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Hamas spokesman to deliver ‘important’ speech on Israeli captives

On 5th anniversary of 2014 Gaza war, military wing spokesman Abu Obeida may want to up pressure on Israel over civilians and the bodies of two soldiers held by terror group

A composite photo of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul, left, and Hadar Goldin, right.
A composite photo of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul, left, and Hadar Goldin, right.

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

Netanyahu: Israel prevents Middle East’s ‘collapse’ to Islamic extremism

In a meeting with US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel is the sole power in the region preventing the triumph of extremist Islamic forces.

“I just had a visit with a delegation of journalists from Arab countries. With the exception of one, none of them have formal relations with us,” he says, according to quotes released by his office. “They talk about how so many in the Arab world want to have peace with Israel, normalization with Israel, want to come to Israel. They’re not always free to express it, and there’s always opposition from those who want to take us back, but they expressed that desire.”

He says he’s “working on that, a little bit publicly and a very great deal behind the scenes, to strengthen these ties.”

And he adds: “But within the region, and this is what I told them, within the region, Israel is the irreplaceable power, because there is no other power within the region without whose presence and activity here, I would say the region would collapse. Without Israel, without the things that we do and the things that we stand for and the things that we protect, I think the entire Middle East would collapse to the forces of Islamic radicalism, whether Shiite led by Iran or Sunni radicalism led by Daesh.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with US Energy Secretary Rick Perry in Jerusalem, July 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Police arrest 3 for attacking Saudi blogger on Temple Mount

Police launch an investigation following the attacks on a Saudi tourist yesterday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

Three people are arrested in the case, police say.

The tourist, a Saudi blogger who has expressed admiration for Israel, was harangued by Palestinian men and children as he walked through Jerusalem’s Old City and visited the holy site.

In video footage, several children are seen spitting on the man, while unseen individuals throw chairs and other items at him.

“More arrests are expected,” a police statement says.

Meretz source says talks now underway for left-wing alliance

A senior Meretz official says the left-wing party is in talks for a merger with Ehud Barak’s Israel Democracy Party.

Talks are also underway with the Labor party, the unnamed official tells the Maariv news site.

“We’re on our way,” he says.

Lapid congratulates ‘good friend’ Johnson for winning premiership

Blue and White’s Yair Lapid is among the first to congratulate his “good friend,” Britain’s PM-designate Boris Johnson, on his election as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Britain’s next premier.

“Congratulations and good luck to my good friend @BorisJohnson. I’m sure that as Prime Minister you will continue to strengthen the relationship between our two countries,” he writes on Twitter.

Boris Johnson promises to ‘deliver Brexit, unite the country’

Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson says as prime minister he will “deliver Brexit, unite the country” and defeat the Labour opposition.

In a brief speech Tuesday meant to rally the party faithful, Johnson seeks to radiate optimism following his victory and promises to deliver Brexit.

Johnson has vowed that Britain will quit the European Union on the scheduled date of October 31 even if it means leaving without a divorce deal

But Parliament has signaled it is determined to prevent him from taking the UK out of the 28-nation bloc without a withdrawal agreement.

— AP

EU’s Brexit negotiator says looking forward to working with UK’s Johnson

Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, says he looks forward “to working constructively” with Boris Johnson, who has been elected leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and will become prime minister on Wednesday.

Barnier says he’s looking to push through the ratification of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May, but says nothing about Johnson’s claim that the deal must be renegotiated.

Barnier says the EU would be willing to adapt a political text which goes alongside the withdrawal agreement.

EU leaders have long said that they won’t reopen the 585-page legal text.

“We are ready also to rework the agreed Declaration on a new partnership,” says Barnier.

— AP

Nations still in Iran nuclear deal to meet Sunday in Vienna

BRUSSELS — Representatives from the nations that are still parties to the shaky Iran nuclear deal plan to meet in Vienna on Sunday to see to what extent the agreement can be salvaged in the wake of the United States pulling out and Iran exceeding some of the uranium enrichment thresholds the deal set.

The European Union says in a statement that the meeting of China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and chaired by the EU “will examine issues linked to the implementation of the (nuclear deal) in all its aspects.”

Iran has begun openly exceeding the uranium enrichment levels set in the accord to try to pressure Europe into offsetting the economic pain of US sanctions.

Amid the heightened tensions, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.

— AP

Boris Johnson volunteered in a Galilee kibbutz in the 1980s, kibbutz leader says

Israel’s kibbutz movement congratulates Boris Johnson on his election to the premiership — and notes he was once a hardworking volunteer on a kibbutz in northern Israel.

Calling Johnson a “true friend of Israel,” the secretary general of the umbrella body of the Kibbutz movement, Nir Meir, says he will invite Johnson to the organization’s annual conference.

Johnson volunteered in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, north of the Sea of Galilee, in the 1980s, Meir’s statement to the press explains. “He even worked in the fields,” the statement assures.

“I am convinced that his time at Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi as part of the famous volunteers program has left a warm place in his heart for Israel generally and the kibbutzim in particular,” Meir says.

Then, of course, he urges the Israeli government “to increase funding” to the volunteers program, which he calls the “most effective” public diplomacy tool in Israel’s arsenal.

Gantz congratulates Johnson, vows to strengthen ties when he, too, is PM

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, the leading contender for the premiership against incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, congratulates incoming British premier Boris Johnson and wishes him “great success.”

“The UK and Israel share a longstanding tradition of cooperation, common interests, and shared values,” Gantz says in a statement. “The government that I’ll lead will strengthen the economic and bilateral relations between our two states and promote the essential fight against BDS and against anti-Semitism.”

Theresa May pledges support to Boris Johnson

Outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledges to give “full support” to her successor Boris Johnson.

May tweets her congratulations to Johnson after he was elected Tuesday as the new Conservative Party leader.

“We now need to work together to deliver a Brexit that works for the whole UK and to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of government,” she says, referring to the opposition leader.

May plans to remain in Parliament. She tells Johnson he would have “my full support from the back benches.”

— AP

Interim justice minister Amir Ohana fires ministry’s respected director general

In a surprise move, Justice Minister Amir Ohana fires the director general of his ministry, Emi Palmor.

Palmor, a respected 23-year veteran of Israel’s legal system, was appointed to the post in February 2014 by then-justice minister Tzipi Livni of the left-wing Hatnua party, then remained throughout the four-year term of Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party.

Ministers are free to appoint and remove their ministry’s director general at will, but such significant personnel changes are usually not carried out in caretaker governments in the run-up to an election.

British Jews congratulate Boris Johnson on PM nod

British Jews congratulate former foreign secretary Boris Johnson for his election as the head of the Conservative Party, which ensures his succession of Theresa May as prime minister.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews says in a statement: “We wish Boris Johnson every success as Prime Minister at this critical time for our country. We have had a long and positive relationship with Mr. Johnson as both Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary and we look forward to this continuing as he enters Downing Street.”

The Liberal Judaism movement of the United Kingdom reacts more coolly to the news Tuesday about Johnson, a right-wing politician who recently angered many left-leaning Jews and others when he compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes” during a debate.

Liberal Judaism UK “looks forward to working with @BorisJohnson, the new Prime Minister, as we have with Prime Ministers over the last decade,” the movement tweets.

— JTA

Israel thanks Theresa May for ‘amazing and tireless’ work to boost ties

As Boris Johnson prepares to take the reins in Britain, Israel’s foreign minister thanks Theresa May for her “amazing and tireless work” to strengthen bilateral ties.

“I want to thank Prime Minister @theresa_may for the amazing and tireless work that she did to strengthen ties between our two countries,” Israel Katz writes on Twitter.

“Bilateral trade is up, tourism is up and security cooperation is saving lives. Thank you to a true friend.”

Former justice minister Shaked lauds ousted director general

Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked praises Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor after news breaks that she was fired by interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana.

She lauds Palmor’s “professionalism” and her work to “integrate and advance weakened populations, and help shape the ministry into a ministry whose goal is the pursuit of justice and fairness. Emi was a devoted public servant,” she says.

Incoming EU chief congratulates Britain’s Johnson

PARIS, France — The incoming head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, congratulates incoming British prime minister Boris Johnson, but warns they face “difficult” and “challenging” times ahead.

“Congratulations to Boris Johnson for being nominated as prime minister,” she says at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. “I am looking forward to having a good working relationship with him.

“There are many different and difficult issues to tackle together. We have challenging times ahead of us.

“I think it is very important to build up a strong and good working relationship because we have the duty to deliver something that is good for people in Europe and in the United Kingdom,” she adds in English.

Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, is set to take office the day after the current deadline for Brexit of October 31, with Jean-Claude Juncker nominally in control of the EU executive until then.

Macron, who has criticized Johnson in the past, also congratulates the incoming British PM, who is expected to be asked to form a government by the queen on Wednesday.

“I congratulate Boris Johnson and I will call him when he is officially prime minister,” Macron says. “I want very much to work with him as quickly as possible and not just on European subjects and the continuation of negotiations linked to Brexit, but also on international issues on which we coordinate closely with Britain and Germany… like the situation in Iran,” he adds.

— AFP

Top justice official’s ouster angers left, pleases extremist right

Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s firing of his ministry director general is meeting with widespread disapproval — and some support that Ohana probably wishes he weren’t getting.

The Movement for Quality Government, an anti-corruption advocacy group, complains in a statement that Ohana’s ouster of Emi Palmor came during a caretaker government ahead of the September 17 election.

Calling Ohana “drunk on power,” it accuses him of “overstepping his authority” and “forgetting the fact that he’s essentially an acting justice minister.”

The ouster of Palmor “amounts to utter defiance of the instructions of the High Court on this issue, and ignores the fact that Israel is in the middle of an election campaign, and that in two months Ohana may not be justice minister.”

Blue and White lashes Ohana for the “disproportionate damage” he’s doing as an interim minister. Palmor’s ouster shows “just how cynical Netanyahu’s emissaries have become. Netanyahu cares only about himself, his people care only about his immunity, and it’s left to us to care about the future of the country.”

Blue and White’s MK Pnina Tamano-Shata tells Ohana “it’s your loss,” and calls Palmor “an extraordinary director general, a professional, and a true and serious public servant.”

Meretz’s MK Michal Rozin slams the move as “a callous overstep of the authority of a caretaker government” that “smells very bad, as if it is intended to frighten the public service.”

Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party calls the move “another step in the complete dismantling of the democratic system. A democracy requires gatekeepers, and Palmor was one of the best.”

But Ohana can take some comfort, perhaps, from the support he’s gotten from one end of the political spectrum: the extremist Otzma Yehudit faction.

The fringe party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir calls his decision “important and brave…. The Israeli left has to realize that the right is in power — that’s democracy.”

Iran warns new British PM not to fall for ‘ploys’ of ‘B team,’ including Israel

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran warns Britain’s next prime minister Boris Johnson that it will “protect” the waters of the oil-rich Gulf, amid a standoff between the two countries over the seizure of tankers.

In the face of rising hostilities with the United States, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Friday impounded a tanker sailing under the flag of US ally Britain.

The seizure of the Stena Impero ship has been seen as a tit-for-tat move after British authorities detained an Iranian tanker on July 4 in the Mediterranean on suspicion it was shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

“I congratulate my former counterpart, @BorisJohnson on becoming UK PM,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweets after Johnson beat his rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in a party vote.

“Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1,500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters & we will protect them.”

Iran’s top diplomat warns Britain against “implementing the ploys of the B team,” in a video message posted along with his tweet.

Zarif uses the term “B team” to refer to US national security adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi and Abu Dhabi crown princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, who are all pushing a hard line on Iran.

“The B Team is losing ground in the United States and now turning their attention to the United Kingdom,” he tweets.

— AFP

Middle East economic growth slows dramatically, due in part to Iran sanctions

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The International Monetary Fund slashes its economic growth forecast for the Middle East and North Africa to the worst level in more than a decade over Iran sanctions and regional unrest.

In its World Economic Outlook update, the global lender projects economic growth for the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan this year would be 1.0 percent, its worst since the IMF put them in one group in 2009.

The downgrade, the fifth in a year, is a half percentage point lower than its April projection.

The reduction is in large part due to a change in the IMF’s forecast for Iran’s growth “owing to the crippling effect of tighter US sanctions,” the lender says.

“Civil strife across other economies, including Syria and Yemen, add to the difficult outlook for the region.”

The price of oil, the main driver for revenues in the region, will also impact growth, the IMF adds. In 2018, the region saw 1.6% growth, down from 2.1% in the previous year.

The IMF in April projected Iran’s economy will shrink by a steep 6.0% this year, its worst performance since it contracted by 7.7% in 2012.

— AFP

Police toss out all speeding tickets from the past 13 months

The Israel Police announces it is canceling all speeding tickets given out over the past 13 months, since June 2018, after a year of legal wrangling over the reliability of the national speed-camera system.

The announcement should come as welcome news to tens of thousands of motorists who were caught speeding by the cameras.

Oh, and police also say that the amnesty ends today: all tickets given from today, July 23, 2019, by means of the speed cameras will be enforced.

The Acre Magistrate’s Court ruled last year that the cameras may not be accurate enough to count as legal evidence of a traffic infraction, rendering the hundreds of nationwide cameras essentially useless.

Many hearings and multiple laboratory tests later, the courts gave police the okay to begin using the cameras again — but the status of camera evidence in the intervening 13 months is legally unclear.

Police and the state prosecution therefore concluded that they would toss out all tickets given during that period, and begin full enforcement from today.

Why did Amir Ohana just fire the Justice Ministry’s top official?

Two theories are being advanced for Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s sudden firing of his ministry’s longtime and highly respected director general, Emi Palmor.

The first: the Netanyahu family, specifically the prime minister’s son Yair, considers Emi Palmor a “leftist.”

On Sunday, Yair Netanyahu shared a Facebook post written by one Atta Farhat that slammed former justice minister Ayelet Shaked for purportedly appointing “leftist” Palmor — as part of a call for voters not to vote for Shaked, but to stick to Likud instead.

The post read: “Did you know Ayelet Shaked appointed a leftist as director general of the Justice Ministry, a former aide to [former Meretz leader] Zehava Galon, Emi Palmor. Share because this time we can’t lose right-wing votes.”

The facts in the Farhat-Netanyahu post are wrong — Shaked did not appoint Palmor, who was already in the post for more than a year when Shaked became justice minister — but the message is clear.

A second theory says that removing Palmor allows Ohana to appoint the next director general, and thus a future member of the committee that will appoint the next state attorney, Israel’s top public prosecutor.

State Attorney Shai Nitzan finishes his five-year term in the next few months, and has pushed for the appointment of a prosecutor in the Tel Aviv district, Liat Ben-Ari, to replace him.

Ben-Ari happens to be the lead prosecutor in the three criminal corruption cases surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Nitzan has been a key figure urging Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to pursue those investigations.

Keeping Ben-Ari away from the top prosecution post is likely a priority for the prime minister, and Ohana probably just took a significant step toward making that happen.

Of course, both theories could be correct. Or neither. Ohana himself has not explained the move.

Saudi Arabia condemns Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes

Saudi Arabia condemns Israel’s demolition yesterday of Palestinian homes on the edge of Jerusalem, urging world powers to “stop this aggression.”

“The cabinet strongly condemned and denounced authorities of the Israeli occupation for the demolition of dozens of houses in… East Jerusalem,” says a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“It called on the international community to intervene to stop this aggression and dangerous escalation that targets Palestinians.”

Israel has come under fire from the Palestinians and the international community over the demolition of 12 residential buildings in an area known as Wadi al-Hummus, which is part of the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher. The area falls just outside of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and is part of the Palestinian Authority-controlled area of the West Bank.

Israel has said the buildings were constructed illegally and built too close to the security barrier that was built to prevent entry of terrorists from the West Bank. In the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for the demolitions, the buildings were razed Monday.

Kazimierz Albin, early Auschwitz prisoner, dies in Poland

WARSAW, Poland — Kazimierz Albin, the last survivor of the first convoy of prisoners sent by the Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp, dies at the age of 96, the camp museum says.

“With great sorrow we received information about the death of Kazimierz Albin, the last living survivor of the first transport of Poles to the German Auschwitz camp (No. 118),” the Auschwitz Memorial says on its official Twitter site.

Born in 1922 in the southern Polish city of Krakow, Albin was arrested by the Nazis in January 1940 in Slovakia where he had fled after Germany occupied Poland in 1939. Albin had been on his way to join the Polish Army then forming in France to fight the Nazis.

On June 14, 1940, he was deported to Auschwitz with the first convoy of Polish prisoners.

Their forearms were tattooed with the camp’s notorious identification numbers ranging from 31 to 758. Albin was tattooed with the number 118.

He was one of the 140,000 to 150,000 non-Jewish Polish prisoners in Auschwitz, half of whom died there, according to Auschwitz museum estimates. Albin survived because he managed to escape on February 27, 1943 along with six other prisoners.

Nazi Germany killed some 1.1 million people, including one million European Jews, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau twin death camps before their liberation by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

— AFP

Netanyahu offers ‘heartfelt congratulations’ to Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers “heartfelt congratulations” to Britain’s next prime minister, Boris Johnson.

“Heartfelt congratulations from Jerusalem, @BorisJohnson. Looking forward to working closely together, both in facing our common challenges and seizing the opportunities ahead,” he says on Twitter.

US peace plan won’t be based on international consensus, says envoy

The much-anticipated US peace plan will not be based on international consensus, the administration’s peace envoy Jason Greenblatt tells the United Nations Security Council.

International law, he adds, is no guide to resolving the conflict.

“We will not get to the bottom of whose interpretation of ‘international law’ is correct on this conflict. There is no judge, jury, or court in the world that the parties involved have agreed to give jurisdiction [to] in order to decide whose interpretations are correct,” Greenblatt tells the Council.

“International law with respect to this conflict is a tricky subject that could be discussed and argued for years without ever reaching a conclusion. So we can spend years and years arguing what the law is and whether it is enforceable, and prolong the ongoing suffering. Or we could acknowledge the futility of that approach.”

Likewise, the many UN resolutions on the conflict, cited by many as the base line for a future peace treaty, are contested by Israel and will thus not lead to a breakthrough, he adds.

— Raphael Ahren and TOI Staff

Saudi blogger attacked by Palestinians sang in Hebrew during Netanyahu meet

Mohammed Saud, the Saudi blogger and activist who was attacked yesterday by Palestinians during a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, sang a Hebrew song by famed poet Leah Goldberg during his meeting earlier today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That’s according to the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson for the Arabic media, Hassan Caabia, who spoke to The Times of Israel.

The delegation of six Arab journalists and bloggers currently touring Israel also had an hour-long meeting with Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Caabia says.

“He took it somewhat harshly, but he understood that this is the real face of the Palestinians,” Caabia says, referring to insults and attacks Saud was subjected to Monday as he toured the Temple Mount.

“It was barbaric and brazen; the Palestinians think [the Temple Mount] is only theirs, and doesn’t belong to the Israelis. I strongly condemn this event. I regret this event against this activist. This young man came here to promote peace between the nations. Israel gave him a warm welcome, but the Palestinians wanted to humiliate him.”

— Raphael Ahren

Israel’s UN envoy says Beirut’s port being used to arm Hezbollah

In a speech to the UN Security Council, Israel’s envoy to the world body, Danny Danon, says Israel has intelligence information according to which Iran and Syria are smuggling weapons-making equipment through Beirut’s port into Lebanon to strengthen the Hezbollah terror group.

“In the years 2018-2019, Israel found that dual-use items are smuggled into Lebanon to advance Hezbollah’s rocket and missile capabilities,” Danon says, according to quotes from his remarks released by his office.

“Iran and the [Revolutionary Guard’s] Quds Force have begun to advance the exploitation of the civilian maritime channels, and specifically the Port of Beirut. The Port of Beirut has become the Port of Hezbollah,” he charges.

The Israeli missions says in a statement following Danon’s remarks that “Iran and Hezbollah were aided by Syrian agents who purchased the equipment from foreign civilian companies and transferred the equipment to Lebanon. These agents misled the companies when they officially unloaded the equipment at the Port of Beirut, but eventually succeeded in reaching Hezbollah’s missile production facilities.”

Danon then turns to the council members and asks, “Are you absolutely sure your companies are not the ones selling dual-use equipment to the hands of Hezbollah? Are you sure your citizens know the end-users of these dual-use items?”

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks to the Security Council in New York, July 23, 2019. (Courtesy: Israel Mission to the UN)

US may have downed two Iranian drones last week, top general says

The US may have downed two Iranian drones last week, one more than Washington previously said, its top general in the Middle East tells CBS News.

CENTCOM chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie speaks to CBS News aboard a US warship, the USS Boxer, in the Persian Gulf. The Boxer was the ship that shot down the drones.

Asked if only one drone was felled, McKenzie replies, “As always it was a complex tactical picture, we believe two drones. We believe two drones were successfully — there may have been more that we are not aware of — those are the two that we engaged successfully.”

“So you, you actually brought down two drones, not just one?” says the interviewer.

“We are confident we brought down one drone, we may have brought down a second,” McKenzie says.

Iran claims no drone was shot down, and has offered drone footage of a US warship to prove its claim. It’s not clear which drone took the footage or when it was shot.

US, Israeli ministers to attend regional energy confab in Cairo

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and his American counterpart Rick Perry, now visiting Israel, are slated to travel together tomorrow to a regional natural gas conference in Cairo.

The conference will also be attended by energy ministers from Greece, Cyprus, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Italian and Palestinian officials. It will focus on regional energy issues.

Ohana denies ‘wild speculations’ about justice ministry director’s firing

Justice Minister Amir Ohana wades into the growing speculation over his reasons for firing Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor, a move that drew criticism from many parties and raised questions about his possible motive.

Some suggested he was attempting to influence the appointment of the next state attorney — any director general he would appoint would have a seat on the appointing committee — in order to ensure that one candidate opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the lead prosecutor in the Netanyahu corruption investigations Liat Ben-Ari, isn’t given the job.

Others pointed to Yair Netanyahu’s sharing of a Facebook post on Sunday that accused Palmor of being a “leftist.”

But Ohana insists he alone made the decision.

“The accepted practice is for a minister to appoint a director general. It’s a position of trust — to do otherwise would be the anomaly,” Ohana says in a statement. “This is what governance looks like,” he declares.

He adds: “In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to Emi Palmor about concluding her term, and she expressed a willingness and agreement to finish. There is no truth to the wild speculations about the decision, which was made by me and me alone.”

Americans don’t know much about Judaism but love the Jews, survey says

US Jews know more about religion in general than their non-Jewish neighbors, a new survey shows.

Americans who are not Jewish, meanwhile, don’t know a lot about Judaism. But they like Jews more than any other religious group. And they think there are more Jews in the country than there actually are. The more non-Jews know about Jews, the more they like them.

The data comes out of a new survey on what Americans know about religion published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. The survey asked a group of diverse Americans a set of 32 questions about religion, ranging from knowledge of the Bible and Christianity to knowledge of Judaism and other religions.

Ten of the questions related to Judaism in some way: four asked directly about Jewish history, practice and texts; five were about the Hebrew Bible; and one was about the size of America’s Jewish population.

The survey was conducted Feb. 4-19 and included a total of nearly 11,000 respondents.

None of the questions on Judaism received a majority of correct answers: Only 29% of respondents knew that the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) begins on Friday night. Just 27% knew Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) was associated with Judaism. And only 24% knew that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.

Older Americans did better on all of these questions than the youth.

Jews did much better on these questions. Nearly 90% knew that Shabbat begins on Friday night, almost 80% knew Kabbalah is Jewish, and 82% knew Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.

Americans as a whole also didn’t know how many Jews live in the country. Fewer than one in five knew that Jews are less than 5% of Americans. A quarter thought Jews were more than 5% of Americans, and the rest of the respondents didn’t know.

But Jews know a lot about religion. They outscored everyone when it came to general religious knowledge, not just on Judaism. Jews were the only religiously affiliated group to get a majority of the questions right.

Jews scored highest, the survey said, “even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic characteristics such as race, age and gender.”

The more Americans know Jews, the more they like them. As other surveys have shown, Americans tend to have warm feelings toward Jews. Asked to rate religious groups on a thermometer scale, from 1 to 100, Jews got an average rating of 63, the highest of any group.

— JTA

Hamas spokesman to deliver speech on Israeli captives

A spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, will deliver a speech on Israeli captives — two living civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers — held by the terror group in Gaza, Palestinian media reports.

The expected speech by Abu Obeida comes on the fifth anniversary of the 2014 war in Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, in which the soldiers were killed.

On his Telegram account, Abu Obeida calls the speech “important” and says it will be delivered at 9:45 p.m. local time — missing the Israeli prime-time news broadcasts.

The soldiers are Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. The civilians are Avera Mengistu and Hisham Shaaban A-Sayed.

Senate confirms Army veteran Mark Esper secretary of defense

WASHINGTON — It took seven months, but US President Donald Trump finally has a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense.

Mark Esper, an Army veteran and former defense industry lobbyist, wins Senate confirmation by a vote of 90-8. He is to be officially sworn in by the end of the day, ending the longest period the Pentagon has gone without a confirmed leader in its history.

The turmoil atop the Pentagon began when Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, stepped down last New Year’s Eve after a series of policy disputes with Trump. He offered to stay another two months to get a successor in place, but Trump said no.

Even with Esper now in charge, the problem of leadership instability at the Pentagon is not fully resolved. There still is no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of defense, although David Norquist on Tuesday was nominated for the post and is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

The senior leadership vacancies increased again last week with the departure of David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian policy official.

Beyond that, the No. 2-ranking military officer, Gen. Paul Selva, is retiring Friday as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No Senate confirmation hearing has been set for the man picked by Trump to replace Selva: Gen. John Hyten, who has been commander of US nuclear forces as head of US Strategic Command.

— AP

Cyprus police say Israeli rape suspects erased videos from their phones – report

Cyprus police are attempting to restore two videos erased from the phones of the Israeli suspects in an alleged gang rape on the island, Channel 13 reports.

The two videos were allegedly erased by the Israeli teens, aged 15 to 18, and are believed to record the events of last Tuesday night in a hotel room in the resort town of Ayia Napa.

A 19-year-old British woman filed a police complaint last week alleging that several of the Israeli tourists held her down and raped her repeatedly in their hotel room that night.

Police are awaiting the results of DNA tests before deciding which of the suspects will face indictments in the case.

Netanyahu once again pushing right-wing union with racist party – report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is once again urging the far-right parties Jewish Home and National Union to join forces with an extremist and racist party, Otzma Yehudit, in order to increase its ballot-box showing on September 17.

Netanyahu made the appeal in a conversation with Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz today, Channel 12 reports.

Previously, Netanyahu’s efforts ahead of the April election to ensure Jewish Home ran on a joint slate with Otzma Yehudit were panned across the political spectrum and by many critics overseas.

Otzma Yehudit is made up of disciples of an extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who at various times urged violence against Arabs and forced deportations of Palestinians. Kahane’s Kach organization is classified as a terror group by the US and his political party in Israel is forbidden from running in Israeli elections.

Senior members of Otzma Yehudit are also heavily involved in organizations that conduct violent protests outside weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

For his part, Peretz prefers to join with the New Right party of Ayelet Shaked  instead, and talks are now underway between the two parties to bring about such a merger.

But Netanyahu dislikes Shaked and Bennett, and may be pushing the Otzma Yehudit merger to pressure Peretz not to help New Right enter the 22nd Knesset.

Regime strikes kill seven civilians in northwest Syria – monitor

Regime bombardment today on northwestern Syria kills at least seven civilians, including children, a monitor says, a day after dozens were killed in raids targeting the opposition bastion.

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally have stepped up their deadly bombardment of the Idlib region and adjacent areas in Aleppo and Hama provinces since late April.

Three children are among seven civilians killed in today’s air strikes and artillery fire in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

The bombardment comes a day after regime and Russian air strikes killed 50 people in northwestern Syria.

— AFP

FBI chief: Russians still trying to meddle in US elections

FBI Director Christopher Wray warns that Russia continues to threaten US elections, 16 months before the next presidential polls.

“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” Wray tells the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“My view is, until they stop they haven’t been deterred enough.”

US intelligence and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation have documented a broad effort by Russian intelligence and a Russian social media group, the Internet Research Agency, to help Donald Trump and damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller’s report, released in April, documented extensive attempts by Trump’s campaign to cooperate with the Russians to bolster the real estate mogul’s chances.

With Mueller set Wednesday to testify to Congress about his high-stakes probe, Trump continues to deny that Russians interfered or that his election victory was helped by outside aid.

— AFP

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Israel thanks Theresa May for ‘amazing and tireless’ work to boost ties

As Boris Johnson prepares to take the reins in Britain, Israel’s foreign minister thanks Theresa May for her “amazing and tireless work” to strengthen bilateral ties.

“I want to thank Prime Minister @theresa_may for the amazing and tireless work that she did to strengthen ties between our two countries,” Israel Katz writes on Twitter.

“Bilateral trade is up, tourism is up and security cooperation is saving lives. Thank you to a true friend.”