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Netanyahu accepts compromise deal that postpones budget deadline, elections

Failure to postpone a Monday midnight deadline for passing a state budget would have sent Israel to fourth election since last April

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press statement on August 23, 2020. (screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press statement on August 23, 2020. (screenshot)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s news as it unfolded.

Israel mediated sales of NSO spyware to UAE, other Gulf nations – report

The Israeli government mediated the sale of spyware made by the Israeli firm NSO Group to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations, the Haaretz daily reports.

According to the report, there have been sales worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years to Gulf countries. Those nations, according to the report, are handled by a special department within NSO that is the most profitable in the company.

“A product that you sell in Europe for 10 million dollars you can sell in the Gulf for 10 times that,” Haaretz quotes one source as saying.

The report says that NSO Group has contracts with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the emirates Abu Dhabi and Ras al Khaimah. It says that the company uses codes to designate those countries — names of car companies that share a first letter with the name of the country, so that, for example, Saudi Arabia is designated Subaru, Jordan is called Jaguar, and Bahrain is BMW.

The company’s Pegasus software allows agents to effectively take control of a phone through the WhatsApp application, surreptitiously controlling its cameras and microphones from remote servers and vacuuming up personal data and geolocations.

WhatsApp is suing NSO Group, accusing it of using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyber-espionage on journalists, human rights activists and others. The accounts said to have been targeted included those of senior government officials, journalists, and human rights activists worldwide.

The spyware has been implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in a 2018 incident that has also been linked to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

— Agencies contributed

UN nuclear chief’s visit to Tehran not linked to US push for sanctions

Iran says that an upcoming visit this week by the head of the UN’s atomic watchdog agency to Tehran has nothing to do with a US push to impose so-called “snapback” sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency quotes Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA, Kazem Gharibadadi, as saying that the visit this week is “neither related to the snapback mechanism nor the US demand.”

Gharibabadi says the visit by the IAEA chief Rafael Grossi comes within “the framework of Iran’s invitation.”

“We do not allow others to manage Iran,” he says, adding that Iran’s trust in the IAEA has been “damaged in recent months.”

He expresses hope Grossi’s visit will lead to building trust. “It is important to assure Tehran that the agency will move based on impartiality, independence and professionalism,” says Gharibabadi.

The IAEA said on Saturday that Grossi will head to Tehran to press Iranian authorities for access to sites where the country is thought to have stored or used undeclared nuclear material.

AP

Suspect in Eilat gang rape remanded

A judge extends the arrest of a man suspected of involvement in an alleged gang rape in the southern resort town of Eilat that shocked the nation, according to Walla.

Earlier, police arrested seven more suspects, in addition to the two minors initially arrested.

According to suspicions, up to 30 men were involved.

Actor Moshe Ivgy appeals sexual assault sentence, conviction

The Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy, who was sentenced last month to six months of community service and a fine for indecent assault, appeals the sentence as well as his conviction.

The state had asked for 15 months in prison for Ivgy, and women’s organizations had bemoaned the sentence as a disgrace.

He was originally accused of harassing six women who worked with him on the sets of various films, TV shows and plays.

The women told the Walla news site of private rehearsals in which Ivgy would force himself on them, often insisting on unnecessary rehearsing of intimate scenes, and kissing them against their will.

The charges against Ivgy were filed in 2018, with prosecutors saying they found sufficient evidence that he had exploited his status to commit indecent acts and sexually harass four women in 2012 and 2013, some of them at his workplace.

He had faced four counts of indecent acts and three of sexual harassment, but the Haifa Magistrate’s Court only convicted Ivgy of one count of indecent assault, citing insufficient evidence in acquitting him of the other charges.

Israel expects 2nd Arab country to normalize ties in coming weeks – envoy

Israel’s ambassador to the United States tells the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Arabiya news network that he expects another Arab country to sign a normalization deal with Israel in the coming weeks.

“There are several countries where there are possibilities [for peace],” Ron Dermer says in the interview, which took place Friday and was aired today. “I don’t want to say this specific country or not, but there are several countries and we hope that we see another breakthrough very, very, soon — in the weeks, and months ahead.”

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced on August 13 they would establish full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal that required Israel to halt its plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

The historic agreement delivered a key foreign policy victory to US President Donald Trump as he seeks reelection and reflected a changing Middle East in which shared concerns about Iran have largely overtaken traditional Arab support for the Palestinians.

US and Israeli officials have suggested that more Arab nations may soon follow the UAE’s lead, with Bahrain and Oman believed to be closest to sealing such deals.

— Agencies contributed

Jordan frees teachers’ union chiefs as schools to reopen

A Jordanian judge has ordered the release of the teachers union’s 13 elected council members who were arrested a month ago for alleged graft, a judicial source says.

Authorities closed the union and arrested its leaders on July 25 after it had led a campaign for higher pay in the indebted kingdom whose economy is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

The government also imposed a gag order against publication of details of the prosecutor’s investigation into the case.

Teachers’ Association lawyer Bassam Freihat confirms the release of the 13, including acting head of the union Nasser Nawasreh.

The lawyer tells AFP they had completed a one-month detention period without the bail allowed by the judicial system.

“The court also decided to release a number of teachers who had been arrested during demonstrations” before and after the arrest of their leaders, Freihat says.

Neither the judicial source nor the lawyer are able to give further details or say whether the 13 will face further legal action.

AFP

Use of plastic bags in supermarkets down 74% — ministry

The Environmental Protection Ministry announces that the use of plastic bags in large retail chains dropped by 74 percent last year, compared with the year before, saving 22,000 tons of plastic.

A law obliging large food retailers to charge 10 agorot (three cents) was implemented from January 1, 2017.

However, small supermarkets, pharmacies and a host of other stores still give plastic bags away for free. Asked if the ministry planned to extend the application of the law, a spokeswoman said she had no comment.

— Sue Surkes

2 suspected explosive devices found in south as Gaza balloon attacks continue

Two suspected explosive devices are found in southern Israel after they were apparently flown into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, as such balloon-based attacks continued throughout the day, according to officials from the Eshkol Region.

“One device was found next to a playground and a second was found in a tree. In both cases, a police sapper was called. No damage or injuries were caused,” the Eshkol spokesperson says.

Throughout the day, dozens of balloons carrying explosives and incendiary devices were launched from the Strip into southern Israel, causing at least 11 fires, officials say.

According to the Fire and Rescue Services, fires were reported in the areas of Sha’ar Hanegev, Eshkol, Hof Ashkelon and Sderot.

The fire department says most of the fires were relatively small and did not represent a threat to nearby communities.

Judah Ari Gross

Police official says evidence supports account of teen in suspected gang raped

A senior police official tells Channel 12 that officers have evidence that shores up the account of a teenage girl who says she was gang-raped in Eilat by as many as 30 men.

The official says that the rape lasted “a very long time,” according to the report, and that police have “sensitive” evidence whose nature they will not reveal for the time being.

According to testimony in the case, there may be video footage of the assault.

“We have 11 under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the rape,” the source is quoted as saying. “The more time goes by, the more the girl’s testimony comes across as reliable.”

While the official won’t divulge exactly how many men police think took part in the rape, he notes that the number of suspects is “certainly in the double digits.”

But, he adds, “even one would have been too much.”

Workers take time off to protest violence against women; rallies planned

Spurred by the alleged gang rape of a teen in Eilat, Israelis will hold rallies throughout the country tonight in protest of violence against women.

The main rally will take place in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at 8 p.m.

The protests will follow a brief cessation of work earlier today by dozens of companies and state and municipal bodies, also in protest of the alleged rape and violence against women in general.

The noon strike, which lasts around one hour, is “to protest the growing violence against women and girls in Israel, and lack of sufficient punishment,”says the women group Bonot Alternativa.

One of the event’s organisers, Ariel Peleg, tells AFP at least 30 organizations and companies, including municipalities and Microsoft Israel, took part in the midday vigil.

— With AFP

Pompeo to visit Sudan and push for ‘deepening’ its relationship with Israel

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to visit Sudan and Bahrain in the next few days, the State Department says, in a regional trip that was already set to include stops in Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Sudan is among the countries rumored to be close to signing a normalization agreement with Israel like the one it signed with the UAE.

The State Department statement says that during his visit to Sudan, Pompeo will “express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship.”

It says that, in Israel, the US secretary “will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to discuss regional security issues related to Iran’s malicious influence, establishing and deepening Israel’s relationships in the region.”

Opposition MK tells police to read a book on Nazi war crimes, drawing fire

Senior opposition MK and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon of Yesh Atid-Telem recommends that police read a book about Nazi war crimes, following a night of fighting between officers and protesters, drawing fire from the police and minister of public security.

At a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near his official residence in Jerusalem on Saturday night, which Ya’alon attended, scuffles broke out as police forcibly removed protesters from the site of the rally.

Officers said the demonstration was illegal due to late-night noise violations put in place for the benefit of area residents.

In one incident, a senior police officer appeared to assault at least two protesters in an incident caught on camera, drawing condemnation from politicians and sparking a police probe.

Today, Ya’alon writes on Twitter that Jerusalem police should read the 1990 book “Fulfilling Orders” by left-wing Israeli historian Yigal Elam. The book delves into Adolf Hitler’s orders to carry out war crimes against Jews.

Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana of Netanyahu’s Likud party, in a response to Ya’alon’s tweet, calls the statement “incitement against police.”

“The comparison between those who risk their lives 24/7 for the peace and security of citizens of Israel and ‘fulfilling orders’ in Nazi Germany. Shame on you,” Ohana writes.

The Israel Police also responds to Ya’alon on its official Twitter account, writing, “Such statements are a direct continuation of the unbridled outburst against officers in the Israel Police, at the protests and online, and at the moment by an elected official who is supposed to serve as an example to voters.

“His recommendation and implied comparison is invalid and unacceptable, and we recommend that MK Ya’alon refrain from such comparisons toward those that protect law, order and security.”

— Luke Tress contributed

At least 28 fires caused by incendiary balloons from Gaza

The Fire and Rescue Services say that at least 28 fires have been caused so far today by balloon-borne incendiary devices flown into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip today.

It says that most of the fires were minor and did not cause damage.

With time running out on his coalition, Netanyahu to address nation

Amid an escalating coalition crisis that seems poised to thrust Israel into a fourth election since last April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the nation tonight.

A statement from his office calls a press conference for 8:30 p.m., just half an hour before a key Knesset committee is set to vote on a measure that could potentially give respite to the troubled coalition.

At the heart of the ongoing crisis is whether the government should pass a budget that includes 2021, as stipulated in the coalition agreement and backed by the Blue and White party, or a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, as Netanyahu’s Likud has insisted, citing the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

As it stands, failure to pass a state budget by Monday night will trigger automatic elections.

However, Likud and Blue and White have been arguing over the terms of a compromise deal that would remove the immediate threat of new elections by postponing by 100 days the deadline for passing a state budget.

So far, there have been few indications that an understanding is in the offing, ahead of a 9 p.m. Knesset Finance Committee vote on the compromise measure.

Iran says Natanz explosion was an ‘act of sabotage’

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization says that an “act of sabotage” was behind an explosion in the country’s Natanz nuclear facility last month, according to Iran’s al-Alam television.

The July 2 blast, which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel or the US, and which is said by some experts to have significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant.

An Iranian news website late last month named a suspect that authorities are claiming caused the explosion.

According to a report by “Didban Iran” (“Iran Watch”), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps concluded that the instigator of the blast was Ershad Karimi, a contractor at the site who owns a company, MEHR, that supplies precision measuring equipment.

According to a New York Times report, the blast was most likely the result of a bomb planted at the facility, potentially at a strategic gas line. The report did not rule out the possibility that a cyber attack was used to cause a malfunction that led to the explosion.

The explosion was one of a series of mysterious blasts at Iranian strategic sites in recent weeks, which have largely been attributed to either Washington or Jerusalem, or both.

Vast protest in Minsk keeps up pressure on Belarus president

More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president rally in a vast square in the capital and later march through the city, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

Today’s demonstration overflows Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There are no official figures on crowd size, but it appears to be 150,000 people or more. The demonstrators then march to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1 1.2 miles) away.

Police make no immediate efforts to break up the gathering. Earlier this month, some 7,000 people were arrested, many of them beaten with clubs or wounded by rubber bullets, in the protests after the August 9 election that officials say handed President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

Protesters say the official election results, in which Lukashenko reportedly received 80% of the vote, are fraudulent.

The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

AP

Virus death toll at 834 as 10 succumb since midnight

The Health Ministry announces that 10 people have died of the coronavirus since midnight, bringing the national death toll to 834.

It puts the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic at 102,380, a rise of 720 since midnight, with 398 serious cases.

The number of patients to recover from the virus is 79,501.

Blue and White: Netanyahu ‘spitting in the face of Israeli public’

Placing the blame on Netanyahu in the game of chicken that could see Israel go to another election, Blue and White calls on the president to “come to his senses and go back to seeing the good of the country, rather than his own personal gain.”

In a statement, the party accuses Netanyahu of “spitting in the face of the Israeli public.”

Likud would slide to 31 seats in elections, with Yamina swelling to 18

A snap opinion poll on Channel 13 shows Netanyahu’s Likud slipping to 31 seats were elections held now.

It gives Yesh Atid 19 seats, Yamina 18, and the Joint (Arab) List 13.

Then comes Blue and White with 11, Yisrael Beitenu 8, Shas 7, United Torah Judaism 7 and Meretz 6.

A conventional distribution of the blocs shows the right/Orthodox 63, with center-left-Arabs on 49, and Yisrael Beytenu on 8 between them.

However, Naftali Bennett, the Yamina leader, has said recently he would not automatically recommend Netanyahu as prime minister after another round of elections.

Kushner: UAE deal with Israel should ‘increase probability’ it gets F-35s

Jared Kushner, President Trumps’s son-in-law and senior adviser, says the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates “should increase the probability” of Abu Dhabi receiving the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“It’s something we’re reviewing,” Kushner tells CNN of the prospective arms deal, which has raised objections in Israel, with Netanyahu denying that he had agreed to it under Israel’s new treaty with the UAE.

Last week, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Atlantic Council that his country’s request to purchase F-35 stealth bombers from the US was not part of the deal with Israel, but that the agreement should remove “any hurdles” to their acquisition.

For years, the United States has denied requests by Arab states to buy advanced American weapons systems, in part due to a longstanding political doctrine involving Israel.

Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US Congress promised to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East by considering Jerusalem’s position before selling advanced weapons to the Jewish state’s neighbors.

Today, Kushner says that Washington will “obviously” look at Israel’s “qualitative military edge” before making a decision, “and we’ll do everything in accordance with the right standards, but it’s something that the State Department and the US military is looking at.”

To punish Hamas, Israel bars vehicle imports from entering Gaza

Israeli authorities have prevented vehicle imports from passing through the Erez Crossing with the Gaza Strip in response to waves of explosive balloons launched from the territory into Israel.

“Following the continued violation of security stability, and following the decision to close the Kerem Shalom Commercial Crossing, with the exception of humanitarian equipment, it will be noted that the import of vehicles, which has so far been carried out through the Erez Crossing, was stopped as well starting today,” a security source tells The Times of Israel.

The security source does not confirm Gazan reports that Israel is not allowing anything, save for food and medical supplies, through the crossings.

Over the past few weeks, Gaza-based groups have resumed launching balloon-borne explosive devices into southern Israel, sparking dozens of fires that caused environmental and property damage in the region. Rockets have also been fired on multiple occasions at Israeli cities and towns.

Those attacks have drawn daily retaliatory Israeli strikes against what it says are Hamas installations. Israel has also gradually closed the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing and banned Gazan fisherman from using a demarcated zone for fishing in an attempt to pressure Hamas to crack down on the Gaza-based balloon launchers.

— Aaron Boxerman

Netanyahu accepts compromise that postpones budget deadline, staves off elections

At the 11th hour, Netanyahu says he is accepting a compromise offer that will put off by 100 days the budget deadline, averting new elections.

In a televised statement to the press, he claims that this is needed in order to continue to address the coronavirus crisis.

“Out of a sense of national responsibility, I have tonight decided to accept the compromise proposal,” he says. “This proposal enables us to immediately inject money for the good of the Israeli people and the economy; it averts the need for elections.”

He begins his address by listing his recent accomplishments, saying, “We are in historic days. Our peace deal with the United Arab Emirates opens a new era of peace in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu notes that tomorrow he will meet US Secretary of State Pompeo in Jerusalem, and the two will “discuss peace with more nations,” which he predicts will come in the near future.

He credits these developments to his long-term “doctrine,” which he dubs, “peace for peace.”

“Peace has many fruits,” he says, citing economic benefits that he links to the coronavirus crisis.

The vote on the compromise deal — floated by Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser — is set to take place in the coming minutes in the Knesset Finance Committee; the proposal is then supposed to proceed to the full Knesset for final approval.

Netanyahu says avoiding elections is the right thing to do for the good of the country. He stresses the imperative to battle the pandemic, while also saying that Europe is suffering from a deeper recession and higher unemployment than Israel.

Netanyahu blames Blue and White for crisis, says now is ‘a time for unity’

Netanyahu asserts that it is Blue and White that prompted the crisis that he now says he is averting.

“This time is a time for unity, not elections,” he says. Blue and White has to “stop the government within government” that, he says, is constantly attacking Likud.

We need to “work together” to meet the challenges Israel faces, he says, including battling COVID and its economic fallout, thwarting Iran, bolstering security, and concluding further peace agreements. “Let’s unify and work together for these important goals,” he says.

Netanyahu also urges the right-wing/Orthodox Yamina party to join the government.

In an example of the dysfunctional relationship between him and the rival coalition party, he indicates in answer to a question that he did not inform Blue and White leader Benny Gantz ahead of the press conference that he was accepting the Hauser proposal to avert elections.

Netanyahu is asked about a Channel 13 survey earlier this evening which, the reporter tells him, shows 50 percent of public think he takes decisions on the basis of his personal and legal interests. “Such a low number,” he marvels, explaining that he thought it would be higher given that the media “is completely conscripted to the battle against me.” Now, he adds, “they’ll say I don’t want [elections] for personal reasons.

In answer to further questions, he says he has no intention of seeking to appoint a new police commissioner and new state prosecutor in breach of his coalition agreement. And he complains that the public was not told that a criminal case against Blue and White Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn was recently quietly closed. In fact, the ministry said last week, no such case was even opened, but the investigation was formally closed in May. If such a case had involved a right-wing politician, Netanyahu says, it would have been all over the media.

Netanyahu is also asked if there will be a new crisis three months from now, and if he will hand over the prime ministership to Gantz in November 2021 as promised. He says there is no need for crises, if the government functions properly.

Blue and White said not entirely convinced election crisis is over

Gantz’s Blue and White party is still not entirely convinced that Netanyahu will indeed ensure that the election crisis is over, Channel 12 reports.

The party will believe it only if and when the final vote delaying a budget for 100 days —  and thus averting an automatic resort to elections — is voted into law sometime before Monday midnight.

Netanyahu said in his press conference that he had heard that Gantz was now objecting to the Hauser proposal to delay the budget. Apparently, this was one of the comments that has Blue and White still worried.

Zvi Hauser of the minor Derekh Eretz faction, for his part, says “I’m happy to hear” that Netanyahu accepted his proposal, but stresses that it still has to be voted into law.

Likud coalition chairman Miki Zohar says Netanyahu’s agreement to the proposal shows “he puts Israel’s interests first,” and that all the claims to the contrary were political “spin.”

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Workers take time off to protest violence against women; rallies planned

Spurred by the alleged gang rape of a teen in Eilat, Israelis will hold rallies throughout the country tonight in protest of violence against women.

The main rally will take place in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at 8 p.m.

The protests will follow a brief cessation of work earlier today by dozens of companies and state and municipal bodies, also in protest of the alleged rape and violence against women in general.

The noon strike, which lasts around one hour, is “to protest the growing violence against women and girls in Israel, and lack of sufficient punishment,”says the women group Bonot Alternativa.

One of the event’s organisers, Ariel Peleg, tells AFP at least 30 organizations and companies, including municipalities and Microsoft Israel, took part in the midday vigil.

— With AFP