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Report: Israel, Russia agree in principle on Issachar pardon, finalizing details

TV channels indicate significant progress in case of jailed backpacker; Netanyahu said to promise series of moves in return, including settling matter of Jerusalem compound

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

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

Iran threatens to quit NPT if nuclear issue referred to Security Council

Iran’s foreign minister threatens to quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a key international agreement to curb nuclear arms, if the matter of Tehran’s ongoing violations of the atomic deal is sent to the United Nations Security Council, Iranian media reports.

“If the Europeans continue their improper behavior or send Iran’s file to the Security Council, we will withdraw from the NPT,” Mohammad Javad Zarif is quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency, according to Reuters.

Former German military translator on trial as Iran spy

A German-Afghan man who worked for years as an interpreter and adviser for the German military goes on trial on charges of spying for Iranian intelligence.

The 51-year-old man, who has been identified only as Abdul S. in line with German privacy rules, is charged with “a particularly serious case” of treason and with breaching official secrecy laws in 18 cases.

Prosecutors have given few details of the case. Media and the public were excluded from the trial at the Koblenz state court before the indictment was read, the dpa news agency reports.

Presiding judge Thomas Bergmann said the trial will be held behind closed doors “until further notice” because of security concerns. The public is later allowed back into the courtroom, but further exclusions are expected during the course of the trial, which is scheduled to last until at least March 31.

The man’s wife, Asiea S., also a German-Afghan dual citizen, has been charged with being an accessory to treason. Prosecutors have said she supported his passing of secret documents to Iran from the beginning, without detailing the nature of that support.

Defense lawyer Ulrich Sommer says neither has responded to the charges. He says he has found “no direct evidence” to support them.

— AP

Balloons attached to explosives, Palestinian flag found near Beit Shemesh

Balloons attached to an explosive device are found by residents of Mesilat Zion, a community near Beit Shemesh in the Jerusalem area, police say.

Hebrew-language media reports that the device was also attached to a small Palestinian flag.

A police sapper is called to the scene in the community and neutralizes the incendiary device.

An investigation is ongoing as to where the device was launched from, although the obvious scenario is that they were sent from the Gaza Strip, where countless such objects have been launched over the past two years, including several over the past week.

Russia: ‘Highly likely’ Issachar pardon to be discussed in Putin-Netanyahu meet

A Kremlin spokesman says it is “highly likely” that the topic of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American backpacker sentenced to 7.5 years in prison over several grams of marijuana, will be raised during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting this week in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It is highly likely that this topic will be raised during [Putin’s] upcoming contacts with Mr. Netanyahu,” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, tells journalists, according to the TASS news agency.

However, when asked about possible pardoning of Issachar — widely expected in Israel — Peskov says, “we never announce such matters.” But he notes the Kremlin is aware the matter is a high-profile topic in the Jewish state, according to the report.

Netanyahu meets mother of jailed backpacker ahead of possible pardon by Russia

The Prime Minister’s Office says Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat have finished a meeting with Yaffa Issachar, the mother of a Israeli-American backpacker jailed in Russia, as well as other relatives.

The meeting was to update the family on the latest developments regarding the possible pardoning of Naama Issachar, sentenced to 7.5 years in jail over several grams of marijuana in a ruling that angered many in Israel.

The move is widely expected to be announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Jerusalem this week.

Quds Force chief says ‘freedom-seekers across world’ waiting to avenge Soleimani

The head of Iran’s elite Quds Force Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Qassem Soleimani after he was killed in a US strike, says there are many around the world ready to avenge his death, continuing Tehran’s threats amid spiking tensions.

“They hit General Soleimani in a cowardly act, but there are freedom-seekers across the world who want to [claim] revenge for him,” Ghaani says, speaking at a ceremony in Tehran, according to Fars News. “With God’s help, and God willing, we will hit the enemy.”

“Our enemy understands no language but force and therefore, we should stand against them strongly,” he adds.

Earlier today, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei told a group of religious leaders: “The resistance of the Islamic Republic of Iran against America and the Iranian nation’s refusal to undergo bullying is a fascinating fact for the world and this fascination should be used to spread the truth about Islam and the Iranian nation.”

“The reason Americans are angry with the Iranian nation is the appeal which arises from the image of resistance in an independent system standing up against a highway bully,” he claimed.

Norwegian populist party quits government over terrorist spouse’s repatriation

Norway’s populist Progress Party says it is leaving the right-wing coalition government over the repatriation of an alleged Islamic State member and her two children last week.

“We don’t compromise with people who have voluntarily joined terror organizations,” party leader Siv Jensen tells reporters in Oslo.

“We don’t get enough of the Progress Party’s policies through,” Jensen adds.

Norwegian Finance Minister Siv Jensen. (CC BY 2.5 dk, Magnus Fröderberg, Wikimedia Commons)

Without the Progress Party, the coalition, headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, loses its majority in parliament, but she will still remain in charge.

As she announces her party’s exit, Jensen says it is “natural” that Solberg will remain prime minister.

The 29-year-old Norwegian woman, who is of Pakistani origin, was married to an Islamic State fighter. She was repatriated with her two children on humanitarian grounds. The Progress Party had been in favor of bringing back the children but opposed her return.

However, the other three parties making up the coalition government ignored the objections and approved it.

The woman is accused of being a member of both the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State and was arrested. She was remanded in custody today.

Her five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, born to different jihadist fighters, have been hospitalized.

— AFP

Putin submits constitutional reform plan to parliament

Russian President Vladimir Putin submits a package of constitutional amendments to parliament less than a week after announcing a surprise plan to reform the political system.

The bill on the amendments, available on the website of the lower house State Duma, proposes changes including the transfer of some power away from the presidency.

The reform has indicated Putin is working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his current six-year term ends in 2024, although it remains unclear what specific path he will take to stay in charge. Under the current law, Putin must step down when his current term ends.

— Agencies

10 killed when stand collapses during religious ceremony in Ethiopia

At least 10 people have been killed and more than 100 injured when a wooden spectator stand collapsed during the Orthodox Christian celebration of epiphany in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, doctors tell AFP.

“I can tell you up to now we have 10 dead. The number of injured is 100 or even 150,” says one senior doctor at the University of Gondar Hospital. A second doctor confirms the toll.

The collapse occurred inside the Emperor Fasilides Bath in the northern city where several thousand Ethiopians and tourists attended the celebration commemorating the baptism of Jesus.

The Ethiopian News Agency reports that more than 15,000 foreigners attended the celebration in Gondar.

Regional officials are not immediately available to comment.

Christians from the Ethiopian Orthodox church receive a spray of holy water as they celebrate the annual festival of Timkat, or Epiphany, marking the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan, in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 20, 2020. (AP Photo)

— Agencies

Suicide bomber kills nine civilians in western Chad

Nine civilians have been killed by a suicide bomber in a village in western Chad, an area targeted in the past by jihadist group Boko Haram, the army says.

The attack took place overnight Sunday into Monday in the village of Kaiga Kindjiria.

— AFP

Incendiary balloons land in Sderot — police

Balloons attached to an explosive device are found in the Gaza-adjacent city of Sderot, the second such incident in Israel in the last few hours.

Police says sappers were called in to neutralize the bomb.

Foreign Ministry says work underway to build Israeli pavilion in Dubai expo

The Foreign Ministry says work has began on the Israeli pavilion in the upcoming Expo 2020 conference in Dubai, the world’s largest trade fair, in which the Jewish state is participating amid a warming of ties with Arab Gulf countries.

Shin Bet chief: Israel thwarted at least 560 significant terror attacks in 2019

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman says Israel thwarted more than 560 “significant” terror attacks throughout 2019.

Speaking at an award ceremony organized by the Prime Minister’s Office, Argaman says the attacks that were prevented include 10 suicide bombings, four kidnapping plots, and more than 300 shooting attacks.

Far-right Otzma Yehudit calls press conference for 8 p.m.; could quit elections

The extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party says it will hold a press conference in Jerusalem today at 8 p.m.

Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist party, which was excluded from a merger of religious right-wing parties, is expected to announce whether it will quit the race in the March 2 Knesset elections.

Pope: Populism is fertile ground for anti-Semitism

Pope Francis denounces populism, saying it is born of “selfish indifference” and provides fertile terrain for hatred, including anti-Semitism.

Francis makes the comments while meeting with a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism.

The pontiff notes that in 2016, during a pilgrimage to Poland, he prayed at the site of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Francis decries the recent “barbaric resurgence of anti-Semitism” and says populism provides a fertile terrain where “hate rapidly grows.”

Much of Europe, where populist parties have gained traction, has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents.

Francis says that by encouraging integration and mutual understanding, hatred can be countered.

He adds: “I’ll never tire of firmly condemning every form of anti-Semitism.”

— AP

Government tells court that IDF plans for further female tank crew trial makes petitions ‘irrelevant’

The government calls for the High Court of Justice to dismiss two petitions calling for women to be allowed to serve in the IDF Armored Corps, arguing that the military’s plans to hold an additional trial program to test the viability of all-female tank crews later this year make the requests irrelevant.

Last year, two separate groups of women filed appeals to the court asking that it force the Israel Defense Forces to allow them to serve in the Armored Corps. One petition was filed by two teenagers who asked to be allowed to serve in a tank unit when they join the military, and the second appeal was filed by female soldiers who took part in the IDF’s initial pilot program in 2017-2018, asking to be allowed to serve in a tank unit as part of their reserve duty, having received the necessary training.

A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Government attorneys respond to these petitions with a 22-page letter, arguing that the court does not need to intervene in the matter as the military is already addressing it.

Earlier this month, the IDF announced it would hold a follow-up trial to its initial pilot program in which it would allow a group of female soldiers to both complete the training necessary to serve in a tank and deploy operationally along Israel’s southern borders. This new trial will begin later this year, with the participants coming from the summer or fall drafts.

In its response, the government says this makes the petitions “no longer relevant.”

The state attorneys also says the teenage petitioners, who are scheduled to enlist in the military in March 2020, are allowed to postpone their draft date until the summer or fall in order to take part in the new trial.

Regarding the soldiers who completed the earlier pilot, the government says they will be able to perform their reserve service in the upcoming program.

— Judah Ari Gross

Honduras formally declares Hezbollah a terror organization

Acting on its promise from earlier this month, Honduras’s government formally recognizes Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a terror group, Reuters reports.

The news agency quotes the country’s deputy defense minister as making the announcement, following in the footsteps of Guatemala, Argentina and Paraguay.

Peretz says Jewish Home will hold primaries in June

Education Minister Rafi Peretz announces that leadership primaries in the Jewish Home party, which he currently heads, will be held in June, after the March elections, “to build trust within the party.”

The embattled Peretz, who has faced severe internal criticism over his agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit for a joint run and cancellation of that pact within days, says: “We are committed to holding the democratic process of primaries.”

“At the end of the day, I had two options, both very costly,” he adds. “Leadership is making tough decisions even if they carry a heavy cost.”

Australia’s governor-general is first leader to land in Israel ahead of memorial

Governor-General of Australia David Hurley is the first of a series of international leaders and senior officials to land in Israel ahead of a major memorial event later this week in Jerusalem marking 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Hurley lands at Ben Gurion Airport and is welcomed by Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem.

FM Katz praises Honduras’s blacklisting of Hezbollah as ‘important step’

Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomes Honduras’s “important” statement that it is blacklisting Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terror group and imposing sanctions on it.

“This is an important step in the global war against terrorism,” Katz says in a statement. “There is no better timing than now to deliver this necessary message.”

PM says will discuss pardon for Naama Issachar with Putin, hopes for ‘good news’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms he will use his meeting later this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a potential pardon for Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison over several grams of marijuana.

“Today, I met with Yaffa, Naama Issachar’s mother,” Netanyahu says in a statement. “I hugged her in the name of you all, and told her that as the Kremlin published today, I am expected to meet President Putin on Thursday, and discuss a pardon for Naama with him.

“I hope just as much as you do for positive news.”

Israel, Russia said to agree in principle on Issachar pardon, finalizing details

Israel and Russia have agreed in principle that Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar will be pardoned by Moscow, but are still working out the details, including what Jerusalem will give in return, Israel’s two main TV channels, Channels 12 and 13, report.

Channel 13 says one of the reciprocal moves will be settling a long-running dispute related to the status of the Mission of Saint Sergius of Jerusalem, a building under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church located near the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

Netanyahu has promised to make several steps over a period of time, including settling the long-running dispute to Moscow’s satisfaction, the report says.

Israel said to warn Hamas of strong response if it disrupts Holocaust event

Israel has warned the Hamas terror group of a strong response in case it disrupts the international Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem later this week, according to Channel 13.

The report says Israel has recognized an uptick in violence emanating from the Gaza Strip, with many incendiary balloons being launched recently, and that security chiefs estimate Hamas could be aiming to intensify the attacks to disrupt the biggest international event hosted ever by the Jewish state.

The government has reported warned the Palestinian group that it will not hesitate to launch a strong response even with dozens of world leaders in the country.

Far-right Otzma Yehudit party will run in election despite pressure to quit

Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, says the party will run in the upcoming Knesset elections despite immense pressure to quit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.

In a press conference, Ben Gvir says he has received many offers for senior roles in return for giving up a run in the March election, including a ministerial role, a position at KKL-JNF, the World Zionist Federation, the Israel Bar Association — and even a job as an Israeli ambassador.

Ben Gvir says he rejected all the offers and resisted the pressure, and that his Kahanist party will run despite having a very low chance of clearing the 3.25% electoral threshold.

Polish president says he’ll refuse to meet Israel’s FM over anti-Semitism remark

Polish President Andrzej Duda says he will refuse to meet Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, due to his remark earlier this year that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,” for which Katz has not apologized, despite repeated demands from Warsaw.

Polish President Andrzej Duda during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019, at the United Nations in New York City. (Don Emmert/AFP)

“There are Jews who were born in Poland before World War II and survived the Holocaust who think the Poles and Poland deserve an apology for the words said by Minister Katz,” Duda says in an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan.

“I have no doubt that these words were very offensive toward us as Poles and toward our country,” he says.

Duda, who pulled out of this week’s event in Jerusalem marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz since organizers invited other world leaders to speak but not him, contended that the main commemoration event this year will be held not at Yad Vashem, but at the site of the former Nazi camp, located in Poland.

“I think, and I have always thought, that these events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day have to be at Auschwitz, and that is the place where it is most important to honor and commemorate Holocaust victims,” he says.

“That’s why this year, on the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, those international events — which will be attended by the way by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — will be held inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.”

Founding member of Islamic State has replaced Baghdadi as leader — report

The new leader of the Islamic State terror group is Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, The Guardian reports, citing officials from two intelligence services.

Salbi is one of the group’s founding members and oversaw the enslavement of members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, as well as operations aroud the world, according to the report.

He is replacing the group’s first leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US operation last year. The report says he was named Baghdadi’s successor hours after that killing.

Gantz slams Netanyahu after Kahanist claims he was offered to become ambassador

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz assails Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the leader of the far-right party Otzma Yehudit said he had been offered to become an ambassador in exchange for dropping out of the March elections.

“Last week, he was prepared to trade in the state’s security,” Gantz says, apparently referring to reports that the premier threatened to fire Defense Minister Naftali Bennett if he didn’t agree to accept Otzma Yehudit into a merger of religious right-wing parties.

“Now, he is ready to hand [Israel’s] foreign relations to the Kahanists,” he continues. “Netanyahu has no boundaries in his desperate attempt to achieve immunity [from prosecution in three corruption cases].

“We have to move on.”

US Jewish group blasts call in PA daily to disrupt Jerusalem Holocaust event

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issues a statement condemning the Palestinian Authority over an opinion piece published this week in the PA’s official daily paper that called for attacks and murders of Israelis as a tool to disrupt or cancel the international Holocaust memorial to be held in Jerusalem with dozens of world leaders.

“We condemn the publication over the weekend in the Palestinian Authority’s daily newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, of an article inciting attacks against the gathering of world leaders in Jerusalem commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week,” say the US organization’s chairman Arthur Stark and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein in the statement. “Such a call for violence can never be justified, but it is especially repugnant for the PA to incite terrorism deliberately aimed at disrupting an occasion as solemn and significant as this.

“The day that the article was published, its barbaric call for bloodshed was heeded when an Israeli civilian was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. So long as the PA maintains this shockingly belligerent posture toward Israel, and displays such wanton disregard for the Jewish people and this most sacred and significant commemoration, the path to peace is obstructed.

“It is time for the PA to also end the Holocaust denigration and denial evidenced in its political, educational, and media sectors. We pray that no further senseless violence occurs as a result of this outrageous call.”

Father, daughter injured as Palestinians throw rocks at their car — report

Two Israelis are injured after Palestinians threw rocks at their car near the West Bank village of Tuqu’ in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The 50-year-old man and his 22-year-old daughter suffered mild injuries and were taken to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital, the report says.

The car they were traveling in has been damaged.

Gantz says he hopes Trump will move up peace plan roll-out

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz says he hopes US President Donald Trump will soon release his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, amid growing speculation it could be rolled out before Israel’s upcoming elections.

“I hope the president will move up [the roll-out] and I expect the plan will be released very soon,” Gantz tells reporters while visiting the Jordan Valley.

Gantz, who has previously said the White House should hold off on releasing the plan until after the March 2 elections, is expected to meet this week with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the US administration’s pointman for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Kushner will be in Jerusalem alongside dozens of world leaders for the World Holocaust Forum. He will also likely meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Shin Bet chief: Israel thwarted at least 560 significant terror attacks in 2019

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman says Israel thwarted more than 560 “significant” terror attacks throughout 2019.

Speaking at an award ceremony organized by the Prime Minister’s Office, Argaman says the attacks that were prevented include 10 suicide bombings, four kidnapping plots, and more than 300 shooting attacks.