Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday he would be “risking the future” of his regime if he allowed Iran to be entrenched militarily in his country.
“We will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria,” he told reporters alongside visiting US pointman on Iran policy, Brian Hook.
The two men called for an extension of an arms embargo on Iran, archfoe of both their countries, that expires in October.
“I say to the ayatollahs in Tehran: ‘Israel will continue to take the actions necessary to prevent you from creating another terror and military front against Israel'” in neighbouring Syria, the premier said.
“And I say to Bashar al-Assad: ‘You’re risking the future of your country and your regime,” Netanyahu said.
Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of its civil war in 2011, targeting government troops, allied Iranian forces and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
It rarely confirms details of operations in Syria, but says Iran’s presence in support of Assad is a threat to the Jewish state and that it will keep up such attacks.
“We are absolutely resolved to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in our immediate vicinity,” said Netanyahu.
Hook focused on the arms embargo, put in place as part of a multilateral nuclear accord signed by Tehran, Washington and other major powers in 2015.
A lifting of that embargo would allow Iran “to freely import fighter jets, attack helicopters, warships, submarines, large-calibre artillery systems and missiles of certain ranges”, the US envoy said.
“Iran will then be in a position to export these weapons and their technologies to their proxies such as Hezbollah, (Palestinian groups) Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Shiite militia groups in Iraq and Shiite militant networks in Bahrain and to the Huthis in Yemen,” Hook said.
“The last thing that this region needs is more Iranian weapons.”
The US unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord in 2018.
A new page in Israeli history opens Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the first sitting premier to face criminal charges, accused of a string of corruption allegations he denies.
After more than 500 days of electoral deadlock in which he fought for his political survival Netanyahu is to take his seat in the Jerusalem District Court for a new battle — to stay out of prison and avoid a stain on his legacy.
The 70-year-old is used to setting precedents: he is the first Israeli prime minister born after the foundation of the state in 1948 and the longest-serving in its history.
But the impending trial is a deeply-unwanted first.
In 2009, prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped down after police recommended he be indicted for graft.
He was later tried and convicted of taking bribes and sentenced to 27 months in prison but was paroled after less than a year and a half.
Like Netanyahu, Olmert came from the right-wing Likud party, although he subsequently defected to the centrist Kadima.
Netanyahu is fighting tooth and nail to avoid Olmert’s fate.
Among the charges he faces is that he sought to illegally trade favours in exchange for positive coverage for himself in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling newspaper.
He is also accused of accepting cigars, champagne and jewellery worth 700,000 shekels (180,000 euros) from wealthy personalities in exchange for favours.
Perhaps most serious of all is the claim that Netanyahu offered media mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favourable reporting on the Walla! news website.
That charge is also the most complex, said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, who says it differs from “classic” bribery cases where money changes hands.
– ‘Political death warrant’ –
In this case, Fuchs argued, the allegation is that Netanyahu “is getting only media coverage,” rather than cash.
“It is unprecedented,” he told reporters.
But in the Bezeq case, Fuchs adds, Netanyahu, is accused of doing far more than seek flattering write-ups.
“It was actually complete editorial control of this site even on the specifics of which posts to make, or which pictures to make.”
Netanyahu denies all the accusations and claims he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and legal officials.
After months of suspense and repeated police questioning of Netanyahu, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in January filed charges against the premier.
Many commentators considered this the premier’s political death warrant.
But Netanyahu retained the Likud leadership and after three inconclusive general elections managed to hammer out a power-sharing deal with his chief rival Benny Gantz.
Under the agreement, Netanyahu will continue to lead the government for 18 months before handing over the premiership to Gantz.
– ‘Conflict of interest’ –
Netanyahu’s trial had been due to open in mid-March, but the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a postponement to May 24, and the proceedings will be marked by social-distancing and other hygiene measures.
Netanyahu’s lawyers requested that he be excused from appearing in person on Sunday afternoon (1200 GMT) at the opening of a trial that will stretch over months or even years with possible appeals.
They argued that his attendance, to hear the formal reading of the charges against him and confirm that he has read and understands them, was merely technical.
But the court rejected the request, citing a clause in Israeli criminal law stating that “a person may not be tried on criminal charges except in his presence.”
Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have automatic immunity from prosecution but also is not obliged to resign when charged, only when convicted and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
Yuval Shany, professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that there is “a basic incompatibility” between Netanyahu’s role as head of the government and his status as a criminal defendant.
In the latter role, Shany says, the premier will be “fighting very aggressively and maybe effectively to weaken the government authorities that are prosecuting him”.
“There is a very serious conflict of interest situation,” he said.
Once the trial is underway the three judges selected by the Supreme Court will be able to demand Netanyahu’s presence in court when they consider it necessary.
At any time before the verdict Israeli law allows Netanyahu to change his plea in exchange for lesser or fewer charges.
Here are key dates in the Israeli governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu since 2009.
– Return to power –
The right-wing Likud party chief Netanyahu becomes prime minister for a second time in March 2009, after a first stint between 1996 and 1999.
He forms a coalition firmly anchored to the right, with the post of foreign minister going to ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.
In March 2013, Netanyahu’s new governing coalition takes office after snap January polls, with a strong showing of hardliners in favour of Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.
– Gaza wars –
In July 2014, Israel launches a military operation against the Hamas-run Gaza Strip with the aim of ending rocket fire and destroying smuggling tunnels used by militant groups in the blockaded territory.
The war leaves 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side, mostly civilians, and 74 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers.
– Most right-wing government –
In May 2015, Netanyahu wins a confidence vote in parliament for his fourth government.
A year later, he signs a coalition agreement with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, naming him defence minister.
The government is the most right-wing in Israeli history.
In June 2017, Israel starts building its first new government-sanctioned settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1991 in defiance of international concern.
Settlement building takes on momentum under Netanyahu, with the support of his staunch US ally President Donald Trump.
– Deadly Gaza flare-up –
A mass protest is launched in Gaza in March 2018 to demand the right for Palestinians to return to homes in Israel that they fled or were expelled from after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
It sees a surge in violence on the border where Palestinians gather every Friday.
From March 2018 to December 2019 at least 352 Palestinians are killed by Israeli fire, mostly during protests along the border. Eight Israelis also perish.
A ceasefire is currently in force between Hamas and Israel.
– Political crisis –
On April 9, 2019, Likud wins 35 of the 120 seats in parliament, the same number as Netanyahu’s centrist challenger Benny Gantz at a general election.
On April 17, President Reuven Rivlin formally tasks Netanyahu with forming a government, but the prime minister is unable to secure a majority coalition.
On May 29, parliament votes to dissolve itself and holds a new election.
In the September 17 polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White alliance are again almost neck-and-neck.
Neither man can manage to form a coalition government, propelling the country into a third poll.
– Trump support –
On January 28, 2020, Trump, who has been an unfailing backer of Netanyahu’s Israel since taking power in January 2017, unveils a Middle East peace plan, which includes many concessions to Israel.
– Third stalemate –
On March 2, Israelis go to the polls for the third time in less than a year, resulting in another stalemate between Netanyahu and Gantz.
On March 15, an Israeli court postpones Netanyahu’s graft trial amid fears of the spread of the new coronavirus.
In late March Gantz decides to seek a deal with Netanyahu for an interim emergency alliance to lead Israel during the coronavirus pandemic.
– Unity government –
On April 20 Netanyahu and Gantz announce a deal to form an emergency unity government.
The three-year agreement will allow Netanyahu to stay in office for 18 months while Gantz, a former army chief, heads the defence ministry.
Gantz will then take over as premier for another 18 months before a new round of elections.
On May 7 Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming a new government, which has earlier been backed by parliament.
Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leading member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, has tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to re-enter precautionary quarantine, officials said Thursday.
Netanyahu’s previous quarantine, imposed earlier this week after one of his staffers tested positive for the novel coronavirus, had ended Wednesday night, his office said.
The premier’s new seven-day self-isolation was imposed following his contacts with the 71-year-old Litzman, the prime minister’s office said.
Litzman of the Gur Hassidic sect — whose wife also tested positive — is the most prominent member of the hard-hit ultra-Orthodox community to test positive for the virus that has infected more than 6,200 Israelis.
“Litzman and his wife feel well, are receiving treatment and will be quarantined and supervised,” a health ministry statement said.
The ministry added that its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, along with other senior officials, will also enter quarantine following contacts with Litzman.
Israeli media also reported that the head of the Mossad spy agency, Yossi Cohen, may also be compelled to self-isolate after having had contact with Litzman, but that information could not be immediately confirmed.
– Ultra-Orthodox restrictions –
The rising caseload has spurred Israel to increasingly tighten restrictions, with the latest measures aimed directly at ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that have resisted social distancing rules.
According to health ministry data, ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and cities have become COVID-19 hotspots after leading rabbis had initially ignored and even refuted state orders to close educational institutions and limit synagogue attendance.
Netanyahu on Wednesday said there had been “a very positive change among the ultra-Orthodox public”.
He said the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim in Hebrew, had now “well internalised the danger of the spread of the coronavirus”.
They are “listening to the instructions and behaving responsibly, with full backing from the rabbis,” he added.
In a televised address, Netanyahu said movement to and from the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak would be reduced “to the necessary minimum”.
The quarantined and sick from Bnei Brak would be taken away to hotels elsewhere in the country, the right-wing premier added.
Netanyahu also told Israelis to wear face masks in public, in a reversal of policy.
“If you do not have a mask, use a scarf or any other face covering that will reduce the spread of the virus to others,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close aides have been placed under quarantine after a staffer within his office tested positive for COVID-19, a statement and Israeli media said.
“Before the epidemiological investigation was completed and to dispel any doubts, the prime minister decided that he and his close staff would be in confinement until (tests) were completed,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office.
The statement did not mention the positive test of a staffer, but multiple Israeli media outlets have reported the case, which was confirmed to AFP by separate sources.
A right-wing ally of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped down as speaker of parliament on Wednesday in a blow to the embattled premier, the latest development in a months-long political crisis.
Yuli Edelstein’s resignation paved the way for Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz, who is trying to form a government, to place an ally in the powerful post.
That could spell new risks for the premier as he faces trial for alleged corruption.
Lawmakers who oppose Netanyahu have pushed for a law blocking him from remaining prime minister while facing the charges, all of which he denies.
Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, had refused to schedule a speakership vote until a new government was formed, resigning instead after the Supreme Court set a Wednesday deadline for the vote.
“The High Court ruling constitutes a crude and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the matters of the elected legislature,” Edelstein said.
“I won’t allow Israel to descend into anarchy. I won’t lend a hand to civil war,” he said as the court’s deadline approached.
“I hereby resign from my position as Knesset speaker.”
His departure, however, would take effect only in 48 hours.
That means he remains bound to call the vote on Wednesday in line with the Supreme Court order, according to attorney general Avichai Mandelblit.
Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking to have Edelstein held in contempt.
But Edelstein doubled down, insisting he would not schedule the vote for Wednesday.
“My conscience does not let me obey the ruling, which is why I resigned,” he told the court on Wednesday, noting his replacement could decide on the matter.
“I have no desire to hold the esteemed court in contempt, but in the light of its ruling, I have found myself in an impossible position, which is why I resigned,” he said.
In an address later Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin said it was “the duty of every one of us to obey the rulings of the courts, and that it is inconceivable that anyone would not do so.”
The latest drama came after a year of political turmoil that has seen three inconclusive elections, followed by Netanyahu imposing strict legal and security measures against a novel coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 2,000 Israelis.
Anti-Netanyahu forces claimed 62 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 2 election, with the premier’s right-wing party and its religious allies winning 58.
Gantz has been tasked with trying to form a government.
That proved impossible following two previous elections last year, given the deep divisions within the anti-Netanyahu bloc which includes the mainly Arab Joint List and its bitter rival, the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.
There was no guarantee Gantz would fare better this time, fuelling calls from many sides for a short-term unity government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the divides within the anti-Netanyahu camp, it has been unified in backing legislation that would bar anyone under criminal indictment from serving as prime minister.
Removing Edelstein as a speaker could expedite that legislation.
But Netanyahu has made a series of offers to Gantz on forming a unity government, including deals that would see the premier’s job rotate between the two men.
“There’s deep unrest among all parts of the nation, we must put it aside,” he said in a televised address late Wednesday focusing on anti-coronavirus measures.
“I call for the immediate formation of a national unity government to deal with the crisis.”
As he announced his resignation, Edelstein also said Israel needed a unity government “as a pandemic endangers us from without”.
“We all need to act like human beings, to act, to unify, to rise above,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he was pushing to legalise recreational cannabis in the Jewish state, along the lines enacted by Canada in 2018.
Israel has already partially decriminalised recreational marijuana use, setting fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal prosecution.
It allows tightly-regulated use of the drug for medicinal purposes and its cultivation and export by government-licenced growers.
Writing on his Facebook page Netanyahu said that a committee chaired by newly-appointed justice minister Amir Ohana would look at implementing lessons from Canada, which in 2018 became the first major economy to legalise recreational use of cannabis.
“Minister Ohana has begun work on the issue and he will chair a committee of professionals,” Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew.
The forum, he added, “will examine bringing in the Canadian model for regulating a legal market in Israel.”
Canada’s Cannabis Act, the outcome of an election promise by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, allows adults to buy up to 30 grammes and grow up to four plants at home for personal use.
Netanyahu said that the Israeli committee would be advised by the chairman of the Green Leaf party which advocates legalisation but has never won a seat in parliament.
It is not running in next week’s general election, the third within 12 months after two previous rounds ended in deadlock.
The trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges will open on March 17, the justice ministry said Tuesday.
It said the indictment would be read by judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman in the presence of Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The announcement comes as the 70-year-old prime minister campaigns ahead of March 2 elections, Israel’s third in less than a year, after two previous polls resulted in a deadlock between Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz.
Gantz had refused after September elections to join a unity government led by Netanyahu, saying he must first settle his differences with the judiciary before taking power.
Netanyahu was charged in the autumn last year with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit formally presented the charge sheet to the Jerusalem district court on January 28 after Netanyahu had withdrawn a request seeking parliamentary immunity lodged earlier that month.
His opponents had already mustered a majority in the legislature to deny him immunity.
Netanyahu is Israel’s only head of government to have been indicted during his term in office.
Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister is only required to step down once convicted of an offence and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
Netanyahu denies the charges and says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday held talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and called for the opening of missions in each others’ countries, during a visit aimed at boosting ties.
Netanyahu last visited Uganda in July 2016 to mark the 40th anniversary of a hostage rescue at Entebbe airport, in which his brother Yonatan died.
“There are two things we very much want to achieve… one is direct flights from Israel to Uganda,” Netanyahu told Museveni at a joint press conference.
“And second… you open an embassy in Jerusalem, I’ll open an embassy in Kampala,” he added.
“We are studying that,” Museveni replied.
Traditionally, most diplomatic missions in Israel have been in Tel Aviv as countries maintained a neutral stance over the status of Jerusalem.
But US President Donald Trump shocked the world in December 2017 by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and shifting the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to that city.
In recent years, Israel has boosted its links with African nations, improving ties following a difficult period when many post-independence African leaders sided with Israel’s Arab rivals and viewed Israel’s support for apartheid, South Africa, with intense suspicion.
Israel now has diplomatic relations with 39 of 47 sub-Saharan African states.
Netanyahu is on his fifth visit to Africa in less than four years. The continent is a lucrative market for defence equipment and the agriculture sector.
As Israeli expertise in military and agricultural technology has developed, the opportunity for trade with Africa has grown.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed a US peace plan for the Middle East Tuesday as a “realistic path to a durable peace” that assures Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
“This is a historic day,” Netanyahu said, speaking alongside President Donald Trump who presented the plan at a White House ceremony.
“Too many plans tried to pressure Israel to withdraw from vital territory like the Jordan Valley. But you, Mr President, you recognized that Israel must have sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and other strategic areas of Judea and Samaria.”
Trump’s proposal, Netanyahu said, would also involve the United States recognizing settlements as part of Israel.
Ambassadors for the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman were in the audience but Palestinian representatives, who have denounced the plan, stayed away.
President Donald Trump Tuesday unveiled long-awaited details of a US plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warning it may represent the last chance at statehood for the Palestinians.
“Today, Israel takes a big step towards peace,” Trump told a White House news conference, standing alongside visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he revealed key points of the plan already strongly rejected by the Palestinians.
“My vision presents a win-win opportunity for both sides, a realistic two state solution that resolves the risk of Palestinian statehood to Israel’s security,” Trump said.
The plan was warmly welcomed by Israel’s prime minister, who called it a “historic day” for the Jewish state.
The plan, Trump said, proposes a four-year freeze of Israeli development in the area eyed for a future Palestinian state.
“Jerusalem will remain Israel’s undivided, very important, undivided capital,” Trump stressed.
But the plan would also provide the Palestinians with a capital in occupied East Jerusalem, he said, while indicating that the West Bank would not be cut in half under the plan.
“We will also work to create a contiguous territory within the future Palestinian state, for when the conditions for statehood are met, including the firm rejection of terrorism,” Trump said as he called on the Palestinians to turn their back on the radical Hamas movement.
Calling it a “historic opportunity” for the Palestinians to achieve an independent state, Trump said he had written Tuesday to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to enlist his support for the plan.
No Palestinian official was present at the launch although the ambassadors from three Arab nations — Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — were at the White House.
“I explained to (Abbas) that the territory allocated for his new state will remain open and undeveloped for a period of four years,” Trump said.
“This could be the last opportunity they will ever have.”
“Palestinians are in poverty and violence, exploited by those seeking to use them as pawns to advance terrorism and extremism,” the president added.