The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they unfolded.
Palestinian FM: EU countries working to change US peace plan
The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki says European Union countries are seeking to convince the Trump administration to modify parts of its peace plan.
The EU countries have agreed to push for changes prior to the unveiling of the US plan, Malki tells Voice of Palestine radio, according to the official Wafa news agency.
He doesn’t say which European countries are pressing the White House to change its plan.
Malki says the plan must include articles expressing support for a two-state solution, the establishment of a Palestinian state on the so-called 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem, and an end to Israeli settlement construction.
German military refuels Iranian FM’s plane in Munich
BERLIN — The German Defense Ministry says the military was called in to refuel the Iranian foreign minister’s plane in Munich, after airport workers refused to do it for fear of running afoul of sanctions on Iran.
The Defense Ministry on Wednesday confirms a report in German media that the Bundeswehr military was called in to refuel Mohammad Javad Zarif’s plane so that he could return home from the Munich Security Conference.
The ministry says “the Bundeswehr provided assistance at Munich airport on February 18.”
Egypt’s chief prosecutor wants close monitoring of the media
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s chief prosecutor is reminding his staff to closely monitor the media and start legal action against any outlet that disrupts security or hurts national interests.
Wednesday’s statement by Nabil Sadeq’s office says “forces of evil” — one of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s hallmark phrases — have recently been trying to hurt the nation’s safety and security and spread false news in the media and social media sites.
Sadeq orders prosecutors to monitor what he calls “false news, statements or rumors” that harm national security or interests or instill “terror” in society.
The statement comes ahead of presidential elections next month.
On Tuesday, Egyptian authorities called on officials and the “elite” to boycott the BBC after it broadcast a report on repression under Sissi that addressed torture and forced disappearances.
Lebanese PM in Saudi Arabia for first visit since diplomatic crisis
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister on Wednesday makes his first trip to Saudi Arabia since he briefly resigned from office during a visit to Riyadh late last year, part of a bizarre series of events that strained relations between the two countries.
Saad Hariri’s office says he held a meeting with King Salman at the Yamama palace in Riyadh that was also attended by the Saudi interior and foreign ministers.
Hariri is also expected to meet with Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Hariri’s resignation in November was widely seen as having been orchestrated by his Saudi backers to bring down Lebanon’s government, which includes the Iran-supported Hezbollah.
Hariri later reversed his decision upon returning to Beirut following French mediation. He said he had reached an agreement with Lebanon’s factions to keep the tiny country out of regional conflicts.
#خادم_الحرمين_الشريفين يستقبل رئيس وزراء الجمهورية اللبنانية ويستعرض معه العلاقات الثنائية بين البلدين ، وبحث مستجدات الأحداث على الساحة اللبنانية.https://t.co/MMhCvybIWC#واس pic.twitter.com/W3smNNa99S
— واس (@spagov) February 28, 2018
Israel group mints Trump coin to honor Jerusalem recognition
An Israeli organization has minted a coin bearing US President Donald Trump’s image to honor his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Mikdash Educational Center says Wednesday that the “Temple Coin” features Trump alongside King Cyrus, who 2,500 years ago allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon.
Rabbi Mordecahi Persoss says that Trump, like Cyrus, made a “big declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of the holy people.”
His organization minted 1,000 biblical half-shekel coins that can be purchased with a minimum donation of $50. The coin can’t be used as currency.
Mikdash bills itself as a non-profit educational and religious organization. It says the donations will “help spread the light of Jerusalem and the spirit of the Holy Temple throughout the world.”
Israel has warmly welcomed Trump’s move, which angered Palestinians.
The Trump Temple Coin fresh out of the press. Before silver plating.Nearly there!! Only 1000 pieces in the first series.
UNRWA plans fundraiser to make up for US cuts
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees says it’s holding a special fund-raising conference next month in Rome to make up for a cut in funding by the Trump administration.
UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness says on Wednesday that Sweden, Jordan and Egypt will host the pledging conference in Rome on March 15.
Gunness says that “the purpose of the conference is to actively support a collective response by the international community to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees.”
It’s the first-high level conference in response to US funding cuts.
The United States — UNRWA’s largest donor — committed $60 million this year, far short of the $360 million it provided last year.
The agency provides services to some 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East.
Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide.
— with AP
IDF chief in Greece to meet with Greek counterpart
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is in Greece to meet with Evangelos Apostolakis, the chief of staff of the Hellenic Armed Forces.
The army says the two military chiefs will discuss common security interests and how to deepen military cooperation between the countries.
Today, the Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, landed in Greece for an official meeting with the Chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff, Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis pic.twitter.com/efyCJHZHXA
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) February 28, 2018
Ethiopian Jews threaten mass hunger strike if Israel cuts aliyah funds
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Representatives for thousands of Jews in Ethiopia Jews say they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to allow them to join their families in that country.
Hundreds gather at a synagogue in Ethiopia’s capital on Wednesday to express concern that Israel’s proposed budget removes the funding to help them immigrate to reunite with relatives.
Most of the nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are said to have family members already in Israel. Some tell The Associated Press they have been separated for more than a decade.
Activists say Israel’s government in 2015 pledged to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Ethiopians currently are prohibited from holding protests under the country’s latest state of emergency, imposed after the most severe anti-government demonstrations in a quarter-century.
Hezbollah launches Syria war video game
BEIRUT — Sidling down the mean streets of Syria with his rifle, he picks off his enemies relentlessly: Ahmed is the hero of the video game Lebanon’s Hezbollah launches on Wednesday.
The Shiite terror group is holding a ceremony and news conference in Beirut to unveil the latest production of its electronic media department, which it named “Sacred Defense – Protecting the Homeland And Holy Sites.”
“It reflects Hezbollah’s experience in Syria,” Hassan Allam, one of the game’s developers, tells AFP.
With a life of 12 hours, the first-person shooter game is a low-cost spinoff of bestseller “Call of Duty” that glorifies the group’s battles in the ongoing Syrian conflict.
The game allows for a series of different battles, including against the Islamic State jihadist group, in a variety of different locations, including Syria’s border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and is often considered to have more firepower than Lebanon’s own regular army, deployed fighters in Syria in 2013.
Lapid applauds Liberman on opposition to ultra-Orthodox draft bill
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid applauds Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for opposing legislation backed by ultra-Orthodox parties allowing members of their community to avoid compulsory military service.
“The defense minister did well by coming out firmly against the law. Now the true test for [Naftali] Bennett and [Moshe] Kahlon is to stop the blackmail,” tweets Lapid, referring to the education and finance ministers respectively.
“It is forbidden to trample everything sacred to the secular, religious and traditional communities in the State of Israel in the name of political survival,” he says.
Lapid also says the ultra-Orthodox parties are pushing the “draft dodging law because they knew it is now possible to bend [Benjamin] Netanyahu on every issue” because of the corruption allegations against the prime minister.
Florida students return to ‘picture of education in fear’
PARKLAND, Florida — About 50 uniformed officers march into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School early Wednesday, just one aspect of the heavy security as classes resumed for the first time since 17 students and teachers were killed by a troubled teenager with an AR-15 two weeks ago, thrusting them into the center of the nation’s gun debate.
The heavily armed police presence, designed to make the community feel secure, is also disturbing in itself, some students say.
“This is a picture of education in fear in this country. The NRA wants more people just like this, with that exact firearm to scare more people and sell more guns,” says David Hogg, who has become a leading voice in the students’ movement to control assault weapons. “I know one of those bullets could be shredding through me if I was misidentified as a school shooter,” Hogg adds.
Grief counselors are on campus as well “to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding” and help students “ease back” into their school routines, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie says. Officers with therapy dogs also standd outside.
Wednesday’s class schedule starts with 4th period, so that students and teachers can return to the people they were with during the shooting. The freshman building where the massacre took place remains cordoned off.
Saudi crown prince to visit US in March
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to visit the United States March 19-22, for the first time as heir to the throne, a Saudi government source tells AFP on Wednesday.
The much anticipated trip to Washington will follow a visit to Britain on March 7 for talks with Prime Minister Theresa May.
US President Donald Trump hosted Prince Mohammed in March 2017, just weeks after taking office, and he chose Saudi Arabia for his first official overseas visit as president.
Prince Mohammed, who was named heir in June 2017, is also expected to visit France in the coming weeks.
The government source does not comment on Prince Mohammed’s schedule in Washington.
Iran wrestling chief quits, says he ‘cannot lie’ about not facing Israelis
TEHRAN, Iran — The head of Iran’s wrestling federation resigns on Wednesday after criticizing authorities for letting athletes pay the price for the ban on facing Israeli opponents.
Wrestling is a hugely popular sport in Iran where Rasoul Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist, was re-elected as president of the Wrestling Federation just two months ago.
But in a somewhat cryptic letter published on the federation’s website he suggests he had been forced from his post, saying “apparently it is not going to work out” because of “my awkward mentality.”
“I cannot lie. Sometimes the best way to take a stand is not to stand,” he writes.
The councils for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling announces they were resigning en masse along with Khadem, the semi-official ISNA news agency reports.
Khadem had recently criticized Iranian authorities for their approach to competing against Israeli opponents.
He had previously told ISNA that, if the country’s policy was to avoid Israeli rivals then it should “behave honestly and… accept the consequences.”
IDF official: Killing Nasrallah will lead to victory in next war with Hezbollah
A senior IDF official tells Hebrew media outlets that killing Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in the next war against the terror group will lead to an Israeli victory.
“Wiping out Nasrallah will lead to victory,” Channel 10 quotes the official as saying.
He also says IDF ground forces will need to go deep inside of Lebanon in the next war in order to defeat Hezbollah.
Manafort pleads not guilty to new charges in Russia probe
WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman is maintaining his innocence as he faces charges he acted as an unregistered foreign agent and directed an international money-laundering conspiracy.
Paul Manafort’s formal plea of not guilty comes during a brief hearing Wednesday in Washington.
It is his first court appearance since his co-defendant and longtime business associate, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors.
During the hearing, Judge Amy Berman Jackson reprimands Manafort for making a public statement about Gates’s plea. The judge says it violated her gag order. The judge also sets a September 17 trial date for Manafort.
Manafort had previously pleaded not guilty in the case but prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller brought a second indictment last week, requiring him to formally enter a second plea.
Malcolm Hoenlein stepping down as Conference of Presidents chief
WASHINGTON — Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is stepping down after more than three decades at the helm of the umbrella foreign policy group for the US Jewish community.
An email from the current conference chairman, Stephen Greenberg, says Hoenlein, who has been the group’s top professional since 1986, was timing his retirement to coincide with the search for a new chairman. Greenberg has been chair since April 2015.
“While Malcolm continues to be a uniquely vital and energetic leader, and an irreplaceable asset, he felt that a transition process should be put in place,” Greenberg says in the email. “Specifically, Malcolm will continue to serve the Conference as he has so effectively for more than three decades, as we seek an executive to assume responsibility for the Conference’s ongoing operations and activities. Malcolm will then focus on external relations as well as plans to structure the Conference for the years ahead.”
Arab League chief: No ‘normal relations’ with Israel until peace deal sealed
The head of the Arab League says Arab countries will not normalize ties with Israel until a peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians.
“It will not be possible to establish normal relations between the Arabs and Israel before settling the Palestinian cause fairly and permanently, ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” says Ahmed Aboul Gheit, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.
Aboul Gheit makes the comment after meeting with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and Moscow’s point man for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
Report: Russian group hacked German government network
BERLIN — Germany’s dpa news agency reports that a Russian-backed hacker group has infiltrated the German government’s secure computer networks.
Dpa cites unidentified security sources, saying the group APT28 hacked into Germany’s Foreign and Defense ministries, and that it managed to steal data.
It reports Wednesday that the attack was noticed in December and may have lasted a year.
Officials at Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which is tasked with fending off hacking attacks, refer questions to the Interior Ministry. Officials there don’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
APT28, which has been linked to Russian military intelligence, has previously been identified as the likely source of an attack on the German Parliament in 2015, as well as on NATO and governments in eastern Europe.
White House: We’ll release peace plan when ‘time is right’
After a report in an Arabic language daily said Trump’s peace plan may include recognizing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the White House says “nobody knows” the details of the plan.
“As we have not finished our plan, nobody knows what it is. There is constant speculation and guessing about what we are working on and this report is more of the same,” an administration official says. “We are going to continue working on the plan that is designed to benefit both Israelis and Palestinians and will release it when it is done and the time is right.”
According to the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, the plan would call for placing Jerusalem’s Old City under “international protection.” The daily said it would also require Palestinians to give up the “right of return” and see small West Bank settlements be “relocated.”
— Eric Cortellessa
Monitor: Syria’s Ghouta enclave assault death toll tops 600
BEIRUT — The civilian death toll in Eastern Ghouta since Syria and its ally Russia intensified their bombardment of the rebel enclave on February 18 topped 600 Wednesday, a monitor says.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 147 of the 601 civilians killed, mostly in air strikes, were children.
The rise in casualties comes in part from the discovery of bodies that had remained trapped in the rubble of destroyed buildings by rescuers who took advantage of a Russian-brokered “humanitarian pause” to search for survivors.
Netanyahu summons ultra-Orthodox party heads amid draft bill feuding
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summons the heads of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties amid coalition infighting over legislation allowing Jewish seminary students to avoid compulsory military service.
Netanyahu’s meeting with the Haredi lawmakers comes after they threatened to withhold support for the 2019 state budget if their bill isn’t passed.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party have come out strongly against the bill and traded barbs over the proposed legislation with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.
Report: Netanyahu, wife to be questioned in Bezeq graft probe Friday
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara will be questioned Friday in the Bezeq corruption case, Hadashot TV news reports.
The report says the two will be questioned simultaneously but separately.
It also says the prime minister will be questioned under caution.
The case involves suspicions Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for favorable coverage of the Netanyahu family at Bezeq’s Walla news site.
Sara Netanyahu to Bezeq owner’s wife: ‘You’re slaughtering us’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara excoriated Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch’s wife Iris over coverage on the telecom company’s Walla news site, Channel 10 reports Wednesday.
“You’re killing us. You’re slaughtering us. You’re destroying the state. What type of site is this?” Sara Netanyahu says to Iris Elovitch in a WhatsApp message released by Channel 10. “Change this. Do something with this. You’re the owners of the site. This should happen quickly.”
In a message released by the network last week, Sara Netanyahu asked Iris Elovitch why Walla editor Aviram Elad had not yet been fired. Channel 10 has reported that Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua told police the Netanyahus asked Shaul Elovitch to fire Elad.
Iranian official says government opposes use of force on hijab
TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian vice president for women’s affairs insists the government opposes using “force” to ensure women wear the hijab, after a spate of protests stirred debate over the mandatory headscarf.
Masoomeh Ebtekar tells a press conference in Tehran Wednesday that every country has a dress code: “There is no city in the world where you can walk naked in the streets and you won’t be approached by a particular regulatory body.”
She says Iran’s hijab laws — which require women to wear a headscarf and long coat, as well as banning shorts for men — were a “social regulation.”
“Our position is that it’s a regulation but the use of force — we don’t go along with that type of enforcement,” she says.
“That is contrary to the basic principles and philosophy that the government of (President Hassan) Rouhani follows.”
Her comments follow a string of protests, mostly in Tehran, in which more than a dozen woman have stood in main thoroughfares without their headscarves.
The women risk prison sentences of up to two months for not wearing the headscarf, but up to 10 years if they are found to be encouraging others.
Iranian FM on Eastern Europe trip meets Bulgarian officials
SOFIA, Bulgaria — The foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Iran discuss the state of affairs in the Middle East and bilateral economic relations on Wednesday.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva and her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, say they talked about the current situation in Yemen and Syria and the importance of fighting terrorism and extremism as a common global threat.
As part of his trip to Eastern Europe, Zarif is heading an economic delegation to Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency.
“We discussed the need to end hostilities in the region, the need for a political solution leading to stability, security and peace for the people in the affected countries,” Syria and Yemen, Zarif says. “A political solution for Syria can only be found if all negotiating parties are prepared to follow a formula in which all countries benefit.”
Zarif also holds talks with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Borissov voices concerns about rising tensions in the Middle East and expressed hope that “despite differences, Iran and other countries will find contact points for consultations to get out of the crisis.”
“The war in Syria must be stopped by the diplomats and not by the armies,” Borissov says in statement.