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.
The UN Security Council made a rare show of unity Monday when it called on all parties to maintain their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“Council Members reiterated their support for a negotiated two-state solution … where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders,” said a statement released by Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency, and supported by all 14 other members, including the United States.
“All parties should refrain from undermining the viability of the two states solution in order to maintain the prospects for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace,” the statement added, an allusion to Israel’s recent threat to build thousands of more homes in East Jerusalem, in an area claimed by the Palestinians.
The council also “stressed the need to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations on all final status issues” and expressed “grave concern about acts of violence against civilians.”
The statement came after two days of rising tensions in the region after the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad fired rockets at Israel, following the killing of three of its members in the Gaza Strip and Syria.
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.
Israel ordered nearly 200 pupils into home quarantine Sunday after they were in proximity to South Korean tourists carrying the coronavirus, as the premier announced a taskforce to manage the threat.
“Today, I will appoint a ministerial team to convene on a daily basis in order to deal with this major challenge,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after a special meeting on the COVID-19 virus.
The meeting included senior security officials.
The announcement came after South Korean members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus toured Israeli sites between February 8-15 and upon their return home 18 of them were discovered to be infected with the virus.
Israel’s health ministry urged people who might have encountered them to self-quarantine, including 180 pupils and 19 staff from three separate schools who it said had close contact with the South Korean visitors.
The pupils and staff, including 18 teachers and a guard, were instructed “to remain home” for 14 days, the education ministry said.
The health ministry also published a detailed list of the sites visited by the South Korean tourists, ordering “anyone who has been in touch with the pilgrims” to “home-quarantine until 14 days from the encounter with the group have passed”.
Israel had on Friday confirmed its first case of the virus, in one of its nationals who had flown home from Japan after being quarantined on the stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess.
On Saturday Israel refused to allow some 200 non-Israelis to disembark from a plane which arrived from South Korea, as part of measures against the new coronavirus.
The health ministry has also ordered its citizens to observe an obligatory 14-day home-quarantine if they have recently visited Japan, South Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore or Thailand.
“In addition, anyone who has been in Taiwan, Italy or Australia in the past 14 days and is developing the disease’s symptoms should be examined,” the ministry said in a statement.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who attended Sunday’s situation assessment, warned that law enforcement would act against those found to be disobeying the self-quarantine order.
“The Israeli police have prepared all the necessary enforcement teams in the event that there may be citizens who do not obey the instructions,” he told journalists, without elaborating.
He also warned those who might consider exploiting the scare to disrupt a hotly-contested March 2 general election.
He said that concerns included the spreading of fake news in order to affect voter turnout.
“This is a criminal offence,” he said. “There is special readiness by the police to prevent abuse.
Meanwhile, Palestinian health minister Mai al-Kaila said there were no confirmed cases in the West Bank, but that to manage the threat her office was coordinating with Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
Cooperation with Israel “is only in the matter of coronavirus,” she said.
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.
Moshe Genzler lifts the lid off a huge aluminium pot, thrusts in a massive spoon and dishes out a steaming portion of beans, potatoes and beef.
It is a Thursday evening at Maadaniat Chef, a small restaurant in the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak specialising in traditional eastern European Jewish food.
The gefilte fish and potato kugel pale next to the warm brown glow of the eatery’s crowning glory — hamin — also known as cholent.
Consumed by Jews for Saturday lunch since antiquity, the rich stew is enjoying a renaissance in Israel.
While ultra-Orthodox local residents sit at the few tables enjoying their steaming fare, three elderly women and a man, all secular, enter to enquire about the food.
The four are from the nearby cities of Givatayim and Ramat Gan and hope to celebrate a birthday with food from their childhood.
“We wanted to try something different,” says one of the women.
A bus drops off a group of senior citizens from Kfar Daniel, a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with their guide Yair Landsberg.
“A dish you ate in your childhood is memories,” he says. “It’s enough that you smell it and you’re full of memories, of nostalgia.”
Genzler — the young son-in-law of the restaurant’s owners — says eating hamin before the Sabbath has become trendy.
“You have people from all walks of life — ultra-Orthodox, secular, all kinds of religious people,” he says. “Groups arrive here as part of a tour of Bnei Brak and enter to see and feel an authentic Jewish experience.”
Hamin, meaning “hot things” in Hebrew, can be traced back to the Mishna, the early oral interpretation of the Torah, as part of the discussion on how food might be kept warm on the Sabbath.
Jewish religious law prohibits cooking on Saturday, “but you can prepare something that will begin cooking before the Sabbath and continue to cook or retain its heat during the Sabbath,” notes Shmil Holand, a chef and expert on Jewish culture and food.
“That’s what created this dish.”
The Jews expelled from the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago were split into two parallel routes, one via Babylon to North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and what became the Muslim world.
The other group went to Rome, France and eventually central and eastern Europe.
Over time, each Jewish diaspora created its own variation of the dish, based on the climate and available ingredients, according to Holand.
“Together something new came into being,” he says from the spacious kitchen of his Jerusalem home.
European Jews, who were eventually called Ashkenazim, referred to their hamin as cholent, derived from the French words for hot (chaud) and slow (lent).
And while other people around the world make variations of the dish, hamin stands out for the unusual length of its preparation — normally at least 12 hours, Holand says.
The dish has become a popular winter delicacy in Israel, enjoyed even by people who do not necessarily observe religious law.
‘Taste of childhood’
A short drive from the Bnei Brak restaurant is Ramat Hahayal, an upscale Tel Aviv neighbourhood favoured by the country’s burgeoning technology sector.
Shuk Hatzafon, a local food court, held a “hamin festival” in January, with variations of the dish from Jewish communities in Austria, Iraq, Italy, India and elsewhere.
The hot spices of the Libyan hamin were balanced out with chard, sold next to a Moroccan version of the dish with groats, chickpeas, potatoes and meat.
Shimon, a young man from Tel Aviv, said hamin “gives you a feeling of home, regardless of your origin”.
Back in Bnei Brak, the religious significance of the dish is still its most important aspect for Genzler.
“Hamin is something that represents the Sabbath for a Jew,” he says.
“It’s been like this for thousands of years and will always remain Jewish food,” he insists.
Bruce Lax, a technician from Ramat Gan who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, says Maadaniat Chef’s hamin was the “taste of childhood.”
“It reminds you of places, people, flavours,” says Lax, who like most hamin fans, makes his own too.
His secret ingredient? “A good bottle of vodka next to it.”
The Palestinians have abandoned their request for a vote at the UN Security Council Tuesday that they hoped would reject the peace plan of President Donald Trump, whose administration has put heavy pressure on critics, diplomats said.
Introduced by Indonesia and Tunisia, the resolution risked not having nine out of 15 votes in its favour, the minimum required for adoption provided there is no veto by a permanent member, the diplomats told AFP.
A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the United States has placed “very strong pressure” on other countries on the Security Council, including threats of economic retribution.
Despite the setback, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will go ahead Tuesday and address the Security Council about Trump’s January 28 plan, which paves the way for Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank but also allows for a demilitarized Palestinian state.
“Consultations are still ongoing,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said of the proposed resolution.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, urged Abbas to cancel his trip, accusing him of dwelling on the past and calling on him to focus on the future.
The United States would be certain to exercise its veto to any resolution that criticizes its plan.
But diplomats said it was far from certain that the Palestinians could pull off a repeat of the December 2017 vote in which all 14 other Security Council members denounced Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Heated talks on the resolution
The United States has proposed a series of amendments to the draft resolution that could come up for a vote at the session attended by Abbas.
In proposals seen by AFP, the United States would significantly alter the text to remove references to lines before the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, as being the basis of peace.
It would also cut out a statement that Jewish settlements built in the West Bank since 1967 are illegal, a position taken by virtually every country except the US and Israel.
The United States is also seeking to eliminate language that equated East Jerusalem with the occupied West Bank.
The Trump plan calls for recognition of the contested holy city as Israel’s undivided capital while establishing a Palestinian capital on its outskirts.
While recognizing that the Trump plan “departs from the internationally endorsed terms of reference and parameters,” the US wants the resolution to state that the Security Council “welcomes discussion on this proposal to advance the cause of peace.”
Diplomats cast doubt on whether a vote could take place even at a later date, considering the wide divergences in positions.
Divisions under surface
The Palestinian leadership has enjoyed the backing of the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and, most recently, the African Union, which have all rejected the Trump plan.
But individual countries’ positions are more complicated. In the midst of pushing for the UN resolution, Tunisia abruptly withdrew its UN ambassador, raising speculation that the Arab state had come under pressure from Washington.
After appearing Thursday at the United Nations, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser who has spearheaded his Middle East push, said there was a “ton of cracks” in opposition to the plan.
He pointed to divisions within the European Union, which failed to issue a joint statement critical of the plan amid dissent from a handful of countries such as Hungary, led by the right-wing populist Viktor Orban.
Of the four European Union members that hold seats on the Security Council, two of them — Germany and Estonia — looked ready to abstain from a vote criticizing the US plan, diplomats said.
The other two members are France and Belgium. A fifth European Union member that was on the Security Council, Britain, left the bloc at the end of last month.
Israel and the United States have also been optimistic of winning at least muted backing from Arab states traditionally supportive of the Palestinians, with Gulf monarchies united with Israel in their hostility to Iran.
The ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates attended Trump’s unveiling of the plan alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who later held a breakthrough meeting with Sudan’s top general.
Netanyahu has hailed Trump’s plan, under which Israel would maintain sovereignty up to the Jordanian border even if there is a Palestinian state.
Israel’s supreme court on Sunday overturned a decision by the country’s elections body to disqualify an Arab lawmaker from running in March elections after accusations she supported “terrorists”.
The central elections committee in January invalidated the candidacy of Heba Yazbak, a member of the Arab Joint List.
Yazbak is a member of the Arab nationalist group Balad and has been in the Knesset since last April’s polls.
A petition alleged she supported armed struggle against Israel and had praised militants who killed Israelis.
Yazbak was targeted in particular over a Facebook post in support of Samir Kantar, a member of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah who was convicted of murdering three Israelis, including a four-year-old girl, in 1979.
“There was no ‘critical mass’ of formal evidence to justify disqualifying her,” said the supreme court, which took into account “remorse” expressed by Yazbak.
Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had joined forces with the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu in the petition to disqualify Yazbak.
The two parties seek the disqualification of parties which challenge the Jewish character of Israel or which support armed opposition to the Jewish state.
“Those who want Heba in the opposition and not in government must vote only for Likud,” the Likud party wrote on Twitter after the court’s decision was announced.
Israel’s top court barred two members of the extreme-right party Jewish Power from running in the September 2019 elections over “incitement to racism.”
The March 2 polls are Israel’s third in less than a year, after national polls in April and September failed to yield a governing coalition.
Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party was deadlocked with centrist Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party in both the 2019 elections.