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Jewish Home members approve merger with far-right Otzma Yehudit

Vote by right-wing party’s central committee also paves way for alliance with Betzalel Smotrich’s National Union

Jewish Home central committee members vote to approve a merger with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party on January 13, 2020 (courtesy)
Jewish Home central committee members vote to approve a merger with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party on January 13, 2020 (courtesy)

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

Knesset committee launches Netanyahu’s process

The Knesset Arrangements Committee meets in the parliament to vote on a decision empowering itself to select members for the Knesset House Committee.

It’s a dry procedural vote — technically an overturning of a previous decision of the Arrangements Committee on December 15 reserving that right to the Knesset speaker — but with dramatic consequences.

It means lawmakers can now convene a House Committee to debate and vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, perhaps even days, long before election day on March 2.

Netanyahu had hoped to avoid an immunity debate, and thus avoid indictment (which must wait until after the Knesset has ruled on immunity), until after the election.

The first debates will now take place before election day, and may influence the election, if only by ensuring that voters can’t ignore the looming corruption indictments during the next few weeks of campaigning.

The Arrangements Committee is chaired by Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn. The party has pushed for the immunity debate to take place as soon as possible, and Nissenkorn is eager to do just that.

Likud MK declares Knesset committee meeting on Netanyahu immunity ‘illegal’

As literally everyone knew it would, the debate in the Knesset Arrangements Committee immediately turns acrimonious and sharply partisan.

Likud MK Miki Zohar, a backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declares the meeting “illegal” and storms out for a few minutes, then, honor satisfied, returns to the room.

Zohar is wrong. The meeting is legal. But he nevertheless has a point.

An agreement between Likud and Blue and White on December 15 gave Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein a veto on committee meetings, in a bid to quiet the parliament and prevent parliamentary activity from interfering with the election campaign.

Blue and White won approval from the Knesset’s legal adviser yesterday to move ahead with a committee debate on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request, and began that process about an hour ago.

There’s nothing illegal about that, but it does break the December 15 agreement with Likud, which is understandably miffed, even those in the party who are not full-throated backers of Netanyahu.

Blue and White MK says Edelstein okayed launching PM immunity debate

Arrangements Committee chair MK Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) defends the decision to convene the committee to begin the process of considering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request — a process opposed by Likud.

After Likud MK Miki Zohar insisted the meeting was “illegal” because it lacked written approval from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Nissenkorn responds: “We submitted our request to Edelstein last night at 7 p.m., and it was approved by the legal adviser of the committee. I then spoke [to Edelstein] personally at 9 p.m. The committee received permission to convene from the Speaker’s chief of staff at 9:20 p.m., and only after that, at 9:30 p.m., did the invitations to the members go out.”

Edelstein approved, Nissenkorn is insisting.

While he speaks, Zohar interrupts him repeatedly, probably because there are cameras in the room. Nissenkorn orders him removed briefly, and he walks out, saying he wanted to leave in any case, since the meeting itself isn’t legitimate.

Likud MK Karai lashes vote beginning PM’s immunity debate as ‘shameful’

Knesset Arrangements Committee Chairman MK Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) urges committee members to take the debate seriously, with a minimum of grandstanding and delays.

“I expect members of Knesset not to try to delay the discussions, not to try to sabotage a substantive, productive and fair discussion on the issue of immunity,” he says.

One Likud MK, Shlomo Karai, is unimpressed by the call.

He declares: “This vote is shameful. It should never have happened. Blue and White is going to be remembered as allies of [Arab lawmakers Ayman] Odeh and [Ahmad] Tibi. You’re all ‘Just not Bibi.'”

The effect is somewhat diminished by his repeated pauses and embarrassed smiling as other lawmakers chuckle at his grandstanding.

But the cameras are rolling, and he presses on.

“Voters will punish this alliance. This is a circus,” he says.

Lawmakers approve rules change allowing PM immunity debate to begin

The procedural change allowing the formation of a Knesset House Committee passes overwhelmingly in the Knesset Arrangements Committee, clearing the way for convening the former committee and beginning the debate on Netanyahu’s immunity request in three corruption cases.

The vote is 16 to 1 after Likud and other right-wing MKs storm out of the room.

Chairman MK Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) says the committee will reconvene at 2:30 p.m. to begin staffing the permanent committees of the Knesset — a reference to the House Committee, which is expected to begin debating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request within days, much to the premier’s consternation.

Jerusalem cult leader arrested for allegedly abusing women, children

A Jerusalem man is under arrest today on suspicion of operating a cult that kept dozens of people under his absolute authority.

Police say he is being investigated for a wide variety of alleged crimes, including sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, and theft, all of which took place at the group’s compound in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, at a site listed as the Be’er Miriam girls’ seminary.

The man, in his sixties, was arrested in 2015 on similar charges, but officials were forced to let him go after several women in his group testified in his favor.

The arrests today include the man and eight of the women who live in the compound and were allegedly accomplices in the abuse.

The man is believed to have exercised “absolute control” over some 50 women and an unspecified number of children, some of whom were kept in isolation, police say.

The arrest raid this morning was led by police, but included social workers, experts at cults, medical staff and firefighters and city engineers who began a detailed safety assessment of the dilapidated compound.

Unprecedented 1,200 East Jerusalem Palestinians got Israeli citizenship in 2019

Israel granted citizenship to 1,200 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem last year, an all-time high, government figures show.

The figure is three times the number in 2018.

The number of citizenship requests denied — also roughly 1,200 — was similarly at an unprecedented high last year.

The sharp jump in approvals and rejections is not due to any change in the rate at which Palestinian are requesting the citizenship, the Haaretz daily reports, but in the Israeli government’s expediting of the approval process after a Supreme Court decision last year criticized the inefficiency in the citizenship request system.

East Jerusalem is claimed by Israel, and was annexed in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, and again declared Israeli in the 1980 Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. The Israeli declarations are not recognized by the international community.

Israel has moved slowly, however, in granting citizenship to Arabs living in the annexed areas, while the citizenship requests from the Arab residents have remained at a trickle over the Palestinian worry that accepting citizenship amounted to recognizing Israeli annexation.

Queen Elizabeth to host crisis summit on Prince Harry and Meghan’s future

SANDRINGHAM, England — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is set to hold face-to-face talks today with Prince Harry for the first time since he and his wife, Meghan, unveiled their controversial plan to walk away from royal roles — at a dramatic family summit meant to chart a future course for the couple.

The meeting reflects the queen’s desire to contain the fallout from Harry and Meghan’s decision to “step back” as senior royals, work to become financially independent and split their time between Britain and North America. The couple, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, made the announcement Wednesday without telling the queen or other senior royals first.

The meeting at the monarch’s private Sandringham estate in eastern England will also include Harry’s father Prince Charles and his brother Prince William. It comes after days of intense news coverage, in which supporters of the royal family’s feuding factions used the British media to paint conflicting pictures of who was to blame for the rift.

William is expected to travel to Sandringham from London and Harry from his home in Windsor, west of the British capital. Charles has flown back from the Gulf nation of Oman, where he attended a condolence ceremony Sunday following the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Meghan, who is in Canada with the couple’s baby son Archie, is likely to join the meeting by phone.

Buckingham Palace says “a range of possibilities” would be discussed, but the queen was determined to resolve the situation within “days, not weeks.” The goal was to agree on next steps at Monday’s gathering, which follows days of talks among royal courtiers and officials from the UK and Canada. Buckingham Palace stresses, however, that “any decision will take time to be implemented.”

— AP

Israel to speed up extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia in sex abuse case

Israeli officials are seeking to expedite an extradition hearing for a woman facing dozens of sexual abuse charges in Australia after a psychiatric panel concluded she had lied about suffering from mental illness, the Justice Ministry announces.

The panel’s decision last week that found Malka Leifer fit to stand trial marked a major breakthrough in a years-old case that has strained relations between Israel and Australia and antagonized members of Australia’s Jewish community.

In its announcement, the Justice Ministry said the psychiatric panel had “unanimously and unequivocally” concluded that Leifer had faked mental illness in order to avoid extradition.

“The prosecution believes that the psychiatric panel’s definitive conclusions have removed the obstacles that stood in the way of any significant progress in this case,” the ministry says. “The psychiatric panel’s findings lead to the inevitable conclusion that over the past five years, the court and the mental health system have fallen victim to a fraud perpetrated by Leifer and her supporters.”

Leifer faces 74 counts of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by three sisters who say they were abused while she was a teacher and principal at the ultra-Orthodox religious school they attended in Melbourne. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school in Australia and returned to Israel.

The repeated delays in the case since have strained relations with Australia, one of Israel’s closest allies. Leaders of Australia’s pro-Israel Jewish community have also expressed frustration.

Those frustrations have been amplified by the alleged involvement in the case of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox health minister, Yaacov Litzman. Israeli police have recommended charges of fraud and breach of trust against him for suspicions that he pressured ministry employees to skew Leifer’s psychiatric evaluations in her favor. Litzman denies wrongdoing.

— AP

Rivlin shortens prison term of jailed former business tycoon, citing health woes

President Reuven Rivlin shortens the prison term of prominent businessman Nochi Dankner by some four months, allowing him to request early parole on good behavior this month, instead of waiting until May.

The four months’ incarceration will be converted to a suspended sentence.

“The decision was taken in light of Dankner’s current medical situation. These medical circumstances were not brought before the court at the time of sentencing [in 2018] and, according to medical advice, have worsened significantly during his time in prison and require urgent medical intervention,” the president’s office says.

Dankner, the former controlling shareholder of IDB Holding Corp, is serving a three-year sentence for stock manipulation and other offenses.

Danker, once one of the richest men in Israel, was initially set to serve two years in prison, but the Supreme Court in 2018 tacked on another year when he appealed the sentence, citing his role in carrying out millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent transactions in an attempt to influence the share price of his troubled company.

He had sunk into massive debt with the banks and hit a brick wall trying to raise cash or get further loans.

He began serving his sentence on October 2, 2018.

Dankner’s pardon request also asked Rivlin to expunge his criminal record. The president rejected the request.

— with agencies

Iran denies ‘cover-up’ over downed airliner

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s government denies a “cover-up” after it took days for the armed forces to admit a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by mistake last week.

The comments come after a second night of demonstrations in Tehran against the authorities over the air disaster, according to videos shared on social media.

The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 was shot down shortly after it took off from Tehran before dawn on Wednesday, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. The Kyiv-bound airliner was brought down hours after Iran had launched a wave of missiles at US troops stationed at Iraqi bases in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general.

The Islamic Republic initially denied Western claims based on US intelligence that the passenger plane had been struck by a missile before admitting it on Saturday.

“In these sorrowful days, many criticisms were directed at relevant officials and authorities,” says government spokesman Ali Rabiei. “Some officials were even accused of lying and a cover-up but, in all honesty, that was not the case,” he says in remarks aired on state television.

“Lying is intentionally and knowingly faking the truth. Lying is covering up. Lying is knowing a fact and not expressing it or twisting the truth.”

Rabiei says all details provided by officials prior to Saturday’s admission had been based on the information available to them at the time: “All of those who expressed opinions on those days, at the peak of America’s psychological war against the Iranian nation… did so based on existing information at the time.”


Iranian police ordered to show ‘restraint’ toward protesters

TEHRAN, Iran — Police in Tehran are ordered to show “restraint” at demonstrations that erupted after the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet, the Iranian capital’s police chief says.

“The police treated the people who had gathered with patience and tolerance” in a second night of demonstrations in Tehran on Sunday, says General Hossein Rahimi.

“The police did not shoot at the gatherings at all because a restraint order (had been issued) for police in the capital,” he says in a statement carried by state television.

The Ukraine International Airlines plane bound for Kyiv was shot down shortly after take-off from Tehran on Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board.

Officials in Iran initially denied Western claims the Boeing 737 was downed by a missile, before acknowledging on Saturday that it had been shot down accidentally.

A gathering by hundreds of students at a Tehran university on Saturday evening to honor the dead turned into an angry demonstration against the authorities before it was dispersed by police. Similar demonstrations were held in the Iranian capital again on Sunday night, according to unverified videos shared on social media, but it was difficult to assess how many people took part.


US troops clear rubble from Iraq base days after Iran strike

AIN AL-ASAD BASE, Iraq — US troops are clearing rubble and debris today from a military base housing American soldiers in western Iraq, days after it was struck by Iranian ballistic missiles.

The Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province is a sprawling complex about 180 kilometers (110 miles) west of Baghdad and houses about 1,500 members of the US military and the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group.

It was struck by a barrage of Iranian missiles on Wednesday, in retaliation for the US drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander, Qassem Soleimani, whose killing raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East.

This satellite image provided on January 8, 2020, by Middlebury Institute of International Studies and Planet Labs Inc. shows the damage caused from an Iranian missile strike at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq. (Planet Labs Inc./Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

An Associated Press crew touring the Ain al-Asad base today saw large craters in the ground and damaged military trailers as well as forklifts lifting rubble and loading it onto trucks from a large area the size of a football stadium.

The US said no American soldiers were killed or wounded in the Iranian attack.

— AP

Likud lawmaker says Blue and White ‘hijacking’ Knesset

Likud faction chair MK Miki Zohar again storms out of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, this time claiming that the rival Blue and White party has “hijacked the Knesset” and vowing the challenge the meeting, which he says is illegitimate, in the High Court.

“Today, 61 MKs have hijacked the Knesset during the election recess. You do as you please with the majority of the Knesset that has lost public trust,” he says.

“We will not take part in any debate or any vote. We are giving you the keys to the Knesset.”

The Arrangements Committee is meeting to form a House Committee to debate and vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, perhaps even days. Likud has opposed the move, as Netanyahu hopes to delay a decision on immunity until after the March 2 election.

— Raoul Wootliff

Lawmakers set to vote on staffing House Committee to debate PM’s immunity

The Knesset Arrangements Committee has gathered again in the parliament building in Jerusalem to decide on staffing the parliament’s standing committees, especially the Knesset House Committee that will debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request.

The House Committee “will have 30 members of Knesset,” Arrangements Committee chair MK Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) says, ensuring representation for all factions.

He calls the committee’s establishment “necessary.”

Germany: Iranians must be allowed ‘to protest freely’

BERLIN, Germany — The Iranian people must be allowed to “protest peacefully and freely” after authorities there admitted to accidentally shooting down a passenger plane, Berlin says.

Iranians have the right to take to the streets to express their “grief and also their anger” after the plane disaster, German foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr says. “The Iranian people must have the opportunity to protest peacefully and freely, and to express their opinions,” Adebahr tells reporters at a regular government press conference.

“We are convinced this has to happen in a peaceful, free and unhindered way.”

Protests erupted at the weekend after the Iranian armed forces admitted to causing last week’s air disaster that killed all 176 people on board a Ukrainian passenger jet.


Britain summons Iranian ambassador over Tehran envoy arrest

LONDON — Britain summons the Iranian ambassador to protest the detention of London’s envoy to Tehran over the weekend, the government says.

London wants to convey its “strong objections” about the “unacceptable breach” of diplomatic protocol, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman says.

Ambassador Rob Macaire was arrested on Saturday after a demonstration that broke out at a memorial for 176 people killed when Iran’s armed forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane last week. Iranian authorities confirmed his arrest as a foreigner at “an illegal gathering” but said he was released soon after being identified.

Macaire said he went to an event advertised as a vigil and left after five minutes when some people started shouting. He was arrested half an hour later.

“This was an unacceptable breach of the Vienna Convention and it needs to be investigated,” the Downing Street spokesman says, referring to a 1961 international treaty that sets out protections from harassment for foreign diplomats.

“We are seeking full assurances from the Iranian government that this will never happen again. The Foreign Office has summoned the Iranian ambassador today to convey our strong objections.”

Tensions are running high in Iran and across the wider region after the US killing of a top Iranian commander earlier this month and a retaliatory strike on coalition bases in neighboring Iraq.


Muslim man convicted of hate crime in France for assaulting Jewish optician

A French judge convicts a Muslim man of a hate crime, after the man last year assaulted a Jewish optician at the victim’s shop while shouting about Allah.

The perpetrator, Sliman Ouaki, on October 4 assaulted the owner of the Optiocal Center shop in Toulon near Marseille while shouting “Allah hu akbar,” Arabic for “Allah is the greatest,” the BNVCA watchdog on anti-Semitism reported last week.

Ouaki targeted the shop owner, who was not named, because he had a mezuzah on the front door, the report said.

The victim sustained minor injuries and was unable to work for two days due to his injuries, the report said.

The Correctional Tribunal of Toulon convicted Ouaki of a physical assault aggravated by racist hatred and sentenced Ouaki to prison. It also imposed on him penalties as compensation for the victim. The report did not specify the penalties. The maximum prison term prescribed in the French penal code for the offense is three years. The maximum fine is nearly $50,000.

BNVCA has often criticized French courts for being too lax on perpetrators of anti-Semitic hate crimes but it lauded the Toulon court for its “firmness and fairness” in the ruling, whose first part was handed down on October 11.

The defendant last month exhausted his right to appeal.


Controversial Tiberias mayor removed from office

Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin announces he’ll oust controversial Tiberias mayor Ron Cobi from office.

This comes after Cobi failed repeatedly to pass a municipal budget since taking office after the October 2018 elections.

Dubbed the “Donald Trump of the north” by Israeli media over his combative style, Cobi swept into local office in the fall of 2018 on a campaign that focused on the growing ultra-Orthodox community and its influence in the city, highlighted in a series of frequently foul-mouthed and menacing Facebook live videos.

He quickly went on to become the bête noire of the Haredi community after launching free bus lines on Saturdays in the city and expanding entertainment and commercial enterprises permitted to open on the Jewish day of rest, while pledging to restrict housing projects for ultra-Orthodox residents.

In March, Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich accused Cobi of anti-Semitism.

The decision on Monday is noted by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

He says, “The most important thing right now is to bring the city of Tiberias back on track and rehabilitate it so that its citizens aren’t hurt.”

Government representatives are called in to the Tiberias municipality to fill in until new local elections are held.

‘Joker’ tops Oscar nominations with 11; 3 other films get 10 apiece

Todd Phillips’ much-debated supervillain origin story and R-rated box-office smash “Joker” tops all films with 11 Academy Awards nominations, while Martin Scorsese’s elegiac crime epic “The Irishman,” Quentin Tarantino’s 1960s Los Angeles fairy tale “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Sam Mendes’ World War I tale “1917” all trail close behind with 10 nods apiece.

Those four are among the nine films nominated for best picture, in nominations announced Monday to the 92nd Academy Awards. The others are: “Parasite,” “Little Women,” “Marriage Story,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Ford v Ferrari.”

While “Joker” was expected to do well Monday, the academy’s overwhelming support for a movie that was far from a critical favorite is unexpected. The film’s nominations include best actor for Joaquin Phoenix and best director for Phillips.


Lawmakers vote to form House Committee to debate Netanyahu immunity

The Knesset Arrangements Committee votes to form the parliamentary House Committee, which will debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request.

Sixteen MKs support the move, while five oppose it.

Likud has opposed the move, as Netanyahu hopes to delay a decision on his request for parliamentary immunity until after the March 2 election, when he would hope to have more support in the Knesset.

If Netanyahu’s request is brought to a vote before the elections — and it is not yet clear whether there will be time to do so — the House Committee is expected to reject the prime minister’s bid for immunity from prosecution in the three graft cases for which he has been charged.

The formation of a House Committee still requires a full plenum vote in the Knesset. Arrangements Committee chairman Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White says he hopes it will be held this week.

Netanyahu to huddle with right-wing allies over immunity

Netanyahu will meet with his right-wing and religious political allies on Tuesday to discuss his immunity bid, Channel 12 reports.

Members of the so-called 55-MK bloc supporting Netanyahu will be on the House Committee panel that will debate the prime minister’s request. It remains unclear when the House Committee will be staffed and when the hearing will be held.

The committee will have 30 members “to ensure representation for all factions,” says Arrangements Committee chair Mk Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White: Eight seats apiece for Blue and White and Likud; three seats for the Joint List; two apiece for Shas, Labor-Gesher, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism; and one seat each for the Democratic Camp, the Jewish Home and the New Right.

That leaves the prime minister outnumbered, with 14 out of 30 votes.

New Right to run independently in March elections

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party announces it will run independently in the upcoming March elections.

In a statement, the party — which failed to clear the electoral threshold in the April 2019 elections, and ran on a joint ticket with other right-wing parties in the September vote — says it’s the only way to ensure a broader right-wing victory.

The party says it will work on siphoning votes from the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu and centrist Blue and White.

Netanyahu: Blue and White has ‘zero achievements’ and is ‘hijacking’ Knesset

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashes Blue and White after lawmakers vote to form a committee that will debate, and is widely expected to reject, his request for parliamentary immunity.

“Blue and White has zero achievements for Israeli citizens to show, so they hijacked the Knesset to advance their only campaign — ‘Just not Bibi,'” tweets the prime minister, using his nickname.

“They should be well. We will come to the citizens of Israel with our incredible achievements and with the amazing achievements we will soon bring, for the sake of the State of Israel,” he adds.

Netanyahu tells woman jailed in Russia he’s trying to bust her out

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent a letter to jailed Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar, promising to work on gaining her freedom soon.

Issachar is serving a 7.5 years sentence in Russia on drug smuggling charges that some Israeli officials have said are trumped up.

“Our nation has always been characterized by its heritage of mutual support — we don’t leave someone behind to their fate, and that’s how it is in your case as well,” he wrote her, according to a copy distributed by his office.

US-Israeli backpacker Naama Issachar, center, sits inside a glass cage during appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./AP)

“The State of Israel is investing unending efforts to bring about your freedom … we are all united in the expectation to see you soon.”

Issachar received the letter Sunday night, according to Netanyahu’s office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is slated to visit Israel next week, raising hopes among some of a goodwill gesture of diplomatic breakthrough in her case.

On Friday, Israel released two Syrian prisoners in what was seen as a goodwill gesture toward Putin.



Israel says it won’t back down from beef with Ukraine over honors for Nazi collaborators

Israel is telling Ukraine it will not butt out of a debate over Kyiv’s glorification of World War II figures who collaborated with the Nazis.

On Thursday, a Ukrainian diplomat in Tel Aviv told Israeli counterparts that the subject of memorializing Stepan Bandera and other Ukrainian nationalists related to “internal issues of Ukrainian politics” and Israel’s protests about it are “counterproductive,” according to the news site Jewish.ru.

“The memory of the Holocaust and the war on anti-Semitism, including glorification of the killing of Jews, is not an internal matter,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry says in a statement Monday.

The statement says speaking out about it is a “responsibility of the first degree for any Israeli diplomat and a joint moral obligation for Israel and its many friends around the world.”

FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2005 file photo, a partisan veteran from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army carries a portrait of Ukrainian Insurgent Army leader Stepan Bandera during a march in Kiev. Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Joel Lion, and his Polish counterpart Bartosz Cichocki wrote officials an open letter condemning the government-sponsored honoring of Stepan Bandera and Andryi Melnyk, two collaborators with the Third Reich.

The Israeli statement Monday does not specifically mention Bandera or Melnyk, but says it comes against “the background of honoring the names of murderers of Jews in the Holocaust and pogroms, the spiritual fathers of anti-Semitism.”

Ukrainian president Vladymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, is expected to visit Israel next week for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

— with JTA

Labor head defends Meretz merger as 2020 ‘difference-maker’

Labor-Gesher head Amir Peretz is defending his decision to merge forces with the Meretz party, saying it gives them a better chance at ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We don’t agree about everything, but the common denominator between us is greater than that which separates us. This merger gives a chance of overturning Netanyahu’s policies,” he says at a press conference.

Labor-Gesher head Amir Peretz, left, and Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz shake hands during a press conference in Tel Aviv on January 13, 2020. (Flash90)

He calls the alliance “the difference-maker in the 2020 vote.”

Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz hails the merger as a “historic step.”

Peretz and his centrist partner Orly Levy Abekasis of Gesher had expressed misgivings about joining up with Meretz, which is further to the left on the political spectrum, but had faced pressure to unify out of fears that one of the parties could slip below the electoral threshold and be kept out of the Knesset.


Cory Booker pulls plug on presidential campaign

Democrat Cory Booker is ending his presidential bid following polling and fundraising struggles.

“To my team, supporters, and everyone who gave me a shot—thank you. I am so proud of what we built, and I feel nothing but faith in what we can accomplish together,” the New Jersey senator says in a tweet.

Most polls had placed Booker near the bottom of a crowded Democratic field, and the former Newark mayor raised only a fraction of what opponents leading the race did.

— with AP

Jury screening resumes in Weinstein rape trial

Jury selection has resumed at the trial of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who has pleaded not guilty to charges he raped a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulted another in 2006.

The initial screening process, now on its fifth day, has been stymied by a host of challenges and distractions, including repeatedly denied requests from the defense and a noisy protest outside the courthouse.

Both sides hope to deliver opening statements before the end of this month.

If convicted at a trial expected to last into March, the 67-year-old could face life in prison.

— AP

Iraq in talks to buy S-300 air defense system from Russia

Iraq is in negotiations with Russia to purchase the advanced S-300 air defense system, Baghdad’s ambassador to Iran said Monday, according to reports in Arab and Russian media.

An Iraqi lawmaker said over the weekend that talks were underway for the more expensive S-400 system, according to Sputnik, but it is possible that cash-strapped Iraq is opting for the value option.

Iraq has previously balked at purchasing the system, fearing US sanctions. However, Baghdad has begun to push away from Washington since a drone strike in the capital killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.

Russian defense official Igor Kurushchenko has cited the strike and resultant retaliatory attack, also on Iraqi soil, as a reason why Baghdad should purchase a Russian air defense system, according to UAE-based The National.

“Iraq must be able to protect itself from missiles fired from the US and Iran,” he says.

Israel has lobbied for Russia to not sell the system to other countries in the region , expressing fears it could hamper Israeli air superiority and its missiles could be used against Israel.

Trump says killing Soleimani fine because of ‘horrible past’

US President Donald Trump is defending his decision to order the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which he says is justified because of the Iranian’s “horrible” actions in the past.

Administration claims about an “imminent threat” to four unspecified embassies that predicated the drone strike have come under attack as flimsy. On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he did not know of any hard evidence about an attack plot.

“The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was “imminent” or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES.,” he tweets.

Iranian mourners carry a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) granting the Order of Zolfaghar, the highest military honor of Iran, to general Qassem Soleimani, during the latter’s funeral procession in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

However, he adds that “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

Queen grants royal renegades congé for Canadian escape

Queen Elizabeth II has agreed to grant Prince Harry and and his wife Meghan their wish for a more independent life, allowing them to move part-time to Canada while remaining firmly in the House of Windsor.

The British monarch said in a statement that the summit of senior royals on Monday was “constructive,” and that it had been “agreed that there will be a period of transition,” in which “the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend time in Canada and the UK.”

The summit at the queen’s Sandringham estate in eastern England marked the first face-to-face talks with Harry since he and Meghan unveiled the controversial plan to step back from their royal roles.

“My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family,” the queen said in a statement. “Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family, while remaining a valued part of my family.”

— AP

Lebanon pays outstanding UN dues after stripped of vote

Lebanon’s representative to the UN says on Monday that the crisis-hit country has paid outstanding dues it owes the international body, after it lost voting privileges because it was behind on payments.

“Lebanon paid its dues that were delayed (a) few days… and everything is back to normal,” Amal Mudallali, the country’s ambassador to the UN, says in a post on Twitter.

“Lebanon is not under article 19 anymore,” she adds, referring to a UN provision that allows the body to strip a member state of voting privileges if they have fallen behind on financial contributions.

The UN on Friday said that Lebanon was among seven countries that would lose the right to vote in the General Assembly because of a failure to pay dues. This sparked a social media outcry in Lebanon, with many blasting the government for putting the country in such a position. The small Mediterranean nation is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.


Israel condemns arrest of UK ambassador in Iran

Foreign Minister Israel Katz writes to his British counterpart to express his “support and solidarity” after Iran arrested the UK ambassador to Tehran during a demonstration.

The Islamic Republic’s behavior was “appalling,” Katz writes to Dominic Raab.

“Ambassador [Rob] Macaire’s detention was undoubtedly a flagrant violation of the Vienna convention and as such was not just an assault on the United Kingdom, but an attack upon the rules based international system as a whole,” Katz’s letter reads.

“This behavior by the Iranian regime deserves the unreserved condemnation by all responsible members of the international community.”

Katz adds: “Please know that Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the UK.”

Macaire was temporarily arrested on Saturday during an anti-regime demonstration that he said he thought was a vigil for the victims of the Ukranian airliner Iran’s military shot down by mistake late last week. He was released several hours later, but was later summoned to the foreign ministry in Iran for a dressing-down for attending an “illegal” gathering.

The UK government reacted angrily at the incident. “The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” Raab said.

Tehran was “at a crossroads moment,” he said. “It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to deescalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”

Other European governments, as well as the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, condemned Iran’s behavior in the Macaire affair as well.

Raphael Ahren

Poll: Blue and White widens lead, but political deadlock would remain

A Channel 12 survey shows Blue and White widening its lead over Likud, with 34 seats compared to 31.

It has the Joint List picking up 13 seats, followed by the new Labor-Meretz alliance with nine seats. Shas follows with eight seats, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu are projected to win seven apiece, and the New Right picks up six seats, while an alliance of other right-wing parties, including Otzma Yehudit, wins five.

Though New Right has announced it will run independently, the survey also tests how it would fare as a joint list with the other small religious parties to the right of Likud. It shows it winning 10 seats, compared to 11 when running alone, with the extra seat going to Likud.

The survey has Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz tied on suitability to be premier, at 39%.

The projection does not considerably shake up the right-wing (57) and left-wing blocs (43), signaling the prospect of further deadlock with Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman remaining kingmaker.

According to these results, notes Channel 12 analyst Amit Segal, Israel could be headed to a fourth round of elections.

US troops knew Iran strike was coming hours ahead

American troops were informed of an imminent attack hours before a barrage of Iranian ballistic missiles struck a key Iraqi airbase hosting their forces, US military officials say on Monday, days after the attack which marked a major escalation between the longtime foes.

At 11:00 p.m. on January 6, US Lt. Col. Antoinette Chase gave the order for American troops at Ain al-Asad air base, in western Iraq, to go on lockdown. Military movements froze as her team, responsible for emergency response at the base, sent out alerts keeping them up to date about the incoming threat. At 11:30 she gave the order to take cover in bunkers.

The first strike landed sometime after 1:35 in the morning, and the barrage continued for nearly 2 hours.

“The reason why we pushed it at 2330 is because at that point in time all indications pointed to something coming,” she tells reporters at the base.

“Worst case scenario we were told was it’s probably going to be a missile attack. So we were informed of that.”


Gene-editing pioneers win Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize

Two global pioneers of modern gene-editing technology on Monday are awarded Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize in medicine.

The Wolf Foundation says it is recognizing Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work in developing the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Their research has the potential to “revolutionize medicine by paving the way to finding new forms of treatment for currently incurable diseases,” the foundation says.

Gene editing is a way to permanently change DNA to attack the root causes of a gene-based disease. It can serve a wide variety of other uses too — from attacking malaria in mosquitoes to breeding hardier crops.

CRISPR is a tool that seeks out a precise piece of DNA inside living cells and slices it, allowing scientists to turn genes on or off, repair or replace them. It’s long been used in the lab and is in early-stage testing for treating cancer and other diseases.

The Wolf Prize is considered one of the forerunners to a Nobel Prize. About three dozen Wolf laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.

Each year the Wolf Foundation honors artists and scientists in five fields “for achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples” with the $100,000 prize.

Its categories include agriculture, architecture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, music, painting, physics, and sculpture.


Jewish Home central committee approves merger with far-right party

The Jewish Home central committee approves chairman Rafi Peretz’s controversial merger with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

The national religious party’s internal body also votes to maintain the line-up of candidates it put forth in the September election, starting with Peretz, followed by MK Moti Yogev and Idit Silman.

The central committee also green-lights efforts to merge Jewish Home with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union. The latter has yet to announce whether he will join the joint Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit list, though the sides are reported to be nearing a deal.

Jacob Magid

5 Labour MPs throw hat in ring to succeed Corbyn

Five MPs formally enter the race Monday to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour party, and rebuild their movement after last month’s disastrous election.

Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who as Brexit spokesman helped shift the party to campaign against leaving the EU, is currently favorite among lawmakers.

But his closest contender, avowed socialist Rebecca Long-Bailey, is tipped to benefit from her closeness to Corbyn and support among left-wing activists when the race opens up to party members.

Who wins will be crucial in determining whether Labour can recover from its worst election result since 1935, and take the fight to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

The next election is not until 2024, but a strong opposition could challenge the Tories as they reshape the British economy and beyond after Brexit.


US judge: Monsey attack suspect may need death-penalty lawyer

A man charged in a bloody attack at a Hanukkah celebration may need attorneys specializing in death penalty cases if a stabbing victim dies, a judge says Monday.

US District Judge Cathy Seibel raises the subject during a court hearing for Grafton Thomas after he pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges.

Thomas was arrested hours after five people were stabbed at an attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City.

Assistant US Attorney Michael Krouse says that if any of the victims dies, prosecutors will consult with Justice Department officials in Washington before deciding whether to seek the death penalty. One victim remains in a coma.

Seibel says she will appoint lawyers specializing in death penalty cases to help with the defense “as soon as possible,” if it becomes likely that charges could be upgraded to include a death penalty request.

Michael Sussman, an attorney who represents Thomas, says he’ll consider asking the judge by Jan. 27 to conclude his client is psychologically unfit for trial. He says a defense expert will visit Thomas a third and final time Friday and then prepare a report.


After arresting ambassador, Iran warns Britain against ‘interference’

Iran signals Monday it could expel Britain’s ambassador in case of any further “interference” in its affairs after a row over a vigil he attended for those killed in last week’s downing of a Ukrainian plane.

The Islamic Republic “calls for an immediate halt to all interference and provocation by the British embassy,” the foreign ministry says in a statement.

It warns that Iran’s response “will not be limited to summoning the ambassador (to the ministry) if this attitude persists.”


US sending home 21 Saudi cadets after base shooting deemed terrorism

The United States is removing nearly two dozen Saudi military students from a training program and sending them back to Saudi Arabia following after an investigation into a deadly shooting by a Saudi aviation student at a Florida navy base last month, Attorney General William Barr says Monday.

Many of the 21 cadets had contact with child pornography and possessed jihadist or anti-American material, Barr says. None is accused of having advanced knowledge of the shooting, which Barr says was motivated by “jihadist ideology” and has been classified as an act of terrorism.

The 21-year-old Saudi Air Force officer, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, opened fire at the base in Pensacola, killing three US sailors and injuring eight other people. The Justice Department has been investigating the incident as an act of terrorism.

Officials have said Alshamrani hosted a party before the shooting, where he and others watched videos of mass shootings. The gunman had also apparently taken to Twitter before the shooting to criticize US support of Israel and accuse America of being anti-Muslim, another US official told the AP last month.

Alshamrani, who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the rampage at a classroom building, was undergoing flight training at Pensacola, where foreign military members routinely receive instruction.

It was not immediately clear on what grounds the students were being removed from the program, though the official says they are not suspected of having played any role in the attack. The precise number of students being removed is also not clear.


Gigi Hadid among potential jurors for Weinstein’s rape trial

Supermodel Gigi Hadid is in the running to be a juror in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial after telling a judge Monday that she thinks she would be able to “keep an open mind on the facts.”

Hadid, who lives in Manhattan, turns heads as part of the latest pool of 120 potential jurors summoned for the case.

Hadid, 27, discloses that she has met Weinstein and actress Salma Hayek, a potential witness, but says that she could remain impartial. She is asked to return Thursday for additional questioning.

Surrounded by photographers as she leaves the courthouse, Hadid says: “I’m not allowed to talk about jury duty. I’m sorry.”

Weinstein, 67, is accused of raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulting another in 2006.

The former studio boss behind such Oscar winners as “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love” has said any sexual activity was consensual.


Jersey City shooters targeted Hasidic man in drive-by a week before attack

The two people who stormed a kosher grocery in Jersey City and killed three people planned an assault for some time and were involved in another shooting of a Jewish person a week earlier, authorities say Monday.

State and federal law enforcement officials reveal details about the months leading up to the shootings by David Anderson and Francine Graham, a couple who expressed hatred of Jews and law enforcement in notes left at the grocery shooting scene and in online posts.

Anderson, 47, and Graham, 50, shot and killed Jersey City Detective Joseph Seals in a chance meeting in a cemetery on December 10, then drove to the market and killed Mindel Ferencz, 31, who owned the grocery with her husband; Moshe Deutsch, 24, a rabbinical student from Brooklyn, who was shopping there; and store employee Douglas Miguel Rodriguez.

Rodriguez held the back door open for a wounded customer to escape before he was shot, authorities say Monday.

Barricaded in the store, Anderson and Graham were killed after a lengthy gun battle with the police that sent the sound of gunfire booming for hours through the neighborhood in New Jersey’s second-largest city, across the street from a school.

A gun recovered at the kosher grocery that was used by Anderson and Graham to kill a livery car driver in neighboring Bayonne a few days before the market shootings was also used earlier to shoot out the windows of a car driven by a Hasidic man near Jersey City, the investigation reveals.

That shooting wasn’t reported until investigators began probing the the market shootings.

“Up until the attack, there wasn’t anything that would have put either of them on anybody’s radar,” says Gregory Ehrie, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark division.

But surveillance video showed Anderson and Graham had driven past the market in their rented U-Haul van twice in the week leading up to the shootings, US Attorney Craig Carpenito says Monday.

Anderson’s social media posts included a reference to Jews as “imposters who inhabited synagogues of Satan,” Carpenito says.

“This was a senseless and cowardly act,” Carpenito says.

Investigators found a bomb inside the van after the market shootings filled with shrapnel and materials that could have easily built another bomb. Both Anderson and Graham were wearing tactical gear when their bodies were found.


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Queen grants royal renegades congé for Canadian escape

Queen Elizabeth II has agreed to grant Prince Harry and and his wife Meghan their wish for a more independent life, allowing them to move part-time to Canada while remaining firmly in the House of Windsor.

The British monarch said in a statement that the summit of senior royals on Monday was “constructive,” and that it had been “agreed that there will be a period of transition,” in which “the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend time in Canada and the UK.”

The summit at the queen’s Sandringham estate in eastern England marked the first face-to-face talks with Harry since he and Meghan unveiled the controversial plan to step back from their royal roles.

“My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family,” the queen said in a statement. “Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family, while remaining a valued part of my family.”

— AP