the task of forming the government and is currently looking for whom to blame. That does not change the fact, however, that the sole responsibility for the repeat election is Likud alone.”

In a statement, Avigdor Liberman’s party says that “Netanyahu is under pressure and is again spreading lies because he knows the public already understands who the real national right is, who wants to form a right-wing government and who tried to establish a halachic state.”

— Raoul Wootliff

Trump says if Iran wants to talk he’s available

US President Donald Trump says that if Iran wants to talk, he’s available.

Trump says that Iran’s economy is suffering from US sanctions and that the country is becoming a “weakened nation.”

As tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate, Trump claims Iran wants to make a deal.

US President Donald Trump talks with reporters before departing on Marine One for the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony, May 30, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says, however, that negotiating with the US would bring nothing but harm.

Khamenei said yesterday that his country will not negotiate on issues related to its military capabilities. He insists that Iran isn’t looking to acquire nuclear weapons — not because of sanctions or the United States, but because they are forbidden under Islamic Sharia law.

At the White House this afternoon, Trump tells reporters: “If they want to talk, I’m available.”

US: Mideast conference in Bahrain to go ahead despite Israel snap polls

A US-led conference on economic aspects of a Middle East peace plan will go ahead next month in Bahrain despite Israel’s snap elections, the State Department says.

“We are not anticipating any changes. It’s set for June 25 and 26,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tells reporters.


Lawyers for Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect allege FBI meddling

Lawyers for the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue say the FBI has been discouraging witnesses from talking to the defense, undermining the suspect’s right to a fair trial.

Robert Bowers’ lawyers say in court documents that at least one witness got in touch with the defense — exchanging multiple emails over several weeks — but abruptly canceled a planned meeting after the FBI frowned on it.

The defense says the FBI delivered the same message to other witnesses.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

“The FBI may have included some … acknowledgment of the witnesses’ right to talk to the defense, while at the same time ensuring that no witness would actually exercise that right by conveying the misleading message that doing so could compromise the government’s case,” Bowers’ lawyers write.

The defense is asking the judge to tell the FBI to stop its “improper interference” in the case.

Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons during worship services inside Tree of Life synagogue, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, according to state and federal affidavits.

He expressed hatred of Jews during the Oct. 27 rampage and later told police that “all these Jews need to die,” authorities said. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Bowers, who faces a 63-count indictment that charges him with hate crimes, obstructing religious belief and using a firearm during crimes of violence, has pleaded not guilty.

— AP

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Incendiary balloon sparks fire near Gaza border

An incendiary balloon launched from Gaza sparks a fire in an open field near the border with the Palestinian territory, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.