The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.
Merkel welcomes center-left’s OK for coalition
BERLIN — Angela Merkel welcomes the decision by members of Germany’s Social Democratic Party to support a coalition government with the long-time chancellor.
Her party quotes Merkel on Twitter Sunday, saying “I congratulate the SPD on this clear result and look forward to continuing to work together for the good of our country.”
The general-secretary of Merkel’s party and her possible future successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, says in statement Sunday that “the new government has a lot of work ahead of it that needs to be started soon.”
The Social Democrats’ membership ballot backed a coalition deal with Merkel’s Union bloc by a two-thirds majority.
Merkel had to rely on her center-left rivals’ support after failing to clinch a coalition agreement with two smaller parties last year.
Parliament is expected to elect her to a fourth term as chancellor this week.
Rescue teams recover black boxes at site of Iran plane crash
TEHRAN, Iran — Rescue teams have recovered the black boxes of a plane that crashed last month in the mountains of southwestern Iran leaving 66 people dead, official media reports on Sunday.
“The box that recorded flight parameters and the one with conversations in the cockpit have been handed over to judicial authorities,” Reza Jafarzadeh, the public relations director of Iran’s civil aviation organisation, tells official news agency IRNA.
Jafarzadeh says the two black boxes of the Aseman Airlines ATR-72 were found on Saturday by rescue teams, who had resumed search operations in the Zagros mountains on Friday after bad weather forced them to halt efforts for nearly a week.
They were to be handed over to investigators seeking to determine the cause of the accident. The aircraft, on a domestic flight out of Tehran, went down in a snowstorm on February 18 and crashed at a height of about 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).
There have been no reported survivors from the plane’s 66 passengers and crew.
Steve Bannon: Italy vote ‘crucial’ for populists
ROME — Steve Bannon, the nationalist architect of Donald Trump’s White House campaign, says Italy’s election is “crucial” for the global populist movement and that if populists don’t win now they will in the future.
In an interview published in Sunday’s Corriere della Sera, Bannon says he came to Rome to “observe” the election. He says he’s particularly keen to see how the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and anti-immigrant, nationalist League party fare.
He says: “I think if they create a coalition among all the populists it would be fantastic, it would terrify Brussels and pierce it in its heart.”
Bannon, who crafted Trump’s anti-Muslim ban and backs a US border wall with Mexico, says Italians have had enough of Europe’s migrant crisis. Describing himself as a “proud Catholic,” he says Pope Francis had nevertheless “exacerbated the migrant crisis” with his call for Europe to open its arms to refugees.
He says: “The pope is infallible in doctrine, but not in church policy in the world.”
Witness: Acre driver was angry over parking ticket
A witness to a possible ramming attack in the northern city of Acre says the driver of the vehicle began plowing into people after getting a parking ticket.
“The driver got a ticket for NIS 1,000 ($290) for parking in a handicapped spot. He got pissed off and went up on the sidewalk [and] then struck a traffic light and some bushes and ran over a border guard,” Shimon Cohen tells the Ynet new site.
Cohen says a cop tried to shoot the driver but missed. He says the driver then proceeded toward the train station where he hit a pair of IDF soldiers.
Police say they know the identity of the driver, who is reported to be an Arab Israeli man from the town of Shfaram.
Egypt: 4 soldiers, 10 jihadists killed in Sinai
CAIRO — Egypt’s military says on Sunday that four soldiers and 10 jihadists were killed in a military operation in Sinai against the Islamic State terror group.
The deaths raise military casualties to at least 16 dead, along with more than 100 jihadists, since the start of the operation on February 9, according to previous army tolls.
The army launched the campaign after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is standing in elections for his second term this month, gave them a three month deadline to crush IS in Sinai.
Police: Acre car ramming was a ‘nationalistic attack’
Police say the suspected car-ramming attack in Acre was a “nationalistic attack.”
“The investigation of the incident, as well as the findings from the scene and documentary materials, indicate that this was a nationalistic attack,” police say.
The police statement comes after reports said the driver was angry after receiving a parking ticket.
Check Point CEO awarded Israel Prize for technology and innovation
Gil Shwed, the CEO of Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point, is awarded the Israel Prize in technology and innovation, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announces.
“Shwed is a pioneer of the Startוp Nation,” Bennett tweets.
“His story is the story of Israeli high-tech,” Bennett adds. “As an alumnus of 8200 who founded Check Point, he paved the way and was an inspiration for me and thousands of Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs.”
Topless activist disrupts Berlusconi vote in Italy
ROME — A topless Femen activist disrupts polling in Italy’s national election while ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi casts his ballot.
The woman, who has the words “Berlusconi, you’ve expired” written in black marker on her topless torso, jumps onto the table at the Milan polling station as Berlusconi votes.
Photographers in the room to shoot the scene jostle for position amid the chaos. Berlusconi is escorted out.
News reports recall that Femen activists disrupted Berlusconi’s vote in 2013 as well.
AIPAC kicks off annual conference
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee begins its annual conference in Washington, DC.
Among the speakers scheduled to address the conference Sunday are Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
A number of Israeli and American officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, will address the conference on Monday, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak on Tuesday.
Rivlin praises Check Point CEO on winning Israel Prize
President Reuven Rivlin praises Check Point CEO Gil Shwed upon being awarded the Israel Prize in technology and innovation.
“When Gil Shwed was released from the IDF, he didn’t dream about a buyout. Along with Shlomo Kramer and Marius Nacht, he started Check Point, the flagship of Israeli high-tech, a company whose innovativeness and leadership represent us proudly in the world and remains in Israeli hands,” says Rivlin.
“My dear Gil, no one is more deserving than you to be the first Israel Prize winner in the field of high-tech,” the president adds.
Sissi challenger organizes rally, no one shows up
CAIRO — The sole candidate running against Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in this month’s national election attempts to organize a rally, but no one shows up.
About a dozen workers from the campaign of Moussa Mustafa Moussa carry posters of him about 100 meters in downtown Cairo on Sunday, stopping well short of the end of their planned march. At least twice as many photographers and cameramen from state and private media document the march.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is virtually certain to win re-election in the March 26-28 vote, after a string of would-be contenders withdrew under pressure or were arrested.
Moussa, the only other candidate on the ballot, is a little-known politician who supports Sissi. He doesn’t attend the march and has largely avoided the media.
The March of One: campaign staff of Moussa Moustapha Moussa, the el-Sissi supporter who’s now his sole rival (in name only) organize a parade for the cameras. No one joins. #egypt pic.twitter.com/rfeT8MZaxC
— Brian Rohan روهان (@Brian_Rohan) March 4, 2018
Netanyahus arrive at Blair House, receive flowers from Melania
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive at the official White House guest residence, where they are greeted with a bouquet of flowers from US First Lady Melania Trump.
The Prime Minister’s Office says a note accompanying the flowers reads: “We hope you enjoy your stay at Blair House. We look forwarding to seeing you. Best and warm wishes, Melania Trump.”
Monitor: Syrian regime retakes over a quarter of rebel enclave
BEIRUT — The Syrian regime has retaken control of more than a quarter of the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, a monitoring group says.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says regime forces have advanced to three kilometers (two miles) from Douma, the main town, after seizing control of “more than 25 percent” of the enclave, in operations mostly through farmlands.
Israeli envoy to US: Embassy move will be ‘remembered forever’ by Jews
Israeli Ambassador to Israel Ron Dermer, speaking at the annual AIPAC conference, says Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “will be remembered forever by the Jewish people.”
Addressing what he calls Palestinian delegitimization of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, Dermer says the US embassy move “punctures this great lie that the Jewish people are colonialists in the Land of Israel.”
Macron urges Tehran to ‘pressure’ Syria to halt Ghouta offensive
PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron calls on his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Sunday to put the “necessary pressure” on the Syrian government to halt “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta.
During a telephone call between the two leaders, Macron underscores the “particular responsibility for Iran, because of its ties to the regime, regarding the implementation of the humanitarian truce” sought by the UN, his office says.
Saudi crown prince lands in Egypt on first foreign tour
CAIRO — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lands in Cairo on Sunday at the start of his first foreign tour as heir to the throne.
Prince Mohammed will meet with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a key regional ally, and other officials in Egypt before flying off to Britain on Wednesday and then the United States.
— قناة الإخبارية (@alekhbariyatv) March 4, 2018
Hamas praises ‘heroic and brave’ Acre car-ramming
Hamas terror praises the “heroic and brave” car-ramming in the northern Israeli city of Acre that police have labeled a nationalistic attack, the Ynet news site reports.
Israel Radio quotes the terror group as stressing “the importance of the continuation of the resistance against the occupation.”
Trump and May blame Russia, Syria for ‘appalling’ Eastern Ghouta suffering
LONDON — Russia and Syria are responsible for the “heartbreaking human suffering” in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, US President Donald Trump and his British counterpart Theresa May say.
The two leaders discuss the “appalling humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta” during a phone call Sunday detailed by May’s Downing Street office.
“They agreed it was a humanitarian catastrophe, and that the overwhelming responsibility for the heartbreaking human suffering lay with the Syrian regime and Russia, as the regime’s main backer,” the prime minister’s office says.
Syria’s regime has seized control of over a quarter of Eastern Ghouta, on the edges of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday.
May and Trump say, “Russia and others with influence over the Syrian regime must act now to cease their campaign of violence and to protect civilians.”
UN plans to deliver aid to Syria’s Ghouta on Monday
DAMASCUS, Syria — The United Nations says it plans to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance on Monday to Syrians besieged in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
A convoy that would enter the enclave would consist of “46 truckloads of health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, says in a statement.
Putin: Russia will never extradite citizens accused by US
WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia will never extradite any of the 13 Russians indicted by the United States for election-meddling, Russian President Vladimir Putin says, even as he insisted they did not act on behalf of his government.
Putin’s comments in an NBC News interview airing Sunday illustrated the long odds that the Russian operatives will ever appear in US court to answer charges of running a massive, secret social media trolling and targeted messaging operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The United States has no extradition treaty with Moscow and cannot compel it to hand over citizens, and a provision in Russia’s constitution prohibits extraditing its citizens to foreign countries.
“Never. Never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone,” Putin says.
Report: Guatemala to move embassy to Jerusalem in May
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales will announce today his country is moving its embassy to Jerusalem in May, Hadashot TV news reports.
The report comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Morales in Washington, where both will address the annual AIPAC conference.
“Thank you for everything you are doing. For recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And I hope soon move you’re embassy to Jerusalem,” Netanyahu tells Morales.
נתניהו לנשיא גואטמלה מוראלס: תודה על כל מה שאתה עודה ועל ההחלטה להעביר את השגרירות לירושלים . מוראלס: כבוד עבורי לפגוש אותך pic.twitter.com/SbcBkslqVP
— Tal Schneider (@talschneider) March 4, 2018
Rivlin calls for coalition to reach understanding on Haredi enlistment
President Reuven Rivlin calls for increased dialogue and understanding between opposing coalition parties to prevent elections over a push by ultra-Orthodox parties for legislation that would exempt religious seminary students from the military draft.
“This is not the first government to be threatened by this issue,” Rivlin says during an address to the Israel Press Council.
But, he continues, “we will not be able to solve the issue of conscription with force, but only via agreement. If we cannot agree to tackle the disagreement with dialogue then the issue will continue to destabilize the political system and deepen the tension between different sectors of society.”
Rivlin calls on the parties to see the disagreement “not as one between those who hate the army on one side and those who hate the Torah on the other, but rather between Israelis who all respect both the army and the study of the Torah.”
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism has been threatening to boycott voting on the state budget vote if a law exempting the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service is not passed first, but coalition partner Avigdor Liberman, who serves as defense minister, has vowed that his Yisrael Beytenu party will not allow such a measure to pass.
The Kulanu party leader, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, on Friday also threatened that his party would resign from the government if the budget is not passed within two weeks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday night that “there is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with good will, that will not happen.”
— Raoul Wootliff
Poll: Likud would win 29 seats if new elections held
Likud would win 29 seats in the Knesset if fresh elections were held, despite the corruption allegations surrounding its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Channel 10 report says.
Although one seat fewer than its current tally, the poll result was the best yet for the party since police recommended last month that Netanyahu be indicted in a pair of corruption cases.
Following Likud in the poll is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which would win 24 seats (11). The opposition Zionist Union would win 12 seats (24) and the Joint (Arab) List would win 12, one fewer than its current total.
Rounding out the poll, the left-wing Meretz would win 8 seats (5), Kulanu 7 (10), Yisrael Beytenu 7 (5), United Torah Judaism 6 (6) and Shas 5 (7).
Rivlin launches vehement defense of journalism amid attacks on media
President Reuven Rivlin launches a vehement defense of journalism amid ongoing attacks on the Israeli media by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
Speaking at the first assembly of the Israel Press Council, Rivlin says that “it is possible and appropriate to criticize the media,” but that “we must not silence it and the the dialogue that it creates, even when is critical of us, whether on the left or right.”
Battling year-long investigations into alleged corruption, some that have been sparked by reports in the media of his alleged misconduct, Netanyahu has labeled negative reporting of him as “fake news” and said that the media is engaged in “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”
Without naming Netanyahu, Rivlin slams such attacks as an attack on democracy.
“This is not an easy time to be part of the global guild of journalists. Journalists, journalism and news outlets are under attack. They are being accused of creating ‘fake news,’ or of biased reporting and a lack of diversity,” he says scornfully.
Noting that his two childhood heroes -- Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the pre-state founder of Revisionist Zionism, and Superman — were both journalists, Rivlin says that journalists today must strive to fulfill expectations as a principled professions, in order to act as gatekeepers of Israeli democracy.
“It is important to remember that journalism and the media are a necessary tenet of our democracy and specifically because of that, there is an expectation from journalists to be supermen — upstanding, professional, trustworthy, dedicated,” he concludes.
— Raoul Wootliff
Police said to forbid Netanyahus from discussing Case 4000
Police have forbid Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara to discuss a criminal investigation in which they are both ensnared, Hadashot TV news reports.
The network says the two were informed of this by police on Friday, when they were separately questioned under caution in the investigation, which is known as Case 4000.
The case involves suspicions the prime minister advanced regulation benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for favorable coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
Syria’s Assad says operation in Ghouta ‘must continue’
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria President Bashar Assad says on Sunday that his forces must continue an operation in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, despite mounting pressure to end it.
“The operation against terrorism must continue, while at the same time civilians will continue to have the possibility” to evacuate, Assad tells journalists in remarks broadcast on state television.
Assad’s forces have seized over a quarter of the enclave on Damascus’s eastern edges after two weeks of devastating bombardment, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.
Russian presidential candidate Sobchak is doused with water
MOSCOW — Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak’s campaign office says she was doused with water and knocked to the ground, in an assault on Sunday.
The incident came several days after Sobchak threw water on nationalist presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, during a televised debate.
According to a statement on Sobchak’s campaign website, the man who threw water on her at the entrance of a Moscow hotel said, “This is for Zhirinovsky.” The statement says the man was detained by police and identified him as a staff member of the Moscow city council.
Sobchak, who rose to fame hosting a TV reality show, casts herself as the candidate for Russians fed up with current politics, but has largely avoided personal criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
Zhirinovsky, the 71-year-old leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, has achieved notoriety for his xenophobic statements. This will be the sixth time he has run for president.
Eight candidates are registered for Russia’s March 18 presidential election, including Putin.
UN nuclear chief: Iran accord failure would be ‘great loss’
VIENNA — The failure of the 2015 accord between Iran and world powers to restrict Tehran’s nuclear program would be a “great loss,” the head of the UN’s atomic watchdog says Monday.
International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano says Iran is, as of today, “implementing its nuclear-related commitments” under the deal.
In a speech opening a meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors, Amano says the deal “represents a significant gain for verification,” and that if it “were to fail, it would be a great loss for nuclear verification and for multilateralism.”
Last month, an IAEA report said Iran was continuing to abide by the deal’s key measures.
Amano says inspectors had had “access to all the sites and locations which we needed to visit.”
He adds that the agency had requested “further clarifications” over notification that Iran gave the agency in January regarding its stated intentions to construct “naval nuclear propulsion” at some point in the future.
French foreign minister in Iran, amid missile criticism
TEHRAN, Iran — France’s foreign minister arrives in Tehran on Monday for meetings with the country’s president and his Iranian counterpart, Iran’s state TV reported, with talks likely to focus on Syria’s years-long war and French criticism of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Jean-Yves Le Drian’s one-day trip highlights the balancing act Paris finds itself in after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
While French leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, have criticized Iran’s missile program, French companies like oil giant Total SA have bullishly entered the Iranian market after the atomic accord, complicating any possible sanctions.
Ahead of Le Drian’s trip, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying he would pursue “a frank and demanding dialogue with Iran.”
Le Drian faced immediate pushback over French concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles, starting with Iranian students waving signs at Iran’s Mehrabad International Airport protesting his comments.
Le Drian had been scheduled to visit Tehran earlier, but postponed his trip after protests across Iran in late December and early January that saw at least 21 people killed.