Netanyahu Eyes Vaccine Win As Israel Heads For Fourth Vote

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to the COVID-19 vaccination facility in Jerusalem on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP)

 

When Israel this month holds its fourth election in less than two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hope goodwill from a world-beating Covid vaccination campaign can finally secure him an elusive majority government.

The last time Israelis went to the polls just a year ago, they delivered a result that had already become familiar: neither the right-wing Netanyahu nor his centrist challenger Benny Gantz had enough support for a parliamentary majority.

The world, and Israeli politics, have since been upended by the pandemic. Just weeks after the last election, Israel entered the first of three coronavirus lockdowns.

In May, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier, and Gantz formed a unity government, declaring that the public health threat required political stability.

But their coalition, which had been set to last three years, collapsed in December when Netanyahu’s refusal to approve a 2021 budget forced new elections, to be held on March 23.

Netanyahu, a wily political veteran, is now hoping he can sneak over the line thanks to the inoculation drive.

The 71-year-old also hopes for a boost from having clinched historic normalisation deals with four Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — agreements he claims mark a new era in the Middle East.

But despite Netanyahu’s apparent successes, polls point to another indecisive result, with the premier so far lacking a clear path to form a government.

– ‘Vaccine nation’ –

Israel, a country of about nine million people, has given the two recommended jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to around four million residents, an inoculation pace envied by many nations.

Netanyahu has been happy to take the credit for boldly reaching out early to drug-makers with approved vaccines.

“Do you know how many presidents and prime ministers call Pfizer and Moderna? They don’t answer. But when it’s me, they take the call,” he said days ago.

“I convinced them that Israel would be a model country to roll out the vaccine: who else will do that? Definitely not (Yair) Lapid, (Naftali) Bennett and Gideon (Saar),” he proclaimed, referring to his main election challengers.

Israel secured a large vaccine stock from Pfizer because its highly digitised medical system enabled it to offer the company fast, precious data on the product’s impact.

Netanyahu has repeatedly visited vaccination centres and adopted the phrase “Vaccine Nation”, a play on the “Start-up Nation” tag Israel acquired because of its burgeoning high-tech sector.

But some voters also blame Netanyahu for the painful lockdowns.

His political allies, ultra-Orthodox Jews, have flouted restrictions — often with a muted police response — fuelling transmission while many other citizens were following the rules.

– Right-wing pitch –

As the vaccine edges Israel out of the pandemic, its political landscape is shifting.

Gantz’s supporters punished him for entering a Netanyahu-led government and his fractured Blue and White party may not even get enough votes to qualify for parliament.

Netanyahu’s former partner, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, has emerged as his main challenger, polls show.

And a former prominent member of Netanyahu’s Likud, Gideon Saar, has formed his own party to run against the premier.

Seeking to make up any lost ground, Netanyahu has tried to appeal to Arab voters, despite having disparaged them in past campaigns and backing a 2018 law that downgraded Arabic’s status as an official language.

For all that has changed since the last election, a single question for voters has again dominated this year’s campaign: are you for Netanyahu or against him?

The electorate is “divided between those who want Netanyahu to continue to another term in office and those who hope to see him finally head home”, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, told AFP.

Seeking to shore up his right-wing support in the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu on Sunday visited Kfar Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Settlers, who live in communities widely regarded as illegal under international law, are also being courted by Netanyahu’s right-wing rivals, Saar and Bennett.

Netanyahu recalled visiting Kfar Etzion in its early days, some 50 years ago, and lauded the “wonderful pioneering activity” of his audience.

He warned voters that straying from Likud would be a “terrible mistake” that could produce a left-wing government.

“Vote Likud,” he told them. “We will create a strong, stable, right wing government.”

AFP

Israel PM Netanyahu Denies Graft Allegation As Trial Resumes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to the COVID-19 vaccination facility in Jerusalem on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP)

 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied corruption charges during a brief court appearance Monday, as his graft trial resumed weeks ahead of a fourth national election within two years.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was formally charged last year over allegations of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

He had been compelled to appear in person to respond to the charges, after last month formally submitting his innocent plea in writing.

“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Israel’s longest-serving premier said, after Jerusalem court judge Rivka Feldman Friedman asked his response to the charges against him.

 

In this file photo taken on February 9, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP.

 

Netanyahu was referring to a January 18 court filing from his defence team which said: “the prime minister denies all charges” in each of the three separate cases against him.

The combative 71-year-old premier, who has previously blasted the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous”, spent just 20 minutes at Monday’s hearing, entering and exiting amid a heavy security deployment and dozens of protesters.

Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch-hunt.

– Further delay? –
The hearing continued in his absence for several hours, with defence lawyers Boaz Ben Zur and Amit Hadad accusing Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — of mishandling the case.

They argued that elements of the investigation were opened without required authorisations.

The three-judge panel later released a ruling saying they would examine that complaint before moving forward with the prosecution’s case.

READ ALSO: French Health Minister Encourages Use Of AstraZeneca Jab

That could result in a delay that keeps Netanyahu out of court until after the March 23 election.

When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he had just won a political victory by forming a coalition government with election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive national polls.

But the fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serially dishonest.

It is unclear whether the cloud of the trial will hurt the premier’s re-election chances in March.

Israel’s parliament speaker Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu loyalist from his right-wing Likud party, insisted the court must postpone the trial.

Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.

Several recent polls place the Likud comfortably in the lead, but it is far from certain that it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.

– 4,000, 2,000, 1,000 –
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.

The most serious, in which the premier is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, centres on the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

 

Elovitch and his wife were also indicted in what is known as Case 4,000.

Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000) from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.

He would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but that process would likely take several years.

Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with some demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.

Some protesters met Netanyahu’s motorcade outside the court on Monday, carrying placards bearing the words “Crime Minister”, while others taunted him as he entered and left the court.

“We are here to swipe (away) all the dirt and all the corruption that he has created,” protester Claudia Manoquian told AFP.

AFP

Netanyahu Orders New Israeli Settlement In West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to the COVID-19 vaccination facility in Jerusalem on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP)

 

Israel’s prime minister on Monday directed authorities to approve construction of 800 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank days before President Donald Trump’s pro-Israel administration leaves office.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has directed that plans be advanced for the construction of about 800 units in Judea and Samaria,” a statement from the premier’s office said, using biblical terms for the West Bank.

President-elect Joe Biden, who will be sworn in next week, has indicated that his administration will restore US policy opposing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Trump’s administration gave unprecedented US support to settler groups, highlighted by a declaration from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 that Washington no longer viewed settlements as being in violation of international law.

READ ALSO: Cyprus Leader Ready To Attend UN Meet On Ending Deadlock

Pompeo in November also became the first top US diplomat to visit a settlement in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Netanyahu is facing re-election on March 23, Israel’s fourth vote in just under two years.

A series of recent of polls indicate the veteran prime minister is facing a strong right-wing challenge from pro-settler candidate Gideon Saar, who defected from Netanyahu’s Likud party last month to run against the premier.

Netanyahu is widely expected to make a series of plays for right-wing votes, including by bolstering his pro-settlement credentials, before the vote, according to Israeli political analysts.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said that 100 of the new units were to be built in the Tal Menashe settlement, where French-Israeli Esther Horgen was murdered last month.

Israel’s security services have said the settler was murdered by Palestinian Mohammed Cabha, claiming he had political motives for her killing related to the occupation.

Netanyahu’s order to advance settlement construction is not final, with the process having to clear several bureaucratic phases and possible legal challenges from anti-occupation groups before any construction begins.

There are currently some 450,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, living amid an estimated 2.8 million Palestinians.

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by much of the international community.

Israel Enters Third Nationwide Lockdown

This picture taken on December 24, 2020 from a control room shows medical workers standing inside a COVID-19 coronavirus isolation ward at the Ziv Medical Centre in the city of Safed in northern Israel. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP)

 

Israel was set Sunday to begin its third coronavirus lockdown, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced optimism that a “world record” vaccination drive will restore a degree of normality within weeks.

After a sharp rebound in detected infections, Netanyahu’s government announced three days ago that it would re-impose the strict measures that had previously helped limit transmission.

From 5:00pm (1500 GMT) on Sunday, most people will be forced to stay within 1,000 metres of their home.

There are a range of exceptions, including seeking medical care, attending legal proceedings or exercising.

A key difference in Israel’s third lockdown compared to previous versions relates to schools, with more students able to attend classes.

Instead of near total closures, Israel is keeping schools open for children under six, as well as grades one to four and teenagers finishing secondary school in grades 11 and 12.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: EU Begins Vaccinations To End Pandemic

Israel’s National Council for the Child criticised the decision to close grades five through 10.

“The decision to ignore this age bracket means the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of children, only because in theory they can be left at home alone while (their parents) go to work,” NCC head Vered Windman was quoted as saying by the Ma’ariv newspaper.

“But this is precisely the age group that is at a higher risk of developing emotional difficulties, fears and isolation.”

– ‘World record’ –

Speaking late Saturday following Shabbat, Netanyahu said Israel was hoping to vaccinate a quarter of its population, or roughly 2.25 million people, against coronavirus within a month.

He said he had spoken with the heads of the companies making vaccines who had voiced confidence that the requisite number of doses could be provided.

Israel’s vaccination targets are of “such a magnitude (they amount to) a world record” pace, the prime minister said.

Netanyahu was the first Israeli to receive a Covid-19 jab on December 19, ahead of the launch last week of a nationwide innoculation programme.

The premier has political incentives to push an accelerated vaccination campaign.

The fraught coalition government that he formed in May with his former election rival and current defence minister, Benny Gantz, collapsed last week, triggering elections in March — Israel’s fourth vote in two years.

Netanyahu’s election campaign could be hindered by the start of a more intensified phase of his long-awaited corruption trial and the departure of his staunch ally US President Donald Trump from the White House.

Political analysts have said that Netanyahu is hoping a rapid vaccination drive will put Israel’s pandemic-wracked economy on a path to recovery before election day.

Israeli PM Netanyahu Receives COVID-19 Vaccine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a Covid-19 vaccine jab on Saturday, kicking off a national rollout over the coming days.

Netanyahu, 71, and Israel’s health minister were injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine live on TV at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.

“I asked to be vaccinated first, together with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, to serve as personal examples and encourage you to be vaccinated,” Netanyahu told the television audience.

Each recipient must receive a booster shot in three weeks for optimal protection from the novel coronavirus.

Latest Israeli health ministry figures reported over 370,000 people had tested positive for the virus since the Jewish state, a country of around nine million, confirmed its first case in February.

Just over 3,000 people have died.

The vaccine will be rolled out at 10 hospitals and vaccination centres around Israel for healthcare workers from Sunday, according to the health ministry.

During the course of the week, a ministry statement said, vaccinations will be extended to the general public, starting with those aged over 60.

Netanyahu spent Monday to Friday in self-isolation after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient, despite testing negative for the virus on Sunday and again on Monday.

Ten days ago, he was at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport to welcome a first batch of the vaccine.

The shipment was the first of eight million doses Israel has ordered from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

The vaccine needs to be stored at the ultra-low temperature of -70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit), posing handling and storage challenges.

Other countries have begun rolling out the vaccine already.

Britain started inoculating its citizens with the same vaccine on December 8.

It has since been approved by the United States, Canada and, on Saturday, Switzerland.

US Vice President Mike Pence got the jab live on television Friday, while President-elect Joe Biden is set to receive his shot on Monday.

President Donald Trump has made it clear he is not planning to take the vaccine imminently, citing the belief that his recovery from a brief but severe bout of Covid-19 has given him immunity.

Israel has also contracted to buy six million Covid-19 vaccine doses from US biotech firm Moderna, which are expected to be delivered in 2021, giving a total of 14 million shots.

Hug for grandma

Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown in September, when the country had one of the world’s highest per capita infection rates.

Restrictions have since been gradually eased, but case numbers are again on the rise, with a further clampdown predicted.

Netanyahu said receiving the vaccine was a first step toward a return to normality.

“On the way here I thought about the children worried about their parents, the grandchildren who want to hug grandma and grandpa — not a Zoom hug but a real hug,” he said.

“We will be able to go to football grounds, to see basketball games and, of course, to reopen the country and restore it to what it was, to go back to the normal life that we desire.”

The Palestinian territories have also seen a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority announced stricter restrictions, including the closure of schools and universities, for two weeks to combat the virus’ spread.

Last week, PA president Mahmud Abbas announced that Christmas mass in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, would be closed to the public this year due to the pandemic.

The Israeli-occupied West Bank, with a Palestinian population of more than 2.8 million, has officially recorded over 88,000 coronavirus infections, including 869 deaths, according to the Palestinian health ministry’s Saturday update.

In the Gaza Strip, with around two million inhabitants, there have been over 33,000 cases, with 248 deaths.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has said that Israel might provide vaccinations for Palestinians once it has vaccinated its own priority groups, such as frontline health providers.

 

AFP

Israel PM Netanyahu To Enter Precautionary COVID-19 Quarantine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on at the Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccine complex handling the COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine, in Israel’s Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on December 13, 2020. (Photo by Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP)

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will self-isolate on Monday after having come into contact with a coronavirus patient, his office said calling it a precautionary step.

Netanyahu tested negative for the virus on Sunday and on Monday, but he will still “enter isolation until Friday following contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient”, the statement said.

Several Israeli media outlets have reported that Netanyahu met last week with a member of his right-wing Likud party, Michael Kleiner, who has subsequently tested positive for the virus.

The statement from the prime minister’s office did not provide details regarding Netanyahu’s potential exposure.

Netanyahu was at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport last week to welcome a first shipment of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

He declared that the end of the pandemic was “in sight” and offered to take the first jab in a mass vaccination campaign due to start later this month.

Israel, a country of nine million people, has registered more than 358,000 coronavirus cases, including 3003 deaths.

AFP

Israeli PM Hails ‘Historic’ Morocco Normalisation Agreement

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020. – Israel and the UAE agreed to normalise relations in a landmark US-brokered deal, only the third such accord the Jewish state has struck with an Arab nation. The agreement, first announced by US President Donald Trump on Twitter, will see Israel halt its plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, according to the UAE. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday hailed as “historic” a normalisation agreement with Morocco and anticipated direct flights between the two countries soon.

In a televised address, he thanked Moroccan King Mohammed VI “for taking this historic decision to bring an historic peace between us”.

Netanyahu said the people of Israel and Morocco have had a “warm relationship in the modern period”.

“We will resume liaison offices quickly between Israel and Morocco and work as rapidly as possible to establish full diplomatic relations,” Netanyahu said.

Morocco and Israel had respectively maintained liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat in the 1990s, before closing them in 2000.

“We’ll also institute direct flights… giving this bridge of peace an even more solid foundation,” the premier said.

Netanyahu also alluded to a “tremendous friendship shown by the kings of Morocco and the people of Morocco to the Jewish community there.”

He said the hundreds of thousands Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel “formed a human bridge” between the countries.

File photo: Morocco map.

 

In the 1950s and 60s, Jews from Iraq, Yemen and Morocco migrated to the Jewish state, where key posts were in the hands of Ashkenazi Jews, who hail from Europe.

Called Mizrahim, Jewish migrants from Arab states settled outside big cities and felt excluded at the time by the Israeli left-wing, which was then in power.

But at the end of the 1970s, Likud, now the right-wing ruling party of Netanyahu, courted their vote to form another electoral base.

“I’ve always believed that this historic day would come,” Netanyahu said, before lighting a candle for the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, which began Thursday.

After the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, Morocco is the fourth Arab state since August to commit to establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The agreement between Israel and Morocco was announced Thursday by US President Donald Trump, who also said the US would recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Netanyahu thanked Trump for “his extraordinary efforts to bring peace to Israel and the peoples of the Middle East”.

– ‘Political sin’ –
Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian coastal enclave, quickly slammed the deal between Israel and Morocco.

“It is a political sin that does not serve the Palestinian cause and encourages the occupation to continue to deny the rights of our people,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem, told AFP, referring to Israel.

He accused Israel of “exploiting” normalisation deals to justify “increasing its settlements”

Over the past decade — particularly under Trump, whose policies have been highly favourable to Israel — there has been a significant expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

More than 450,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, home to about 2.8 million Palestinians.

Settlement expansion is widely seen as complicating the prospects for a “two-state solution”, which would see a viable Palestinian state created alongside Israel.

AFP

Israel To Start COVID-19 Vaccinations On December 27

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with the Slovenian Prime Minister in Jerusalem on December 8, 2020. ohad zwigenberg / POOL / AFP

 

Israel will start Covid-19 vaccinations from December 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, as the country received its first batch of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

Netanyahu, who was on hand as an air freighter carrying the vaccines landed at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, vowed to be the first Israeli to get the jab.

The shipment was the first of eight million doses Israel ordered from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its partner BioNTech.

“This is a great celebration for Israel,” Netanyahu said as a fork-lift truck started unloading the cargo.

“The first vaccinations will be given on December 27,” he said later, noting the public health service would be capable of administering 60,000 inoculations a day.

“Tomorrow another shipment is arriving, a much larger one,” Netanyahu said.

“I’m asking that every Israeli citizen be vaccinated, and to do so, requested to set an example and be the first person being vaccinated in Israel,” he added, without saying when.

It came ahead of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, which begins on Thursday.

“We’ve brought great light to Israel,” he said.

The Pfizer vaccine has yet to receive the necessary regulatory approvals for use in Israel, but Netanyahu said he would be meeting with the health minister and heads of the public health system on Thursday to prepare “the massive national undertaking” of vaccinations.

The results of third-phase clinical trials showed the vaccine was 90 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 symptoms and did not produce adverse side effects among thousands of volunteers.

Britain started inoculating its citizens with the same vaccine on Tuesday.

Israel has also contracted to buy six million Covid-19 vaccine doses from US biotech firm Moderna which are expected to be delivered in 2021, giving a total of 14 million shots for its populaton of nine million.

Both medications require two doses to be administered for optimal protection.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at the ultra-low temperature of -70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit), posing handling and storage challenges.

‘End to the Plague’

Speaking at the airport, Netanyahu praised “our amazing logistical storage centre, which is a few minutes from here, with refrigeration and the highest medical standards in the world”.

Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown in September, when the country had one of the world’s highest per capita infection rates.

Restrictions have since been gradually eased in the country but infection rates are again on the rise.

The virus has infected 349,916 Israelis, 2,934 of them fatally, according to Wednesday’s official figures.

While reiterating the need to keep up with “masks, distancing, hygiene and preventing gatherings,” Netanyahu was nonetheless upbeat.

“We’re bringing an end to the plague,” he said in his Wednesday evening address.

On Monday, Netanyahu’s office announced a sweeping night-time curfew but it has so far not received the cabinet approval required for its implementation and no details have been published.

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu said the government would meeting the next day to finalise the restrictions set to be issued.

“We decided on taking the gatherings expected on the holidays, Hannukah, Christmas and the New Year, and limiting them to save lives,” he said.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meanwhile suggested Israel might provide vaccinations for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

“We don’t rule out this opportunity once we will have the amount that we need for our first responders, health community and others, and as far as I know they have already engaged with some of the companies,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority says over 75,500 people have so far been infected with coronavirus in the West Bank and 712 have died.

In the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip there have been about 25,500 infections and 155 fatalities.

On Monday, the enclave’s Hamas rulers said Gaza had received 20,000 test kits from the World Health Organization, after warning it could no longer perform testing due to a shortage of equipment.

Facing a surge in cases, Hamas has also announced a lockdown on weekends lasting from December 11 to the end of the month. It also closed schools, universities, kindergartens and mosques.

Israel’s Coalition Government Inches Towards Collapse

In this file photo taken on February 9, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP.

 

Israel’s precarious coalition government was set to move closer towards collapse on Wednesday with lawmakers due to vote on a preliminary measure to dissolve parliament, raising prospects of elections next year.

In a primetime televised address on Tuesday, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, the key coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said his centrist Blue and White party would back a bill to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

But Wednesday’s parliamentary vote on an opposition proposal marks only a first step.

A bill to dissolve the Knesset will require three additional successful readings before new elections must be called.

But Gantz’s decision to side with the opposition, at least for now, highlights the widening cracks in Israel’s centre-right coalition, imperilled from the start by mistrust, infighting and public recriminations.

READ ALSO: Italy To Offer Free COVID-19 Vaccines, Starting With Doctors

“I had no illusions about Netanyahu,” Gantz said in his Tuesday speech.

He reminded Israelis that he battled the prime minister in three consecutive inconclusive elections that did not allow either leader to form a majority government.

Gantz said he decided to agree a unity government with Netanyahu, whom he knew to be a “serial promise-breaker”, because he wanted to spare Israelis “an ugly and costly” fourth election, especially as the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating.

“Netanyahu didn’t lie to me,” Gantz said. “He lied to all of you.”

– Budget impasse –

The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition, agreed in April, included strict power-sharing arrangements, with cabinet posts split roughly evenly between allies of both men.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, was to serve as prime minister for the first half of the three-year arrangement.

Gantz had been due to take over as premier in November 2021 but Netanyahu’s critics have always insisted he would find a way to sink the coalition before vacating the prime minister’s office for Gantz.

The unity deal included multiple triggers that would automatically force new elections, including a failure to pass a budget.

Gantz accused Netanyahu of consistently misleading the public over the budget issue to serve his own political ends.

“Netanyahu committed to pass a budget in August, and naturally did not stand by his word. He promised that it would happen in December and is not following through. Does anyone believe him anymore?” Gantz said.

Gantz directly called on Netanyahu to “put a state budget forward”, making clear that if he did so, new elections could be avoided.

Netanyahu released a video shortly before Gantz spoke on Tuesday, urging him to keep the coalition together.

“Now is not the time for elections,” Netanyahu said. “Now is the time for unity.”

– Arab List deal? –

Gantz also courts huge political risks by taking Israel back to the polls.

His Blue and White coalition fractured when he decided to strike a deal with Netanyahu and Gantz’s personal popularity has fallen according to a series of recent polls.

His former ally turned critic, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, is now the Knesset opposition leader and would be seen by many voters as a more effective anti-Netanyahu force than Gantz in a new election.

In a commentary on Israel’s N12 website, political columnist Amit Segal argued that Gantz’s political fortunes were plummeting.

Blue and White “can only expect a nightmarishly difficult election campaign,” Segal said.

Even with Gantz’s support, there is also no guarantee that Wednesday’s provisional measure will be approved by Israel’s deeply fractured parliament.

The Knesset’s second largest opposition bloc is the mainly Arab Joint List, which is itself made up of different factions.

A faction counting four lawmakers within the Joint List has engaged Netanyahu in recent weeks in talks on various shared interests, including over possibly channelling more resources to Arab-Israeli communities.

Support from those lawmakers could be enough to hold off the dissolution bid.

AFP

Biden Speaks To Trump Allies Netanyahu, Modi

US President-elect Joe Biden answers questions from the press at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on November 16, 2020. ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP
US President-elect Joe Biden answers questions from the press at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on November 16, 2020. ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP

 

US President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday held his first talks since his victory with the prime ministers of Israel and India, allies of Donald Trump who has not conceded defeat.

Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a notoriously rocky relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, that he was determined “to ensure that the US-Israel relationship is strengthened and enjoys strong bipartisan support.”

Biden “reiterated his steadfast support for Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state,” the president-elect’s office said in a statement.

The office of Netanyahu, who had vigorously challenged the 2009-2017 Obama-Biden administration over its diplomacy with Iran and push for Palestinian rights, said he had a “warm” conversation with the president-elect.

Biden also spoke to President Reuven Rivlin, whose position is largely ceremonial.

“I said that as an old friend of Israel he knows our friendship is based on values beyond partisan politics,” Rivlin wrote on Twitter.

Biden separately voiced optimism about working with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had heaped praise on Trump in two giant joint rallies in Texas and Gujarat.

India enjoys support across party lines in Washington but Democratic lawmakers have increasingly voiced concern about human rights under the Hindu nationalist Modi, including his championing of a controversial citizenship law and revocation of autonomy in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Biden said he hoped to cooperate with Modi on common challenges including the Covid pandemic, regional security, climate change and, in a delicate choice of words, on “strengthening democracy at home and abroad.”

The Indian foreign ministry said Modi for his part called for cooperation on promoting access to affordable vaccines and also conveyed greetings to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India.

Trump has refused to concede defeat two weeks after the election but the leaders of virtually all countries have congratulated Biden except Russia, Mexico, Brazil, North Korea, and Slovenia.

Biden’s first calls took place with US allies who had tense ties with Trump including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Israel Opens Rapid COVID-19 Testing Centre At Airport

Mask-clad Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown a demonstration of a coronavirus swab sampling at a booth during the inauguration of a COVID-19 coronavirus rapid testing centre at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod on November 9, 2020. (Photo by ATEF SAFADI / POOL / AFP)

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated a rapid coronavirus testing centre at Israel’s main international airport on Monday, meant to ease travel in and out of the country.

The testing and a lab situated in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport is available to arriving and departing travellers, he said.

“This can help us return faster, better and more efficiently to normal air travel,” he said.

“We want to make it possible to reunite Israel with the world.”

The new set-up allows travellers to give a sample at the terminal and have it analysed at an on-site lab, with the result ready in 5 1/2 to six hours as the traveller waits.

The cost of the express test is 135 shekels($40).

A slower track, with results in 14 hours, is just 45 shekels, said Transport Minister Miri Regev at the opening ceremony.

A clean bill of health would be certified in a “medical passport” allowing quarantine-free admission to some countries, she said, naming the Seychelles and Dubai as examples.

Invited to give a specimen at the opening by a gloved swab-taker working behind a protective window, Netanyahu declined.

“I gave at the office,” he said in English.

In March when Israel went into its first coronavirus lockdown, Netanyahu took a precautionary test after a staffer tested positive for the virus.

Netanyahu had a negative result but went into precautionary self-quarantine.

After a peak of more than 10,000 cases per day in September — then the highest infection rate per capita in the world — Israel went into its second lockdown.

The number of Covid-19 cases has since fallen below 1,000 a day, according to official data, and restrictions are being gradually eased in accordance with infection data.

Israel, a country of about nine million people, has recorded 319,500 coronavirus cases, including over 2,600 deaths, according to official figures published on Monday.

AFP

Netanyahu Vows ‘Forceful’ Response If More Attacks From Lebanon

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020. – Israel and the UAE agreed to normalise relations in a landmark US-brokered deal, only the third such accord the Jewish state has struck with an Arab nation. The agreement, first announced by US President Donald Trump on Twitter, will see Israel halt its plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, according to the UAE. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel views with “great gravity” the latest flare-up on the Lebanese border and pledged a tough response in the event of further incidents.

“We shall react forcefully to any attack against us,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I advise Hezbollah not to test Israel’s strength. Hezbollah is once again endangering Lebanon due to its aggression.”

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating month-long war in 2006.

Israel said earlier it had launched air strikes against Hezbollah observation posts in Lebanon after shots were fired from across the border towards its troops the previous evening.

The border flare-up came hours after Lebanon rejected an Israeli call to reform the UN peacekeeping force which patrols the border ahead of a UN Security Council vote to renew its mandate.

The Israeli army had said earlier that a “security incident” was unfolding near Manara, a kibbutz near the UN-demarcated border between the two countries, and urged residents to take shelter.

It reported no Israeli casualties.

Manara was quiet on Wednesday morning, an AFP journalist reported. The army told residents they could come into the open and resume work in the fields.

AFP