Israel launched a new reconnaissance satellite early Monday, the defence ministry said, its latest asset to be deployed against arch-enemy Iran.
“The Israel Ministry of Defence and Israel Aerospace Industries have successfully launched the ‘Ofek 16’ reconnaissance satellite” at 4:00 am local time (0100 GMT), the ministry said in a statement.
The “electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities… will undergo a series of tests,” it added.
Minister of Defence and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz hailed the development.
“The successful launch of the ‘Ofek 16’ satellite overnight is yet another extraordinary achievement” for Israel’s defence sector, he said.
“Technological superiority and intelligence capabilities are essential to the security of the State of Israel… We will continue to strengthen and maintain Israel’s capabilities on every front, in every place.”
Neither statement gave further details on the satellite’s mission, but Israeli public radio said it would be used to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.
Israel has long sworn to prevent its nemesis from obtaining atomic weapons.
The Islamic republic denies its nuclear programme has any military dimension.
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.
Israel began easing movement restrictions on Sunday while pointedly avoiding announcing any exit from an ongoing lockdown to forestall the spread of coronavirus.
A cabinet vote in the early hours of the morning approved several measures, including a reopening of high street shops, schools for children with special educational needs and a resumption of small scale prayer meetings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.
Most of the measures take effect from Sunday, while the selected schools will reopen their doors to pupils on Tuesday, according to the education ministry.
Prayer gatherings of up to 19 people at a time will be allowed, on condition that they take place in the open air with people wearing masks and at least two metres apart — higher than a limit of 10 people initially proposed by the prime minister on Saturday.
As part of social distancing, places of worship for all faiths had previously been closed and from April 12 wearing face masks in public became mandatory.
In a televised address on Saturday, Netanyahu had outlined “a responsible and gradual” plan allowing the return of some workers to offices and industry.
With Ramadan set to begin in the coming days, the premier urged Muslims in Israel to have “meals only with your nuclear family.”
Israel, which has a population of around nine million, confirmed its first coronavirus patient on February 21.
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.