Smotrich dismisses criticism after ministry nixes bus trips that impinge on Shabbat
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Polls: Right-wing merger doesn’t win PM majority — even if Otzma Yehudit passes

The far-right party is on knife’s edge of the electoral threshold, passing in one TV survey and failing to do so in 2 others; Liberman remains deciding factor

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

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

After call with Putin, PM ‘optimistic’ issue of jailed Israeli will be solved

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he believes the plight of an Israeli woman who has been jailed in Russia for months is “moving toward a solution.”

Netanyahu makes the statement after a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin “on regional developments and on the issue of Naama Issachar.

“The conversation was warm and matter-of-fact and boosted the prime minister’s optimism that the release of Issachar is moving toward a solution.”

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

Issachar, 27, has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for drug smuggling, after some 10 grams of cannabis were found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow.

EU diplomat urges Iran to ‘preserve’ nuclear deal

The European Union’s top diplomat meets Iran’s foreign minister in India to press Tehran to “preserve” the increasingly fragile nuclear deal, according to a statement released in Brussels.

In his talks with Mohammad Javad Zarif in New Delhi, Josep Borrell warns that the deal is “more important than ever” given rising tensions in the Middle East, the statement said.

The two had “a frank dialogue” in which Borrell “underlined the continued interest of the European Union to preserve the agreement.”

European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

— AFP

Turkey to start Mediterranean gas exploration ‘soon’

Turkey will start exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows, after signing a maritime deal with Libya.

“We will start search and drilling activities as soon as possible in 2020 after issuing licences for the areas,” Erdogan says during a two-hour speech in the capital.

Ankara angered neighboring countries in the Mediterranean with an agreement signed with the Tripoli government in November, which claimed extensive areas of the sea for Turkey.

Greece says the deal fails to take into account the island of Crete, while Turkey has already upset Cyprus by sending ships to search for oil and gas off the divided island.

— AFP

Netanyahu joins High Court petition against immunity deliberations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyauh joins a Likud petition to the High Court of Justice against the opposition’s efforts to have his immunity request reviewed immediately by the Knesset.

Netanyahu tells the court he agrees with petitioners, led by his ally MK Miki Zohar, who are claiming Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon had a conflict of interest when he ruled that deliberations of the issue could go ahead.

Knesset legal adviser attorney Eyal Yinon attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, November 22, 2016. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Netanyahu calls on Otzma Yehudit to quit race ‘to ensure right-wing rule’

The prime minister is calling on Itamar Ben Gvir to halt Otzma Yehudit’s election campaign after it is left outside the new union of small right-wing parties.

Associates of Benjamin Netanyahu blame New Right chief Naftali Bennett for “placing the entire right-wing rule in danger” through his veto on Otzma Yehudit.

They say in a statement: “The prime minister praises the leadership shown by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who despite the heavy personal cost acted to minimize the damage cause by Bennett to the right-wing bloc and saved votes in the bloc.”

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Now the prime minister expects Ben Gvir, despite the difficulty, to leave the race in order to ensure right-wing rule.”

Poland, Lithuania vow to resist Russian WWII historical offensive

Poland and Lithuania are working together to defend themselves against a Russian historical offensive that seeks to minimize Soviet responsibility for the outbreak of World War II, their foreign ministers announce.

Linas Linkevicius of Lithuania and Jacek Czaputowicz of Poland describe recent Russian statements that put blame on Poland for start of World War II as disinformation that they perceive as a threat to their nations.

“We will not let the Kremlin manipulate history so easily and spread lies,” Linkevicius says after meeting Czaputowicz in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

Historians in the West say the Russian claims are baseless.

— AFP

Ben Gvir: Netanyahu shouldn’t lecture us, we’re remaining in the race

Itamar Ben Gvir quickly rebuffs the prime minister’s overtures that he quit the election context after his party Otzma Yehudit is left alone outside the Yamin right-wing alliance.

“I expect him to help Otzma Yehudit and not hinder it,” he tells Channel 12 news.

“If he had quit there would have been a government [after the September elections]. He shouldn’t lecture us. We remain in the race.”

 

Blue and White warns Edelstein: Convene Knesset on immunity or be replaced

Senior Blue and White officials are warning Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein he has until Monday to convene the plenum to vote on forming the Knesset House Committee in order to debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request, or they will move to replace him, the Ynet new site reports.

The officials say Edelstein had been given several days to act in a statesmanlike manner but is “dragging his feet.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With a week having passed since the Knesset’s legal adviser green-lit the committee convening during an election period, they say, “it is time to decide.”

Rights group demands Israel rein in murky spyware company NSO

The Tel Aviv District Court is hearing a case calling for restrictions to be slapped on NSO Group, an Israeli company that makes surveillance software that is said to have been used to target journalists and dissidents around the world.

The case, brought by Amnesty International, calls for Israel to revoke the spyware firm’s export license, preventing it from selling its contentious product abroad, particularly to regimes that could use it for malicious purposes.

“They are the most dangerous cyber weapon that we know of and they’re not being properly overseen,” says Gil Naveh, spokesman for Amnesty International Israel. “That is the reason why we think that their license should be revoked.”

A view of the NSO Group headquarters in Herzliya. (Screen capture: Google Street View)

NSO is implicated in a series of digital break-in attempts and the court case is the latest pushback against the company and its product.

Thursday’s hearing is expected to be the only one in the case, Naveh says, and a decision is set to be handed down in the coming days.

— AP

Iran accuses EU of abandoning nuclear deal for fear of ‘bully’ Trump

Iran accuses European governments of sacrificing a troubled 2015 nuclear deal to avoid trade reprisals from US President Donald Trump, who has spent nearly two years trying to scupper it.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Trump is again behaving like a “high school bully” and the decision by Britain, France and Germany to heed his pressure to lodge a complaint over Iranian compliance deprived them of any right to claim the moral high ground.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a high level political forum on sustainable development on July 17, 2019, at UN Headquarters in New York. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

The three governments “sold out remnants of #JCPOA (the nuclear deal) to avoid new Trump tariffs,” Zarif charges.

“It won’t work my friends. You only whet his appetite. Remember your high school bully?”

— AFP

Anger after ministry nixes bus trips incongruous with Shabbat’s start, end

The Transportation Ministry has canceled numerous bus trips in the public transportation system throughout the country that ended after the start of Shabbat or began before the end of the Jewish day of rest.

A ministry source tells Ynet the decision was made due to complaints by religious travelers.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz responds: “We’ll win [the election] and amend this. Israel is a Jewish state and not a halachic state.”

Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz tweets: “This is how a fanatical minister abuses citizens,” in reference to the religious minister Bezalel Smotrich. Noting the rides in question include “lines to hospitals that begin in the early evenings on Saturdays,” Nitzan says: “Shameful. We’ll fight him and kick him out.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

Liberman: Government after March election ‘essentially a done deal’

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman claims it is “essentially a locked and done deal” that a government will be formed following the March elections, after two rounds of national votes in 2019 failed to produce a coalition.

“I don’t want to go into details, but… there won’t be a fourth election,” he tells the Ynet news site. “I want a coalition of all Zionist parties.”

Asked if he means another attempt to form a unity government, Liberman answers: “Not unity, I say all Zionist parties.”

Liberman also asserted ahead of the September election that there would not be a third vote — a claim that was proved wrong.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on December 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Yisrael Beytenu leader also says he believes the old-new Yamina alliance of right-wing parties will not pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset, citing the infighting and mudslinging he claims will drive away voters.

He attacks its leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz who “want to take us back to the days of King David, King Saul, [of] Biblical law.”

Two balloon clusters carrying explosives from Gaza land in Israel

At least two clusters of balloons carrying suspected explosive devices land in southern Israel’s Sdot Negev region after apparently being launched from the Gaza Strip.

One of the clusters lands in a open field, the other is tangled in a tree in Sdot Negev.

Police sappers have been called to the scenes.

A balloon carrying an incendiary device is flown out from the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2019 (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

— Judah Ari Gross

Iran’s president says there’s now ‘no limit’ to nuclear enrichment

Iran’s president says there is “no limit” to the country’s enrichment of uranium following its decision to abandon its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal in response to the killing of its top general in a US airstrike.

In a speech before the heads of banks, Rouhani says the nuclear program is in a “better situation” than it was before the nuclear agreement with world powers.

US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, in part because it did not address Iran’s support for armed groups across the region and its ballistic missile program. The US has since imposed “maximum” sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in New York on September 26, 2019. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Rouhani acknowledges that the sanctions have caused economic pain. But he says economic considerations could not be separate from foreign policy and national security.

— AP

Balloon-borne bomb from Gaza explodes as sappers arrive to defuse it

One of the balloon-borne explosive devices from Gaza that landed in Israel has exploded in an open field in the Sdot Negev region, police say.

The are no injuries or damage caused by the blast, according to police.

The bomb detonated as police sappers were arriving at the scene. The sappers are collecting the remains of the device in order to study what type of explosives were used, a police spokesperson says.

— Judah Ari Gross

10 Israelis arrested in Europe while trying to smuggle khat in suitcases

Ten Israelis have been arrested in Europe over the past week while attempting to smuggle dozens of kilograms of khat in their suitcases, the Foreign Ministry says.

The detainees, who were all described by the ministry as “young” but only three of whom were minors, were arrested in Vienna, Copenhagen and London with the stimulants.

The ministry said each could be jailed for several months for the offense. It added that several of the suspects were on their first trips abroad and are believed to have been hired by locals to traffic in the substance.

Illustrative: Khat leaves (YouTube screenshot)

While the khat plant, a stimulant, is partially legal in Israel, it is considered an illegal drug in many European nations.

Man dies of flu in Beersheba, in 31st fatality of the season

A 63-year-old man has died at a Beersheba hospital from flu complications. Officials said the man was suffering from other health issues that exacerbated his condition.

Since the start of the flu season 32 people have died and 300 have been hospitalized in serious condition, Channel 12 says, as the country grapples with a particularly aggressive strain of flu virus.

Smotrich dismisses criticism after ministry nixes bus trips that impinge on Shabbat

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich dismisses angry reactions to his move to cancel bus journeys that partially fall under Shabbat times.

“Now I know we’re in election season,” he says of politicians’ criticism. “There is a status quo on Shabbat and it doesn’t change… All religion haters trying to create spin and outrage — breathe.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

White House ‘violated the law’ by freezing Ukraine aid, watchdog says

The White House budget office “violated the law” by freezing military aid to put political pressure on the government of Ukraine, a US congressional watchdog announces as US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial looms.

The Office of Management and Budget “withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act,” the report says, noting that the budget office actively took steps to make the funds “unavailable” despite being congressionally appropriated.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” it says.

US President Donald Trump listens to a question in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, January 7, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

— AFP

Canada says world ‘will not rest’ until Iran answers questions on jet’s downing

Canada’s foreign minister vows to push Iran for answers about the downing of a passenger jet that was mistakenly shot down after the US killed one of Tehran’s top commanders.

“Families want answers, the international community wants answers, the world is waiting for answers and we will not rest until we get them,” Francois-Philippe Champagne says at a meeting in London.

After Netanyahu, Smotrich also calls on Otzma Yehudit to drop out of race

National Union party chief Bezalel Smotrich is following the lead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling on the far-right Otzma Yehudit party to end its candidacy to prevent the loss of right-wing votes.

“This is your moment to prove you are not acting out of ego or a desire for revenge,” he says. “After all you don’t believe there’s even a hint of a chance you’ll pass the electoral threshold.”

Finnish MP detained after attempting to breach Gaza border fence

A Finnish parliament member was arrested by police on Monday after she and other Finnish activists attempted to breach the border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Israeli sources tell the Haaretz newspaper Anna Kontula attempted to sabotage the fence. “We expect guests in Israel, and particularly public representatives, to honor Israeli law,” the Foreign Ministry says.

The Helsinki Times reports that Kontula was held for some 10 hours before being released.

Illustrative: A picture taken from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip shows Israeli soldiers inspecting the area around their observation post next to the border fence with the coastal enclave on August 1, 2019, following a firefight with a Palestinian gunman. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Trump impeachment articles are read out on US Senate floor

The US Congress opens the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump with House Democrats reading the formal charges from the well of the US Senate ahead of the swearing in of all 100 senators as jurors for only the third impeachment trial in US history.

The two articles of impeachment against Trump are read out on the Senate floor ahead of the start of the historic trial.

“In his conduct, and in violation of his constitutional oath… Donald J. Trump has abused the powers of the presidency,” Representative Adam Schiff, one of the House managers who will lead the prosecution of the president, says as he begins reading from the first article of impeachment.

— AFP and AP

Peretz: Breaching deal with Otzma Yehudit ‘one of toughest decisions of my life’

Jewish Home head Rafi Peretz issues a statement on his last-minute decision to breach his deal with Otzma Yehudit and join with other right-wing parties in reforming Yamina.

Peretz says the decision was “one of the toughest I’ve made in my life… I gave my word and I broke it, and I am sorry for it from the bottom of my heart.”

He acknowledges that his public image has been hurt by his zigzagging on the matter.

But he says he believes his agreement with New Right and National Union “saved religious Zionism” and “prevented the formation of a left-wing government.”

Education Minister Rafi Peretz attends a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, December 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Putin could pardon Naama Issachar on eve of trip to Israel — Russian paper

Russian President Vladimir Putin could pardon Israeli-American backpacker Naama Issachar on the eve of his visit to Israel, Russian newspaper Kommersant reports.

The paper cites “informed sources in government agencies,” who also express discontent with Israel’s decision to extradite Russian Aleksey Burkov to the US.

Stopping Burkov’s extradition is widely believed in Israel to have been Moscow’s chief reason for Issachar’s imprisonment and trial after her arrest during a stopover in Moscow.

“I would like it to be a two-way street,” one source tells the paper of Issachar’s release.

Israeli-American Naama Issachar, jailed for drug smuggling, attends her appeal hearing at the Moscow Regional Court on December 19, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

Putin is expected in Israel next week to attend the 5th World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem.

TV report: Israeli officials say potential breakthrough on Issachar’s release

More on Naama Issachar — Channel 12 news reports there may be a potential breakthrough on her release from Russian custody.

The report cites senior Israeli officials.

New polls show right-wing merger doesn’t win PM majority — even if Otzma passes

All three major networks have held new polls following the merger on the right. The newly reformed Yamina wins anywhere between 7 and 10 seats but the right-wing bloc does not have 61 Knesset seats in any survey and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu remains kingmaker, as it was following the two national votes in 2019.

Channel 12’s poll is the most optimistic for the right: Blue and White 34, Likud 32, Joint List 13, Yamina 10, Shas 8, Labor-Gesher-Meretz 8, Yisrael Beytenu 8, United Torah Judaism 7. Otzma Yehudit does not pass the electoral threshold. The right-wing bloc has 57 seats sans Liberman, center-left bloc has 55 seats.

Channel 13’s poll has Otzma Yehudit just managing to enter the Knesset but is worse for the right-wing as a whole: Blue and White 34, Likud 31, Joint List 14, Labor-Gesher-Meretz 9, Yisrael Beytenu 8, United Torah Judaism 7, Yamina 7, Shas 6, Otzma Yehudit 4. The right-wing bloc has 55 seats without Liberman, the center-left bloc has 57.

Finally Kan TV has the best result for the center-left: Blue and White 36, Likud 31, Joint List 13, Labor-Gesher-Meretz 9, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 8, Yamina 7, Yisrael Beytenu 7. Otzma Yehudit does not pass. The right-wing bloc has 55 seats without Liberman, the center-left bloc has 58.

French far-right leader lays out plan to run for president

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen announces her intention to stand in France’s 2022 presidential elections.

“My decision is made,” Le Pen says as she presents her New Year’s wishes.

Le Pen says she is proposing a “grand alternative to put the country back on its feet” and create “national unity.”

Le Pen reached the runoff in the 2017 election but lost badly to Emmanuel Macron, who is now in the midst of one of the most difficult periods of his presidency.

In addition to the grassroots yellow vest movement that’s seeking social and economic justice, Macron is facing a strike over reforms to the country’s pension system that has run for 43 days.

French far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen speaks during a media conference to announce the formation of a new far-right European Parliament group at the European Parliament in Brussels, June 13, 2019. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

— AP

Rouhani says Iran wants dialogue, working to ‘prevent war’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he wants to avoid war after Tehran and Washington appeared on the brink of direct military confrontation in early January for the second time in less than a year.

Ahead of parliamentary elections on February 21 — predicted to be a challenge for Rouhani’s camp — and amid high tensions between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program, the president says dialogue with the world is still “possible.”

“The government is working daily to prevent military confrontation or war,” Rouhani says in a televised speech.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a public gathering at the city of Yazd, some 410 miles (680 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, November 10, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

He also defends the policy of openness to the world that he has pursued since his first election in 2013, and which Iran’s ultra-conservatives criticize. “Of course, it’s difficult,” he acknowledges, but adds, “the people elected us to lower tensions and animosity” between the Islamic republic and the world.

— AFP

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Smotrich dismisses criticism after ministry nixes bus trips that impinge on Shabbat

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich dismisses angry reactions to his move to cancel bus journeys that partially fall under Shabbat times.

“Now I know we’re in election season,” he says of politicians’ criticism. “There is a status quo on Shabbat and it doesn’t change… All religion haters trying to create spin and outrage — breathe.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)