The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they happened.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly vote down a bill that would limit the High Court of Justice’s power to strike down laws, with MKs from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party staying away from the vote.
The vote on the bill, backed by Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, is 71 against to 5 in favor.
MKs from the coalition’s Blue and White, Shas and United Torah Judaism all voted against the proposal, which would allow the Knesset to override High Court decisions.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud, who had said he’d tell Netanyahu to support the bill, announced earlier today that MKs from the party would be absent from the plenum for the vote, as voting for it would likely trigger elections due to Blue and White’s opposition.
FRANKFURT, Germany — A German neo-Nazi on trial over the murder of pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke admits to the killing that has shocked the nation and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism.
“I fired the shot,” Stephan Ernst, 46, tells the court of the killing in a statement read out by his defense.
Federal prosecutors have said Ernst was motivated by “racism and xenophobia” when he allegedly shot Luebcke in the head on June 1, 2019.
Luebcke’s killing is believed to be Germany’s first far-right political assassination since World War II.
Apologizing to the victim’s family, Ernst says he had carried out a “cowardly and cruel” act.
He insists that he did not act alone but along with co-defendant Markus Hartmann, who stands accused of helping him train with firearms — including the murder weapon.
“I know that what I and Hartmann did to you will always be inexcusable. What we did was wrong,” he tells the family in the statement.
“No one should die because he has another view,” says Ernst, adding that he had been “misled by wrong ideas.”
Luebcke belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party and headed the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse.
He supported Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the country’s borders to refugees, with more than one million arriving since then, and spoke in favor of hosting asylum seekers in a local town.
Prosecutors say Ernst and his accomplice attended a speech by Luebcke in October 2015 when the politician defended helping refugees, adding that anyone who did not agree with those values was “free to leave the country.”
The flag is flying at half-staff outside a United Nations-backed tribunal in the Netherlands that is set to announce verdicts this week in the trial of four Hezbollah members charged with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Special Tribunal for Lebanon spokeswoman Wajed Ramadam says the flag is at half-staff “to honor those who lost their lives, who were wounded and who are still missing as a result of the explosion in Beirut yesterday.”
The tribunal will announce verdicts Friday in the long-running trial in absentia of four defendants charged in the February 14, 2005, truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and injured 226 more people.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party applauds lawmakers’ rejection of a bill that would allow the Knesset to override High Court of Justice decisions.
“The Knesset overwhelmingly voted today in favor of democracy and against an attempt to weaken the citizen vis a vis the power of the government,” Nissenkorn writes on Twitter. “In the middle of a national crisis [we] need to join hands in the fight against the coronavirus and saving the economy, not troll the rule of law.”
PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Beirut tomorrow to “meet all political actors” following the blasts that devastated the Lebanese capital, the French presidency says.
Macron will meet his counterpart Michel Aoun, whom he called yesterday, as well as Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the Elysee announces as France prepares to send three planes with search and rescue personnel and medical equipment to the ravaged city.
The National Insurance Institute says it has paid out 50 percent of the cash grants for most Israelis that Prime Minister Netanyahu has championed as a way to juice the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Defense Ministry says an Israeli team sent to India to test “diagnostic
technologies” for COVID-19 has wrapped up its mission and will return to Israel in the coming days.
A ministry statement says the team is bringing back 20,000 samples gathered from coronavirus patients to use in testing the technologies.
“The samples that were collected were inserted to systems based on artificial intelligence, enabling the [Directorate of Defense Research and Development] personnel and representatives of Israeli industries to begin processing and analyzing the data. This procedure will continue upon the return of the delegation to Israel,” the statement says.
Col. Asaf Maller, Israel’s defense attache to New Delhi, says the technologies could allow for rapid-fire testing.
“The goal is to bring to the world the technological capability to perform rapid corona[virus] tests within tens of seconds, which will enable the opening of airports, office buildings, schools, train stations and more,” the ministry quotes him saying.
Russia condemns Israel for striking Syrian military targets earlier this week following an attempted attack on the Golan border.
“We resolutely condemn these actions and express serious concern over yet another aggravation of relations between Israel and Syria. We warn Israel’s leaders against a repetition of steps that are fraught with dangerous consequences for the entire Middle East,” a statement from the Russian foreign ministry says.
It adds: “We support Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urge both sides to display restraint and prevent a further escalation of tensions.”
Israel has not publicly said who was responsible for the attempted attack. Following the airstrikes, the military said it holds Syria responsible for “all activities” in its territory.
Russia has previously condemned Israel over strikes in Syria on Iranian-linked targets that also hit Syrian positions. Both Moscow and Tehran are key backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in a bid to broker a compromise on the next budget, but no progress toward an agreement is made, the Walla news site reports.
Netanyahu and Gantz are at odds over whether the new budget should only cover the rest of the year or run through 2021, as agreed in the coalition deal between their parties. Netanyahu supports passing a budget for the rest of the year, while Gantz wants that also includes 2021.
New elections will automatically be called if a budget isn’t passed by August 25.
Opposition MKs take turns criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu as part of a special Knesset plenum session.
The session on “the shocking failure of Netanyahu and the government in dealing with the coronavirus crises” was called after lawmakers gathered the necessary 40 signatures requiring the prime minister to attend.
Leading off, Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz says Netanyahu’s continued rule will bring “disaster” upon Israel and lays out three “indictments” against the prime minister over his handling over the coronavirus, in a riff on the three graft cases the premier is facing.
“Abandoning the State of Israel to the coronavirus, corruption and persecution of the law enforcement system, and incitement, division and an effort to suppress legitimate protests,” Horowitz says.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett accuses Netanyahu of ignoring his requests to discuss plans to tackle the pandemic.
“All these entreaties weren’t political. I have no interest in entering the government, but I want to help,” he says.
MK Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu, accuses Netanyahu of branding any criticism of his government “incitement” and quotes a Knesset speech the prime minister made in 1995.
“An atmosphere of silencing political rivals is a true danger to every free society,” Liberman says.
BEIRUT — The huge blast in Beirut has left 300,000 people homeless and caused damage across half of the city estimated to cost more than $3 billion, its governor tells AFP.
“I think there are between 250,000 and 300,000 people who are now without homes,” says Marwan Aboud, adding that the estimated cost of the damage from yesterday’s explosion was between $3 billion and $5 billion dollars.
Engineers and technical teams have yet to conduct an official assessment, he says, adding that damage from the blast in the port area seems to have extended over half of the city.
An Israeli satellite imagery analysis firm releases fresh bird’s-eye images of the damage caused by yesterday’s massive explosions at the Beirut Port.
The photographs show that the blasts caused a 70-meter (230-foot) crater near the port, leveling the buildings immediately surrounding the site, and directly damaging structures up to two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.
In one of the photos, a boat can be seen on its side after being knocked over by the force of the blast.
— Judah Ari Gross
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sends condolences to the Lebanese people following yesterday’s deadly blast in Beirut.
“Yesterday there was a great catastrophe,” he says at the beginning of a speech at the Knesset, before being interrupted by the shouts of opposition lawmakers. After several moments, he reiterates Jerusalem’s willingness to send humanitarian aid to the disaster-stricken country.
Netanyahu mentions that Israel has offered aid to Syrians and even to Iran.
“That’s our way,” he says, still being heckled constantly by opposition MKs.
— Raphael Ahren
Prime Minister Netanyahu pushes back against opposition lawmakers’ criticism of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak and accompanying economic fallout.
“I heard all your baseless claims,” Netanyahu says during a special plenum session. “I understand that even if I brought a coronavirus vaccine here and world peace you’d say why only now.”
He claims ongoing protests against him outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem are funded by left-wing groups and again lashes out at the media for its coverage of the demonstrations.
At least four MKs are ejected from the plenum after continuing to yell at Netanyahu despite being called to order.
Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan tells pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV that 113 people have so far been confirmed dead in the Beirut Port explosion, with “dozens” remaining under the wreckage.
— Aaron Boxerman
“Squad” member Rashida Tlaib wins a challenge for her House seat in Michigan’s primary, in a rematch with the woman she narrowly defeated two years ago.
Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, easily secures likely re-election to the 13th District in and around Detroit. Her opponent in yesterday’s primary was Detroit City Council President President Brenda Jones, who lost by 1 percentage point in 2018 when the primary field was larger.
Tlaib, 44, will face an underdog Republican candidate in November.
The showdown in one of the country’s poorest districts had featured Jones criticizing Tlaib’s confrontational style and vowing to focus on bringing home funding. Tlaib once called the president an expletive while vowing to impeach him. He later targeted her with racist tweets.
Tlaib, a Palestinian American, has also drawn attention for her criticism of the Jewish state. She and fellow Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar were barred by Israel from entering the country last year over their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
— with AP
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid responds to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech during a special Knesset plenum session.
“We paid for the chair you’re sitting on now. It’s not yours. It’s the Israeli citizens’. You’re not the landlord here. You’re a wage worker,” Lapid says. “You know why the protesters are coming to Balfour [the Prime Minister’s Residence]? Because they’re the landlords. This isn’t your house, it’s their house. They came to tell you the lease is over.”
He also rejects Netanyahu’s assertion that the ongoing protests against the premier outside his official residence in Jerusalem are strictly political.
“They won’t fire you because they’re leftists. They won’t fire you because they’re anarchists or spreaders of disease, or any other of the ugly names you called them. They’ll fire you for one very simple reason… because you don’t do good work. Once you did, but no longer,” Lapid says.
BEIRUT — The Lebanese government says it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into how 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.
The move comes amid speculation that negligence was to blame for the explosion that killed more than 100 people.
It is announced following a cabinet meeting today during which the government declared a two-week “state of emergency,” effectively giving the military full powers during this time.
The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians says it opposes the reimposition of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“A full lockdown is a move that will harm public health,” the union says in a statement. “A full lockdown will cause disproportionate health, economical and social damage and it’s a mistaken move at this time.”
It adds: “There’s no proof that a full lockdown is implementable in terms of public trust and there’s no proof it will reduce mortality over the long term.”
The union says the government should instead advance the proposals backed by Ronni Gamzu, the new coronavirus czar, who has expressed opposition to a renewed lockdown and other sweeping restrictions.
“It’s recommended to reduce activities in closed spaces and encourage activities in the open air. A differential policy is recommended by risk areas. We recommend working with the public to reduce unessential contact in closed spaces… while emphasizing the protection of at-risk populations, including in the community,” it says.
It also says the Education Ministry should ready for the new school year by encouraging distance learning and the holding of classes outdoors.
The statement comes as the Kan public broadcaster reports that Gamzu told ministers today there are currently no grounds for a lockdown.
“There’s no justification for a full lockdown — the hospitals aren’t in a situation of insufficiency and a lockdown will cause economic and social hardships,” he’s quoted as saying.
According to Channel 12 news, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat are pushing hard for a general lockdown.
PARIS — Prosecutors in France have opened an investigation after 21 French citizens were wounded in the devastating blast at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut, the Paris prosecutor says.
The prosecutors opened a probe into “involuntary injury” using their jurisdiction to investigate acts committed abroad, Paris prosecutor Remy Heintz says in a statement.
At least 113 people were killed in yesterday’s blast with dozens still missing and 4,000 people wounded.
Israel is in advanced discussions to transfer medical equipment to Lebanon after yesterday’s deadly blast at the Beirut port, the Kan public broadcaster reports.
Contacts are being moderated by the UN, according to Kan, which quotes an unnamed UNIFIL source saying Lebanon’s government received Israel’s offer of aid, but has yet to officially respond.
The broadcaster says Israel would send “specific equipment” to Lebanon, but doesn’t specify what this equipment is.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations and Israel classifies its northern neighbor as an enemy state.
Two US officials say there are no indications that the massive explosion yesterday evening in Lebanon’s capital was the result of an attack by either a nation state or proxy forces.
A senior Defense Department official and a member of the US intelligence community tell The Associated Press that, at the moment, the explosion appears to have been caused by improper storage of explosions.
Both individuals speak to the AP on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to discuss intelligence briefings publicly.
The senior Defense Department official tells the AP that they had “no idea” what US President Donald Trump was referring to when he said during a press briefing at the White House yesterday that the explosion “looks like a terrible attack. Trump later said that his “great generals” told him that they felt like it was an attack.
Inquiries to the Pentagon about Trump’s attack remarks were referred to the White House.
Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan announces the death count from yesterday’s explosion at the Beirut port has risen to 135, with nearly 5,000 wounded.
Dozens remain missing, Hassan says.
— Aaron Boxerman
Police have arrested a second person in a suspected homophobic attack over the weekend in Jaffa.
The 17-year-old was arrested in the central Arab city of Taibe. Like the other suspect, he is also from Lod.
The national budget deficit has jumped to 7.2 percent this year, with a shortfall of NIS 70 billion ($20.57 billion).
The deficit during the same period last year was NIS 24 billion ($7.05 billion).
The Health Ministry has taken down a video it shared on Facebook about the coronavirus after China’s embassy in Israel complained to the Foreign Ministry, Channel 12 news reports.
The video, which encourages social distancing, included an actor portraying the coronavirus.
“I’m originally from Wuhan, China, ‘made in China,'” the actor says in the video.
The video was taken down from the ministry’s Facebook page following the Chinese complaint.
“It’s unbelievable. They just see everything, everywhere,” a ministry official tells Channel 12.
The network doesn’t specify what China objected to about the video, but Beijing has bristled at reports highlighting the pandemic’s origin in Wuhan. Chinese officials have also promoted conspiracy theories that the virus was brought to China by the US military.
The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon announces it will delay issuing a verdict in the trial of four men linked to Lebanese terror group Hezbollah for their suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The verdict was supposed to be issued this week, but the tribunal says it is postponing it “out of respect for the countless victims of the explosion that shook Beirut on 4 August.” At least 135 are confirmed to have died in the explosion alongside over 5,000 wounded; dozens remain missing.
The tribunal says it will issue its verdict on August 18, rather than August 7 as originally planned.
— Aaron Boxerman
WASHINGTON — The US election plunges deeper into unprecedented territory as challenger Joe Biden announces he will accept his nomination virtually and US President Donald Trump suggests breaking tradition by holding his own ceremony at the White House.
Citing coronavirus health risks, the Biden campaign says he will make his speech — the high point of a candidate’s race — from his Delaware home where he has spent most of the last months.
He had planned to attend the August 17-20 Democratic convention in Milwaukee, which was already heavily scaled-down from the massive event typical before US elections.
But the party says the risk was still too high, and switched to a fully virtual affair.
“From the very beginning of this pandemic, we put the health and safety of the American people first,” says Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez.
Trump, whose reelection bid is struggling with a badly wounded economy and surging COVID-19 pandemic, signals he may also accept his nomination from home — in his case, the White House.
“I love the building. I’m there right now. I spend a lot of time here,” he tells Fox News.
Trump’s August 27 acceptance speech was originally planned for North Carolina, but that was scrapped due to the coronavirus, as was the back-up location, leaving the Republican scrambling for alternatives.
However, presidents are required to separate their campaigning from taxpayer-funded governing. If he goes ahead, Trump would be breaking at the very least with presidential decorum by turning the South Lawn of the iconic building into his personal campaign stage.
Trump defends the idea as “by far the least expensive” and says that logistically it would require far less movement of staff and guests.
BEIRUT — Investigators began searching through the wreckage of Beirut’s port for clues to the cause of the massive explosion that ripped across the Lebanese capital, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame.
The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.
Fueling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online shows the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger, and asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.
Ammonium nitrate is a component of fertilizer that is potentially explosive. The 2,750-ton cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.
The 2017 letter from the custom’s chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.
In the letter, the customs chief warns of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was ever a response.
Tel Aviv’s city hall is lit up with the Lebanese flag to commemorate those killed in a massive blast yesterday at the port in Beirut.
The city announcement earlier today that it would display the flag on the municipal building was criticized by a number of right-wing figures, who objected because Lebanon is classified as an enemy state.
New Health Ministry figures show 1,770 new coronavirus were recorded over the past 24 hours, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 77,595.
The ministry reports another death from COVID-19, raising the national toll to 565.
Of the 25,649 active cases, 345 people are in serious condition, with 106 on ventilators. Another 136 people are in serious condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.
The Health Ministry says 26,071 tests were performed yesterday.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is reaching out to associates of new coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu in a bid to press him to adopt the premier’s own preference for lockdowns and other far-reaching restrictions, Channel 12 news reports.
According to the unsourced report, Netanyahu is concerned Gamzu’s stance toward the pandemic could lead to apathy among the public and he’s, therefore, seeking to pressure him to support stricter limitations.
Since taking up his post, Gamzu has pledged to end “illogical” restrictions and expressed opposition to lockdown measures, warning of their health, economic and social costs.
The network also reports that Netanyahu has reached out to former finance minister Moshe Kahlon about overseeing the economic aspects of Israel’s response to the virus.
Quoting an unnamed source familiar with Netanyahu’s proposal to Kahlon, the report says the prime minister’s offer is an effective vote of no confidence in Finance Minister Israel Katz.
The US Embassy in Beirut says at least one American citizen was killed and several more were injured in yesterday’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to their loved ones and are working to provide the affected US citizens and their families all possible consular assistance. We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any additional US citizens were affected,” the embassy says in a statement.
The embassy says all of its employees are safe and accounted for.
Thousands of people are attending a wedding for the grandson of the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, the Walla news site reports.
The wedding is reportedly being held inside a building in Jerusalem, violating government rules limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people.
Senior officials in the Jerusalem police held talks with wedding organizers but chose to turn a blind eye to the event, according to the news site.
The so-called Coronavirus Cabinet has decided to lift the weekend restrictions on commerce after health officials determine the rules don’t effectively drive down COVID-19 infection rates, according to Hebrew media reports.
The senior ministers also decide to resume air travel and “reopen the skies” by August 16, in a move hinting that border entry requirements will be relaxed for non-Israelis, who have been barred from the country for months.
During the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favored reimposing a lockdown but was met with pushback by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, with most ministers siding with the senior health official, the reports say.
The ministers also agree that enforcement of health rules in highly infected areas would be stepped up.
Netanyahu’s office confirms the Coronavirus Cabinet has tasked the transportation minister, foreign minister and National Security Council with formulating a plan to resume flights by August 16.
In a statement, the prime minister also says the weekend restrictions on businesses will be lifted in a Thursday vote.
In addition, Netanyahu’s office says the government will begin implementing the color-coded coronavirus system, under which cities and towns will have coronavirus policies adapted to their local rates of infection, by September 1.
But the prime minister stresses that Israel could yet see a full nationwide lockdown imposed if COVID-19 continues to spread.
The possibility of a lockdown is averted, for now, but will be re-evaluated in two weeks’ time.
“This is probably the last time to take a moderate line,” says coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, referring to his recommendation not to impose a nationwide closure right now. “In the event infection rates don’t decline in two weeks, we will be forced to weigh restrictions, including the possibility of a local or national lockdown.”