State asks to delay decision regarding corruption investigation into minister until after elections
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Police institute security precautions for state prosecutors called out by PM

Special measures said taken days after Netanyahu claimed Shai Nitzan and Liat Ben Ari had ‘pushed especially hard’ to indict him

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

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

Palestinian suspect in Ori Ansbacher’s murder to be charged in coming days

State prosecutors inform the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court that they intend to indict Arafat Irfaiya for the murder of Israeli teen Ori Ansbacher in the coming days.

The court has agreed to extend the remand of the suspected Palestinian terrorist until Thursday in preparation for the indictment.

Authorities say they are seeking to prosecute Irfaiya for murder in the context of a terrorist act, in addition to a charge of rape, but have yet to formally file charges.

He has remained behind bars since his arrest on February 8, a day after Ansbacher’s murder.

Senior UK Labour official: Party is not ‘institutionally’ anti-Semitic

A senior lawmaker for Britain’s Labour party says that while the faction does have a minor problem with anti-Semitism, it is not institutional.

MP John McDonnell’s remarks come as an internal row brewed within the Labour party on how to deal with complaints of internal anti-Semitism experienced by members.

While admitting that there “clearly there is a problem,” McDonnell tells the Sky News television station that “I reject outright that Labor is institutionally anti-Semitic.”

He says figures show that only 0.1% of members have been involved in anti-Semitic incidents.

“It’s a tiny number but it’s still a problem,” he says. “I do not want one anti-Semite in our party, I do not want one piece of evidence of someone being anti-Semitic. We’ve got to eradicate it from our party.”

— Stuart Winer

Netanyahu condemns attack on French synagogue memorial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks out against an attack on a Holocaust memorial in the French city of Strasbourg.

Netanyahu condemns the “horrific, anti-Semitic” defacing of a monument marking the site of a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis in 1940.

French police on Saturday launched an investigation of the incident, in which a heavy memorial stone was moved off its base in the eastern city. The incident comes amid a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent months, including spray-painting of swastikas on around 80 Jewish gravestones last month.

Netanyahu calls upon “all leaders of enlightened countries to join in denouncing it in a systematic and continuous fashion. The first way to combat anti-Semitism is to denounce, to condemn it unequivocally.”

— AP

Likud axed campaign field organizer over ties to wife of journalist critical of PM — report

The Likud party fired one of its campaign field organizers upon learning that he is a good friend of the wife of a prominent journalist who has written extensively about Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corrupt dealings as premier, the Haaretz daily reports.

Nadav Doani had been hired to run campaign operations on the day of elections, but when rumors began to swirl about his friendship with Hila Caspit, the wife of Maariv reporter Ben Caspit, he was quickly axed from the position, Haaretz says.

Police: Soldier attempts to pass security check at train station without showing ID, is beaten

Police say an IDF soldier out of uniform was beaten after he refused to show his army ID upon entering the Beersheba train station and attempted to run through the security check instead.

Officers apprehended the soldier and one of them shoved the butt of his weapon into the head of the suspect.

Eurovision ticket marketing frozen due to irregularities in sales process

The sale of tickets for the May Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv has been suspended until further notice after organizers suspected irregularities and problems in the sale process, Hebrew media reports.

Settler council has continued funneling funds to NGO led by right-wing MK, despite ombudsman’s objection

The Binyamin Regional Council has continued to funnel public funds to an NGO headed by Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, which earlier this year established an illegal outpost where the Amona wildcat community once stood. This funding came despite the fact that the state comptroller issued a report castigating the municipality and ordered it to halt such dealings, Haaretz reports.

The Hebrew daily reveals that the Binyamin Regional Council transferred NIS 300,000 ($82,610) to Horizon for Settlement in July 2018. In November 2017, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira expressed “grave concern” that the West Bank’s largest regional settlement council rigged tenders to award public funds to right-wing NGOs tied to Smotrich.

Syria force pounds holdout IS village

Kurdish-led forces backed by US warplanes are raining artillery fire and air strikes Sunday on besieged and outgunned jihadists making a desperate last stand in a remote Syrian village.

Islamic State group fighters holed up in Baghouz, the last dreg of the once-sprawling “caliphate” that their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in 2014, are responding with small arms fire as the Syrian Democratic Forces advances.

AFP reporters near the front line have seen fireworks-like explosions lighting up the sky over the eastern Syrian farming village after an airstrike hit an underground ammunition depot.

The jihadists’ last redoubt was said to be about half a square kilometer in size a week ago and it shrank even further with the last few hours of fighting.


800 Palestinians allowed to exit Gaza for Mecca pilgrimage

Some 800 Palestinians cross from the Gaza Strip into Egypt on their initial stage of a pilgrimage to Mecca, the first time since 2014 Egyptian authorities have granted visas for such a trip.

The pilgrims left at around dawn and were to be met by buses on the Egyptian side to bring them to Cairo’s airport, from where they would fly to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, said a Palestinian official at the Rafah crossing in the Gaza Strip.

Fifteen Gazans among the 800 were not authorized to cross, according to a Palestinian security official at Rafah, without providing the reasons.

Security sources on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing have confirmed it was the first such permission for the Muslim umrah pilgrimage since the start of Egyptian military operations in northern Sinai in 2014.

Umrah is the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca that can be completed throughout the year, as opposed to the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Around 2,500 pilgrims are authorized annually to leave Gaza via Egypt for the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims must undertake at least once in their lifetime.


Israel bans senior Islamic cleric from entering Aqsa Mosque

Police have banned several Islamic officials appointed by Jordan from entering the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, following clashes between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli authorities in recent weeks.

Abdel Azeem Salhab, the highest-ranking official in the Jordanian-run council overseeing the site, says that police handed him and two other Palestinian officials the order on Sunday.

Salhab says police informed him the ban was because of his role in opening the Golden Gate area, which has been closed by Israeli court order since 2003.

Jordan’s Religious Affairs Minister Abdel Nasser Abu Albasal condemns the Israeli decision as “a new escalation” meant to disrupt the council’s work.

— AP

Abbas to spend today, tomorrow in Iraq in diplomatic visit

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim writes on Twitter that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be visiting Iraq today and tomorrow.

Majdi al-Khaldi, Abbas’s senior diplomatic adviser, confirms the trip to The Times of Israel.

— Adam Rasgon

Australian Jewish group expresses ‘horror’ at online anti-Semitic harassment

An Australian Jewish organization has expressed “horror” at what it says has been a torrent of anti-Semitic online abuse directed at its chairman following a successful campaign last month to prevent British conspiracy theorist David Icke from entering the country.

Icke, who denies widespread charges of anti-Semitism and believes the world is run by giant shape-shifting reptiles, was due to start a speaking tour in major Australian cities.

Australian media confirmed on February 20 that his visa had been canceled on “character grounds,” following a campaign by opposition Labour MP Tim Watts, who blasted him as a Holocaust denier, and by the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), a local Jewish anti-discrimination group.

A former professional soccer player, Icke worked for the BBC as a sports broadcaster before leaving in 1990.

— with AFP

Meretz to open campaign headquarters dedicated to Arab Israeli outreach

The Meretz party will be opening a new campaign headquarters this evening in the central city of Kafr Kassem in an effort to reach Arab Israeli voters.

The unveiling will be attended by the chair of the left-wing party, Tamar Zandberg, along with MK Isawi Frej.

Egypt court upholds prison term for former anti-graft chief

An Egyptian court upholds a five-year prison sentence for the country’s former anti-corruption chief, found guilty of insulting the military, legal sources said.

A military court rejects Hisham Geneina’s appeal and confirmed his sentence, a judicial source said, over comments made in an interview with the news website HuffPost Arabi.

Geneina was head of Egypt’s Central Auditing Organization until he was sacked by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in 2016 for allegedly exaggerating the cost of corruption.

He subsequently became a top aide to former military chief of staff Sami Anan, who planned to challenge Sissi in presidential polls but was arrested.

Geneina has claimed Anan held documents on “political events and crises that Egyptian society has passed through” since the 2011 uprising.

He says the documents could be released if Anan — who remains in jail — was harmed.

Following the interview, Geneina was detained in February 2018 and sentenced last April to five years in prison for “spreading news that harms the armed forces”.

Sunday’s ruling “could be challenged before a higher military court,” Geneina’s lawyer Ali Taha said.

Moataz Wadnan, the journalist who conducted the interview, was also detained but has not yet been put on trial, according to rights lawyer Negad al-Borai.

Without any serious challenger at the ballot box, Sissi won a second four-year term last March with 97 percent of the vote.

Egypt’s parliament, packed with Sissi supporters, is seeking to institute constitutional amendments that would extend his rule beyond 2022.


Russia-Israel team to eye foreign forces’ pullout from Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Israel and Russia are to form a joint team to examine the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria.

Israel is seeking the removal of Iranian forces and has vowed to keep its main enemy from entrenching itself militarily in the neighboring country.

Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Moscow to discuss Iran’s presence in Syria.

“I made it unequivocally clear that Israel will not allow the military entrenchment of Iran in Syria, and I also made it unequivocally clear that we would continue to take military action against it,” Netanyahu tells his cabinet.

“President Putin and I also agreed on a common goal: the withdrawal of foreign forces that arrived in Syria after the outbreak of the civil war. We agreed to establish a joint team to advance this goal, together with other elements.”

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah targets and has established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes with Russia.

Iran, Russia and Tehran-backed Hezbollah support Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war that broke out in 2011.


Deflecting PM’s criticism, state prosecutor says decision to indict PM devoid of political considerations

Deflecting criticism made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan says the attorney general’s decision to indict the premier in a series of corruption investigations was not made out of political considerations.

“Criticism came from two different and contradictory directions,” says in an address at Haifa University. “On the one hand, it was claimed that the attorney general took it easy on the prime minister; and on the other hand, it’s been said that he was too harsh with him.”

“There were also various arguments made saying that the attorney general and the State Prosecutor’s Office were acting on political grounds. There is no basis to these claims.”

“The decisions were made only on the basis of material considerations based on evidence. The question of the suspect’s political identity does not interest us,” Nitzan says.


6-year-old girl succumbs to wounds after being struck by bus outside Jerusalem

A six-year-old girl struck by a school bus in the Jerusalem-area moshav of Sdot Micha has succumbed to her injuries, according to authorities.

Paramedics say the girl was rushed to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital with critical injuries but died shortly after she arrived.

Sea of Galilee water level rises after heavy weekend rain

The water level of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main fresh water reservoir, has risen by an additional 7.5 centimeters (three inches) following this weekend’s heavy rain, the national Water Authority says.

A lack of rain over many years has seen the lake’s level drop sharply but since the beginning of the current winter, the level has risen by 1.87 meters (74 inches), already 22 centimeters more than in an average winter.

State asks to delay decision regarding corruption investigation into minister until after elections

The state has told the High Court of Justice that it would like to wait until after the April elections to reach a decision regarding the corruption investigations into Social Welfare Minister Haim Katz.

The announcement from the state was in response to a High Court petition from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which argued that prosecutors were dragging their feet on the case.

In February 2018, police recommended that Katz be indicted on bribery, fraud, extortion and breach-of-trust charges over suspicions that he used his position as head of the Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ union to advance his own interests, including promising lucrative employment — both inside and outside the company — to IAI board members who cooperated with him.

Jordan accuses Israel of new escalation at Temple Mount

Jordan’s minister for religious affairs, Abdel Nasser Abu-Bassal, is quoted by state news agency Petra accusing Israel of “a new escalation aimed at impeding Waqf’s work in Jerusalem and intimidating its members.”

Israel has barred Sheikh Abdel Azim Salhab, head of the Waqf religious authority that runs the site, from Al-Aqsa Mosque for 40 days and his deputy for four months.


Election Committee allows Labor to continue running Sabbath bus, but not in Jerusalem

The Central Elections Committee has ruled that the Labor party may continue running its Sabbath bus service in cities throughout the country, save for Jerusalem, in the lead-up to the April ballot.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party had appealed to the election body arguing that it represented illicit campaigning, but the committee ruled that the project may continue.

US diplomats visit jailed US-Saudi doctor

US diplomats have visited a dual US-Saudi national who was reported to have been tortured while imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, a top White House official says.

The New York Times, citing the detailed account of an unnamed friend, said guards dragged Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor, to a room in the hotel where he was slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear and bound to a chair.

They then proceeded to torture him with electric shocks in a session that lasted about an hour, according to the friend, the Times says.

John Bolton, the White House national security advisor, was asked about Fitaihi’s treatment, in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“As of this moment, my understanding is we’ve had what’s called consular access, meaning American diplomats in Saudi Arabia have visited with him.

“Beyond that, we don’t really have any additional information at this point,” Bolton adds.


Syria takes part in first Arab meeting since 2011

Syria has attended a meeting of Arab states today for the first time since its conflict broke out in 2011, marking another step towards the country’s political reintegration into the region.

Syria’s parliament speaker, Hammouda Sabbagh, traveled to Amman for an Arab inter-parliamentary meeting.

His Jordanian counterpart, Atef al-Tarawneh, called in a speech for regional countries “to work towards a political settlement to the Syrian crisis… and for Syria to regain its place” in the Arab world.

A growing number of Arab states have voiced support for Syria’s return to the Arab League, which suspended the country’s membership in November 2011, as the death toll mounted in its war.

Divisions within the pan-Arab organization, however, have stalled the readmission of Syria, which with the support of Russia and Iran has largely regained control of its territory from rebel groups and jihadists.

But the UAE reopened its Damascus embassy in December, the same month as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made the first visit of any Arab leader to the Syrian capital since 2011.


Egypt rescues 2,000-year old catacombs from rising water

Egypt has announced the completion of a project to save famed 2,000-year old catacombs in the costal city of Alexandria from rising waters.

The Kom al-Shoqafa location, considered by archaeologists to be the largest Greco-Roman burial site in Egypt, has been threatened by water since its discovery in 1900.

The catacombs, which were in use from the first to the fourth century AD, are renowned for funerary architecture blending ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art.

The rising water prompted Egypt to launch a massive drainage project supported by the United States Agency for International (USAID) in 2017.

Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani tells reporters at the site that the program had helped “end a problem threatening the area for more than 100 years.”

Thomas Nichols, an engineer involved in the project, calls it “a unique program where we blended archaeology and civil engineering together.”

Egypt has in recent years sought to promote archaeological discoveries across the country in a bid to revive tourism hit by the turmoil that followed its 2011 uprising.


Police institute security precautions for state prosecutors called out by PM

Police have decided to institute a series of security precautions for State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Tel Aviv state prosecution head of taxation and economic crimes Liat Ben-Ari, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed they had “pushed especially hard” to indict him, Channel 13 reports.

Likud to ease up on Liberman in light of poor polling numbers — report

The Likud party has decided that it will ease up on the Yisrael Beytenu party in the run-up to the elections with the fellow right-wing party increasingly at risk of not passing the electoral threshold.

The Kan public broadcaster reports that Likud will not campaign in the sector of Russian immigrants, from which a large bulk of Yisrael Beytenu supporters stem. In addition, the ruling party will not put out campaign material in Russian, and members have even been instructed not to go after Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, in the press.

IDF catches 2 unarmed Palestinians who crossed into Israeli territory from Gaza

Israeli troops catch two unarmed Palestinian who crossed into Israeli territory from the northern Gaza Strip, the army says.

The men were detained shortly after breaching the security fence. They were not in possession of weapons, according to the military.

Nearby, in the coastal enclave, Palestinians are holding a riot along the border, burning tires and setting off loud explosives as part of nightly “confusion” activities.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, three people have been injured by Israeli troops during the riot.

— Judah Ari Gross

Blue and White mulling platform that includes willingness to give up control of what’s beyond settlement blocs

The Blue and White party is slated to introduce its platform later this week, but members continue to debate diplomatic issues.

Channel 13 reports that there is growing consensus around a number of issues, among them a willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, a refusal to divide Jerusalem in any peace deal, and a vow to maintain control of the settlement blocs and security presence along the Jordan Valley.

In addition, the party plans to include a new clause in the nation-state law, emphasizing equality for all of Israel’s citizens.

IDF drone said to strike Hamas position amid Gaza border riots

An Israeli drone attacked a Hamas position in the northern Gaza Strip, amid riots along the border nearby, Palestinian media reports.

The Israeli military is not immediately confirming the strike.

Netanyahu thanks May for Hezbollah ban

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanks British Prime Minister Theresa May for her government’s decision to outlaw the political wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, under anti-terrorism laws.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office says the prime minister told May in a phone call that he expected other countries to follow suit in banning all parts of the Iran-backed Shiite group.

Netanyahu during the call also thanked May for the UK’s “firm position against anti-Semitism,” according to the statement.

Last week, May’s government banned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, accusing it of further destabilizing the Middle East.

IDF confirms strike in Gaza in response to explosive device thrown across fence

The IDF confirms that it conducted the strike in northern Gaza.

“An IDF aircraft attacked a Hamas post, in response to the throwing of explosive devices across the security fence in the northern Gaza Strip,” the army says.

Blue and White candidates criticize lack of female representation in party

A pair of candidates in the Blue and White party have voiced frustration with the lack of women in the party, Channel 12 reports.

Miki Haimovich and Yael German are said to have raised the issue with the party brass, who responded that the lack of women was indeed regrettable, but had to do with the fact that the party list was hastily put together in the middle of the night when Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz agreed to merge.

US lawmakers announce sweeping document requests in Trump probe

US lawmakers will demand documents from Donald Trump’s eldest son and a lifelong business associate as part of a wide-ranging investigation into claims of obstruction of justice and other abuses by the president, a leading Democrat says.

US House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler tells ABC political show “This Week” that Donald Trump Jr. and Allen Weisselberg, the sole trustees of The Trump Organization, were among 60 people and organizations being targeted by the probe.

The New York congressman says the requests would go out on Monday “to begin investigations to present the case to the American people about obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of power.”

Trump’s campaign is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for alleged collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and for possible obstruction of that probe.

Nadler says it was “very clear” that Trump had obstructed justice, by repeatedly calling the Mueller probe a “witch hunt,” and by trying to halt an investigation into his first national security adviser Mike Flynn, who subsequently admitted lying to the FBI over Russian contacts.


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Live updates (closed)

State asks to delay decision regarding corruption investigation into minister until after elections

The state has told the High Court of Justice that it would like to wait until after the April elections to reach a decision regarding the corruption investigations into Social Welfare Minister Haim Katz.

The announcement from the state was in response to a High Court petition from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which argued that prosecutors were dragging their feet on the case.

In February 2018, police recommended that Katz be indicted on bribery, fraud, extortion and breach-of-trust charges over suspicions that he used his position as head of the Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ union to advance his own interests, including promising lucrative employment — both inside and outside the company — to IAI board members who cooperated with him.