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Gantz said to have been swayed by bad polls, a call from Aryeh Deri

TV report: Internal Blue and White surveys showed Netanyahu surging in 4th election; Shas chief vowed to ensure agreements honored

Benny Gantz in Ramat Gan on March 9, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Benny Gantz in Ramat Gan on March 9, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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

Blue and White MK says vote on new Knesset speaker to be at 4 p.m.

The Knesset will vote on a new speaker today at 4 p.m., Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn tells Army Radio.

Nissenkorn heads the Arrangements Committee, which will convene at 11:30 a.m. to open the Knesset plenum for the speakership vote.

The vote comes after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein announced he was resigning yesterday, refusing a High Court order to call a vote on a new speaker by the end of the day.

With his resignation not taking effect until tomorrow morning, the High Court last night suspended his powers and temporarily transferred them to Labor MK Amir Peretz, the Knesset’s most veteran MK, who will oversee the vote on a new speaker.

Health Ministry official: We won’t reach point where we must decide who gets ventilator

A Health Ministry official says there are currently some 4,000 ventilators in Israel.

Dr. Boaz Lev, who heads the ministry’s pandemic unit, tells the Kan public broadcaster that Israel is working to acquire more.

“We won’t get to a situation that [we] need to choose who to administer artificial respiration,” he says.

His comments come amid concerns that there aren’t enough ventilators in the country and that a surge in coronavirus cases could lead medical teams to decide who gets one and who doesn’t.

Navy vet freed from Iranian prison has virus symptoms, seeks transfer to US

WASHINGTON — A Navy veteran released from an Iranian prison last week on a medical furlough says he is sick with symptoms of the coronavirus and is requesting a humanitarian evacuation to the United States for medical treatment.

Michael White was hospitalized yesterday in a ward for coronavirus patients in Iran and has experienced fever, fatigue, a cough and shortness of breath since his furlough last week, according to a statement from Jon Franks, a family spokesman, to The Associated Press.

White, of Imperial Beach, California, “is an immunocompromised cancer patient and his situation is urgent,” Franks says. White has been tested for the coronavirus but the results have not come back.

White was detained in July 2018 while visiting a girlfriend in Iran and was later convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information.

He is among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran as the country tries to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

— AP

An undated photo of US Navy veteran Michael White, who was arrested in Iran in July 2018 while visiting his girlfriend. (screen capture: NBC news)

New Mexico cannabis company begins exporting to Israel

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — A New Mexico medical marijuana company has begun exporting cannabis-based medicine to Israel.

Ultra Health spokeswoman Marissa Novel says the company started exporting earlier this month through a partnership with Israeli pharmaceutical group Panaxai.

The medicine was created using hemp grown in Bernalillo County.

Ultra Health is believed to be one of the first US companies to export medical marijuana to Israel.

Ultra Health CEO and president Duke Rodriguez says New Mexico officials played a crucial role in getting the export effort started.

— AP

Number of coronavirus cases in Israel rises to 2,495; 41 in serious condition

The Health Ministry announces 126 new confirmed coronavirus cases since last night, bringing the total in Israel to 2,495.

It says there are now 41 people in serious condition, up two from yesterday. Another 68 people are in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms.

The ministry says 66 people have fully recovered from the virus, while five Israelis have died.

It adds that 5,240 tests were conducted over the past 24 hours and 59,493 people are currently under mandatory home quarantine over concerns they may have been exposed to the virus.

Shaked says would be like ‘surrender’ if Blue and White gets justice portfolio in unity government

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked fumes over a report that Likud agreed the Justice Ministry will go to Blue and White in a unity government of the rival parties.

“The right-wing camp’s ceding of the justice portfolio to the left-wing camp is like a letter of surrender,” Shaked, a former justice minister, writes on Twitter.

According to a Channel 13 report yesterday, Likud has agreed a Blue and White lawmaker would be justice minister in a coalition they form. Blue and White MK Chili Tropper is a likely candidate for the post, the report said.

Blue and White is believed to be seeking the justice portfolio for itself due to concerns that a Likud lawmaker could use the post to delay Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked at the Besheva conference in Jerusalem, February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Knesset report says there are 1,437 spare ventilators in Israel

A new report from the Knesset’s Research and Information Center says there are currently 2,173 ventilators in Israel, 1,437 of which are not yet in use.

That’s less than the 4,000  total a Health Ministry official said there were earlier this morning.

The report, which cites Health Ministry figures, comes as the Knesset’s new coronavirus committee convenes.

2 rockets fired at Baghdad’s Green Zone

BAGHDAD — Two rockets slammed into the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, the high-security enclave home to government buildings and foreign embassies, early this morning, Iraq’s military says.

An Iraqi security source tells AFP the intended target appeared to be the US embassy, a sprawling compound a few hundred meters south of where the rockets hit.

It is the 26th such attack targeting installations where foreign troops or diplomats are based across Iraq since late October.

— AFP

Top health official: Next two weeks critical to containing virus outbreak

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the director-general of the Health Ministry, tells the Knesset’s coronavirus committee he believes that in a week Israel will have 200 people in serious condition from COVID-19, more than four times the current figure.

He also says the next two weeks will be “critical,” warning there is high potential for further spread of the virus.

“We’re really scared of Passover and Ramadan,” he says. “These crowds are the most dangerous.”

Top health official very concerned about virus spread among Palestinians

Bar Siman-Tov says one of his biggest concerns is the spread of the coronavirus among Palestinians.

“We’re epidemiologically integrated organs. What happens there will ultimately happen here,” he tells the Knesset’s coronavirus committee.

According to the Palestinian Authority, there have been 77 confirmed cases in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank and another nine in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

PA announces 13 new coronavirus cases in West Bank village

The Palestinian Authority announces 13 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total in areas of the West Bank under its control to 77.

PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem says all of the new cases are in the Jerusalem-area village of Baidu, where a woman died yesterday from COVID-19.

A number of the new cases were exposed to that woman, according to Milhem.

There have been 17 Palestinians who have recovered from the virus.

Iran says it has no knowledge of missing ex-FBI agent Bob Levinson

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran says it has “no knowledge” of the whereabouts of a former FBI agent missing since 2007, after his family said he had died in Iranian custody.

US President Donald Trump did not confirm Bob Levinson’s death, saying that Iran had not communicated any news on the former agent, who would have turned 72 this month.

“Iran has always maintained that its officials have no knowledge of Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts, and that he is not in Iranian custody,” says Alireza Miryousefi, chief press officer at Iran’s mission to the United Nations.

“Those facts have not changed.”

Levinson’s family said that it had learnt that he was dead, although it gave no information on how or when.

The family said Levinson died before the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Iran hard and led authorities to release thousands of prisoners temporarily.

— AFP

Disputing report, Health Ministry says it has 2,864 spare ventilators

The Health Ministry says it currently has 2,864 spare ventilators, after a Knesset report said there are only 1,437 ventilators not being used now.

It stresses it was working to purchase additional ventilators and produce more locally.

Moscow orders 9-day closure for many businesses

MOSCOW — Moscow officials order the closure of restaurants, cafes, bars, shopping malls and some parks in the city for nine days starting from Saturday.

The move, aimed at keeping people at home amid the coronavirus outbreak, comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared next week a holiday, during which only essential businesses — such as pharmacies, grocery stores and banks — will continue to operate.

The number of coronavirus cases in Russia has been growing rapidly this week. Russian authorities report 840 cases of the new coronavirus today, with 182 new cases registered since the day before.

On Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Putin that the situation is “serious.” Russia’s comparatively low caseload could reflect insufficient screening rather than the actual scale of the epidemic, he said, and urged Putin to ramp up testing all across the country.

— AP

A few visitors and staff of the pub watching the broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses Russian citizens on the State Television channels in Moscow, Russia, March 25, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)

National security adviser says still no exit strategy from COVID-19 crisis

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat says the government has still not agreed on an exit strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben-Shabbat tells the Knesset’s coronavirus committee that there are a number of ideas but not yet “an approved strategy.” He says he hopes that early next week Prime Minister Netanyahu will head a meeting on this.

He also says the decisions taken by the government “aren’t perfect,” as it adopts measures as the outbreak continues to unfold.

Unemployment rate in Israel passes 20 percent

The unemployment rate in Israel reaches 20.4 percent, as the Employment Service says some 39,000 people have registered as unemployed since yesterday.

Since the start of the month, 690,055 have filed as unemployed, 90 percent of them workers who were put on leave without pay.

Cumulatively, there are now nearly 850,000 unemployed people in Israel.

Progress reported on unity government deal between Likud, Blue and White

Coalition talks between Likud and Blue and White are progressing, with the two parties moving toward a deal on a unity government, Hebrew media reports say.

According to the reports, the two parties are discussing the formation of an emergency government for six months to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, after which they would resume negotiations to reach agreement on other issues.

However, Likud is threatening to call off the talks if, as expected, the Knesset votes later day on a new speaker, the Walla news reports.

Blue and White MK Meir Cohen is expected to be chosen as the new speaker.

The reports say Blue and White is still pushing forward with the vote, but was likely to change its position.

The reports came as the Arrangements Committee was meeting to approve the convening of the Knesset plenum at 4 p.m. for the vote.

Iran reports 157 new COVID-19 deaths, raising total to 2,234

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran announces 157 new deaths from the novel coronavirus today, raising the official number of fatalities to 2,234 in one of the world’s worst-hit countries.

Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour tells a news conference that 2,389 new cases have been confirmed in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of infections to 29,406.

— AFP

Foreign Ministry said to be evacuating families of diplomats in Russia, African countries

The Foreign Ministry is evacuating the families of Israeli diplomats in Russia as the coronavirus outbreak deepens there, Army Radio reports.

The station says the families of diplomats in unspecified African states are being pulled out of those countries.

Israeli students in Jordan to return shortly to Israel

Hundreds of Israelis studying in Jordan are being brought back to Israel now by the Foreign Ministry, according to Army Radio.

All those returning will be required to quarantine at home for 14 days in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines.

Blue and White said weighing backing Gantz for Knesset speaker amid Likud threats

Blue and White is now considering backing its chairman Benny Gantz for Knesset speaker amid threats by Likud to end coalition talks if a vote for the speakership goes forward later today, according to Israeli television.

It’s not immediately clear why the election of Gantz as Knesset speaker instead of MK Meir Cohen, Blue and White’s candidate, would be acceptable to Likud.

Tibi says Joint List would vote against Gantz being Knesset speaker

Amid reports Blue and White could put forwards its chairman Benny Gantz for Knesset speaker, MK Ahmad Tibi says the majority-Arab Joint List would vote against this, likely depriving Gantz of a majority.

But he tells the Arrangements Committee that the Joint List will vote for Blue and White MK Meir Cohen to be speaker.

“We’re not part of the efforts toward a unity government,” Tibi says.

The Joint List recommended that Gantz form the next government after the March 2 elections, stressing it was doing to see Netanyahu replaced as prime minister and that it would not back a Likud-Blue and White unity government.

Liberman says Yisrael Beytenu backing Meir Cohen for Knesset speaker

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman says his party will back Blue and White MK Meir Cohen for Knesset speaker, signaling his opposition to reports that Blue and White may put forward its chairman Benny Gantz to be speaker in a bid to maintain unity talks with Likud.

Arrangements Committee approves convening of plenum for vote on Knesset speaker

The Knesset Arrangements Committee approves Labor MK Amir Peretz’s request to convene the plenum at 4 p.m. for a vote on the next Knesset speaker, in accordance with a High Court ruling.

The request is approved in a nine to seven vote. Any Knesset member wishing to contend for the post must submit his candidacy by 3:30 p.m.

The committee will meet again at 1:30 p.m. after a request to revise the decision was submitted.

Spain’s virus death toll rises above 4,000

MADRID — The coronavirus death toll in Spain surges to 4,089 after 655 people died within 24 hours, the health ministry says today.

It is a 19 percent increase on figures released yesterday. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rises to 56,188 in Spain, which has the world’s second-highest death toll from the disease after Italy.

— AFP

Blue and White’s Ya’alon backs Meir Cohen for speaker, wants vote today as planned

Blue and White No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon voices support for MK Meir Cohen to be Knesset speaker, amid reports the party was considering putting forward Benny Gantz for the post to ensure unity talks with Likud continue.

“I’m following Netanyahu’s briefings and threats against the appointment of MK Meir Cohen as Knesset speaker and against legislation that would prevent someone under indictment from running for prime minister,” he tweets.

Ya’alon adds: “I’m convinced it’s important to finish this process today as planned.”

Number of coronavirus cases in Europe tops quarter million

PARIS — The number of declared coronavirus cases in Europe tops 250,000, more than half of which are in Italy and Spain, according to an AFP tally today.

The number of recorded cases in the continent now stands at 258,068, including 14,640 dead. Italy has 74,386 registered infections and Spain has 56,188, according to a tally compiled from national health data and World Health Organization figures.

The number of actual infections is believed to be higher since many countries are only testing severe cases or patients who require hospitalization.

— AFP

Bennett says he opposes full lockdown, praises PA’s response to virus outbreak

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett says he opposes ordering a full lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

“There are other actions that are possible to take,” he says during a press conference.

Bennett has been a vocal proponent of vastly boosting testing to battle the virus.

Last night, Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel could be days from a full lockdown, only hours after new emergency ordinances drastically limiting Israelis’ movements took effect.

Bennett also praises the Palestinian Authority’s handling of the outbreak, says Israel is working to acquire further medical equipment, and that he’s enthusiastic about IDF soldiers accompanying police to enforce the restrictions now in place.

“We’ll do this nicely. We’re the people’s army,” Channel 13 news quotes him saying.

91-year-old woman dies from COVID-19, Israel’s sixth virus death

A 91-year-old woman in critical condition from the coronavirus has died, the hospital where she was being treated says.

“We share in the sorrow of the family members,” Wolfson Medical Center in Holon says.

There are not immediately any further details on the identity of the woman, the sixth person to die from COVID-19 in Israel.

Rivlin hosts Egypt’s ambassador to Israel to discuss COVID-19 pandemic

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Khaled Azmi, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, at his Jerusalem residence to discuss the two neighboring countries response to the widening COVID-19 pandemic.

“I said that Israel will cooperate in any way with Egypt and the peoples of the region in the fight against the disease,” Rivlin says after the meeting.

Egypt has announced fewer coronavirus patients than Israel, 456 to 2,495, but has recorded 21 deaths from the virus, versus six in Israel.

The meeting is also held to mark the 41st anniversary since the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which is tomorrow.

— Raphael Ahren

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Khaled Azmi, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 26, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Israel’s COVID-19 death toll rises to 8

The Health Ministry announces two more coronavirus deaths, bringing the total to eight.

It also says there are now 2,666 confirmed cases in Israel, 171 more since this morning.

It says 39 people are in serious condition and 68 in moderate condition.

WHO sees ‘encouraging signs’ in Europe amid virus outbreak

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The World Health Organization’s European office says it sees “encouraging signs” as Italy reported a lower rate of infections of the new coronavirus, cautioning it was too soon to say whether the worst had passed.

“While the situation remains very serious, we are starting to see some encouraging signs,” WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, tells a press conference.

“Italy, which has the highest number of cases in the region, has just seen a slightly lower rate of increase, though it is still too early to say that the pandemic is peaking in that country,” he adds.

WHO Europe said that to date over 220,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported on the continent, along with 11,987 deaths.

That means that globally, roughly six out of every 10 cases and seven out of 10 deaths have been reported in Europe, with the number of confirmed infections worldwide now over 400,000.

As the new coronavirus has spread across the continent, many European countries have adopted severe measures to curb the outbreak, including imposing lockdown measures and closing businesses and borders, as well as limiting public gatherings.

— AFP

IDF launches phone hotline for soldiers with COVID-19 symptoms

The Israel Defense Forces has opened its own hotline for soldiers displaying symptoms of the coronavirus as part of its effort to relieve pressure on the civilian healthcare system.

Soldiers with symptoms of the disease — fever, cough, shortness of breath — can call the hotline by dialing *6900 any time of day in order to request a test and to get answers to questions about the virus, the military says.

An IDF Medical Corps team would then visit the soldier, taking a sample and get it tested in the IDF’s laboratory. If the test is positive for the virus, the soldier would be sent to an IDF coronavirus treatment facility, the military says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Western Wall plaza to stay open amid new virus restrictions

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation says the plaza at the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City will remain open to worshipers following the introduction of new emergency ordinances to contain the coronavirus.

The foundation says closed prayer spaces at the Western Wall were closed today.

Only residents of the Old City will be allowed to go to the wall for prayers under the new restrictions, which bar people from going more than 100 meters from their homes if not for an approved essential activity.

A Jewish man prayers at the nearly deserted Westren Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US sees new single week record for number of jobless claims due to virus shutdown

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown caused unemployment benefit filings by Americans workers to surge to 3.3 million last week — the highest number ever recorded, the US Labor Department reports today.

The normally routine report is at the frontlines of the economic crisis caused by the outbreak, which has forced widespread closures of restaurants, shops and hotels, and brought airline travel to a virtual halt, prompting the stunning increase in people filing for benefits nationwide in the week ending March 21.

Nearly every state cited COVID-19 for the jump in initial jobless claims, with heavy impacts in food services, accommodation, entertainment and recreation, healthcare and transportation, the report says.

— AFP

89-year-old woman, 83-year-old man among latest COVID-19 fatalities

One of the three Israelis to die from coronavirus from today was an 89-year-old woman being treated at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem.

“This is a patient with preexisting conditions who a week ago already was categorized as being in critical condition and was treated with devotion during her entire hospitalization by the department staff, which did everything possible to ease her suffering,” the hospital says in a statement.

Another of the fatalities was an 83-year-old man from Bnei Brak who had preexisting conditions.

Wolfson Medical Center in Holon said earlier that the third victim was a 91-year-old woman.

Gantz puts forward candidacy to be next Knesset speaker

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz has submitted himself as a candidate for Knesset speaker to the Knesset Secretariat, a move that could lead to a split in the party due to reported opposition by No. 2 Yair Lapid.

Report: Lapid’s Yesh Atid will not vote for Gantz, but he has Likud’s support

Benny Gantz appears set to become the Knesset speaker and to take his party into a unity government with Likud, possibly breaking up Blue and White.

Yesh Atid’s MKs will not come to the plenum to vote for Gantz, Channel 12 news reports.

Gantz is the only candidate for speaker as Knesset set to vote

Blue and White faction Yesh Atid has not registered its preferred choice for the speaker, Meir Cohen, after it becomes clear that Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience faction will back the party chairman for speaker, and not Cohen.

Blue and White parliament member Meir Cohen speaks during a Knesset discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, May 29, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Report: Entire right-wing bloc will back Gantz’s candidacy for speaker

Channel 12 is now reporting that Benny Gantz will receive the support of the entire right-wing bloc in the upcoming vote.

Report: El Al to halt all passenger flights abroad starting tonight

El Al is planning to halt all passenger flights abroad starting tonight, Channel 12 reports, due to the severe financial crisis the firm faces in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company has few remaining flights at the moment, having shut down most routes as the crisis developed. It currently runs 10 flights a day, to the US, Canada, the UK and France.

Sources close to Gantz: Unity with Likud not a done deal but options kept open

Sources close to Benny Gantz tell Channel 12 a unity deal with Likud is not a done deal, but he wanted to leave the option open — something that would not be possible if Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen was appointed speaker.

‘Good luck my friend,’ Yamina’s Rafi Peretz wishes Benny Gantz

Long months of animosity between their parties apparently swept aside, Yamina’s Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the education minister, tweets a photo of himself and Gantz from when they served together in the army.

“Good luck my friend,” he writes.

Report: Gantz to be FM, will become PM in 18 months, in unity government; Ashkenazi on defense, Tropper justice

According to Channel 12’s political commentator Amit Segal, the emerging coalition will include the Labor party, which will split from the Meretz party.

Gantz will be the foreign minister.
Chili Tropper, of Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, will be the justice minister.
Gabi Ashkenazi will be the defense minister.

Gantz will ostensibly become prime minister in 18 months — in September 2021.

Yair Lapid said to leave Blue and White MKs’ WhatsApp group

A new screenshot shared in the media shows Yair Lapid and other Yesh Atid MKs have left Blue and White’s Whatsapp group.

Yair Lapid leaves Blue and White’s Whatsapp group (screenshot)

“Dear friends in Israel Resilience, Good luck to you. I am leaving the group. I wish you good health,” Lapid writes before leaving.

Channel 12 reports: Lapid is heading to the opposition.

Meretz MK wails: Benny Gantz, what have you done?

In an impassioned Knesset speech, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg protests Gantz’s imminent alliance with Netanyahu.

“You’ll end up a rug under the feet of an alleged crook, an inciter and racist,” she warns him. “We’re standing here in shock trying to internalize the depth of the deception… the disaster you’re inflicting on millions of voters [who backed] the left-democratic bloc… who sought an alternative [to Netanyahu].

She wails: “What have you done, Benny Gantz? How can you do this to the millions of voters who supported you?

Meretz, she stresses, “will have no part in this.”

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Reports: Gantz will only be speaker temporarily, post to later go back to Likud

Media reports indicate Gantz will only be Knesset speaker for a brief time.

Once a unity government is formed, he will be appointed foreign minister while the speakership will return to Likud, the reports say. Then, in September 2021, according to the reportedly imminent unity deal, Gantz would take over from Netanyahu as prime minister.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz gives a televised statement in Ramat Gan on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White breaks up as Lapid, Ya’alon factions file to split

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem factions have formally requested to split from Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience, officially breaking up the Blue and White alliance that had presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the only serious challenge to his leadership in years.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (C) meets Tuesday March 10 with Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (2L), Yair Lapid (2R), Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Moshe Ya’alon (L) (Courtesy/Elad Malka)

 

IDF says it shot down Hezbollah drone that flew into Israeli airspace

The Israel Defense Forces says it shot down a drone that was flown by the Hezbollah terror group into Israeli airspace from Lebanon this morning.

The military says the small drone was retrieved by IDF troops.

The incident comes shortly after IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman tells reporters that the military is on “high alert on a number of fronts,” without elaborating on the matter.

“The IDF works constantly on the borders of the State of Israel using multi-tiered defense systems to detect and intercept aerial infiltrations,” the military says in a statement.

“The IDF will continue to thwart any attempt by the Hezbollah terror group to violate the State of Israel’s sovereignty using various defensive and offensive tools in order to protect the citizens of Israel,” the IDF says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Lapid, Ya’alon seek to retain the name Blue and White for their alliance

According to Yesh Atid and Telem’s filing with the Knesset, the two factions seek to remain together and retain the name Blue and White.

The factions note they have the right to do so, as together they have more MKs than Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience.

(From R-L) Blue and White party leaders Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi attend a Blue and White faction meeting in Tel Aviv, on September 19, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Report: Lapid says Gantz broke up Blue and White to crawl into government

According to Hebrew media reports Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tells his faction  that Benny Gantz “decided to break up Blue and White to crawl into Bibi’s government. It’s unfathomable.”

Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen, who until a few hours ago was widely thought to be the next Knesset speaker, tells Channel 12: “We did not oppose unity, certainly not in such an hour. But we thought that we should first and foremost insist on democracy… on integrity.

“All these were rudely quashed today by those who were in a rush [to join the government]. It could have been different.”

Likud: Reports on makeup of unity government are only rumors

The Likud party says any reports on the form of the emerging unity government with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party are only rumors at this time.

Bennett congratulates Gantz on ‘brave step’ during time of emergency

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party:

“I congratulate Benny Gantz on the brave step of entering into a unity government under Netanyahu. This is the right thing for Israel during this time of emergency.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meretz chief: Gantz is a Netanyahu collaborator, betrayed his voters

Meretz party head Nitzan Horowitz says Gantz “has become a collaborator with the accused [prime minister].”

He says Gantz “built himself on one promise only: an alternative leadership. Entering Netanyahu’s government is to spit in the face and betray the voters of Blue and White and the entire center-left bloc.”

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz attends a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Report: Gantz’s party to have portfolios equal to right-wing bloc

Haaretz reports that despite being severely outnumbered in the emerging new coalition, Gantz’s Israel Resilience will receive a number of ministerial portfolios equal to that of the entire right-wing bloc.

Benny Gantz in Ramat Gan on March 9, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Lapid and Ya’alon announce press conference for 8:30 p.m.

Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon will hold a press conference following the disintegration of the Blue and White alliance.

Their statements will be given at 8:30 p.m. in Tel Aviv.

Benny Gantz voted in as speaker with full support of right-wing bloc

Benny Gantz has been elected Knesset speaker as part of an emerging unity deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after receiving the full support of the right-wing bloc.

Gantz is voted in with the backing of 74 MKs. Eighteen voted against and the rest did not participate.

He says “Israeli democracy has won.”

He is expected to resign from his post after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK.

Illustrative: Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz says democracy has won, vows to protect democratic institutions

In his first speech after being elected Knesset speaker, Benny Gantz says “democracy has won.”

He says he was chosen “to unify the people and not divide.”

Gantz says: “I promise to all Israelis to do the right thing at this time. The Knesset will work for the people and citizens — all of them.”

He vows to protect the justice system and the country’s civil rights from any undemocratic action.

“Make no mistake, I will not compromise on principles for which over a million citizens voted,” he says.

As to his former partners who have broken up their alliance with him over his decision to join with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he says he hopes to continue to work together with them.

Gantz: Not a joyous day, but an important one; Israel is before everything else

More from Benny Gantz at the Knesset speaker’s podium:

Gantz says it is not a joyous day for him, but “an important one.” He says Israeli democracy “is not up for negotiation.”

Gantz says Israel has for over a year been led by an interim government “without a public mandate. We’ve gone through repeated elections that have taken billions of shekels from the health, education and defense systems.

“Alongside this, deep hatred has blossomed, with division the greatest existential threat to Israel.”

Quoting from his 2019 election slogan, Gantz says he is putting Israel “before everything else.”

 

With coalition at hand, battle for portfolios begins

With a unity government in the cards and a need to satisfy all parties, many top Likud officials and ministers may soon find themselves deprived of positions for which they have yearned.

One such potential example is former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who has had his sights set on the Treasury and was promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would be the next finance minister.

Channel 12 reports that Foreign Minister Israel Katz is now seen as the leading candidate for that role.

Attempting to preempt such a move, a statement given to Hebrew media by associates of Barkat says “Nir Barkat trusts the prime minister fully and has no doubt he will fulfill his promise to the people of Israel and appoint him as finance minister in the emergency government.”

Likud MK Nir Barkat speaks at the Kohelet Forum Conference in Tel Aviv on February 12, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Report: Edelstein says he’s been vindicated, ‘disparagers can eat their hats’

According to the Walla news site, outgoing Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein tells associates his efforts to form a unity government have born fruit, and he has been proven justified in his actions over the past few weeks.

“The reality has proven me right. I have worked for unity a full year. That was the essence of my recent actions. All the disparagers can eat their hats.”

In a statement Edelstein wishes Gantz “to enjoy the job — but only for a short time. We must quickly form a unity government in the coming days, in which you will be a central figure.”

China, Iran lead UN push for US sanctions relief during pandemic

China and Iran lead a group of countries in a joint push for the UN to pressure Washington to lift sanctions, which they charge are hindering the global fight against COVID-19.

“We urge you to request the complete and immediate lifting of such illegal, coercive and arbitrary measures of economic pressure (…) in order to ensure the full, effective and efficient response of all members of the international community to the coronavirus,” they say in a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The letter does not specifically mention Washington but all eight signatories currently face US sanctions. The signatories say they want to “reject the politicization of such a pandemic.”

In addition to Iran and China, two of the countries most affected by the coronavirus, the signatories include Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, Nicaragua, Cuba and Syria.

— AFP

Knesset committee to convene to formalize Blue and White split

The Knesset’s Arrangements Committee will convene this evening to address Yesh Atid and Telem’s request to split from Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience.

Shin Bet says surveillance program has so far identified 500 virus carriers

The Shin Bet security service says its controversial mass surveillance program has so far helped identify 500 coronavirus patients.

It says the 500 identified as having been in contact with coronavirus carriers through cellphone tracking and other means were tested and found positive for the disease. This, it says, proves the necessity of this tracking effort, despite deep concerns over violations of personal privacy and a lack of parliamentary oversight.

“Without quickly finding them and putting them into quarantine, they surely would have unknowingly infected many more people,” the Shin Bet says in a statement.

Police patrol the empty beach in Tel Aviv on March 26, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Over the past two weeks, the internal security agency has been working with the Health Ministry to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients by using the masses of phone and credit card data at its disposal, which it generally is not permitted to utilize for reasons besides counterterrorism.

The security service does not say how many people in total it identified as having been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus carrier, only the 500 cases of them that also tested positive for the disease.

— Judah Ari Gross

Ashkenazi: A difficult crisis demands difficult decisions

Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz’s No. 2 in the Israel Resilience party, tweets: “The country is in national crisis, one of the worst we’ve known. A difficult crisis demands difficult decisions.”

He adds: “We could not stand aside at a time like this. Israeli citizens now need a national emergency government.”

Blue and White MK and chairman of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gabi Ashkenazi, leads a committee discussion on the data of the ultra-Orthodox recruits to the army, in the Knesset, on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sources close to Gantz tell TV: Lapid a perpetual naysayer

Sources close to Benny Gantz attack Yair Lapid for splitting up Blue and White, saying he is a perpetual naysayer.

Officials tell Channel 12 that Lapid decided to break up Blue and White even though it was not yet clear that there’d be a unity deal with Likud. They claim Lapid was looking for a reason to break up the partnership.

They say Gantz decided to move forward with the move for unity when he realized Lapid preferred a fourth election over any form of unity.

Mossad brings 400,000 coronavirus test kits to Israel from undisclosed country

The Mossad intelligence service helps bring another 400,000 coronavirus test kits to Israel from an undisclosed foreign location, the Prime Minister’s Office says.

The PMO refuses to comment further on the matter, specifically the country or countries who sold it the testing components, leading many to assume that it was a country that does not have formal ties with Israel.

Lapid allies: ‘Gantz has signed his political death certificate’

Sources close to Yair Lapid tell Channel 12 news that Benny Gantz “has signed his political death certificate.”

Lapid is set to speak soon at a press conference along with Moshe Ya’alon.

Report: Gantz demands guarantees from Netanyahu he won’t break up coalition

Channel 12 news reports that one of Benny Gantz’s demands from Benjamin Netanyahu for a unity deal is that some form of legislation be put in place, ensuring that if Netanyahu dissolves the coalition ahead of its agreed end point, Gantz immediately becomes head of the interim government.

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Lapid: Gantz stole votes and gave them to Netanyahu as a gift

Yair Lapid is now holding a press conference with Moshe Ya’alon.

“Benny Gantz decided today to break apart Blue and White and crawl into Netanyahu’s government. It’s a disappointing decision,” Lapid says.

“What’s being formed today isn’t a unity government or an emergency government. It’s another Netanyahu government. Benny Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government. He joined the Haredi-extremist bloc.”

Lapid adds: “We ran together because Benny Gantz looked me in the eye and said he would never sit in this bad government. I believed him. Together with us over a million Blue and White voters marched from street to street and from bridge to bridge… They feel betrayed today, and justifiably so. Their votes were stolen and given as a gift to Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2020 (screenshot)

Lapid: We’ll back fight against virus, but we cannot abandon our values

Yair Lapid vows to “support any decision that will help the health care system, help put the economy back on track.”

He promises: “We’ll keep a watchful eye on this government. We have plans. We have experience. We have a national responsibility. As always, we’ll work for the nation of Israel and the people of Israel.”

He acknowledges that “Israel now has one national mission: To fight the coronavirus together. The coronavirus crisis is one of the most serious in the history of our country. We will work tirelessly to help the citizens of Israel get through this crisis. From the opposition as well. Because that is what’s important now.”

But the crisis, he adds, “doesn’t give us the right or permission to abandon our values. We promised not to sit under a prime minister with three criminal indictments. We promised not to sit in a coalition of extremists and extortionists. We said we wouldn’t allow anyone to undermine Israel’s democracy. And on this week of all weeks, in which the attacks on the justice system were at their worst, a prize is given to those who disobey the law. A prize to criminality. You can’t crawl into a government like that and tell us you did it for the good of the country.”

Ya’alon: Gantz joining a government that symbolizes everything we oppose

Moshe Ya’alon says Benny Gantz’s decision to enter a government that “symbolizes everything we oppose” is “incomprehensible and disappointing.”

He also vows to support all efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.

Report: Gantz told Lapid speakership was reversible in bid to thwart party split

According to the Kan public broadcaster, in Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s final discussion before their alliance fell apart, Gantz promised the latter that his move to nominate himself as Knesset speaker was only intended to give more time for unity negotiations with Likud.

Gantz reportedly said if he eventually decided to enter into a coalition with Netanyahu and Lapid elected to remain outside, he would promise him to support Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen being appointed Knesset speaker instead.

Gantz also told Lapid he could have any portfolio he wanted if they entered the government together. Lapid refused.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Report: Gantz was swayed by bad polls, a call from Aryeh Deri

Channel 12 reports on two major factors in Benny Gantz’s decision to move forward with a bid for unity despite the prospect of tearing apart Blue and White.

First was internal Blue and White polling that confirmed the party had suffered serious damage in public opinion for attempting, and failing, to form a minority government with the support of the Joint List. Polls showed a new election would see Benjamin Netanyahu, also buoyed by the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, achieve a 61-seat majority in parliament for his bloc.

The second was a phone call from Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who promised him he would ensure that any agreements with Netanyahu would be honored. Gantz was apparently convinced of his candor.

Shas party chairman and Minister of Interior Affairs Aryeh Deri (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the six year anniversary of death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The latest coronavirus numbers: 2,693 diagnosed, 46 in serious condition

The number of Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus has risen to 2,693, the Health Ministry says.

Of those 46 are in serious condition and 67 are in moderate condition. Seventy have recovered.

Italy’s dead overwhelm morgues as virus toll tops 8,000

The overwhelmed Italian city of Berhgamo at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic today sent more of its dead to nearby towns for cremation as the country’s world-leading death toll topped 8,000.

Officials in Rome reported 662 new deaths and 6,153 infections — largely in line with the figures reported throughout the week.

The rise in daily deaths edged down to the lowest point in the crisis — 8.8 percent — while the infection rate stood at around eight percent for the fourth day running.

But the numbers are not dropping much further and Italians appear to be coming to terms with the realization that two weeks of life under lockdown have not made the disease go away.

A view shows some of 35 coffins of deceased people stored in a warehouse in Ponte San Pietro, near Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 26, 2020 prior to be transported in another region to be cremated (Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Italy’s coronavirus death toll now stands at 8,165 — more than that of second-placed Spain and China, where the virus emerged in December, combined.

— AFP

El Al flight brings back 70 Israelis who had been stranded in Colombia

An El Al flight has arrived from Colombia, bringing back some 70 Israelis who had been stranded in the South American nation due to limitations enforced over the coronavirus pandemic.

The flight was arranged after the Foreign Ministry asked the company to help the stranded Israelis return home.

UN envoy: Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on coronavirus ‘excellent’

The UN’s Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov says Israelis and Palestinians’ cooperation on the coronavirus crisis has been “excellent.”

Mladenov notes thus in a Tweet in which he says he’s spoken with members of the so-called Middle East Quartet — which includes the UN, US, Russia and the EU — about reviving peace negotiations between the sides.

Reminder: Israel moves to daylight saving time tonight

The country switches to daylight saving time tonight (despite a short-lived proposal to delay the move over the virus pandemic).

At 2 a.m. the time will jump forward to 3 a.m.

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Western Wall plaza to stay open amid new virus restrictions

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation says the plaza at the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City will remain open to worshipers following the introduction of new emergency ordinances to contain the coronavirus.

The foundation says closed prayer spaces at the Western Wall were closed today.

Only residents of the Old City will be allowed to go to the wall for prayers under the new restrictions, which bar people from going more than 100 meters from their homes if not for an approved essential activity.

A Jewish man prayers at the nearly deserted Westren Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)