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Coronavirus Having Negative Effect on Israeli Economy

Air carrier Cathay Pacific announced on Wednesday afternoon that they are halting all flights between Hong Kong and Israel following measures imposed by the Israeli Ministry of Health to address the novel coronavirus outbreak. The cancellation will go into effect on Monday and last at least until late March. In related news, the Manufacturers Association of Israel issued a statement on Wednesday asking the government for support to small and medium sized businesses struggling to cope with the economic fallout from the crisis.

“The coronavirus continues to spread, unfortunately, and the impact on the global and Israeli economy is already beginning to reveal itself," Manufacturers Association president Ron Tomer wrote in a letter to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. "As the time required to eradicate the virus grows longer, the economic impact grows exponentially."

In related news, Israeli NGO Adva Center issued their annual report for 2019 this week showing that wages for Israeli workers have lagged far behind the national GDP. The same report also showed that most Israelis have not experienced an increase in their standard of living commensurate with the growth in the national economy.

Locusts Plaguing Israel’s Neighbors
Locust swarms of Biblical proportions have ravaged agricultural lands in several countries across a wide swath of South Asia and Eastern Africa this winter, with Israel’s neighbors in Jordan on high alert for the possibility of the swarms hitting them. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that "Today the swarms are as big as major cities and it is getting worse by the day."

Iran Caught Violating UN Arms Export Ban
A report was posted on Wednesday by the NGO Conflict Armament Research detailing Iranian violations of UN Security Council mandated bans on the export of major weapons systems. The report included evidence that Iran has supplied drone technology and components to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and combatants in several other countries, including Syria where Iranian-supplied drones were launched against targets in Israel. The report is bolstered by recent statements by the US Navy about shipments of Iranian weapons it has intercepted on their way to the Houthis.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday after telling reporters in Ethiopia the day before that his talks with Saudi officials will include “a lot of time talking about the security issues with the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular."

Israel Blesses the World
An Israeli technology company called Body Vision announced this week that it has developed a process which will allow doctors to detect early-stage lung cancer through a minimally invasive procedure navigating the affected organ. The machines needed to perform the procedure have been placed in hospitals in Israel and the US, saving lives and giving hope to millions of people around the world at risk from lung cancer.

BDS Movement Suffers Another Defeat
The movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel suffered another defeat this week when international luxury brand Roltime Group announced that it has received exclusive rights to import and market French watch brand Pierre Cardin in Israel.Roltime Group CEO Dudu Polterak said “The decision to import and market the brand in Israel has come to answer a crowd of customers who are looking for luxury watches in an accessible and attractive price range. In Israel, watches will be marketed at the same brand prices in Europe.”

Today's video gives some analysis of the worsening situation in Syria and its effects on Israel

Iranian Regime Begs for Voters to Legitimize It

As unofficial polls and near-daily street demonstrations continue to show tremendous popular discontent with the clerical regime which rules Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a televised speech on Tuesday in which he declared that "Participating in elections and voting... is a religious duty, not just a national or revolutionary duty. Elections nullify many of the vicious plots the Americans have in their minds and Zionists have in their hearts against the country. Watch how the people favour the election despite the enemies' insistence on distancing the people from the system." Elections are scheduled to take place in Iran on Friday.

Here is a video giving some analysis of the situation in Iran

In related news, IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman announced more details of the “Momentum multiyear plan” in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. A notable part of the new plan is the creation of an “Iran Command” to be led by a Major General (just as Southern, Central and Northern Command are) and tailored to specifically address the threat from the Islamic Republic.

“We understand that it is important to make such changes in light of the emerging threat with Iran,” Zilberman said. “We want someone to wake up in the morning and whose focus will be solely on Iran…these organizational changes will maximize the capabilities of the IDF General Staff, while maintaining its current dimensions.”

Netanyahu Trial Set to Begin on 17 March

The Spokesman’s Office for the Jerusalem District Court announced Tuesday afternoon that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust will commence on 17 March, just two weeks after the Knesset elections. The trial will be held before a panel of three judges Blue and White leader Benny Gantz reacted to the news by saying it was a sad day for the country, but added that it was necessary for Netanyahu to accept his inevitable removal from power because being on trial meant that he would not have time to run the country. “Netanyahu will deal only with himself,” Gantz said. He cannot take care of the citizens of Israel. Do you want a prime minister who goes on trial? Netanyahu will go on trial and we will take over.”

Later in the afternoon, in an interview to Channel 20, Netanyahu challenged Gantz by saying “Let’s have a televised debate. We’ll talk to the public without teleprompters.”

Here is a video giving some analysis of the political scene in Israel ahead of the elections

Regional Military Buildup Intensifying
Israeli defense companies are increasing their sales and cooperative activities with the Indian military and its domestic defense industry, with several large contracts being signed in recent months. The cooperation is seen as an important strategic asset for the Jewish State as its neighbors are making similar moves with traditional great powers in Europe and Asia.

Turkey’s military announced this week that it is going on a shopping spree for armed UAV’s and kamikaze drones, trainer helicopters, gunships, naval vessels and air-defense radars and missiles. Much of the equipment it is seeking will be produced by Turkey’s domestic defense industry, with the rest being procured from established industries in Europe and Russia. In related news, Egypt is reportedly in negotiations with Italian industrial conglomerate Fincantieri to buy two FREMM-class frigates and other naval platforms.

“The equilibrium is changing in the Mediterranean since the U.S. is effectively now absent and the European Union members are not unified,” said Gabriele Iacovino, an analyst at the International Study Center in Rome.

New Homes Planned in Eastern Jerusalem
The Housing Ministry filed a request recently for the construction of 9,000 Israeli homes in the Atarot area of eastern Jerusalem, according to a press statement by activist groups opposed to settlements. The proposal must be approved, in a process which can take several years, before construction can even begin.

Heavy Winter Rains Fill Mikvah Baths
Near-daily downpours of rain in central Israel have had the effect, among other things, of filling up ritual baths used by Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The pools “date back to the early Roman period, or late Second Temple period, but were used later as well,” Dr. Yonatan Adler, a visiting associate professor at Yale University and an expert in ancient ritual baths, told the Jerusalem Post. “Mikvehs were not necessarily connected to Jerusalem, people immersed themselves for ritual purity all over. We have uncovered around 1,000 ritual baths around the country. However, most of them were built in villages or next to other facilities such as vineyards. These two pools are in the middle of nowhere except for the main road to the city.”

“We have two flairs of stars and two doorways leading to the mikveh, separated by a wall. We think that this was meant to separate those who were going down to immerse and were still impure from those coming up already pure,” the archaeologist explained.

Israel Blesses the World
Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa announced this week that they have refined their technological methods and hardware to a point where they can now produce drinkable water from the vapor in the air, including in desert areas. “Our technology turns water into a commodity as it enables water to be produced anywhere in the world without being dependent upon existing sources of liquid water,” said Prof. David Broday, who developed the technology with Prof. Eran Friedler. “The new technology involves cooling of only the moisture that has been extracted from the air, significantly reducing the amount of energy required to produce water.”

Here is a video about their invention

Archeological Dig Uncovers Proof of Biblical Accounts

Archeologists digging around the site of ancient Lachish, mentioned as having been destroyed by an Israelite army in Joshua 10:31-32, have uncovered the remains of a Canaanite temple along with many other artifacts. The team was led by Hebrew University’s Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Prof. Michael Hasel from Southern Adventist University in Tennessee. Garfinkel told the Jerusalem Post that the dig had uncovered remains which help fortify the Biblical accounts of the city’s ancient history. “The city was a major Canaanite center city, as we know from historical sources,” Garfinkel said. “There is no other site in this region as prominent. It is the right location, the right place, and the name ‘Lachish’ was found on some inscriptions found there. We uncovered the temple and we dedicated three or four years to it, because it is very rare to find Canaanite sites in Israel. This kind of structure was only discovered in Megiddo, Nablus and Hazor. But this is the first time we revealed such a large monumental symmetrical kind of temple.”

“The Bible says that Rehoboam, the grandson of David, fortified 15 cities, including Lachish,” Garfinkel added, going on to explain that previously undiscovered ruins which can be dated to the period described in the Book of 2 Chronicles had indeed been uncovered by his team. “This is why we went to Lachish. It was our goal,” he said. “The Bible says that the city was destroyed by the people of Israel, Garfinkel told the Post. “But it doesn’t talk specifically about a palace, a temple or what was in the city. We know that the destruction of Canaanite tribes was a long process which took about a hundred years. In the site we found traces of destruction at two levels, one dating back to the end of the 13th century BCE and another one to the middle of the 12th century. There are therefore about 50 years between the two events. Which of the two destructions is the one that was carried out by Joshua remains a big question.”

Israel Preparing for Possible Coronavirus Scenarios
Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced this week that 12 Israeli citizens aboard the "Diamond Princess" cruise ship, quarantined for several days in Japan after the coronavirus was discovered on board,  will return to Israel on Thursday and spend several days in medical quarantine before being allowed to return to their homes. In related news, Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri announced on Monday evening that travelers from several countries in Southeast-Asia would not be allowed to enter the country unless they were Israeli citizens, and those citizens allowed to enter would be rigorously screened and possibly quarantined.

In related news, Central Elections Committee Director-General Orly Ades and Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov held a meeting on Monday to plan for the potential need of providing options for voting in the upcoming election to people who were under quarantine for the coronavirus.

Defense Ministry Preparing to Move Several Bases
Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced this week that it has, in consultation with the Treasury and Israel Lands Authority, agreed to a schedule for moving several large IDF bases out of the center of the country to the largely empty Negev Desert in the south. The move has been anticipated for years, with developers eager to begin buying up the soon-to-be-available tracks of land for the purpose of building housing, schools, businesses and other civilian infrastructure.

Israel’s National Basketball Team Prepares for EuroBasket 2021
Fans of Israel’s professional basketball league had a lot to cheer about this week as their favorite teams played several games in preparation for the break during which Israel’s national team will begin to plauy in EuroBasket 2021. Hapoel Jerusalem will be sending several players to the national squad after winning their first State Cup title in several years earlier this month.

Bennet: ‘Iran Reconsidering Deployments in Syria’
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the New Tech conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, saying among other things that “we are identifying initial signs of loosening and recalculation by Iran regarding its plans in Syria. We just started and we will increase. We will go from a defensive concept to an offensive concept – weakening, tiring and erasing the octopus’s head by weakening its tentacles. For us, Syria is not only a threat but also an opportunity. They send forces there and try to exhaust us, but we can turn the downside into an advantage. We have intelligence and operational superiority, and we are telling Iran clearly: 'Get out of Syria. You have nothing to look for there.'”

Today's video gives a recording of Israel's Decleration of Independance (Click on CC for subtitles)

Netanyahu Secures Right Flank Ahead of Elections

With just a little over two weeks until Israel’s third Knesset elections in a single calendar year, the leaders of the Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina factions posted a statement over the weekend pledging their support for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and declaring that they would not enter negotiations to join a governing coalition led by anyone else. Also on Sunday, the Tzomet Party dropped out of the race with a statement urging its supporters to vote for Likud. Voting by diplomats at overseas embassies and consulates is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

Here is a video of Netanyahu addressing a group of American Jewish Leaders on Sunday

Gilad Schalit Proposes to Girlfriend
Israelis were delighted over the weekend at the news that Gilad Schalit, an IDF soldier who was held hostage by the Islamist terror militia Hamas in the Gaza Strip for 5 years between June 2006 and October 2011, had proposed to his girlfriend Nitzan Shabbat. The couple had been together for a year and a half prior to Shalit posting the picture of her wearing the wring he’d offered her on Friday afternoon.

Israel Responds to Rocket Fire from Gaza
Rockets were fired into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday morning, prompting retaliatory strikes on Hamas positions in the central city of Deir el-Balah and the southern city of Khan Yunis by IAF jets and helicopters later in the afternoon. Hamas “bears responsibility for what is happening in and out of the Gaza Strip, and it will face the consequences for terrorist actions against Israeli citizens,” the IDF said, adding that it “will continue to act as necessary against attempts to harm Israeli civilians.”

Heredim Agree to Secular Subjects in Schools
In a dramatic development, senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni announced over the weekend that the senior rabbinic leadership of the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community has approved the study of “secular” subjects, such as Math, English and others, in elementary boys' schools. He said the move came in response to complaints from the parents of haredi children at the lack of preparation for gainful employment offered by these schools.

Iranian Leaders Signal Continued Defiance to US
Iranian President Hassan Rohani made a fiery campaign speech over the weekend ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this week, declaring that “America's 'maximum pressure' toward Iran is doomed to failure…we will never yield to America's pressure and we will not negotiate from a position of weakness.” He then added, without any apparent intent to project irony, that "Securing peace and stability in the sensitive region of the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf is impossible without Iran's help."

His speech came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addressed the Munich Security Conference, declaring among other things thar "I believe President Trump, unfortunately, does not have good advisers. He's been wanting for Iran to collapse since he withdrew from the nuclear deal."

Nasrallah Threatens US with Economic Sanctions
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave a thunderous speech from the safety of an undisclosed bunker somewhere deep underneath the city of Beirut on Sunday, declaring among other things that the assassination of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the release of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan has "ushered in direct confrontation with the axis of resistance in Lebanon.” He added that “All the people of the region will carry a rifle, because this American tyrant has left no room for anyone.”

“We have never seen an American regime like Trump’s,” he added. “When Trump kills the leaders in a public and brutal manner, he declares war and we are still slowly reacting. The Israeli enemy has a major weakness which is the human losses; similarly, the Americans have their economic and financial situation as a point of fragility.  Hezbollah hit the Israeli enemy at its weakness – so, likewise, we can concentrate on the US economic interests.” He continued by saying that “'The Deal of the Century' is a Zionist plot to end Palestinian causes. “No people in the world would accept a proposed state like [this].In fact, this is not a deal, it’s a dictation, [and] its failure depends on the resistance of Islamic states…we are not afraid of the US, and we believe in our own capabilities and faith.”

Today’s video gives an in-depth look at Israel’s security challenges

Hundreds at Western Wall Pray Against Coronavirus Outbreak

A meeting was held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City Sunday evening to pray for the people around the world who have been infected by the coronavirus outbreak. “Millions and millions of people are going through tremendous suffering in China and outside China,” Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of the Israeli branch of the Orthodox Union, told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the ceremony. “As Jews, we believe that God has the power to send healing. We are not doctors, but we can pray.”

“We look at our forefathers and see how when they saw trouble in the world, they prayed to God to take care of it, they prayed for the sick to recover and for the poor to find sustenance. The Chinese people represent one sixth of the world and many are affected also in the United States, in Europe, in Asia. We should all worry about what is happening and come together to do something about it. I can tell you that since the end of Shabbat my phone has not stopped for a moment to ring or receive messages from schools, communities or organization wishing to participate or to show their support. Every single person in the world has the ability to pray in their own words. King David, who went through very hard times, composed beautiful prayers that we can use.”

Also on Sunday, CEO of Hadassah Hospital Prof. Ze'ev Rotstein and Health Ministry director-general Professor Itamar Grotto gave an interview to the KAN News radio program in which they addressed fears related to the epidemic. Their thesis was that although the virus would almost inevitably arrive in Israel, the health care system is in excellent shape to manage it and there was more danger from panic than from the virus itself.

"Maybe one or two patients, even ten, will arrive. But our system is sharp, and viral diagnoses are made fast [here] - so there is no chance of [this virus] reaching an epidemic level," Rotstein explained.

However, despite such assurances, there has already been a marked slowdown in Israel’s vitally important tourism industry, with Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association director-general Yossi Fattal reporting a 50%-60% drop in arrivals in February.

"We're immediately holding emergency discussions, in which we'll talk about how to deal with the possibility of mass cancellations," he said. "The market is in shock. We're getting dozens of calls from groups in Europe and the US. We're worried about the cancellations, and also worried about the financial health of suppliers in Israel, given the cancellations of services that our partners abroad [tourism wholesalers] bought for the groups. It's 10% cancellations now, but it's obvious that this will increase."

However, Israel is also playing an outsized role in responding to the crisis. Researchers at Bar Ilan University have touted a device they invented as a possible solution to the need for large numbers of people to be tested for the disease. The technology could potentially reduce the time needed for a test from an hour to 15 minutes.

“We need to present further proofs that it works and then we will be able to make it available. We are also hoping to find investors to allow us to accelerate the commercialization of it,” explained Dr. Amos Danielli of the Alexander Kofkin Faculty of Engineering, who led the team which first developed the technology to test for diseases in cattle.

Various other Israeli teams are also working on solutions to the problems posed by the outbreak, with many promising lines of work being reported.

Here is a video about other ways Israeli medical technology is blessing the world

Friday Feature - Running Hot, Running Cold

If the proverbial alien visitor from a distant planet were to land his spaceship in Israel today and take a look around, he might be excused for not realizing that there are Knesset elections scheduled to take place in just 18 days. The signs (both literal and figurative) drawing attention to this fact are largely absent from their usual places on billboards, the sides of apartment buildings, on the airwaves, etc. Election fatigue was already a factor in the second election which took place last September, with some polls predicting a record-low turnout for the election on 2 March. However, as commentators warned, the rest of the world has NOT taken a break while Israelis try to sort out their internal political dynamics.

So although statements by political candidates and parties appear as stories in media outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV shows and news websites, they have to compete with some other stories which Israelis seem to be far more interested in. Three stories in particular that have dominated headlines with increasing urgency, crowding out the upcoming election, are the growing threat of war with Iran, the related threat of instability in Israel’s northern neighbors and the looming corona virus pandemic.

Iran, the problem which never goes away

Major General Hossein Salami, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) issued the latest in a long string of fiery threats against Israel and the US in a televised speech Thursday, during a ceremony to mark the 40th day since the assassination by the US of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. "If you make the slightest error, we will hit both of you," Salami said. This threat followed an earlier statement by another IRGC officer who vowed that "The cowardly and craven assassination of commander Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the Americans will lead to the liberation of Jerusalem, by the grace of God."

While Israelis have grown accustomed to hearing such rhetoric, analysts warn that the clerical regime which rules Iran and the IRGC which guards it are under tremendous pressure from a variety of sources and may soon have no choice but to act on their threats or face the prospect of losing legitimacy among their core supporters. The large crowds showing up at anti-regime rallies that take place almost daily in Teheran and less often in many other Iranian cities have begun to spice up their own rhetoric, adding chants of “talk is cheap” alongside the more traditional “death to the dictator”. Additionally, blogs by opposition figures have begun to include questions about whether it’s time for Western powers to call the regime’s bluff regarding its many threats against them.

If either of those two things happen, it could easily escalate into a shooting war between Iran and the US, which Israel would inevitably get drawn into, as would Washington’s Sunni Gulf allies.

As if to accentuate this point, the Pentagon announced on Thursday that a US Navy warship had intercepted a shipment of Iranian-manufactured anti-tank and surface to air missiles being smuggled by ship, likely on their way to Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen. It was the latest such interception US forces have made in recent months.

In order to counter the growing threat from Iran, the IDF announced this week that it is establishing a new Iran Command, specifically designed and equipped to face the possibility of a full-scale conflict with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Syria. At the same time, the new command will need to take into account the influence Iran has over terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

“The challenges around us do not allow us to wait – and so, despite the complexity, the multiyear program has begun,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said.

Northern border heating up

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to a journalists question about reports that an Iranian unit deployed to Syria had been the target of airstrikes from an unidentified source by saying he knew nothing about it but that "Maybe it was the Belgian air force."

The semi-sarcastic comment belied the fact that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have acknowledged launching “hundreds” of air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria over recent years. Iran’s occasional attempts to retaliate by launching missiles and drones at Israel have merely given Israel the pretext to launch devastating counter-attacks which were no-doubt planned months in advance, with the Air Force just waiting for an opportunity to put them into motion.

However, the threat of an Iranian military build-up in Syria, which would give the Islamic Republic a potent threat against Israel when added with the already massive number of rockets and missiles it has supplied to the Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, means the IDF can’t take anything for granted on Israel’s northern border and must constantly prepare for the possibility of hostilities there.

But this isn’t the only potential problem on Israel’s northern border.

The anti-government protests in Beirut have threatened to turn Lebanon into a failed state and/or ungoverned space, which could be very dangerous for Israel, as this would give Iran and possibly Turkey a pretext to deploy forces there under the pretext of “restoring order.” Traditional powers with influence in Lebanon include France and the US, but both of these Western powers are heavily engaged in other parts of the Middle East and the wider world, leaving little geopolitical bandwidth for yet another crisis.

In Syria, the escalating conflict between Turkish troops and forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad in Idlib Province, in the northwest of the country on Turkey’s southern border, has upended an already highly unstable situation. This has had the effect of distracting the Kremlin, which has close relations with Turkey but which has been supporting the Assad regime including by lending air power to its offensive against the remnants of rebel forces holed up in Idlib. This distraction might be advantageous to Israel, coming as it does following an increase in Russia’s protests against Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

On the other hand, a shoot-out which occurred this week between Assad regime supporters and US forces deployed to fight the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terror militia in eastern Syria could end up having the effect of drawing US attention back to this conflict which the Trump Administration has been trying to extract itself from over the past year. This could be a mixed blessing for Israel as it would complicate Israeli efforts to strike Iran in Syria, while also bringing its most powerful military ally back into the picture.

The Coronavirus threat

The coronavirus flu epidemic in China, which is threatening to turn into a global pandemic and which has already led to a slowdown in Chinese (and by extension, global) economic growth in the first quarter of 2020, is being closely watched in Israel. With literally tens of thousands of people entering and leaving the country daily through Ben Gurion International Airport, the government has announced that it is proceeding on the assumption that the virus will make its way to Israel sooner or later.

Preparations for that event have begun, with the government issuing orders for hospitals to begin stockpiling medical supplies and clearing public areas in large cities to possibly be used as emergency field hospitals. The public has also been advised to keep supplies of non-perishable food sufficient for several days in their homes, as well as to stock up on prescription medicines, soap and other supplies and to make personal cleanliness a priority.

The winter flu season had already been one of the worst in years in Israel before the coronavirus threat became widely known, with a shortage of vaccine shots causing widespread anger and fear among the general public. Reports about children being asked to go home from school by their teachers, who were frightened by seeing symptoms which they thought might be coronavirus, illustrate some of the problems which the government is trying to grapple with.

Elections being given little attention

With all of these other problems dominating the headlines and with political parties having already spent so much money and capital on the previous two elections, it’s no wonder that the upcoming elections have garnered far less media attention than would ordinarily be the case. Even the impending trial of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust have failed to arouse much interest in a voting public which is simply exhausted by his legal and political saga over recent years.

The proverbial alien visitor to Israel on this overcast week in mid-February, 2020 could therefore be excused for barely, if at all, taking note of the fact that an election is soon to be held in the country which often reminds the world that it is “the only real democracy in the Middle East.” The other issues facing the electorate are simply running too hot, leaving interest in elections to run cold. 

What that could portend for the vote which will be held on 2 March is anyone’s guess, but of one thing there can be no doubt. As Israelis and their friends around the world prepare for Shabbat on Friday evening, there is certainly a great many things for them to pray about.

UN Publishes ‘Black List’ of Companies In West Bank

The United Nations on Wednesday published a so-called “blacklist” of companies which operate in Israeli settlement communities in the West Bank, as well as neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. "Whoever boycotts us will be boycotted,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response, referring in part to the Foreign Ministry’s decision to cease cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet, which had compiled the list.  Netanyahu added in a formal statement on Wednesday that, “The UN Human Rights Council is a biased body that is devoid of influence. Not for nothing have I already ordered the severing of ties with it. It was also not for nothing that the American administration has taken this step together with us. In recent years, we have promoted laws in most US states, which determine that strong action is to be taken against whoever tries to boycott Israel. Therefore, this body is unimportant. Instead of the organization dealing with human rights, it only tries to disparage Israel. We strongly reject this contemptible effort.”

Meanwhile, the move was applauded by the Palestinian Authority.

"We will pursue companies listed in the report legally through international legal institutions and in courts in their countries for taking part in human rights violations in Palestine," PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said.

The list has the names of 112 businesses on it, including 94 which are based in Israel and 18 which are based in the US, UK, France, the Netherlands, Thailand and Luxembourg. The companies include major corporations like General Mills and Airbnb, as well as local Israeli companies like the Egged bus service which runs lines between many settlements as well as between them and Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other major Israeli cities.

The OHCHR said that, “while the settlements as such are regarded as illegal under international law, this report does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises’ involvement in them.”

Iranian Official Makes Dark Threats Against Israel
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi issued a warning statement to Israel this week, declaring that "Iran will respond with a crushing response that will cause regret to any aggression or stupid actions of this regime against the interests of our country in Syria and the region…our country will not hesitate for a moment to defend its presence in Syria and defend its national security and regional interests.” The statements come after Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian military targets in Syria over the past several years with hardly any response from Iran of any kind.

"We are constantly working to raise the stakes for Iran until we reach our ultimate goal: removing them from Syria,” Israel Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday. “We will continue to prevent an Iranian presence on our northern border,” Bennett said at Kibbutz Dafna in the Galilee during a ceremony marking the Disaster of the Helicopters that occurred on February 4, 1997.

NATO to Increase Training Missions in Iraq
In response to a request by US President Donald Trump for NATO to increase its contributions towards stability in the Middle East, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in a press conference at NATO’s headquarters on Wednesday that “Allied ministers had reaffirmed their support to Iraq and agreed in principle to enhance NATO's training mission…we are already in Iraq today and we are in consultation on the possibility of scaling up and doing more… all allies supported the decision to do more in Iraq. Together we are committed to fighting terrorism and ensure that Daesh does not come back.”

Laser Defence Against Drones Successfully Tested
Israel-based defence company Rafael announced this week that its new Drone Dome C-UAS system, which uses lasers to shoot down small, moving targets like small UAVs, had a successful series of field tests and is ready to move forward to the next stage of development. “We are entering a new age of energy warfare in the air, on land and at sea," said Brig.-Gen. Yaniv Rotem, head of the Defense Ministry's Directorate of Research and Development. He added that the system was an example of the "weapon of the future."

Explosive Balloon Attacks from Gaza Continue
Despite reports that the Islamist terror militia Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, had agreed to an Egyptian proposal to halt balloon-launched explosives being sent into Israeli territory from the Strip, several more such terror attacks were launched at Israeli communities adjacent to the Strip in recent days. Israeli officials have warned that a strong kinetic response is being prepared if the attacks do not cease.

Today's media is a podcast giving some insights into Chinese military strategy in the Middle East

Israel’s Long Running Election Cycle Receives Jolt

Israel’s political scene received a jolt on Tuesday when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announced that should he receive a mandate to form a government after elections scheduled for 2 March, he would not consider allowing the Joint (Arab) List faction to join any coalition he might try to put together. “I and the Joint List have deep disagreements on everything, including issues relating to diplomatic concerns [regarding the Palestinians], and the national and security issues of the State of Israel,” he explained.

“Israel is the only Jewish and democratic country in the world, and it needs to defend itself against external enemies. It cannot tolerate support for terror or refraining from condemning it,” he continued. “I have made this clear and I repeat it, I am not afraid to speak with any legitimate political actor, but the Joint List cannot be part of a government I will establish. My disagreement with its leadership just on national and security issues are deep, fierce, and unbridgeable.”
At the same time, he attempted to allay fears expressed by many Arab citizens of Israel that they would be transferred to a Palestinian State in any future peace arrangement.

“I want to take this topic off the table and determine that no Israeli citizen, Jew or Arab, will be forcibly transferred to another country,” said Gantz. “In the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, every citizen is equal in their rights and obligations. I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Circassian, everyone is human and everyone are equal citizens in the country.”

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told Army Radio on Tuesday morning that he would oppose Gantz following the election, even though he endorsed him to form a government following the second election last September.

“If we don’t hear a very sharp statement against transfer and annexation, there is no chance we will support or recommend Gantz to form a government,” Odeh said. “There is no chance we will back any government with Liberman, and there is no chance we will support a government led by Gantz with the views he has expressed over the past two weeks.”

 “We will not bring the Joint List into the government, period,” Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi said during his own interview with Army Radio. “We have nothing against Arab citizens, but we have nothing in common with a party that does not back Israel remaining a Jewish-democratic state.”

IDF Warily Watching Northern Border Amidst Instability

Israeli troops were keeping a wary eye on the northern border Wednesday amidst political unrest in Lebanon and intensifying violence in Syria. Security forces have used tear gas and water cannon to drive back attempts by protesters to storm the parliament building in Beirut in recent days while smaller but occasionally violent protests have also been held in several other Lebanese cities. Meanwhile, Turkish forces deployed in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province shot down a military helicopter flown by forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, marking a major escalation in hostilities between the two sides.

“Security forces were throwing tear gas and beating people up” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “I’m here to say ‘no confidence’ in the government because the way it was formed shows that it cannot be trusted,” one protester told an AFP journalist.  “We are here to reject Diab’s government and to say that the Lebanese people have no confidence in it — even if lawmakers vote to support it,” said another.

International economists have warned that Lebanon is on the verge of a complete meltdown which could render it a de facto ungoverned space similar to Afghsnistan.

Meanwhile, the flare up in violence between Assad regime loyalists and Turkish troops is sure to complicate an already deeply fraught situation in Syria, as Russia, which has relationships it values with all sides in the fighting, struggles to balance its interests. Also concerning officials on all sides of the conflict as well as European governments is a fresh wave of refugees fleeing the fighting in Idlib.

“In just 10 weeks, since 1 December, some 690,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Idlib and surrounding areas,” a spokesman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago.”

Tourism Numbers for January Offer Hope
Amidst fears of a global slowdown in tourism due to the coronavirus crisis in China, Israel’s tourism industry got some good news this week as numbers were published showing that there was an 8% increase in incoming visitors to the Jewish State in January 2020 over the same month in 2019. “Tourism records continue to shatter, and we end January 2020 with an 8% increase in incoming tourism on January 2019 and 20% more than in January 2018,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said. “Incoming tourism contributes to the development of the periphery and the economy, and I am proud to lead this.”

Here is a video about Tourism options in Israel

BDS Movement Suffers Another Defeat
The movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel suffered another defeat this week as over 300 diamond dealers, purchasing agents and executives from around the world came to the Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan to participate in International Diamond Week. “We are at the beginning of 2020, and we very much hope that this year will be a year of turnaround - a year of stabilization and recovery in the markets,” said Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange president Yoram Dvash. “In light of the reduction in raw material allowances by rough diamond producers, shortages have been created, and there is a large demand.”

Proposed US Budget Cuts Security Assistance to PA
An item in US President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the 2021 fiscal year included the elimination of funding for the Palestinian Authority security forces. Israeli officials are expected to request that the funding be restored as it has long been considered in Israel’s interest.

Today's video offers an in-depth look at Israel's regional strategic situation


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