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UK lawmakers start Brexit agreement vote

Signs point to Parliament rejecting the deal; PM Theresa May tells House of Commons decision ‘will set the future of our country for generations;

Pro-European demonstrators hold EU flags at Parliament Square in London, Tuesday, January 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Pro-European demonstrators hold EU flags at Parliament Square in London, Tuesday, January 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

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

Likud says it won’t commit to transparency rules for online campaign ads

The legal adviser of the ruling Likud party, Avi Halevy, says the party is rejecting a call from other major political factions to impose greater transparency over campaign advertising ahead of the April 9 elections.

The Central Elections Committee has sought to apply the legal standards for traditional election-time advertising in print, radio or television to new media, especially online advertising. The committee’s members, who represent the major parties running in the current elections, have focused on applying the requirement that political parties and organizations must identify themselves in their advertising to online ads, which the current law does not require, as it was written before online advertising became a major vehicle for electioneering.

Likud is the only party currently in the Knesset to refuse to commit to that transparency standard.

In a letter made public by the Globes financial daily, Halevy explains Likud’s two key reasons: that imposing the new rules on online advertising must be done through legislation, not the expansion of the powers of the elections committee; and that dozens of small parties that have never won seats in the Knesset were not being asked to make the same commitments.

The Central Elections Committee’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, noted last week that fears that foreign powers might attempt to manipulate Israel’s elections raised the urgency and importance of ensuring as much transparency and clear provenance for electioneering materials.

UK lawmakers prepare to deliver verdict on Brexit

LONDON — British lawmakers are preparing to deliver their verdict on Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal with the European Union on Tuesday after more than two years of political upheaval.

All signs point to it receiving a resounding thumbs-down from Parliament, a development that would throw British politics further into turmoil, just 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29.

Despite a last-ditch plea from May for legislators to give the deal “a second look,” it faces deep opposition, primarily because of measures designed to prevent the reintroduction of border controls between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal will leave Britain bound indefinitely to EU rules, while pro-EU politicians favor an even closer economic relationship with the bloc.

That leaves the agreement facing likely defeat on a day that could bring a very British mix of high drama, low insults and convoluted parliamentary procedure.

— AP

Germany arrests German-Afghan army adviser for ‘spying for Iran’

BERLIN, Germany — Germany detains a German-Afghan man on suspicion he was spying for Iran while working for the German army as a linguistic and cultural adviser.

The 50-year-old identified as Abdul Hamid S. was arrested in western Germany, federal prosecutors say in a statement.

“The accused was a language evaluator and cultural issues adviser of the German armed forces. In this capacity, he is believed to have passed on information to an Iranian intelligence service,” they add.

According to Spiegel Online, he is suspected of working for Iranian secret services for several years. While working for the German army, he had access to highly sensitive information including on troop deployment in Afghanistan, the report added.

— AFP

Amid changing of the guard, Rivlin praises IDF chiefs over vegetarian lunch

Israel’s two overlapping lieutenant generals — the highest rank in the IDF reserved for the army’s chief of staff — continue their day of changing-of-the-guard rituals with a visit to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

They have also visited the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery and the Western Wall together.

President Reuven Rivlin hosts the outgoing chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, and his incoming counterpart, Aviv Kochavi, as well as their wives, for lunch.

“The chief of staff is the chief of staff of the whole IDF. They are the heads of the people’s army, commanders of us all, not of left or of right,” Rivlin says.

Rivlin offers a friendly gibe, highlighting Kochavi’s roots in the Paratroopers Brigade and Eisenkot’s in the competing Golani Brigade. “It is said that when Paratroopers replace Golani on the front line, they immediately count how many operations Golani carried out during their tour. And their mission from that moment on is to do the same number of operations, and at least one more. Gadi, you grew up in Golani, from recruit to brigade commander and became our no. 1 soldier. Your roots are the roots of the tree on the Golani unit badge. Gadi, under your command, the IDF never stopped fighting on all fronts. Fighting between wars is a new kind of conflict – demanding, Sisyphean, draining and difficult. Aviv was at your side during this campaign, with you as your deputy.”

He goes on: “Aviv, in you, the IDF is getting a superb chief of staff. The best of the best. I am sure that you will steer the IDF through the challenges ahead with the same determination that you have shown up until now. You understand the complexity and the weight of responsibility. Now, no one bears a greater responsibility than you.”

The President’s Residence makes a point of noting that the lunch was vegetarian. Kochavi is Israel’s first vegetarian chief of the IDF.

Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the incoming IDF chief of staff, left, President Reuven Rivlin, center, and Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the outgoing IDF chief of staff at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to mark the changing of the guard in the IDF’s top post, January 15, 2019. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

West Bank Palestinians strike against PA’s social security law

Thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank join a strike against their government’s proposed new social security law, fearing the fund will be mismanaged.

The strike, which sees much of Ramallah, Hebron and other Palestinian cities closed, comes hours before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to address the United Nations.

A few thousand people protest outside the Social Security Corporation in Ramallah, where Abbas’s government is based.

Under the proposed system, both private employers and their employees will pay monthly into a government-managed fund, with employees receiving a pension when they retire.

The government says it will provide new security for employees, arguing similar systems exist in countries across the globe.

Protesters say they do not trust the Palestinian government to manage the fund and point out there are no guarantees.

— AFP

London mosque secretly agrees to host Holocaust exhibition

An undisclosed London mosque has agreed to host an exhibition on the Holocaust that another Muslim house of worship canceled amid protests by members of that faith, activists say.

The new venue is being kept under wraps for fear of a repeat of the campaign that led to the Golders Green mosque scrapping its event earlier this month, Fiyaz Mughal of the interfaith group Faith Matters tells The Jewish News of London.

The Golders Green mosque canceled – without giving a reason – the exhibition titled “Love they Neighbor” about Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. The cancellation followed a journalist’s calls on a Muslim community news website to protest over the fact that the exhibition was created by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

“Thankfully, the exhibition on Muslims who saved Jews is being held in Redbridge,” Mughal says. “There is some fantastic work being done” in that borough of London, he adds.

Separately, the Board of Deputies of British Jews said it would host next month the exhibition at a meeting in the presence of the Albanian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Qirjako Qirko.

— JTA

Women’s March names 3 Jewish women to its steering committee

The Women’s March names three Jewish women to its new 32-member steering committee. The Jewish members are transgender rights activist Abby Stein; Union for Reform Judaism staffer April Baskin; and Jewish diversity activist Yavilah McCoy.

Stein, a formerly Hasidic transgender woman, has worked to raise awareness for transgender people as well as those leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Baskin is the former vice president of Audacious Hospitality for the Union for Reform Judaism and is a former president of the Jewish Multiracial Network. McCoy is the founder of Ayecha, a Jewish nonprofit that advocates for Jews of color.

The Women’s March has come under fire in recent months due to its leaders’ handling of allegations of anti-Semitism, with celebrities and activists openly criticizing the organizers’ actions.

The controversy started when organizer Tamika Mallory attended a speech by and then praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of anti-Jewish and homophobic statements.

More recently, a report in Tablet said that Mallory and fellow organizer Carmen Perez had made anti-Semitic statements at two Women’s March planning meetings, claims which the organizers deny.

A number of organizations have dropped out as March sponsors, including the National Council of Jewish Women, Southern Poverty Law Center and EMILY’s List. Last week, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a major Reform congregation in New York, announced it was disassociating itself from Women’s March, Inc.

— JTA

Prosecutors say they will indict Jewish suspect in Palestinian woman’s killing

State prosecutors submit a preliminary statement to the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court announcing their intent to indict the prime suspect in the deadly stoning of a Palestinian woman.

Aisha Rabi, a 47-year-old mother of eight, was fatally struck on the head by a rock while driving in a car with her husband and daughter in the northern West Bank on October 12.

Aisha Rabi (Courtesy)

The Jewish teen suspected in throwing the killing rock was arrested on December 30 along with two other students from the Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school in the northern West Bank.

A week later, two more boys from the same boarding school were arrested.

The charges against the teen are expected to include terrorism.

In announcing the intention to indict, the State Attorney’s Office asks the court to extend the remand of the teen for an additional five days in order to provide time to submit the indictment. The court grants the request.

— Jacob Magid

Explosion, gunfire at Nairobi hotel, office complex

A gunfight is underway following a blast at a hotel and office complex in a leafy Nairobi neighborhood, an AFP reporter and a witness say.

“There was a bomb, there is a lot of gunfire,” whispers a man working in the offices in the Dusit Hotel compound, asking not to be named.

The blast was heard from AFP’s offices some five kilometers (three miles) away and a reporter sent to the scene says gunmen and security forces are exchanging gunfire. It is not immediately clear whether the incident is a robbery or an attack.

— AFP

Jerusalem schools to close early Wednesday ahead of snowstorm

The Jerusalem Municipality says schools and kindergartens will close at 3 p.m. tomorrow, an hour earlier than usual, amid forecasts that a snowstorm is set to hit the capital later in the afternoon.

German spy agency to step up scrutiny of far-right party

BERLIN — Germany’s domestic intelligence agency is reportedly planning to place the far-right Alternative for Germany party under heightened scrutiny amid concerns that it is flirting with extremism.

News outlets including weekly Der Spiegel and news agency dpa report that the BfV agency will examine public comments by the party’s members and its links to extremist groups, but stop short of putting the party under covert surveillance. The Tagesspiegel newspaper reports, however, that limited covert surveillance is being considered for the party’s youth wing and a faction within the party linked to a prominent leader in the east, Bjoern Hoecke.

BfV chief Thomas Haldenwang calls an afternoon news conference in Berlin to discuss the agency’s monitoring of the party. The BfV, whose task is to prevent groups from undermining the German constitution, has spent months collecting material on Alternative for Germany.

The party, which came third in national elections in 2017, has moved steadily to the right since it was founded six years ago as a vehicle for critics of the euro currency. Several senior figures have quit the party in recent years, warning that it is being taken over by far-right extremists. Following reports about possible observation by the BfV agency last year, the party called on members to refrain from making comments that might be considered extremist. It also expelled three party members who attended a neo-Nazi festival at which some participants openly displayed their support for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

— AP

Iowa’s Steve King off House committees after race remarks

WASHINGTON — Veteran Republican Rep. Steve King will be blocked from committee assignments for the next two years after lamenting that white supremacy and white nationalism have become offensive terms.

King, in his ninth term representing Iowa, will not be given committee assignments in the Congress that began this month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says. King served on the Agriculture, Small Business and Judiciary committees in the last Congress, and he chaired Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.

McCarthy, a Republican of California, calls King’s remarks “beneath the dignity of the Party of Lincoln and the United States of America.”

King’s comments “call into question whether he will treat all Americans equally, without regard for race and ethnicity,” McCarthy says, adding: “House Republicans are clear: We are all in this together, as fellow citizens equal before God and the law.”

The action by the GOP steering committee came after King and McCarthy met Monday to discuss the remarks on white supremacy, the latest in a years-long pattern of racially insensitive remarks by King.

King calls McCarthy’s decision to remove him from committees “a political decision that ignores the truth.” He vows to “continue to point out the truth and work with all the vigor that I have to represent 4th District Iowans for at least the next two years.”

— AP

Iran’s embassy in Beirut bashes US officials

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Iranian Embassy in Beirut says recent comments by visiting US officials are a blatant interference in other people’s business and an attempt to dictate orders.

The rare statement refers to comments made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a regional tour and those by David Hale, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs on a visit to Lebanon. Both vowed to step up efforts to counter Iran’s activities around the region and expel from Syria “every last Iranian boot.”

The embassy statement calls the remarks “provocative.” It says Iran’s military presence in Syria “does not need permission” from anyone because it was requested by the Syrian government and was done in full cooperation between the two countries.

— AP

Eisenkot: Netanyahu’s national security decisions were never political

Following the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at IDF headquarters a short time ago, in which outgoing chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot formally handed the reins of the IDF to the incoming army chief Aviv Kochavi, Eisenkot said neither he nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever made a national security decision for political reasons.

At a meeting of the General Staff of the army at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, Eisenkot offers his parting thoughts to the army’s top brass.

Known as a man of few words, Eisenkot, who has referred to the army in the past as a unifying force in Israeli society, says, “my recommendations [to the government] were shaped by Israel’s security needs. There were never any political concerns behind my decisions, nor were there in the prime minister’s considerations” when it came to national security, he affirms.

As Syrian war grinds to a halt, Palestinian TV opens Damascus office

The Palestinian Authority’s television channel, Palestine TV, is joining in the broader Arab rehabilitation of the Assad regime in Syria as that country’s civil war draws to a close.

According to the Middle East Eye, the channel opened a “headquarters” in Damascus yesterday, the latest in a series of bureaus the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation recently launched in Beirut, Cairo and Tunis.

The Assad regime was suspended from the Arab League for its brutal crackdown on protests in 2011. That crackdown launched a seven-year war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more.

Spain arrests 17 in ongoing anti-terror operation

MADRID — Authorities in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia say 17 people, including five alleged members of an extremist Islamist cell, are arrested Tuesday as part of an ongoing anti-terror operation.

As well as having terror links, the suspects also allegedly committed theft, drug trafficking and other crimes, according to the Mossos d’Esquadra regional police.

More than 100 agents were taking part in the operation, which was still taking place mid-afternoon, a spokeswoman says. The spokeswoman says six venues had been searched in and near Barcelona.

Catalan regional minister of security, Miquel Buch, tells reporters that most of the arrests were in a central neighborhood of the Catalan capital, but some were in the nearby town of Igualada.

The five suspected of being part of an extremist cell were originally from Algeria, Buch tells reporters. “They were determined about carrying out an attack, but they didn’t have the capacity for it,” he says.

— AP

Kenya police detonate explosives-laden car near terror attack

Kenyan police say they have detonated a car they said had explosives inside following a terror attack on an upscale complex in the capital Nairobi. The blast sent people at the scene ducking and screaming.

Officers have moved away from other vehicles they suspect of having explosives.

Other officers have been going shop to shop in the complex in the Westlands neighborhood. It is a short walk from Westgate Mall, which was the scene of a deadly extremist attack in 2013.

The Somalia-based extremist group al-Shaba has claimed responsibility for this attack.

— AP

Kenya shooting comes a day after trial decision for 2013 terror attack

The attack on an upscale hotel complex in Kenya’s capital comes a day after a magistrate’s court ruled that three men must stand trial on charges they were involved in a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013.

The magistrate said Monday he was satisfied with prosecutors’ evidence linking the three suspects to the days-long siege of Westgate Mall in which 67 people were killed. A fourth suspect was freed for lack of evidence.

The Somalia-based Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for that attack, and it has claimed responsibility for the one on Tuesday.

— AP

Kenyan police: Attackers could still be active

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s national police chief says they are aware some attackers could still be inside an upscale Nairobi complex and that special forces are trying to flush them out.

Joseph Boinnet does not confirm any deaths and does not give a number of people injured in the attack in the Westlands neighborhood.

The police chief says they suspect this to be a “terror attack” and he urges people to remain calm. He says that police are looking forward to “bringing the situation to normalcy in the shortest time possible.”

Kenyans are watching the police response closely after officers took hours to respond to a deadly attack on the nearby Westgate Mall in 2013.

— AP

US says Russia in ‘material breach’ of key nuclear treaty

GENEVA, Switzerland — Russia remains “in material breach” of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the US says, raising the prospect that Washington will follow through on threats to ditch the agreement over alleged violations by Moscow.

US and Russian diplomats met in Geneva today amid widespread concern over the fate of the bilateral agreement, after US President Donald Trump said in October his country would pull out of the deal unless Russia lived up to its terms.

“The meeting was disappointing as it is clear Russia continues to be in material breach of the Treaty and did not come prepared to explain how it plans to return to full and verifiable compliance,” US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Andrea Thompson, says in a statement.

“Our message was clear: Russia must destroy its noncompliant missile system,” she adds.

Russia hosts the talks at its mission in Geneva and Moscow’s delegation is led by deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.

— AFP

Two men killed in drive-by shooting near Tira, police say

Two people are killed in a drive-by shooting on Route 24 near the Arab town of Tira, the Israel Police say.

The two men were in critical condition and evacuated to Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, but were pronounced dead by doctors at the hospital.

Police say the motive and circumstances behind the killing are not yet known. A manhunt is underway for the shooters.

Madonna invited to perform at Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv — report

The Ynet news site says Israeli organizers of the 2019 Eurovision song competition have reached out to the international pop icon Madonna and invited her to play at the competition, which begins May 14 in Tel Aviv.

The site says Madonna appears to be favorably disposed toward the idea.

Two Gazan men cross border, throw ‘unidentified object,’ chased back by IDF

Two Palestinian men from the northern Gaza Strip breached the border fence and entered Israeli territory before IDF troops arrived at the scene and shot toward them, causing them to flee, the army says.

The two suspects threw an “unidentified object” onto the ground before they ran back into the Gaza Strip, the military says.

No Israeli troops were injured in the incident.

An army spokesperson says military sappers will likely inspect the object Wednesday morning, when there’s more light.

The two suspects, along with a third man, also planted a Palestinian flag on the border fence. In the past, flagstaffs have been used as triggers for improvised explosive devices, including in one case in February in which four IDF soldiers were injured.

— Judah Ari Gross

Jerusalem, Safed, Golan towns prepare for snowstorm

Jerusalem and towns in Israel’s north are preparing for a brief but possibly powerful snowstorm Wednesday afternoon.

In Jerusalem, the city has set aside 150 cars, trucks and tractors with snow plows attached, as well as 200 tons of salt to ensure major roads in the capital won’t freeze.

On the Golan Heights and in the mountaintop city of Safed, municipalities convened emergency crews to prepare for possible shutdown of services on Wednesday.

The Safed municipality says schools will close at 1:30 p.m. to allow children to get home by the time the snowfall is set to begin.

Five bodies seen in Nairobi hotel attack, AFP photographer says

NAIROBI, Kenya — Five people are believed killed in an attack on an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi Tuesday, an AFP photographer sees.

The photographer sees five bodies slumped over tables on a restaurant terrace in the complex, which was hit in an attack claimed by Al-Shabaab Islamist terrorists.

— AFP

GOP’s Cheney suggests Steve King ‘find another line of work’

WASHINGTON — Republicans are dialing up the pressure on Rep. Steve King, with one GOP leader suggesting that the nine-term Iowan leave Congress after the latest in a string of what she calls his “racist” comments.

“I’d like to see him find another line of work,” Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-highest Republican in the US House of Representatives, tells reporters.

It was the most explicit call from a senior Republican for King to leave and the latest GOP effort to inspire him to quit over his quote in The New York Times last week questioning how white nationalism and white supremacy became offensive terms.

Republicans looking to avoid worsening the party’s relationship with blacks and minorities quickly condemned King’s remarks as racist. Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, wrote an op-ed saying that any GOP silence in the face of King’s remarks would be a blemish on the party and the nation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky condemned King. And tellingly, Republicans refused to say whether they support King’s re-election effort.

— AP

UEFA starts disciplinary action against Chelsea over alleged anti-Semitic chants

PARIS, France — UEFA begins disciplinary proceedings against Chelsea following alleged anti-Semitic chanting during the club’s Europa League match at the Hungarian club Vidi last month, European football’s governing body announces.

A vocal minority of Chelsea fans were heard singing a derogatory chant about Tottenham supporters, featuring anti-Semitic language, during the 2-2 draw at the Groupama Arena in Budapest.

“In relation to the alleged racist incidents that occurred at the aforementioned match, UEFA has announced that disciplinary proceedings have been instigated against Chelsea FC,” UEFA says in a statement.

It adds that its Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body will deal with the case on February 28.

Chelsea have been dogged by accusations of supporter racism in recent weeks, with four supporters banned pending an investigation into alleged racist insults directed at Raheem Sterling during the Blues’ 2-0 win over Premier League champions Manchester City in early December.

Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri said the club is in a “fight against stupid people” following further allegations of racism from supporters in the away end during his side’s 2-1 win at Watford on December 26.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and several of the club’s players joined the World Jewish Congress this week as part of its “We Remember” campaign to help raise awareness about the Holocaust and fight racism and discrimination.

— AFP

Suspect in Brussels Jewish museum attack refuses to testify

BRUSSELS — A French citizen charged with “terrorist murder” for the slayings of four people at a Jewish museum in Belgium refuses to testify at his trial Tuesday, saying he didn’t commit the killings but that the court had barred witnesses who could have spoken on his behalf.

Mehdi Nemmouche, 33, is accused of carrying out one of the first attacks by an alleged extremist who returned to Europe after fighting in the Mideast.

Defense lawyers have claimed Israeli intelligence agents opened fire at the museum in a targeted killing.

Nemmouche is charged with gunning down an Israeli couple and two museum workers with a revolver and an assault rifle on May 24, 2014. Police officers flank him in the Brussels criminal court where he is being tried, their faces covered by balaclavas.

“For the moment, I do not want to talk,” Nemmouche tells the presiding judge. “None of the people who could have helped me have been retained on the list of witnesses.”

Asked whether he killed the four victims, Nemmouche answers “No.” He does acknowledge transporting the guns that investigators say were used in the museum slayings.

— AP

IDF finds rip in Lebanon border fence, tracks leading into Lebanon

Israeli soldiers spot a rip in the security fence along the Lebanese border and tracks indicating that someone crossed from Israel into Lebanon, the army says.

The military says it is investigating the apparent border breach.

No special instructions have been given to residents of the area, an army spokesperson says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Man who crossed into Lebanon may have been ‘disturbed’ civilian

Israel’s Hadashot television news says the man who apparently crossed into Lebanon may have been “disturbed” or mentally ill, and the passage across the militarized border does not appear to have been linked to the security situation.

Jewish judge named to Florida top court at Jewish school he attended

A Jewish judge in Miami is named to the Florida Supreme Court at the Jewish day school where he attended kindergarten, finishing the ceremony by reciting a Jewish prayer.

The appointment of Robert Luck, 39, was announced Monday at the Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach. Luck’s children attend the school.

Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, was on hand for the announcement, which featured a large Israeli flag displayed behind the lectern, The Associated Press reports.

Luck, who now serves on the 3rd District Court of Appeal, is the first Jewish justice appointed to Florida’s highest court in 20 years, according to the Miami Herald.

Luck, known as a conservative, is a former Miami federal prosecutor and Circuit Court judge.

He recited a blessing from the Amidah prayer, Politico reported: “You grace humans with wisdom and teach humanity perception. Bestow upon us Your knowledge, insight and understanding. Blessed are you, the grantor of wisdom.”

— JTA

Sen. Menendez decries Republicans for using Israel as a wedge

WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert Menendez, one of the most reliable pro-Israel voices among Democrats, drops his support for an Israel-related bill because he says the Republican leadership is trying to use it as a wedge issue.

“I don’t like the Majority Leader using the US-Israel relationship as a political pawn,” Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Monitor yesterday, after the third bid in a week by Republicans to advance the bill. The New Jersey senator had voted to advance the bill the two previous times.

Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the Senate majority leader, has tried to advance a Middle East mini-omnibus bill that includes codification of the $38 billion former president Barack Obama pledged to Israel over the next 10 years and legislation that would protect from lawsuits against states that pass legislation banning state business with Israel boycotters.

McConnell needs 60 votes to advance the bill, but Democrats have stood in the way, saying that McConnell should first move on their proposals to reopen the government. President Donald Trump has said he will not consider spending legislation that would reopen the government unless it includes $5.7 billion to build a wall with Mexico. The government shutdown is in its fourth week.

Most Democrats also oppose the anti-boycott component of the bill because they say it infringes on speech freedoms, but four pro-Israel Democrats who back the anti-boycott legislation had backed advancing the measure — until Tuesday when Menendez changed his vote.

“At the end of the day this isn’t about getting this done; this is about scoring political points,” Menendez says.

The other three Democrats are Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Doug Jones of Alabama.

— JTA

William Barr says David Friedman tried to recruit him to Trump’s defense team

WASHINGTON — William Barr, US President Donald Trump’s nominee to become attorney general, tells a Senate confirmation hearing that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tried to recruit Barr to join Trump’s personal defense team.

Barr tells senators on Tuesday that he met with Trump in the summer of 2017 at Friedman’s urging but ultimately declined the assignment.

The nominee is facing tough questions from Democrats about his independence because Barr once wrote an unsolicited memo saying that Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating alleged improprieties by Trump during his campaign and presidency, did not have the authority to investigate Trump for obstruction of justice.

Barr told senators that he and Mueller were close and he wanted Mueller to wrap up his probe at his own pace.

Friedman was a lawyer for Trump before becoming the ambassador. In the summer he made the call to Barr, Friedman was part of a small team led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, attempting to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

— JTA

Amid anti-Semitic concerns, Jewish Democrats say party dropped Women’s March sponsorship

WASHINGTON — The Jewish Democratic Council of America says the party will not sponsor the national Women’s March in the wake of accusations of anti-Semitic associations among the movement’s leadership.

In a statement today, the JDCA says the Democratic National Committee is joining the increasingly popular strategy of joining local women’s march organizers while avoiding affiliation with the national group.

“JDCA supports the objectives of the Women’s March and stands with sister marches across the country this weekend,” its executive director, Halie Soifer, says in a statement. “At the same time, we welcome the DNC, SPLC, Emily’s List, and other organizations’ decision to not sponsor and participate in the Women’s March and take a principled stand against anti-Semitism.”

JTA has asked the DNC to confirm its nonparticipation in the national Women’s March.

Emily’s List is a group that encourages women to run for office. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups.

Top leaders of the national Women’s March organization have been accused of engaging in or condoning anti-Semitism, of not cutting ties with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and of failing to heed the concerns of Jewish backers.

— JTA

Labor’s Gabbay vows to initiate peace talks with Arab League if he becomes PM

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay says today that if he were elected prime minister in the April 9 elections, he would immediately turn to Arab nations to help piece together a “regional framework” for peace.

“In the first days of my term as prime minister, I intend to announce in Hebrew, Arabic and English on an Israeli diplomatic initiative that will spark a broad-based negotiations process with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab states,” Gabbay says in a statement.

He adds: “I will issue a clear call to the Arab world and its leaders, and will announce that I’m willing to go and talk to the Arab League about a regional arrangement.”

He warns other parties that “anyone who sits with Bibi [Netanyahu in a new government] won’t make peace. Anyone who wants to be a partner for change in Israel has to commit not to sit in a government led by Netanyahu.”

He accuses Netanyahu of “leading down the path of cowardice, lack of leadership, cynicism and 10 years of [diplomatic] freeze.”

May tells MPs they have ‘duty to deliver’ on Brexit vote

British Prime Minister Theresa May urges MPs to vote in favor of the Brexit deal she has struck with the EU, telling them they had a duty to deliver on the 2016 referendum result.

“I believe we have a duty to deliver on the democratic decision of the British people,” she says, warning MPs that the EU would not offer any “alternative deal.”

— AFP

US, UN condemn ‘senseless’ attack on Kenya hotel

NAIROBI, Kenya — A US State Department spokesperson says the United States condemns the “senseless act of violence” at an upscale hotel in Kenya’s capital.

The spokesperson says the US Embassy in Nairobi is closely monitoring the attack and working with Kenyan authorities to determine if any US citizens are affected.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is condemning “the horrible terrorist act.”

Authorities have not announced a death toll, but witnesses have reported up to five bodies in the attack claimed by the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab.

— AP

UK lawmakers start Brexit agreement vote

British lawmakers begin voting on whether to approve or reject the divorce agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Prime Minister Theresa May tells the House of Commons it is a “historic decision which will set the future of our country for generations.”

She says the decision is one “that each of us will have to justify and live with for many years to come.”

Wrapping up a multi-day debate, May urges legislators to “choose certainty over uncertainty” by backing the agreement and securing an orderly UK departure from the EU on March 29.

Her words may fall on deaf ears — all signs pointed to a defeat for the deal that would plunge the Brexit process into turmoil.

Lawmakers start voting on an amendment to the deal, followed by a vote on the deal itself.

— AP

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US says Russia in ‘material breach’ of key nuclear treaty

GENEVA, Switzerland — Russia remains “in material breach” of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the US says, raising the prospect that Washington will follow through on threats to ditch the agreement over alleged violations by Moscow.

US and Russian diplomats met in Geneva today amid widespread concern over the fate of the bilateral agreement, after US President Donald Trump said in October his country would pull out of the deal unless Russia lived up to its terms.

“The meeting was disappointing as it is clear Russia continues to be in material breach of the Treaty and did not come prepared to explain how it plans to return to full and verifiable compliance,” US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Andrea Thompson, says in a statement.

“Our message was clear: Russia must destroy its noncompliant missile system,” she adds.

Russia hosts the talks at its mission in Geneva and Moscow’s delegation is led by deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.

— AFP