Israel will have to up security spending to counter Iran, PM says
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Netanyahu says checking his aides’ phones is a ‘terror attack against democracy’

PM: Law enforcement officials are trying to ‘terrorize my immediate circle’ with investigation into suspected witness harassment

Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at a joint press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan, August 29, 2019. (Flash90)
Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at a joint press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan, August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s news as it unfolded.

Law enforcement officials defend decision to search Netanyahu aides’ phones

The Justice Ministry and Israel Police reject claims of impropriety in their handling of a suspected case of witness harassment on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides.

In a statement, the two bodies defend their decision to search the cellphones of the two aides — Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and the party’s campaign manager, Ofer Golan — which right-wing figures decried earlier today.

“This measure is required due to patent needs of the investigation,” the statement says, while asserting that there would only be a “limited search” of the phones to find information that relates directly to the witness intimidation case.

“Due to the sensitivity, in this case the search will only be carried out in a careful fashion that will be determined and approved by the court,” the statement adds. “The state will request that, if possible, a judge — not the investigating officials — will be the one to locate the relevant materials.”

The statement also stresses the severity of the suspicions against Urich and Golan, who are accused of ordering a van sent to Shlomo Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from the telecom company’s Walla news site.

Two charged in flash flood death of 10 teens

Former administrators at a pre-military academy are indicted for their alleged role in the death of 10 teenagers in a flash flood in April 2018 in the so-called Tzafit stream disaster.

Both the former head of the Bnei Zion academy in Tel Aviv, Yuval Kahan, and its former education director, Aviv Bardichev, will be charged with reckless homicide, which carries a penalty of up to 12 years in prison.

The students, who were high school seniors trying out for the academy, were caught in the flooding during a desert hike near the Dead Sea.

Bardichev is alleged to have changed the route of the trip from the Tze’elim stream to the Tzafit stream despite being warned by a weather forecasting company not to travel in the area due to flooding.

Kahan, meanwhile, allegedly knew about the route change but chose to trust Bardichev’s judgment.

Saudi Arabia says Baghdadi ‘distorted’ image of Islam, praises killing

Saudi Arabia says that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had distorted the image of Islam, and hails his killing by US special forces in northwest Syria.

“The kingdom appreciates the US administration’s efforts to pursue members of this terrorist organisation that distorted the real image of Islam… and committed atrocities and crimes,” says a Saudi foreign ministry source, according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).


Gantz meets Liberman as coalition talks continue

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party, are meeting amid Gantz’s efforts to cobble together a unity coalition.

Gantz met yesterday with Netanyahu, his chief rival, who returned the mandate to form the next government to the president after failing to secure a Knesset majority.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands ahead of a meeting on December 28, 2019 (Elad Malka)

Netanyahu takes over Diaspora ministry, his fourth portfolio

Netanyahu is set to assume a fourth ministerial position today, formally taking the helm of the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs.

The portfolio had been vacant since early June, when the prime minister fired the incumbent, Naftali Bennett, from the caretaker government after the April elections.

Today, as the 22nd Knesset resumes regular activities after a short break for the Jewish High Holy Days, Netanyahu will formally be declared diaspora minister.

Besides being prime minister, he also currently serves as defense minister, health minister and acting minister of labor, social affairs and social services (a post he assumed in August, after Haim Katz quit due to corruption allegations).

Raphael Ahren

Turkey warns it will attack Kurdish fighters who remain near border

Turkey’s foreign minister says his country’s military will attack any Syrian Kurdish fighter that remains along the border area in northeast Syria after a deadline for them to leave expires.

Mevlut Cavusoglu tells reporters Russian and Syrian officials provided information that some Kurdish fighters had pulled out of the border area, but others still had not. The Kurdish withdrawal is in line with a Russian-Turkish agreement reached last week.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters have until 3 p.m. GMT tomorrow to pull back to positions about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Turkish border.

Turkey and Russia will conduct joint patrols along a border strip once the Kurdish forces leave.

Cavusoglu says a Russian military delegation is scheduled to arrive in Turkey to discuss the planned joint patrols.


Liberman-Gantz meeting ends

Liberman and Gantz conclude their meeting, with both sides putting out a statement saying it was held “in a positive atmosphere.”

The statement says the meeting addressed “among other things, the issues of security, the state budget, the possible political scenarios and other topics.”

It says that a meeting between the negotiating teams of the two parties will be held soon.

Gantz, Lapid accuse Netanyahu of stalling coalition talks

Gantz says his meeting with Netanyahu yesterday did not yield any “tangible progress.”

“The ruling party does not want to hold a practical discussion about policy guidelines,” he tells a faction meeting of his Blue and White party in the Knesset.

“We will continue to talk to everyone and listen to the small parties, and we will not let them dictate the entire public agenda,” he adds.

Gantz’s number 2, Yair Lapid, steps up the rhetoric against Netanyahu and his Likud party, accusing the prime minister of posturing when he still had the mandate to try to form a government.

“I’ll tell you the difference between the 28 days Netanyahu had and our 28 days,” he says. “Netanyahu didn’t try to form a government; we are trying everything. I know what negotiations to form a government look like. I saw Netanyahu, I was in the room with him, when he wanted to form a government.

“He knows how to get it done. That’s not the situation here. Not this time. He didn’t put a single proposal on the table.”

Lapid goes on to accuse the prime minister, who is facing a pending indictment in three corruption cases, of seeking to impose an unprecedented third election on Israelis in under a year.

“Netanyahu used his 28 days for one purpose only – to push us toward elections,” he says. “He wants elections. It’s what his lawyers recommended. It’s what he needs because of his indictments.”

IDF confirms missing soldier found dead

The Israel Defense Forces confirms that the soldier Eliezer Ashkenazi, who went missing yesterday morning, was found dead earlier today.

The IDF refuses to officially comment on the cause of death, saying military police are working to investigate the matter.

This morning police said Ashkenazi had been located, but refused to comment on his condition. It appears that this was in order to give authorities time to inform his family.

Soldier Eli Ashkenazi (Courtesy)

Judah Ari Gross

Turkey says it had ‘intensive’ contact with US during Baghdadi raid

Turkey says that its military and intelligence services had “intensive” contact with their American counterparts during the operation that led to the killing of Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

US President Donald Trump announced Sunday that Baghdadi had been killed the previous night during a raid by US special forces in northwest Syria, a few kilometers from the Turkish border.

“Our military and our intelligence services were in contact with their American counterparts on this issue, they coordinated with each other,” Turkish presidency spokesman Ibrahim Kalin says.

“We can say there was an intensive dialogue between our militaries during the night of the operation,” Kalin tells reporters in Ankara.

Kalin describes Baghdadi’s death as a “victory,” adding that Ankara will continue its “effective fight” against IS’s “deviant ideology.”

He calls IS “a plague, a cancer that has harmed Muslims most of all.”


Netanyahu: Iran placing missiles in Yemen to attack Israel

Prime Minister Netanyahu warns that Iran has deployed precision-guided missiles in Yemen with the purpose of attacking Israel from there.

Speaking alongside US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Netanyahu says, “Iran is seeking to develop now precision-guided munitions, missiles that can hit any target in the Middle East with a circumference of five to ten meters.

“They are developing this in Iran,” he adds. “They want to place them in Iraq and in Syria, and to convert Lebanon’s arsenal of 130,000 statistical rockets to precision-guided munitions.

“They seek also to develop that, and have already begun to put that in Yemen, with the goal of reaching Israel from there too.”

Attempted stabbing reported in Old City; no one hurt

Police say there have been initial reports of an attempted stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City.

There are no reports of casualties and the would-be stabber has been apprehended, police say.

Gantz to meet Joint List’s Odeh this week

Gantz will meet Thursday with Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List alliance of majority-Arab parties, his Blue and White party says.

It says the meeting will take place in Blue and White’s offices in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has accused Blue and White of seeking to form a minority government with outside support from the Joint List.

Gantz’s party has never expressed interest in such a scenario and a number of Blue and White MKs have ruled it out entirely.

In Israel, US treasury secretary vows to up pressure on Iran

Standing alongside Netanyahu, US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin pledges to increase economic sanctions against Iran.

He says the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” is halting Iranian aggression.

Mnuchin is heading a delegation to the Middle East and India to discuss economic ties and counterterrorism initiatives.

He is joined by US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Mnuchin says American sanctions aim to force Iran to stop “their bad activities and exporting terrorism, looking to create nuclear capabilities, and missiles.”


Five protesters said killed in Iraq capital

Five protesters were killed today in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, a rights commission says, bringing the total death toll nationwide since anti-government rallies erupted this month to nearly 240.

Ali Bayati of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission tells AFP it is unclear how they had died, but many in Baghdad in recent days have sustained severe trauma wounds from tear gas canisters fired by security forces.


In first, IDF names woman colonel as chief intel officer for regional command

For the first time in Israel’s history, a woman was nominated to serve as the chief intelligence officer for an IDF regional command today, the army says.

Col. “Nun” — who for security reasons can only be identified by her rank and first Hebrew initial of her name — is named as the next chief intelligence officer for the IDF Central Command, which operates in the West Bank.

Nun was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 2000 and served in a host of positions within Military Intelligence before her appointment to the high-ranking and highly sensitive role.

It is not immediately clear when she will enter the new position.

Judah Ari Gross

Netanyahu urges Gantz to ‘summon the courage’ to join government with him

Prime Minister Netanyahu again calls on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to “summon the courage” and enter a unity government with his Likud party.

Addressing the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, Netanyahu accuses Blue and White number two Yair Lapid of being the main obstacle to a unity government.

“There is no reason why we can’t have a national unity government in 24 hours. There is no real substantive reason why we can’t do it,” the prime minister says.

Raphael Ahren

Israel will have to up security spending to counter Iran, PM says

Speaking to the Jewish leaders about Israel’s security challenges, which he says come from Iran, Netanyahu says Israel will need to increase the amount of money it spends on arms.

“We have to change our priorities,” he says, noting that the next government will have the difficult task of spearheading efforts to transfer funding from civilian to military purposes.

Raphael Ahren

Slain reporter Sotloff’s parents thank Trump, troops for ‘eliminating’ IS chief

The parents of Steven Sotloff, a Jewish journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State terrorists, say they are glad that the terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead.

“The Sotloff family is thankful to President Trump, our brave US special forces and all involved intelligence allies for pinpointing and eliminating ISIS leader al-Baghdadi without suffering any US military casualties,” said Shirley Sotloff, reading from a statement on Sunday, as her husband stood beside her in front of their home.

“While the victory will not bring our beloved son Steven back to us, it is a significant step in the campaign against ISIS.”

US President Donald Trump recalled Sotloff by name, as well as three other American ISIS victims, during his announcement of the death of Baghdadi.

Trump called the Sotloff family following his news conference on Sunday morning.

Sotloff was kidnapped in August 2013 after crossing into Syria from Turkey and was killed on September 2, 2014. IS posted a video showing the beheading. American journalist James Foley had been similarly killed a month earlier by the terrorist group.

Sotloff, 31, was a native of Miami and grandson of Holocaust survivors who held dual Israeli citizenship.


Two more Netanyahu aides questioned over suspected witness harassment

Channel 12 reports that two more of Netanyahu’s aides have been questioned on suspicion that they harassed Shlomo Filber, who is a state witness in one of the cases against the premier.

The two — Likud campaign strategist Israel Einhorn and new media director Topaz Luk — join campaign manager Ofer Golan and spokesman Jonatan Urich.

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from the telecom company’s Walla news site.

The four Netanyahu aides are suspected of ordering a van that looked like it belonged to the Bratslav Hasidic sect sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Two injured in shooting near French mosque; suspected gunman arrested

Two people were injured this afternoon when shots were fired near a mosque in Bayonne in southwest France, police say, adding the suspected gunman has been arrested.

The man was arrested near his home after the incident, which also involved a small explosion, presumably from a gas can set on fire near the place of worship.


Hamas says it’s ready for Palestinian elections

Gaza’s Hamas rulers say they’re ready to hold Palestinian elections — a potentially significant step that could help end a 12-year rift with the rival Palestinian Authority.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh makes the announcement after a meeting with the head of the Palestinian Central Election Commission, Hanna Nasser.

However, there is no indication whether the meeting overcame the obstacles that have scuttled similar pledges in the past.


Hiker falls to his death in Judean Desert

A hiker is declared dead after falling off a cliff in the Judean Desert.

According to reports, the hiker likely lost his way while hiking in the Samar wadi, near Mitzpe Shalem, in the northern Dead Sea region.

Rachel Weisz to portray Elizabeth Taylor in new film

Jewish actress Rachel Weisz has been tapped to play Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor in a new film.

“A Special Relationship” chronicles Taylor’s personal journey from Hollywood actress to activist through the lens of her friendship with her Roger Wall, a gay man who grew up in poverty in the Deep South, Deadline Hollywood reports.

Taylor, who was married eight times to seven men, had two Jewish husbands and converted to Judaism in 1959. She became an active supporter of Israel and Jewish causes. A social activist, Taylor became one of the first major celebrities to publicly join the fight against HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

Weisz, like Taylor, is British American.

Rachel Weisz attends the Nespresso British Academy Film Awards nominees party at Kensington Palace in London, February 9, 2019. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)


PM meets mother of Israeli woman held in Russia for drugs smuggling

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Meir Ben-Shabbat, his national security adviser, met yesterday with the mother of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman who has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years in Russia earlier this month for drug smuggling.

Netanyahu’s office says he told the mother that he would do everything in his power to bring about her release.

Netanyahu says taking his aides’ phones is a ‘terror attack against democracy’

Netanyahu launches an attack on law enforcement officials for examining the phones of those of his aides who are suspected of intimidating a witness in one of the cases against him.

In a tweet, the prime minister calls the move “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

“We don’t live under a totalitarian regime and this is unacceptable,” he says. “The goal is to terrorize my immediate circle and thus deny me the ability to respond to the criminal flood of leaks that is targeting me nonstop.”

According to a Channel 13 report this evening, one of Netanyahu’s aides, Jonatan Urich, told police that the prime minister was not aware of the initiative that is under investigation.

Urich and three others are suspected of ordering a van to the home of Shlomo Filber — a state witness in one of the corruption cases against Netanyahu — with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Urich reportedly told police that the initiative was a campaign stunt rather than an authentic effort to intimidate Filber.

8 swastikas discovered on Smith College campus

Smith College in Massachusetts was vandalized with a rash of swastikas.

Local police have joined the investigation into the incident at the prestigious all-women school in Northampton, about 100 miles west of Boston.

Students reported finding at least one swastika on a wall in an academic building on Thursday. Police then searched the entire campus and found a total of eight swastikas drawn with markers on three buildings, a college spokeswoman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The swastikas were permanently removed by staff by Friday morning, Stacey Schmeidel tells JTA.

In a letter emailed that evening to students, staff, and faculty, Smith President Kathleen McCartney condemned the vandalism as an act of “hatred and cowardice.” She said the college’s first priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of the community, especially members of the Jewish community.

The school offers support and counseling services.

On Friday afternoon, nearly 200 students, faculty and staff held a community gathering, where speakers included several Jewish student leaders.

One student told a local television station that she was surprised that such an incident happened at a place like Smith, “making me fearful for my friends who are Jewish, who … are scared for themselves and for their community,” Libby Keller told Western Mass News.


British MPs reject PM’s bid for December 12 election

British lawmakers reject an attempt by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to hold an early general election on December 12, as he seeks to break the political deadlock over Brexit.

A total of 299 MPs vote in support of his proposal, with 70 against, but he does not secure the backing of the two-thirds of the 650 MPs required by law to pass the motion.


Monotheistic faiths sign joint paper against euthanasia

Christian, Jewish and Muslim envoys sign and submit to Pope Francis a joint document that denounces euthanasia and assisted suicide as “inherently” wrong acts that should be forbidden.

“The three Abrahamic monotheistic religions share common goals and are in complete agreement in their approach to end-of-life situations,” the document says. “Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong and should be forbidden with no exceptions. Any pressure upon dying patients to end their lives by active and deliberate actions is categorically rejected.”

It is signed at the Vatican by David Rosen for the American Jewish Committee, Vincenzo Paglia for the Vatican, a representative for the Orthodox Church, and Samsul Anwar from the Indonesian Muhammadiyah, an Islamic social and cultural association.

The idea came from Avraham Steinberg, co-president of the Israeli National Council on Bioethics.

“I think it is by itself an historic event that the three major religions come together, talk to each other, agree on something and even sign on it,” Steinberg tells a press conference


Jerusalem reaching out to Moscow after mom of jailed Israeli unable to visit

The Foreign Ministry says it is in contact with Moscow using diplomatic channels in Russia and Israel after the mother of an woman jailed on drug charges was prevented from visiting her daughter in prison.

Yaffa Issachar was unable to see her daughter Naama after Russian authorities said a consular visit last week replaced the family visit, according to Hebrew media reports.

Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in Russia over alleged drug smuggling, in an undated photo (Courtesy)

However, Yaffa says she received a dispensation from a Russian judge on Monday to see her daughter.

According to Walla news, the mother has returned to the Moscow apartment where she has been staying, after being turned away at the jail, along with the consul, who was to accompany her for the visit.

Issachar, 26, was arrested in April after some 10 grams of marijuana were found in her bag during a stopover in Moscow. She was flying from India to Israel, and at no point was to exit the airport in Russia.

Netanyahu earlier this month sent a formal request to Putin asking that Issachar be pardoned. Moscow has said the Russian leader would consider the request.

According to a report on the Kremlin-aligned Russia Today network, Issachar met with human right activists last week, who said she was being treated well.

Argentina’s Grossi selected to head nuclear watchdog

Rafael Mariano Grossi of Argentina has been chosen as the new head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, succeeding the late Yukiya Amano.

Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweets that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors selected Grossi as its new director general.

Grossi is Argentina’s ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA.

In this photo taken on October 2, 2019, one of the four candidates for the general director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Argentina’s Rafael Grossi, speaks to the press after an agency hearing. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

He previously represented the IAEA in nuclear talks with Iran.

The IAEA is tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities to ensure they abide by the terms of the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Three other candidates were nominated for the job: Cornel Feruta of Romania, its chief coordinator under Amano and the acting director general since his death in July; Marta Ziakova of Slovakia; and Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso.

— AP


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Israel will have to up security spending to counter Iran, PM says

Speaking to the Jewish leaders about Israel’s security challenges, which he says come from Iran, Netanyahu says Israel will need to increase the amount of money it spends on arms.

“We have to change our priorities,” he says, noting that the next government will have the difficult task of spearheading efforts to transfer funding from civilian to military purposes.

Raphael Ahren