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Latest Israel News – 20th March

IAF ‘Arrow’ battery intercepts Syrian missile, in first reported use of the system

Israel shot down an incoming Syrian anti-aircraft missile with the Arrow defense battery early Friday morning, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system.

At approximately 2:30 a.m., Israeli “aircrafts targeted several targets in Syria,” the Israel Defense Forces said, prompting a Syrian attempt to down the Israeli jets.

According to Arab media, the target of the IAF strikes was a Hezbollah weapons convoy.

“Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and IDF aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles,” the army said in a statement.

The anti-aircraft missiles were fired from eastern Syria by Bashar Assad’s military, traveling over Jordan and toward the Jerusalem area. They were apparently SA-5 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

The Arrow is primarily designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere, intercepting the weapons and their conventional, nuclear, biological or chemical warheads close to their launch sites.

Surface-to-air missiles are designed to detonate at high altitudes to bring down aircraft or other missiles, and so do not pose much of a threat to people on the ground other than the possibility of being directly hit by falling shrapnel or the remains of the missile.

Therefore, it was not immediately clear why the IDF used the Arrow against a SAM, possibly indicating a misidentification of the type of weapon being fired from Syria.

The IDF said neither civilians on the ground nor Israeli Air Force pilots were in any danger at any point during the incident.

The most advanced version of the defense system is the Arrow 3, which Israel has been developing with the United States since 2008. Earlier versions of the Arrow system have been in place since the 1990s.

It is a major part of the multi-layered air defense array that Israel has designed to protect itself against a range of missile threats — from short-range rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to longer-range threats like a missile launch from Iran. The Iron Dome short-range interceptor is designed block projectiles heading for populated areas while allowing others to fall harmlessly in open areas.

The intercepted missile apparently fell in Jordan, while two more fell in Israel without causing any injury or damage.

Photos of what appear to be pieces of the Arrow missile in Jordan quickly began circulating on social media.

The launch of the IDF’s Arrow missile set off the country’s rocket alert system at 2:43 a.m.

At least two distinct explosions were heard as far west as Modiin and as far south as Jerusalem.

The sirens sounded near the Jordan Valley communities of Gitit, Mesoa, Yitav and Yafit in the Arvot Hayarden regional council, which straddles the Jordan River in the West Bank.

IDF ground forces in the area launched a search for fallen rockets and rocket fragments in the mountainous terrain.

The IDF statement was rare, if not unprecedented, as the Israeli military does not generally admit to carrying out specific actions in Syria other than retaliations to spillover fire from fighting near the border. However, Israel has acknowledged that it does, generally speaking, attack such convoys traveling from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This was not the first time that the Syrian military fired SAMs at Israeli aircraft. In September 2016, Assad’s military launched two such missiles at Israeli jets carrying out a bombing run in response to mortar shells that struck the Golan Heights as a result of spillover from fighting nearby.

Then too, the Syrian military apparently launched the surface-to-air missiles after the Israeli raid, as the Israeli planes were on their way back to base.

The IDF said at the time that the missiles never posed a threat to the Israeli aircraft, though Syrian state television claimed the Syrian army had downed an Israeli fighter jet.

During that incident, Israel did not deploy any missile defense countermeasures.   (the Times of Israel)

Netanyahu: Syria strikes were to block transfer of weapons to Hezbollah

In a rare statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday acknowledged Israeli airstrikes in Syria, saying that they were conducted to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

“Our policy is very consistent,” Netanyahu said. “When we detect attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and we have the intelligence and feasibility to carry out an operation, we will work to prevent it.”

Netanyahu’s comments came after the IDF also made a rare confirmation of an Israeli airstrike in Syria, releasing a statement on Friday morning saying that that “several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria during the operation. One of the missiles was intercepted by the air defense systems of the IDF.”

According to the army, the jets were targeted with Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, of which one was intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system, heard as far away as Jerusalem, and two others landed in Israel but caused no damage or injuries. As a result of that, a rocket alert siren was heard in Aravot HaYarden Regional Council in Israel’s Jordan Valley, the statement added.

Syrian media reported that four IAF jets took part in the raid, which occurred in the early hours of Friday morning, and claimed to have succeeded in shooting down an Israeli plane and hitting a second one as they were carrying out strikes near the city of Palmyra.

Syria’s SANA state news agency said that the country’s “air defense engaged them and shot down one warplane over occupied territory, hit another one, and forced the rest to flee.”

Arrow interceptor test

“This blatant Israeli act of aggression came as part of the Zionist enemy’s persistence with supporting ISIS terrorist gangs and in a desperate attempt to raise their deteriorating morale and divert attention away from the victories which Syrian Arab Army is making in the face of the terrorist organizations,” the statement read.

“Any attempt by the Zionist enemy to attack any part of the Syrian territory will be directly confronted with all possible means.”

The army denied that any jets had been downed, stating that “at no point was the safety of civilians or IAF aircraft compromised.”

While the army refused to specify which system was used, Israel’s anti-missile defense system, The Arrow system, has been in use by Israel since the 1990s. In January, the Israel Air Force officially took delivery of the first Arrow 3 interceptor, the most advanced Arrow system.

The Arrow 3 is a highly maneuverable system designed to provide ultimate air defense by intercepting ballistic missiles when they are still outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and is considered one of the world’s best interceptors due to its breakthrough technological capabilities. Produced by IAI, the Arrow 3 forms the uppermost layer of Israel’s multilayered defense system along with the Arrow 2, David’s Sling and Iron Dome system.

Hamas and Salafist militants in Gaza have often fired short-range rockets over the border towards Israel, and during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 against Hamas, the terror group fired longer-range rockets that landed deep inside Israel and in the West Bank. During the 2014 war, Israel’s Iron Dome intercepted 799 missiles out of a total of 4,594 rockets fired towards Israel.

Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group in the Egyptian Sinai peninsula have fired rockets into Israel on occasion, including last month when it fired a barrage of Grad missiles towards the southern resort city of Eilat. The missiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system.

The border with Syria has been tense since the war erupted in 2011, and while Israel is suspected of carrying out strikes against Hezbollah weapons convoys in Syrian territory, it rarely publicly admits to them. It is believed that Israel faces the threat of thousands of rockets pounding the home-front in the next war with Hezbollah, which is known to have rebuilt its arsenal since the last war between the group and Israel in 2006.  (Jerusalem Post)

Rockets launched from Gaza, prompting IDF retaliatory strikes

Rocket sirens broke the Sabbath calm and sent residents throughout the Gaza periphery scrambling Saturday morning, as two projectiles were launched from the Gaza Strip.

One rocket exploded near the city of Ashkelon, north of Gaza, causing no casualties or damage. The second apparently fell inside Palestinian territory.

The Israel Defense Forces responded with tank fire at several Hamas targets in the Strip. There were no reports of casualties.

Early thursday Israeli Air Force jets struck two Hamas installations in the north of Gaza in response to rocket fire from the territory at Israeli communities. In that incident a rocket landed in an empty field in the Sdot Negev Regional Council near Netivot. The rocket exploded on impact. No one was hurt and no damage was reported from the explosion.

Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, has largely refrained from firing rockets into Israel since it fought a devastating war with Israel in 2014. Launches have often been ascribed to radical Salafist groups.

Still, Israel has routinely responded by striking Hamas targets, with the military saying it holds Hamas responsible for any attacks emanating from the territory it control (the Times of Israel)

In 2nd meeting, Netanyahu and Trump envoy fail to reach agreement on settlements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his second meeting this week with US President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, on Thursday for further discussions that focused heavily on West Bank settlements but apparently failed to reach an agreement.

Netanyahu and Greenblatt made “progress on the issue of Israeli settlement construction following up on President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement in Washington last month to work out an approach that reflects both leaders’ views,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office issued after the three-hour meting.

“Those discussions are continuing between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office,” it said.

The discussions also explored prospects for renewing peace talks and bolstering the Palestinian economy.

Channel 2 TV reported that Netanyahu made clear to Greenblatt during the meeting that there would be no political possibility of freezing settlement activity, implying that he would not have his coalition’s backing.

Netanyahu and the Trump White House have been trying to reach an understanding on Israeli settlement activity since last month’s meeting between the Israeli leader and the US president, who in a joint press conference told Netanyahu that he wanted him to “hold back” on the settlements.

The issue figured prominently during the first meeting between Greenblatt and Netanyahu on Monday, which lasted over five hours.

Greenblatt tweeted after Thursday’s meeting that the glass was “not half-empty,” but, rather, that the two sides “continue to work to make progress.”

Netanyahu has been trying to get the White House’s approval for the construction of a new settlement — the first in some 25 years — to replace the illegal outpost of Amona, which was evacuated and demolished last month.

Last month, he indicated to members of his security cabinet that the government may have to back off the pledge, drawing vociferous protests from the settlers and their allies in the coalition.

Before the meeting with Greenblatt on Thursday, by contrast, Netanyahu vowed that he would fulfill his promise to Amona residents to establish the new settlement.

Channel 10 reported that Trump was understanding of Netanyahu’s political needs in pushing for a new Amona settlement, and suggested that the prime minister would not publicly have spoken of the need for the new settlement otherwise.

The Israeli prime minister has also been actively trying to avoid friction on other fronts related to settlements, pushing to postpone a Knesset committee vote next week on a bill that calls to annex the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

Channel 10 reported that it would now be up to Greenblatt and Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, to hammer out a coordinated position on settlement-building.

Earlier Thursday, Greenblatt sat down for an unprecedented session with a delegation from the settler umbrella group the Yesha Council, led by Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi and Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan — a meeting that according to Channel 2 was coordinated with Netanyahu.

Ahead of Greenblatt’s trip to Israel, Dagan told Likud ministers that a Netanyahu agreement to rein in settlement construction, or to a partial freeze of settlements, would lead to political crisis, Channel 2 reported, adding that the settler movement has argued that the freeze imposed by the administration of former president Barack Obama constituted “a breach of their human rights.”

A statement from the Yesha Council following the meeting with Greenblatt described it as “fruitful and positive,” and added that the council “looks forward to continuing this important dialogue.”

Channel 10 reported that officials who have met with Greenblatt over the past several days came away with a sense that the administration is determined to make progress on a regional basis, with talk of convening a possible regional conference in the coming months, and that White House efforts to get Israel to rein in settlements would come into play then.

Netanyahu said earlier Thursday that Israel was “in the middle of a process of dialogue with the White House and it is our intention to get to an agreed-upon policy on construction in the settlements.” He noted that it was preferable to reach such understandings quickly rather than engaging in drawn-out negotiations.

“To the residents of Amona I say again: I made a commitment to you to establish a new community and I stand by this commitment,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting.

Greenblatt has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah for the past few days, meeting with Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Wednesday Greenblatt made an unannounced trip to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II in his palace in Amman. A joint statement later described the meeting as “very positive” and said the US envoy and his Jordanian host “both stressed the importance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the transformative effect it could have on the region.”

In a series of tweets Thursday following the day’s meetings, Greenblatt thanked Netanyahu, Abbas, the US embassy in Tel Aviv and in Jordan for “an extremely positive trip.”

Greenblatt also thanked the Prime Minister’s Office for organizing a minyan for evening prayer Thursday and Netanyahu for praying with him “so that I could say Kaddish for my mother.”

Greenblatt’s trip is part of an opening attempt to try and broker fresh peace talks after years of stagnation.

His visit marks the first major attempt by the new US administration to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after two months that have seen officials dither on support for the two-state solution, the possible relocation of the US Embassy and opposition to building in settlements.  (the Times of Israel)

Netanyahu threatens to dissolve government amid broadcasting corporation debate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retracted an agreement made last week with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to establish the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation, throwing his coalition back into crisis. Meanwhile, Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu is threatening to dissolve the government if Kahlon does not agree to shut down the IBC before it is officially launched on April 30.

“I changed my mind after a meeting I had yesterday with the employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority,” Netanyahu said on his official Facebook page on Saturday, “At the meeting I heard heartrending stories about dedicated and experienced employees that are being sent home because of the [Israel Broadcasting] Corporation.”

Netanyahu’s retraction comes after a week of inter-coalition tensions as Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon sparred with Netanyahu after the premier called for a six-month postponement of the IBC’s establishment. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister agreed to support the establishment of the IBC, but Netanyahu reneged on the agreement and is now reportedly ready to dissolve the government if the IBC is not prevented.

Netanyahu has fought to postpone and stymie the establishment of the IBC, which is replacing the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and would face less government control. In explaining his change of heart Netanyahu said on Facebook that he does not want to send some 1,000 IBA employees home and said that the cost of operating the IBA is tens of millions of shekels lower than the IBC. “So why should there be a corporation?” the prime minister asked.

Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog said on Twitter that he plans to unseat the government and supports a vote of no-confidence. Meanwhile Hebrew media reported that Moshe Kahlon spoke to Herzog about introducing a motion of no-confidence thereby leading to elections.

Some opposition MKs meanwhile accused the prime minister of deliberately seeking new elections to distract from the ongoing criminal investigation the prime minister faces. “We must not confuse the public. [Netanyahu] wants the crisis, so as not to be investigated. It is not the establishment of the corporation but early elections,” Zionist Union MK Eyal Margalit said in a statement on Saturday.

Before the coalition was thrown into a tailspin on Saturday the crisis appeared resolved on Thursday when Kahlon and Netanyahu agreed to establish the IBC as legislated on April 30.

In return, Kahlon agreed to a support a ministerial bill, which would create a unified state regulatory body for news broadcasting, but which has been criticized by opposition parties for creating government control over the broadcasting body and thereby threatening press freedoms.

“There is no agreement with Kahlon, the broadcasting corporation will not be established” Bitan said on Channel 2’s Meet the Press, on Saturday. “Likud leads the government and the coalition with 30 seats. They can not come to us all the time with demands and impose their agenda on us, without respecting our views,” Bitan said.

Speaking earlier Saturday at a cultural event in Haifa, Bitan acknowledged the coalition crisis stating “There is a good chance we will go to elections. Bayit Yehudi and Kulanu say that ‘the government depends on us’ then enough is enough. If the Likud and the prime minister get fed up, [Netanyahu] will dismantle everything and go to the election polls.”

The premier also issued an apology on Friday for racially charged comments regarding Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

In responding to a question by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as to why Netanyahu requested a six-month delay of the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation, the prime minister said his “Mizrahi gene was activated.”

The statement, using the Hebrew word for “eastern,” appeared to play off of degrading stereotypes of Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

After a flood of condemnation from opposition and some coalition MKs, the prime minister apologized on Twitter stating, “I apologize for my remarks yesterday. I had no intention to offend anyone. I am connected with all my heart to every group in Israel and I cherish their tremendous contribution to the tradition of our people and building our nation.”

Amidst the shake-up last week, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Shas leader threatened that if these kind of confrontations will not end, he would pull out of the government.

“I do not intend to stay in a cabinet that performs as such, where everyone tries ‘to take out one another,'” Deri said, “If people are not willing to come to their senses, we better go to elections.”  (Jerusalem Post)

Head of UN body resigns as her group’s ‘apartheid Israel’ report is withdrawn

The head of a Lebanon-based United Nations agency that promotes development in Arab countries resigned Friday, after the body she led was ordered by the UN secretary-general to remove from its website a controversial report that charged Israel has established an “apartheid regime” guilty of “racial domination” over the Palestinians.

Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian who served as executive secretary of the Beirut-based Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), announced her resignation at a hastily arranged press conference in the Lebanese capital.

She said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s insistence that the document be removed from the agency’s website led her to quit.

“The secretary general asked me yesterday morning to withdraw (the report). I asked him to rethink his decision, he insisted, so I submitted my resignation from the UN,” Khalaf said.

“We expected of course that Israel and its allies would put huge pressure on the secretary general of the UN so that he would disavow the report, and that they would ask him to withdraw it,” Khalaf, who had also served as an under-secretary-general to Guterres, added.

The report was no longer available on ESCWA’s website as of Friday afternoon.

Guterres accepted Khalaf’s resignation. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric explained to media in New York that “The secretary-general cannot accept that an under-secretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorize the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself,” according to Reuters.

The document, published earlier this week by ESCWA, which comprises 18 Arab countries, drew swift and vociferous criticism from US and Israeli officials. “The United States is outraged by the report,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in a statement. She went on to demand the report be withdrawn.

Its authors concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that systematically institutionalizes racial oppression and domination of the Palestinian people as a whole.”

Khalaf has long been criticized by Israeli officials for her perceived anti-Israel positions.

UN chief Guterres distanced himself from the report on Wednesday, and then requested its removal from ESCWA’s website.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon welcomed the developments, saying Guterres’s move was “an important step in stopping discrimination against Israel.”

In a statement, Danon said “Anti-Israel activists do not belong in the UN. It is time to put an end to practice in which UN officials use their position to advance their anti-Israel agenda.”

He added that “Over the years Khalaf has worked to harm Israel and advocate for the BDS movement. Her removal from the UN is long overdue.”

US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley, who had demanded the report’s withdrawal Wednesday, said in a statement: “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the US, it is appropriate that the person resign. UN agencies must do a better job of eliminating false and biased work, and I applaud the secretary-general’s decision to distance his good office from it.”

Danon said of the report on Wednesday that the “attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy is despicable and constitutes a blatant lie.”

“It comes as no surprise that an organization headed by an individual who has called for boycotts against Israel, and compared our democracy to the most terrible regimes of the twentieth century, would publish such a report,” he added in reference to Khalaf. “We call on the Secretary-General to disassociate the UN from this biased and deceitful report.”

The report, which was published Wednesday, was titled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” and says that “available evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

The report further accuses Israel of “practices” that have fragmented Palestinians, arguing that it is the “principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime.”

The report was compiled by Richard Falk, a Princeton professor emeritus with a long track record of vehemently anti-Israel rhetoric who previously was the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine, and by Virginia Tilley, an American political scientist who authored the book “The One-State Solution” in 2005.

Haley described Falk as “a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories.”                (the Times of Israel)

Hoping to boost trade, PM heads to China with largest-ever business delegation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to take five ministers and the largest-ever Israeli business delegation to Beijing early next week on a three-day visit marking 25 years since Israel and China established diplomatic relations.

Netanyahu, who is leaving on Saturday night, is scheduled to meet with China’s three most senior officials: President Xi Jinping — who will host the Israeli leader for an official dinner — Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the head of the country’s parliament, Zhang Dejiang.

His last visit to China was in May 2013.

Besides the diplomatic meetings, Netanyahu will also lay a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. But the focus of the trip is to promote bilateral trade. A number of economic agreements seeking to help Israeli get better access to Chinese markets will be signed.

“I will also meet with the heads of the biggest corporations in China and today, when we say the biggest corporations in China, we sometimes say the biggest corporations in the world, or which are quickly becoming the biggest in the world,” Netanyahu said Thursday during the weekly cabinet meeting.

Each of the Chinese businessmen Netanyahu is set to meet represents companies “with turnovers of tens of billions of dollars,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Among them is the leadership of Baidu, one of the largest web services companies in the world, which is headquartered in Beijing.

“We will continue the talks on establishing a free trade agreement between China and Israel and we will hold the third joint Israel-China innovation conference,” Netanyahu said. “Of course we are continuing to develop new markets and to open new markets for the Israeli economy.”

Jerusalem and Beijing launched negotiations over a free trade agreement last year, with another round of talks scheduled for July.

Some 90 Israeli businessmen from various industries will accompany Netanyahu’s delegation, making it the largest-ever business group to join a prime minister on a foreign trip. They will attend a business forum chaired by Netanyahu with over 500 invited guests.

“Like many other countries in the world — in the West, the East and even in our region — the Chinese are looking for Israeli ingenuity to help them with their security concerns, to feed their populations and to grow their economy,” said Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“It’s been the prime minister’s policy to open up markets for Israeli companies in the East. This trip is a large step toward enabling Israeli manufacturers and service providers generate more commercial opportunities,” Groner told The Times of Israel this week in his Jerusalem office. “This will not only benefit the Chinese but also help significantly grow Israel’s economy.”

Netanyahu will be accompanied to Beijing by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Economy Minister Eli Cohen, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. They will sign with their Chinese counterparts a series of cooperation agreements in various fields such as aviation, education, science, health and environmental protection.

When the prime minister’s delegation returns to Israel on Wednesday, Groner, who co-chairs the China-Israel joint economic task force, will travel to Guangzhou to represent Israel at the BOAO Forum for Asia, one of the continent’s most important economic conferences.

“In terms of magnitude, it’s like Davos,” Groner said, referring to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Switzerland. “People are familiar with Davos because the eyes of the word have been directed westward. But once people will start looking eastward they’ll recognize it’s one of the most important business forums in the world.”

China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and third largest in the world, with bilateral trade volume surpassing $11 billion.   (the Times of Israel)

Arab MK implicated in security offenses to serve 2 years in jail

Joint Arab List MK Basel Ghattas, indicted for allegedly smuggling cellphones and other materials to Palestinian security prisoners, will plead guilty and serve two years in prison as part of a plea bargain he signed with the State Attorney’s Office on Thursday.

As part of the deal, Ghattas is required to resign his Knesset seat immediately. The court is also expected to add probation to his sentence, although it is unclear at this time what probation recommendation the state will make.

The amended indictment against Ghattas will be presented to the Beersheba District Court next week. It includes charges of smuggling cellular phones into prison, violating Israel Prison Service directives, providing the means to carry out acts of terror, fraud and breach of trust by a public official.

The amended indictment excludes the original charge of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.

The state plans to ask the court to attribute moral turpitude to the Arab MK’s offenses. Under Israeli law, a conviction carrying moral turpitude bars the individual in question from serving in public office for seven years.

On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Affairs Raz Nizri briefed the Knesset House Committee, scheduled to debate Ghattas’ impeachment from parliament next week, on the details of the plea deal.

Nizri explained that Ghattas would have to resign the Knesset, plead guilty, serve a prison sentence that will include probation once he is released, and pay a fine.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel urged State Attorney Shai Nitzan to deny the plea bargain.

“Reaching a plea bargain in this case does not serve public interest. The legal proceedings in cases involving elected officials must be exhausted in a court of law,” the group wrote in a letter sent to Nitzan Thursday.

“The Movement for Quality Government calls on the state attorney to quash this deal and allow for public legal proceedings where the nature of MK Ghattas’ actions could be exposed in full, as he allegedly abused his office. This evidence must be presented in court and to the public.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan took to social media to criticize the deal the State Attorney’s Office had reached with the Joint Arab List lawmaker.

“I have trouble understanding why the State Attorney’s Office would suffice with two years in prison for Ghattas for aiding terrorism, when they have such solid evidence. I hope the court will opt for a far graver sentence,” he tweeted.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov slammed what he called a “very light sentence that will severely undermine deterrence and encourage such nefarious acts in the future.”

Likud MK Yoav Kisch said Ghattas “belongs in jail, not the Knesset. I have no doubt the Impeachment Law and the initiative to impeach Ghattas prompted his resignation, and most importantly — we will soon be rid of him and the Knesset will no longer have to bear this shame.”  (Israel Hayom)

Donald Trump stuns the Middle East by sending an honest broker

Despite administration’s unprecedented pledge of allegiance to Netanyahu, Jason Greenblatt’s carefully calibrated visit shows US peace bid will take all sides into account

By Raphael Ahren   The Times of Israel


Something unusual happened on the White House’s homepage the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US President Donald Trump for the first time in the Oval Office.

Netanyahu was still in Washington on the evening of February 16 when, between 9:30 and 10 p.m., a new link appeared at the bottom of the site, under the category “Get Involved,” together with items in support of “empowering female leaders,” Trump’s plan to boost employment, and his nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.

Entitled “President Trump Stands With Israel,” the new link led to a page on which the leader of the free world declares, with no further explanation, that he “stands in solidarity with Israel to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our two nations and to promote security and prosperity for all.”

The page invites users to sign up with their names and email addresses to show that they stand “with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

While the president’s friendship with Netanyahu is no secret, having this item permanently placed on the White House homepage — it’s still there as of this writing, a month after Netanyahu’s visit — is exceedingly surprising. No other foreign country, let alone a single politician from a foreign country, has been given this honor.

And yet, after nearly a full week during which his special representative for international negotiations, Jason Dov Greenblatt, toured the region in a bid to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one cannot help getting the impression that in the months ahead, Washington will not unconditionally side with Jerusalem on all matters relating to the conflict. Greenblatt’s schedule, interactions and comments plainly signal a genuine attempt to take Ramallah’s concerns into consideration as well.

The envoy’s four-day visit, eight hours of which he spent in two sessions sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office, demonstrates quite clearly that Trump does not intend to be Netanyahu’s yes-man.

According to people who spoke with Greenblatt, his boss — who prides himself on having mastered the “art of the deal” — is determined to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Trump himself “expressed his strong desire to achieve a comprehensive, just, and lasting settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” in a statement after he met Wednesday with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And Greenblatt worked exceedingly hard to be perceived by the players he met in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan as an honest broker.

The art of diplomacy

The lawyer-turned-diplomat did not only meet Netanyahu’s counterpart, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but also Jordan’s King Abdullah, another important regional stakeholder whose views on the conflict are not exactly congruent with those of the Israeli leader.

While Greenblatt’s sessions with Abbas and Abdullah were much shorter than the two meetings with Netanyahu, officials in Ramallah were uncharacteristically optimistic after their contacts. Abbas, who Trump had last Friday invited to the White House, declared after his talks with Greenblatt that a “historic” peace deal was possible. “The mood is good,” one Palestinian official said with succinct enthusiasm in a private conversation.

In a unprecedented move for US officials, Greenblatt met Thursday with the heads of the Yesha Council, the settlement movement’s most important advocacy group. But he also spoke to young Palestinians in Bethlehem and at the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah “to understand their daily experiences.” He met Palestinian high-tech entrepreneurs and a “cross section of folks from Gaza,” as he wrote on his busy Twitter account. The Gazans gave him “hope we can find solutions to humanitarian challenges while meeting Israel’s security needs,” he noted.

Greenblatt on Thursday also hosted a rare interfaith summit of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which was attended by both Israeli chief rabbis and the chief justice of the PA’s Sharia court.

On Wednesday night, Greenblatt, an observant Jew, visited the Old City’s Yeshivat Hakotel, a Talmudical seminary located in what the international community calls illegally occupied territory, and waxed on Twitter over the stunning “view of the heart of ancient Jerusalem.”

But if you thought that his Orthodoxy and his past as a student in a West Bank yeshiva had caught up with him, Greenblatt then tweeted that following his visit to the yeshiva he walked five minutes “to the home of a new Palestinian friend and saw the same sacred site, from a different angle.”

Some Israelis wondered why Greenblatt had chosen not to wear his customary big, black kippa during his diplomatic meetings. (He remained bareheaded even during the interfaith meeting, only putting on his kippa afterwards for the group photo.) He wanted to appear statesmanlike and not give the impression that he was biased in favor of Jewish Israelis, pundits surmised. But Greenblatt at no point hid his strong Jewish identity. At a stopover in Frankfurt before arriving, he tweeted a photo of his siddur, prayer shawl and phylacteries, indicating that he was about to “[p]ray for peace.”

On Thursday evening, as he wrapped up a visit he called “extremely positive,” he thanked Netanyahu and his staff for helping him make a minyan — the required forum of ten Jewish men — so he could say the Kaddish prayer in memory of his late mother.

Like his boss, Greenblatt tweeted frequently. Very much unlike his boss, his tweets were well-crafted messages of peace — friendly, positive and balanced. “I was extremely fortunate to meet some incredible Israelis and Palestinians on my trip. Thank you all for your perspectives!” he wrote as he headed toward Ben Gurion Airport.

People who spoke to Greenblatt said his mission was to listen and not necessarily to convey elaborate policy proposals. In contrast to the Obama administration — which had a very clear vision of how a solution to the conflict should look from day one — the Trump White House currently appears interested in fully understanding where everyone is at before formulating a coherent Middle East policy.

During his February 15 press conference with Netanyahu, the president said whatever solution both parties want would be fine with him, be it a one-state or a two-state solution. It seems a safe assessment that many of Greenblatt’s interlocutors here argued passionately for the need for a Palestinian state.

And it is in this context that the envoy’s unfinished negotiations with Netanyahu over settlement expansions should be seen. The White House has so far refrained from endorsing a two-state solution, but the fact that Netanyahu in two lengthy meetings did not manage to convince Greenblatt to give him free rein in the West Bank indicates that the Trump administration is determined to keep the prospect of Palestinian statehood alive.

Netanyahu publicly promised to build a new settlement for the recently evicted residents of the illegal Amona outpost, and vowed to reach an agreed-upon policy with the administration regarding settlement construction, but no such deal was done by the time the US envoy flew back to Washington. When this reporter tweeted on Thursday evening that Greenblatt’s second powwow with Netanyahu had ended without concrete results, the US envoy replied that “complex matters are not black and white and require significant time and attention to review and resolve.”

According to various sources, significant gaps remain between the two sides. If Netanyahu thought Trump would give him the green light to build wherever he wants, he has to think again.

Some Israeli politicians and pundits surmised on Friday that Netanyahu started missing Barack Obama this week. In the past, he could always blame the former president’s perceived anti-Israel attitude when pressured by his right-wing rivals over the slow pace of settlement constructions. With Trump, who etched his friendship to Netanyahu onto the White House website, this is no longer possible.

The wildest Middle East peace process yet

by Aaron David Miller    CNN


Over the last two days, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser on international negotiations and longtime lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — now in a virtual coma.

The chances of the Trump administration waking the patient up, let alone facilitating a real road to recovery, are well … pretty close to zero. Even Greenblatt opined he was in a listening only mode.

Very little has changed in either the Palestinian or Israeli willingness to take risks on the big decisions required to sustain any kind of peace process that might move — even over time — to a two-state end game. Indeed, one of the results of the Netanyahu-Trump meeting in Washington was to call into question the whole premise of the feasibility and desirability of such an outcome.

Still, there’s definitely a new peace process conductor in town and a new tune, too, which has moved away from the one-note, two-state solution that has characterized US policy for almost 30 years. That approach may well be the least bad option for solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But, so far, it’s proven unworkable.

So does the Trump administration have a new approach? And can it work?

Not Obama: A month in, one thing is stunningly clear. The Trump administration has so far rejected most everything its predecessor said and did on this issue. By this time in 2009, Obama had appointed a high-level special envoy. Then, in March 2009, Obama gave his now famous Cairo speech — an unprecedented outreach to the Arab and Muslim world. And in perhaps a major miscalculation, he passed up an opportunity to visit Israel that year.

Not in Trumpland: Elections have consequences. And on Arab-Israeli peacemaking we’ve seen some of the old, but mostly the new. The Trump administration, in questioning the value of a two-state outcome, has changed the US frame of reference; deescalated the settlements by making it a private rather than public conversation; and seems to believe it can quietly reach a set of understandings on the issue with the Israelis, which it can then sell to the Palestinians and Arab states in exchange for concessions.

Enter the Arabs: Indeed, if there is a single significant change in the new administration’s approach, it’s the idea that the Sunni Arab states — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates — can be the drivers to entice the Israelis to the table and to support and pressure the Palestinians to come, too.

One-state solution explained

This has been tried before without much success. But the new factor seems to be premised on the emerging mutual hostility both share toward Iran and Sunni jihadists. The question is whether this “outside in approach” — making the Arabs a central actor rather than a supporting one — will produce a happier ending.

The new alignment between Israel and Arabs is real. What is less so is that these Arab states will reach out publicly to Israel and pressure Palestinians without substantial concessions from the Israelis — including a settlement freeze and some political horizon promising a Palestinian state.

Who’s playing whom? Not too put too fine a point on it, but the Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states have their own agendas in Washington and are, to a large extent, playing the new guy in town.

Netanyahu can’t believe his good fortune. His visit to Washington strengthened him at home, certainly among the right; dodged and diluted the issue of Palestinian statehood; and the slap on the wrist on settlements during the presser with Trump only helped him domestically by giving him a talking point to restrain his most conservative MPs.

Making sense of the strange Trump-Netanyahu meeting

Abbas is desperate, and his nice words about fighting terror and incitement after his meeting with Greenblatt have become pro forma. Given his deep unpopularity on the Palestinian street, he’s in no position to make concessions without major ones from Israel.

And the Arab states eager to be in Trump’s good graces may be telling him much that he wants to hear. They are eager to solidify bilateral relations, in the case of the Saudis, for more US support in Yemen, and in the case of Egypt, to secure more military assistance.

Bottom line? Is anyone really serious about the peace process?

How serious is Donald Trump? And that applies to the President, too. During the campaign, he consistently spoke of his desire to try to take on the peace process, touting his negotiating skills and that of his son-in-law, the putative Middle East envoy Jared Kushner.

I can only say I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence as Trump seems to have in Kushner. This is mission impossible or at least implausible. To make any kind of peace process real will require painful decisions — even if a way can be found to temporarily bypass the big issues, like borders and Jerusalem.

And it will take the personal involvement of a busy and easily distracted President.

Still, I am looking forward to the moment when the Trump brand, applied to golf courses, ties, wine and steaks, is stamped on a peace initiative. I’ve seen the wild times on the peace process over the years, but this might well be the wildest.

How the monstering of Donald Trump has confused the Jews

by Melanie Phillips    The Jerusalem Post


President Donald Trump continues to be the focus of confusion and division, not least within the Jewish world.

At first he was hailed as massively pro-Israel. He said he was opposed to the Iran deal and Israel’s treatment by the UN, promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and appointed as US ambassador a bullish supporter of the settlers. Jews on the Right were thrilled, Jews on the Left were dismayed.

But then he invited Mahmoud Abbas to the White House and sent his envoy Jason Greenblatt to make nice with him in Ramallah, asked Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back on settlement building and back-pedaled on moving the embassy. Jews on the Right are now dismayed, Jews on the Left are thrilled.

Everyone should calm down and stop jumping to conclusions with every phone call, visit or remark. We don’t know if Trump is proceeding toward yet another Middle East foreign policy car crash or a genius deal.

A much bigger picture may be in play, involving unprecedented opportunities arising from the political earthquake going on in the Arab world over the threat from Iran. This picture may not become clear for some time, and the signals along the way may be opaque or even deliberately confusing.

There are deeper worries about Trump, though, within the Jewish world. Across the political spectrum Jews are fretting that either he himself harbors anti-Jewish feelings or at the very least has empowered those who have them.

The examples supposedly backing up this preposterous claim, however, don’t stack up at all.

Take the notorious omission of Jewish victims from the White House statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. Officials were further excoriated when they said this was deliberate because they wanted to be “inclusive” of all who suffered under the Nazis. It was also reported that team Trump had stripped all references to Jews from an initial State Department draft.

Omitting Jews from the Holocaust statement was indeed wrong. But there’s a widespread liberal approach which similarly downplays Jewish victimization in the Holocaust in order to be “inclusive.”

Indeed Hillary Clinton, when secretary of state, issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013 which made no mention whatever of Jews or antisemitism.

What’s more, a White House official said the Trump team hadn’t even seen the State draft before publishing its own.

Further proof of Trump’s anti-Jewish mindset was supposedly provided by his reported speculation, when asked about the wave of bomb threats to US Jewish centers, that rather than assuming all these to be antisemitic incidents “sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people – or to make others – look bad.”

Cue hysteria over “reverse,” by which he was said to mean Jews themselves had invented these threats in line with the classic antisemitic trope that the Jews fabricate attacks on themselves to manipulate public sympathy.

Seldom has one word been invested with so much inappropriate significance. For sure, Trump hardly helps himself. He speaks loosely and inaccurately. He thinks (and tweets) from his gut. He appears emotional, self-absorbed and impulsive. He shoots his mouth off over something he’s seen or heard on TV or talk radio which as often as not turns out to be false. All this is alarming and indefensible.

It was, however, clear from the context that by “reverse” he was suggesting these might be “false flag” attacks by unspecified enemies carried out to damage him. Rightly or wrongly, Trump believes his enemies mounted such attacks at his rallies to smear him with the taint of violence. That, not an anti-Jewish canard, was obviously what was in his mind.

Many, though, just won’t accept this. Their view of the president has been indelibly framed by the onslaught of distortion, fabrication, selective reporting, double standards, wrenching out of context and character assassination by association hurled against him by the mainstream media.

This is all having a distressing effect on American Jews.

They are no longer just divided between Left and Right.

There’s now a further rancorous division between conservative Jews who believe Trump will be the saving of Israel and the West, and conservative Jews who believe he will be a catastrophe for the Jews and America.

In part, the latter comes from an aesthetic distaste for Trump’s crude and boorish public persona. More seriously, it reflects concern about his apparently tenuous relationship with the truth.

At a deeper level still, it also surely reflects the profound fissure within conservatism itself. For decades, progressives have rejected Western national identity and values as a form of white racism and cultural oppression.

Many conservatives bought into much of this onslaught, usually without realizing it.

That’s why millions in the West have felt so disenfranchised; and why conservatives no less than liberals were so astonished by both Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Both these phenomena expressed the urgent wish of the people to defend the identity, culture and democratic accountability of Western nations against the attempt to destroy them.

Yet this reasonable, even admirable impulse has been vilified as racism not just by the Left but also by mainstream conservatives – amongst whom are many anti- Trump Jews. That’s why Trump’s philosopher-strategist Steve Bannon, who is driven by the desire to restore Western national identity based on Judeo-Christian values, has been smeared and defamed as a “white nationalist.”

Yet it’s also why ultimately Donald Trump, despite his manifold flaws, is a true ally of the Jewish people. It’s a great pity so many Jews don’t see it.