On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Israel following his controversial speech to a joint session of Congress in Washington on Tuesday in which he warned that the White House-backed emerging deal was paving the way to a nuclear-armed Iran.

In Washington, Netanyahu said he proposed placing “two new parameters on any deal with Iran.” One, to place tougher restrictions and increase the breakout time; two, to only list those restrictions when Iran “ceases promoting terrorism, ends its aggression against its neighbors, and stops threatening to destroy the State of Israel.”

Responding to charges that he had said “nothing new” during his address, Netanyahu retorted that he had “presented a practical alternative, which would impose tougher restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, extending Iran’s breakout time [to the bomb] by years.”

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the P5+1 world powers would negotiate for a deal or “witness the faster progress of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up another round of talks with Iranian FM Mohammed Javad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland and headed to Saudi Arabia for consultations on the emerging deal, which concerns the Gulf states.

Kerry warned that the world could not rely solely on sanctions to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program and promised not to let “external factors or politics” distract him from the ongoing nuclear talks.

The next round of negotiations was set for March 15.

Kerry heads to Saudi Arabia

Fresh from the latest round of Iran nuclear negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Saudi Arabia later today to ease Gulf Arab concerns about an emerging deal and discuss ways to calm instability in troubled Yemen and other Mideast nations.

Kerry will leave the Iran talks in the Swiss resort town of Montreux later and fly to Riyadh where he will see the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, and meet separately with the foreign ministers of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Sunni-ruled Gulf states, like Israel, are unnerved by Shiite Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and its increasing assertiveness throughout the region.

US officials say Kerry will reassure them that a deal with Tehran will not allow Iran to get the bomb and won’t mean American complacency on broader security matters. Iran is actively supporting forces fighting in Syria and Iraq and is linked to Shiite rebels that recently toppled the US and Arab-backed government in Yemen.

The officials say Kerry will reiterate that the US supports UN efforts to promote a dialogue leading to a political transition in Yemen, which is embroiled in a political crisis that threatens to split the country.

— AP

IAEA to talk nukes in Tehran next week

Representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are heading to Tehran next week to meet with Iranian officials to discuss the technical details of Iran’s nuclear program, the UN nuclear watchdog says.

The meeting is set for March 9, according to Reuters.

The IAEA says Iran has not been fully forthcoming on key information about its nuclear program as negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 world powers are underway ahead of a March 31 deadline for a political framework for a deal.

Next round of Iran talks set for March 14

As Kerry and Zarif wrap up this round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Montreux, Switzerland, today, the next round is set for Saturday, March 14.

The venue is unconfirmed, but a senior US official tells AP it will likely be Geneva.

Kerry is heading to Saudi Arabia later today for consultations on the ongoing discussions.

‘Progress in Iran talks; challenges remain’

A senior US official tells Reuters that some progress has been made in talks with Iran in Montreux, Switzerland, but many challenges remain ahead.

Lead US negotiator to brief Israel on talks

The US’s lead negotiator in talks with Iran, US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, is set to brief Israel on the latest round of discussions either by phone or video call, a senior US official tells AP.

Kerry will brief the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain in Paris on Saturday, the official says.

Abbas says talks with Israel still on table

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says talks with Israel are still on the table.

Abbas was addressing the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority, whose existence is under threat after Israel cut off a key source of funding in the wake of the PA’s move to join the International Criminal Court in December.

“We ask all countries of the world to recognize the state of Palestine,” he says.

“But we want to say to the Israeli side, these recognitions do not mean in any way that we do not want to negotiate, or that we’re running away from negotiations,” he adds.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

— AFP contributed to this report

PM’s speech not big topic at Iran talks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday was not a big topic of discussion during nuclear negotiations in Montreux, Switzerland, a senior US official tells AP.

Rouhani warns, reach deal or see nuke efforts accelerate

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says the international powers negotiating with Tehran to curb its nuclear program have two choices: they can either reach a deal with Iran, or see its efforts for a “peaceful” atomic program accelerate.

The P5+1 “must either reach an agreement with Iran within the framework of logic and the international law and the sooner they do it, it’ll benefit everyone involved. Or else they will have to deny the facts and continue with their sanctions regime, in which scenario they will have to witness the faster progress of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program,” Rouhani is quoted as saying by the Mehr News Agency at a cabinet meeting today.

“The only one who is angry and upset about the course of negotiations is an occupying regime that sees its survival in war and invasion,” the Iranian president says, an apparent reference to Israel whose prime minister spoke to the US Congress on Tuesday to warn of the dangers of a bad deal with Iran, a country he described as a “threat to the entire world.”

Rouhani says that “people in the world, as well as the Americans, are much more perceptive than to trust the words of advice from a regime that has a long reputation for causing conflict and crisis.”

US aiming for March ‘understanding’ on nukes

A senior US official is tamping down expectations that negotiations with Iran will result in a formal, preliminary deal this month outlining constraints on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic.

The official says the two sides are aiming only for “an understanding that’s going to have to be filled out with lots of detail” by their late March target date.

The official demands anonymity because this person is not authorized to discuss the secret negotiations publicly.

This official says that US President Barack Obama will then determine whether the progress report is grounds to continue talks aimed at a comprehensive deal in June.

— AP

Armed Palestinian man nabbed near Gaza border

The IDF arrests a Palestinian man who managed to infiltrate into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The man was armed with a knife and was found in the Eshkol Regional Council in southern Israel, the IDF says.

He was taken for interrogation.

Kerry says ‘no one’ presented viable alternative to Iran talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry says “no one has presented a viable alternative” to the current negotiations between the P5+1 and Tehran, a direct rebuttal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that he offered a “practical alternative” during his speech to Congress on Tuesday.

“Simply demanding that Iran capitulate is not a plan,” Kerry says, according to AP, in an apparent dig at Netanyahu.

The purpose of the talks is “not to get any deal, but to get the right deal. One that can withstand scrutiny,” he says.

‘Jihadi John’ gets a Purim debut

A week after the identity of the infamous Islamic State executioner was revealed, Israelis are throwing good taste to the winds and dressing up as “Jihadi John” for Purim.

Bonus points for an orange-clad hostage.

A couple working at the Foreign Ministry won second place at the annual costume contest for such a get-up.

A couple working at the Israeli Foreign Ministry dress up as IS's 'Jihadi John' and a female hostage, respectively for Purim, March 3, 2015. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A couple working at the Israeli Foreign Ministry dress up as IS’s ‘Jihadi John’ and a female hostage, respectively for Purim, March 3, 2015. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

It is a popular costume among high-schoolers as well, according to the Ynet news site.

Last Halloween in the US, “Islamic State terrorist” was a popular costume. A group of women made a particular splash online for their “sexy IS” interpretation.

A group of US women dress up as "sexy" Islamic State members for Halloween, October 2014. (Photo credit: ArmoQueenn/Twitter)

A group of US women dress up as “sexy” Islamic State members for Halloween, October 2014. (Photo credit: ArmoQueenn/Twitter)

Kerry says politics won’t distract from talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry says external factors or politics will not distract from the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, Reuters reports.

Any deal will have the necessary access and verification measures and will increase the “breakout” time needed for Iran to build a bomb, he says, according to the report.

The US’s top diplomat also stresses that significant gaps remain and challenges lay ahead in the run-up to a political framework by the March 24 target date.

Kerry’s comment comes after he directly refuted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that he presented a “practical alternative” to the current talks during his Congress speech yesterday.

Rabbinate asked to regulate ‘spitting’ rite

An Israeli organization that helps people with religious status issues calls on the Chief Rabbinate to regulate a little-known rite.

Halitza, known as the Jewish “spitting” rite, is required when a woman who is widowed with no children wishes to remarry. Under Jewish law and Israel’s state law, the deceased husband’s brother must either marry the woman, perpetuating his brother’s name with their children, or perform the halitza rite.

As part of the ceremony, the woman removes her brother-in-law’s shoe and then spits at him for his decision not to marry her.

About 20 halitza ceremonies are performed each year, according to ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center. ITIM received phone calls from several women who underwent the ceremony, complaining that they had no representation during the ceremony and that outsiders were invited to witness the event.

“We were more shocked when we discovered that the entire process is unregulated at the rabbinate, and no one is protecting the rights of women at this sensitive moment,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM.

ITIM’s proposal to the Chief Rabbinate for regulating halitza, submitted today, calls upon the rabbinical courts to appoint a female representative who will accompany any woman needing the rite to the rabbinical courts. In addition, it guarantees that the ceremony will be held in private, unless the parties agree to have others present. It also ensures that if a woman needing the rite seeks to bring someone with her, she may do so.

— JTA

Jewish school in Miami Beach in lockdown due to suspicious object

A Jewish school in Miami Beach, Florida, has been locked down because of a suspicious object seen outside of the building, NBC reports.

The Yeshiva Elementary School has been placed on lockdown, Miami Beach police say, but has not been given evacuation orders.

Police say bomb squads have been called as a precaution and are asking parents not to come to the area at the moment.

Lockdown lifted at Miami Beach Jewish school

A brief lockdown on a Jewish school in Miami Beach has been lifted, NBC reports.

A reported suspicious object found near the school, believed to be a pressure cooker, was detonated and was found to be empty, according to the report.

The incident occurred at the Yeshiva Elementary School.

Argentine prosecutors appeal dismissal of case against president

Argentinian prosecutors say they have appealed a judge’s decision to dismiss their case against President Cristina Kirchner for allegedly protecting Iranian officials accused of orchestrating a 1994 bombing.

Prosecutors are seeking to relaunch the case against Kirchner that was being brought by their late colleague Alberto Nisman, who died mysteriously on January 18 after accusing the president of shielding high-ranking Iranians suspected of ordering the deadly bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish center.

— AFP

Kerry warns world cannot rely solely on sanctions

US Secretary of State John Kerry says sanctions against Iran have not prevented it from pursuing a nuclear program and sanctions alone cannot achieve the desired result of curbing the program.

“International sanctions, which many want to simply hang their hats on – they may have gotten Iran to the table, but to date they haven’t stopped Iran from advancing its nuclear program,” he said before leaving Switzerland for Saudi Arabia where he is set to meet with foreign ministers from the Gulf states.

“The first and only thing that had stopped their program from progressing in almost a decade was the Joint Plan of Action that we negotiated and we reached in November of 2013, and that has been adhered to in every single respect since then,” Kerry says.

Israel tells Argentina it is responsible for embassy bombing investigation

Israel tells Argentina’s president that her country is responsible for investigating a 1992 attack on its embassy in Buenos Aires.

The statement from Israel’s embassy in the Argentine capital comes in response to an accusation made earlier in the week by Argentina’s President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, who rebuked Israel for not working to bring the perpetrators of the 1992 bombing of its embassy in Buenos Aires to justice.

“Why is Israel not an appellant in the case of the Israeli Embassy bombing attack?” the president asked during a televised address to the nation.

The Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires said in a statement that “as international treaties state, the safety of all diplomatic delegations is the responsibility of the recipient country. It is Argentina’s responsibility to investigate the attack perpetrated against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. During the last 23 years, Israel has supported the continuity of actions aimed at taking the responsible to trial.”

“That goal undoubtedly expresses the will of both nations,” said the statement.

The statement also expresses concern about the Jewish community and the Israeli interest in the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing case.
“Finally, the State of Israel again states its concern for the welfare of Jewish communities, especially in the wake of countless anti-Semitic manifestations that happen in the world. Therefore, Israel will continue to express the importance of continuing research on the attack that occurred against the AMIA,” the statement said.

— JTA

Blast, clashes kill dozens at Syrian intel HQ in Aleppo

Syrian monitors say dozens are reported killed at a Syrian intelligence building in the northern city of Aleppo in a coordinated attack that included an explosion and gunfire.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the ongoing civil war, says insurgents attacked the Air Force Intelligence building by blowing up a tunnel under or near the site, Reuters reports.

 

Netanyahu: Inconceivable to let Iran threaten Israel, region

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that allowing Iran to acquire the tools to threaten Israel’s existence was unthinkable.

“It is inconceivable to let a country that fuels terrorism on a global scale, that borders Israel on three terror fronts — Lebanon, Gaza and now the Golan Heights — it is inconceivable to let this country acquire the tools to threaten our existence, to threaten the region and to threaten the whole world,” he says, a day after he got back from the US where he delivered a speech to Congress warning of the dangers of a bad nuclear deal with Iran.

“The alternative to [a] bad deal is not war but a much better deal,” says Netanyahu.

In his statement, he outlines two key changes to the framework of the potential deal.

“First, I called to limit Iran’s nuclear powers to increase the breakout time needed for Iran to build a bomb. Second, I called for only lifting those restrictions only when Iran ceases promoting terrorism, ends its aggression against its neighbors, and stops threatening to destroy the State of Israel,” he says.

“I believe these proposals constitute a practical alternative to what is currently on the table,” he adds.

New poll puts Zionist Union in lead, but most prefer Netanyahu over Herzog

A new Channel 2 poll published tonight gave the joint Labor-Hatnua list, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, 24 seats with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud one mandate behind with 23 seats.

The Joint (Arab) List, the third largest according to most recent polls, garnered 13 seats according to this survey. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home each received 12 seats while Kulanu led by popular ex-minister Moshe Kahlon got 8. The left-wing Meretz party garnered 6 seats, as did the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. The third haredi party, led by former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, got 4 seats.

The poll surveyed 790 respondents and had a margin of error of 3.5%.

Despite the slight lead for Zionist Union, 47% of those polled said Netanyahu was more suitable for prime minister, with Herzog gaining the support of 28%. Twenty-one percent said they did not know who was more suitable.

In the wake of Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress, 44% said the address strengthened his standing, while 43% said it had no effect. Twelve percent did not know.

If the Likud were tasked with forming the coalition, according to Channel 2, its 23 seats could be joined with Jewish Home, 12, Yisrael Beytenu, 6, Kulanu, 8, Shas, 6, UTJ, 6 and Yachad, 4 for a total of 65 seats, giving Netanyahu a slim majority.

Should the Zionist Union form a government, it could partner with Meretz’s 6 seats, Yesh Atid’s 12, Kulanu’s 8 and — two unlikely partners — Shas, 6 and Yisrael Beytenu, 6, for a total of 62 mandates, an even slimmer majority than the Likud-led constellation.

Shas has said it would refuse to serve in a coalition with Lapid and Liberman has vowed never to sit in a government with Meretz.

Video purports to show attack on Syria intel HQ

A video published online purports to show today’s attack on a Syrian security building in the northern city of Aleppo.

The large explosion set off heavy clashes between insurgents, believed to be from the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front and other groups, and government troops. The attack killed dozens, according to two monitor groups.

The Aleppo Media Center and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say the massive blast hit a branch of the Air Force Intelligence in the Zahra district on the western edge of the city. Air Force Intelligence is one of the most feared security services in the country.

The Observatory say the assault began with the rebels detonating explosives placed in a tunnel dug under the security branch. Rebels have used similar tunnel bombs in the past.

“Part of the building was destroyed. This was a very big explosion. People very far away could hear it,” Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman says. “Clashes are still taking place. The Syrian regime is hitting the area with airstrikes.”

There was no information from Syrian state media about the blast.

— AP contributed to this report.

At least 34 killed in Aleppo clashes

At least 20 members of regime security forces and 14 rebels were killed in an attack earlier today on an intelligence headquarters building in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a monitor says.

The attack, which began with a powerful bomb blast in a tunnel targeting air force intelligence offices, was aimed at seizing the building but failed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Sporadic fighting was continuing in the area but heavy clashes had subsided, according to the monitor.

Livni may give up PM rotation option, say senior party members

Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatnua party and co-leader of the Zionist Union, the joint Hatnua-Labor list, may give up her option to share the prime ministership on rotation with Isaac Herzog should the party win on March 17, Zionist Union officials tell NRG.

Livni and Herzog merged their parties in December, saying they would share the prime ministership on rotation should they win, with Herzog as prime minister the first two years and Livni the last two years.

Tzipi Livni, of the Zionist Union party, held a press conference announcing the party's political campaign in Russian, on February 22 2015. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tzipi Livni, of the Zionist Union party, held a press conference announcing the party’s political campaign in Russian, on February 22, 2015. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Livni may make the announcement just days before Israelis go to the ballot boxes in less than two weeks, according to the report.

Officials tell NRG an extreme amount of pressure is being applied on Livni to forgo the option, arguing that the possibility of rotation is costing the party 4 mandates in the polls.

Livni is reportedly open to acquiescing to the idea.

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