Tillerson demands Iran-backed militias out of Syria
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Polls find Netanyahu largely unaffected by police indictment recommendation

Surveys indicate prime minister's Likud party would remain in power if elections were held today, even though nearly half of Israelis say he should resign

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jack GUEZ/AFP)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jack GUEZ/AFP)
  • Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis addresses the Knesset plenum, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis addresses the Knesset plenum, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East on December 18, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. (AFP Photo/Kena Betancur)
    US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East on December 18, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. (AFP Photo/Kena Betancur)
  • Police Chief Roni Alsheich (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a welcoming ceremony held in Alsheich's honour, at Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
    Police Chief Roni Alsheich (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a welcoming ceremony held in Alsheich's honour, at Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
  • Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
  • In this image made from video and provided by WUSA TV-9, authorities investigate the scene of a shooting at Fort Meade, Maryland, on February 14, 2018. (WUSA TV-9 via AP)
    In this image made from video and provided by WUSA TV-9, authorities investigate the scene of a shooting at Fort Meade, Maryland, on February 14, 2018. (WUSA TV-9 via AP)

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

Minister urges probe into claims Netanyahu investigators were followed

Public Security Minister Erdan calls on the attorney general to probe claims made by Police Chief Roni Alsheich last week that “powerful figures” had hired private investigators to collect information about the police investigators in the corruption cases against the prime minister, apparently to personally discredit them should they recommend indictments.

“I urge them not to leave this issue alone, and I expect them to do everything in their power to obtain answers,” he says at the Knesset.

If, heaven forbid, someone is gathering information about investigators, this is something that the public needs to know about,” Erdan says, adding that he’s “not able to sleep at night over it.”

MK calls on police chief to resign for revealing details of Netanyahu probe

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni says Police Chief Roni Alsheich should resign over his claims last week that the officers investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption were followed.

“The police chief should be the most secretive person, someone who does but stays silent. We must be convinced that he has no agenda,” he says at a special Knesset hearing.

He calls the interview that Alsheich gave to the TV show “Uvda” last week “crossed all red lines.”

“But he comes out and publicly begins to explain the investigations. In my opinion, he should have resigned the following day,” Gafni says.

Palestinians caught trying to smuggle pipe bombs into West Bank military court

For the third time this month, security forces foil an attempt to smuggle pipe bombs inside the Samaria Military Court in the West Bank, the army says in a statement.

According to the IDF, a border police officer approached three Palestinians who were acting suspiciously outside the courthouse and noticed that one was holding what appeared to be a pipe bomb.

Border guards searched all three suspects and uncovered two more pipe bombs.

Sappers were called to the scene to defuse the improvised explosive devices.

The West Bank court was the scene of two similar incidents earlier this month.

Israel orders psychiatric evaluation for detained Australian

The Jerusalem District Court orders that an Australian woman accused of sex crimes be placed under psychiatric evaluation until further notice.

The judge this morning says that the woman will remain in custody while the district psychiatrist determines whether she is fit to stand trial.

Australia wants the 54-year-old extradited. She is wanted in Australia for sexually abusing children while she was a teacher at a local school.

She was arrested following an undercover investigation at Interpol’s request and was arrested Monday on suspicion of obstructing court proceedings by attempting to hide evidence.

An Israeli court previously stopped extradition proceedings after determining she was not fit to stand trial. But police say they have indications she was pretending to be suffering from a mental illness to avoid extradition.

— AP

Verdict expected in 1st trial linked to 2015 Paris terror attacks

A French court is expected to hand down a verdict for a man accused of harboring killers who carried out the 2015 Paris attacks, in the first trial related to the country’s deadliest extremist violence since World War II.

Jawad Bendaoud, a 31-year-old street criminal, faces up to six years in prison if convicted of providing lodging to two of the attackers and helping them hide from police when they were the most-wanted criminals in France.

Bendaoud has denied knowing who he had rented the apartment to.

The prosecutor requested a four-year term for Bendaoud, saying he knew he was hiding criminals.

A verdict is also expected for his two co-defendants.

The November 13, 2015, terror attacks left 130 people dead. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

— AP

US police probe shooting outside NSA headquarters

Police say authorities are responding to a shooting outside the National Security Agency campus at Fort Meade, where police have surrounded a handcuffed man after a black SUV ran into a barrier.

Fort Meade garrison spokeswoman Cheryl Phillips confirmed by phone that one person was injured in the shooting outside the base and was taken to a hospital.

The NSA released no immediate information, the FBI said it was sending people to the scene.

An image taken from a WRC-TV helicopter shows a police and fire department response outside one of the facility’s secure vehicle entry gates. WRC said bullet holes could be seen in the vehicle’s front window, and several air bags were deployed.

The White House says US President Donald Trump is being briefed on the shooting. A White House statement says: “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has been affected.”

— Agencies

Lapid hits back at Netanyahu criticism: ‘That’s how criminals talk’

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid hits back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the criticism of his testimony to police in the corruption cases against the prime minister sounds like that of a criminal.

“I heard the prime minister and the group surrounding him, including ministers and the coalition chairman, who dared suggest there is alternative; that there is an option to withhold the truth when police ask you to help them uncover what really happened in a serious corruption investigation,” Lapid says in a statement. “That’s how criminals talk, not public servants.”

“So I want to say to them: Don’t threaten us. We cannot be intimidated. We will not let you make this a country where honest people are scared of speaking the truth.”

Lapid goes on to urge Netanyahu to exhibit “national responsibility” and step down.

“You cannot be prime minister, foreign minister and health minister while you spend most of your time with your lawyers or responding to the press,” he says.

“You cannot represent us in the world, when every foreign leader knows that you stand accused of serious offenses. For the good of the citizens of Israel, the prime minister needs to vacate his post,” Lapid adds.

He also calls on the attorney general to expedite his decision regarding Netanyahu’s indictment.

7 soldiers injured in Jordan Valley landmine explosion

Seven soldiers are lightly injured after a landmine apparently exploded under their vehicle in the Jordan Valley.

They are being taken to a Jerusalem hospital for treatment, a hospital spokesperson says. Two were evacuated by helicopter.

The circumstances surrounding the apparent mine blast are being investigated, the army says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Regime official accuses US of seeking to prolong war in Syria

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mikdad accuses the US if seeking to prolong war in the country, and calls on the UN to investigate its military actions in the region.

“We call on the United Nations to investigate the actions and practices of the United States, which threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Syria and aim at the liquidation of the Syrian people, contradicting the objectives and principles of the UN,” he tells journalists according to the official SANA news outlet.

“The Army will down any jet that launches an assault on Syria and that is not a mere threat… we are able to get rid of terrorists when the West stops supporting them,” he says.

Likud hits back at Lapid, tells him to ‘stop whining’

The Likud party tells Yair Lapid to “stop whining,” after the Yesh Atid chairman criticized Netanyahu’s response to the revelation that he testified to police in the corruption cases against the prime minister.

“Stop whining and trying to divert attention away from the simple question: How did you, as finance minister, hold meetings with a close friend and former employer, Arnon Milchan, and why were you not questioned?”

Earlier, Lapid, who previously served as finance minister, blasted Netanyahu for criticizing him after it was revealed that he testified against Netanyahu in the corruption probes against him. Lapid said his criticism made him “sound like a criminal.”

Pakistan begins seizing charities linked to terrorist behind Mumbai attacks

Amid increasing pressure from the international community, Pakistan initiates a much-awaited process of seizing assets and funds belonging to Islamic charities linked to a radical cleric wanted by the US, officials say.

It was the first step against Hafiz Saeed since he was freed by Pakistani authorities in November on a court order. He is the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry issues a notification requiring authorities to immediately seize the assets of Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa organization and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa is believed to be a front for Lashker-e-Taiba. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for his arrest.

Saeed denies involvement in the Mumbai attacks and claims his charities are only under a UN watch list.

— AP

MKs to grill police chief over claims Netanyahu investigators were followed

Police Chief Roni Alsheich is reportedly scheduled to appear before a Knesset committee to answer questions regarding his claim that the officers investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption were followed.

According to the Ynet news site, Alsheich will report to the Environmental Protection Committee headed my Likud MK Yoav Kisch.

Last week, Alsheich said that “powerful figures” had hired private investigators to collect information about the police investigators in the corruption cases against the prime minister, apparently to personally discredit them should they recommend indictments.

Syria claims it has no chemical weapons

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister says allegations that Syria is using chemical weapons are an attempt to “justify hostile acts.”

Faisal Mekdad denies in comments published on the state news agency that his country possesses any chemical weapons. He says current campaigns against Syria have increased in response to Damascus’ battlefield successes.

Mekdad accuses the US threatening Syria’s stability and sovereignty, calling its rare strikes against pro-government forces earlier this week a “war crime.” The US says the strikes were in self-defense, after pro-government troops encroached on its allies and advisers in eastern Syria.

Mekdad also says the Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria under Turkish attack is “is an integral part of the Syrian territories,” adding that they “will never give up one centimeter of these territories.” He also urges the Arabs and the Kurds in the area to unite to face what he called “Turkish aggression.”

— AP

Kuwait says $30 billion pledged to rebuild Iraq

Kuwait says a total of $30 billion in pledges have been made at a summit on rebuilding Iraq after the Islamic State war.

The announcement falls short of the $88.2 billion requested by Iraq, however it is far higher than the amount previously announced by those taking part.

“The commitment of the international community at the conference was clear,” says Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled Al-Sabah, adding that 76 countries, numerous international funds and global organizations had made pledges.

— Agencies

Fire destroys Black Hebrew temple in Chicago

A two-alarm fire destroyed a Black Hebrew temple on the South Side of Chicago.

The fire started Monday night in the House of Israel Temple of Faith and spread to apartments located on the second story of the building, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Firefighters rescued a senior citizen and a woman in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis from the apartments.

The original congregation was founded in 1965. Black Hebrews is a sect whose followers believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

— JTA

Five more soldiers injured in Jordan Valley landmine explosion hospitalized

Five more soldiers who were lightly injured when a landmine exploded under their car in the Jordan Valley arrive at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem.

“They were all lightly injured and are fully conscious,” a hospital spokesperson says.

These five join two other lightly wounded soldiers, who arrived at the hospital earlier this afternoon after they were airlifted there by helicopter.

— Judah Ari Gross

Key suspect cleared in first trial linked to Paris terror attacks

A man who rented his flat to Islamic State jihadists is found not guilty in the first trial stemming from the 2015 Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.

Prosecutors had been seeking a four-year jail term for Jawad Bendaoud, though more serious terrorism charges had been dropped after they said there was insufficient evidence that he knew the men were attackers.

— AFP

Wisconsin Republicans dump candidate accused of anti-Semitism

The Wisconsin Republican Party dumps a congressional candidate who has tweeted anti-Semitic statements and ideas, and identifies with the “alt-right.”

Paul Nehlen, who is running to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican of Wisconsin, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, in this year’s elections was permanently banned from Twitter last week for racist and anti-Semitic tweets. Nehlen also claimed in a private Twitter direct message group that his critics are “working for the Jewish media.”

Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said yesterday that membership dues Nehlen paid last year to three Wisconsin county parties, which is where state residents join the Republican Party, were refunded to Nehlen or donated to charity, The Associated Press reported. Zimmerman also said that Nehlan had not paid any dues in 2018 and if he tried, they would not be accepted.

“Paul Nehlen is not a member of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Nehlen and his ideas have no place in the Republican Party,” Zimmerman said, according to the AP.

Nehlan in an email to AP asserted that he is still a member of the Republican Party.

— JTA and AP

Remand extended for driver who killed 2 soldiers in car accident

The driver of the truck who killed two IDF soldiers in a crash on Route 6 last night is remanded into custody for another day.

According to reports, police suspect the driver, Anwar Abu Seina, was driving recklessly.

Abu Seina, an East Jerusalem resident, is believed to have lost control of the vehicle before veering into the convoy of off-road vehicles as it traveled east of Netanya.

Police are investigating the circumstances of the accident that injured 10 others.

Haley: Iranian drone that entered Israel an ‘egregious and unprompted escalation’

US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, criticizes Iran for launching a drone into Israeli territory over the weekend, calling the unprecedented incursion an “egregious and unprompted escalation” in the region.

In remarks delivered at the Security Council’s briefing on the situation in Syria, Haley defends Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Iranian military installations in Syria in response to the drone

“Earlier this week, Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria launched a drone into Israeli territory,” Haley says. “It was an egregious and unprompted escalation.”

“Iran was once again doing what it does – risking conflict and testing the will of its neighbors and opponents to resist its aggression,” she says. “Israel rightly took action to defend itself.

“The United States will always stand by our ally when confronted with provocations from Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad regime,” Haley adds.

She warns member states that the Assad regime has become a front for the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, which has an “irresponsible and dangerous agenda for the Middle East.”

Tillerson says Hezbollah ‘part of political process’ in Lebanon

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concedes that Iran-backed Hezbollah is part of the “political process” in Lebanon, appearing to soften Washington’s tone ahead of a visit to the country.

“We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran. This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future,” Tillerson said at a press conference in Jordan.

“We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon.”

Shiite movement Hezbollah — the only faction to have retained its weapons after Lebanon’s civil war — is a member the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

— AFP

UN envoy: This is most dangerous moment for Syria in 4 years

The UN envoy for Syria says this is the most “violent and worrying and dangerous” moment in the country in four years, pointing to escalating violence on multiple fronts that undermines prospects for peace and regional stability.

Staffan de Mistura reiterates Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s appeal to those fighting and all concerned “to de-escalate immediately and unconditionally.” And he urges Russia, Iran and Turkey especially “to use their influence to help reduce violence.”

He spoke at a Security Council meeting Wednesday and was followed by US Ambassador Nikki Haley and Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who traded accusations about responsibility for blocking the path to peace.

Haley demanded Russia use its leverage to ensure a road to peace. Nebenzia asked the US-led coalition to prevent opposition “provocations.”

— AP

Netanyahu confidant says Likud united behind prime minister

Science Minister Ofir Akunis says the Likud party is united in its support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after police recommended he be indicted for bribery.

“These are challenging times, not only for the prime minister, but for the entire party,” he says at a gathering of Likud activists in Haifa.

“The Likud unequivocally stands behind Netanyahu, and supports him against these attempts to oust him and his government through non-electoral means,” added Akunis.

Erdan urges AG to order probe claims Netanyahu investigators were followed

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan urges Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate claims made by Police Chief Roni Alsheich that the officers investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption were followed.

“This is a significant and worrisome statement that should keep the attention of anyone who is responsible for the rule of law and the independence of law enforcement,” Eran tells Mandelblit in a letter. “I cannot ignore these things and move on to the next item on the agenda.”

“An attempt to intimidate the police investigators who are doing their duty is an act that can not be tolerated,” he says.

Last week, Alsheich said that “powerful figures” had hired private investigators to collect information about the police investigators in the corruption cases against the prime minister, apparently to personally discredit them should they recommend indictments.

73% of Likud voters say Netanyahu shouldn’t resign, poll finds

A new poll finds that the majority of Likud voters say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shouldn’t have to resign following the police recommendation that he be indicted on bribery charges.

The survey conducted by Hadashot news finds that 73% of Likud voters say Netanyahu shouldn’t have to step down in the wake of the recommendation. Some 17% say he should temporarily step down; 10% say they have no opinion.

A parallel survey of the general public finds that about half of Israelis believe the police findings regarding the prime minister’s alleged corruption. According to the poll, 49% say they believe the police’s account of the affair, while 25% say they believe the prime minister. Another 26% say they do not know who to believe.

PM’s lawyer says police claim of NIS 1 million in gifts received ‘erroneous’

The lawyer for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the NIS 1 million in gifts that police say the Netanyahus have received from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchen is “erroneous.”

In a channel 10 interview, Amit Hadad does not deny the Netanyahus received gifts from Milchen, but says the amount is “too round” to be legitimate.

Hadad repeats Netanyahu’s defense that the gifts the family received over a period of 10 years were within the context of friendship, and were not part of an illicit quid pro quo deal between the two.

“You cannot ignore this simple fact that the prime minister didn’t advance anything on behalf on Milchen,” he says.

“No crime has been committed here,” he insists, and slams the media for its “lack of objectivity” in its coverage of the investigations.

Polls show PM’s popularity largely unaffected by police indictment recommendation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity appears to be unaffected by the police’s recommendation that he be indicted for bribery.

According to a poll conducted by Channel 10, if elections were held today, Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party would get 27 seats down from its current 30. The opposition’s Yesh Atid party would receive 25 seats, up from its current 11, while the Zionist Union would get 16 seats, down from its current 24 seats.

A separate poll conducted by Hadashot news reveals similar results. Their poll finds that if elections were to be held today, the Likud would get 26 seats, Yesh Atid would get 22 and the Zionist Union would get 15 seats.

Nearly half of Israelis say Netanyahu should resign over indictment recommendation

Nearly half of the Israeli public says Netanyahu should resign after police recommended yesterday that he be indicted for bribery.

According to a poll conducted by Hadashot news, 45 percent of Israelis asked say the prime minister should step down, while 40% said that he shouldn’t.

Another 35% said they believe Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s longtime rival who testified against the prime minister in the corruption affair, over the prime minister. And 30% said they believe Netanyahu’s claims of innocence, while 30% say they don’t believe either.

Tillerson demands Iran-backed militias out of Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls for Iranian-backed militias to withdraw from Syria after meeting with opposition negotiators from the war-torn nation during a visit to Jordan.

Washington’s lead diplomat said the US is “quite concerned” by a recent confrontation that saw ally Israel bomb what it described as Iranian targets in Syria.

“This again illustrates why Iran’s presence in Syria is only destabilizing to the region,” Tillerson says at a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart.

“We think Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria, and allow the hope for peace process to take hold.”

— AFP

Top Palestinian official seen yelling at border guards in Hebron

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub is heard getting into a verbal altercation with Border Police troops in the Old City of Hebron.

Rajoub, who was accompanying visiting Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi on a tour of the city, shouts at a female officer: “Shut up, go to Hell!”

He is also heard shouting at another Border Police soldier that he “is crazy.”

Rajoub, member of the Fatah Central Committee and Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, hurled the abuse in Hebrew – a language he speaks fluently thanks to the 17 years he spent in Israeli prison for security-related offenses in the 1970s and 1980s.

Khaled Abu Toameh

Iran president orders probe into prison suicides

Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency is reporting that the country’s president has ordered an investigation into recent suicides at some detention centers.

The report says President Hassan Rouhani ordered the ministers of Interior, Intelligence and the Judiciary and the country’s vice-president for citizenship rights to report the results directly to him.

The order comes after an Iranian-Canadian university professor, Kavous Seyed-Emami, killed himself in custody.

Iran claimed he had conveyed information on the country’s missile bases to the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.

Earlier in January, at least two detainees committed suicide in custody following protests across the country over the economy.

— AP

Friends mourn Jewish victim in Florida shooting

Friends of Jaime Guttenberg, the first fatality to be named from yesterday’ fatal shooting spree at a Florida school which left 17 dead, leave tributes on Facebook to say how “heartbroken” they are at her death.

According to local media reports, parents Fred and Jennifer, who are Jewish, initially shared photos of their daughter through Facebook, in the hope that someone would find her alive.

On learning that she had died, they changed Jaime’s Facebook page, which now reads, “Remembering Jaime Guttenberg. We hope that people who love Jaime will find comfort in visiting her profile to remember and celebrate her life.”

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011378058110

Jaime’s brother Jesse, also a pupil at the school, was unharmed in the attack.

Another Jewish victim, according to Yeshiva World News, was Ben Wikander, who was shot three times and was undergoing surgery.

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Tillerson demands Iran-backed militias out of Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls for Iranian-backed militias to withdraw from Syria after meeting with opposition negotiators from the war-torn nation during a visit to Jordan.

Washington’s lead diplomat said the US is “quite concerned” by a recent confrontation that saw ally Israel bomb what it described as Iranian targets in Syria.

“This again illustrates why Iran’s presence in Syria is only destabilizing to the region,” Tillerson says at a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart.

“We think Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria, and allow the hope for peace process to take hold.”

— AFP