Israel Announces 800 New Housing Units in West Bank; IDF Strikes Iran-backed Positions in Syria; Labor Elects New Leader

Days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden was sworn into office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the construction of 800 new housing units in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Israel will also legalize one unauthorized settlement. Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, called the move “irresponsible,” saying, “A sane government does not start an unnecessary battle with a new American President.” Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Israel carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria on January 13. The strikes appeared to target the positions and arms depots of Iranian-backed militias. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people were killed and 28 were wounded. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Israel’s Labor Party has elected MK Merav Michaeli as its new leader. The centrist-left Labor Party has a long history in Israel but faces possible extinction in the upcoming elections in March. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Biden, Blinken, Reach out to Allies on Iran Nuke Deal; Iran Says It Won’t Accept Changes to Dead for U.S. Return; IAEA Says Time Running Out for Deal

Now that U.S. President Joe Biden has taken office, there has been an uptick in interest in the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the west. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, said the new administration would consult with Israel and Arab allies in the Middle East before making any decisions about reentering the Iran nuclear agreement. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reportedly dispatch Mossad chief Yossie Cohen to Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss Israel’s demands of the new administration for any new version of the Iran nuclear deal. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron regarding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The pair agreed to coordinate on Middle East peace issues and the nuclear deal, reports say. The French presidency said that Biden and Macron spoke after his inauguration and discussed “their willingness to act together for peace in the Near and Middle East, in particular on the Iranian nuclear issue.” Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…  

Amid rumors U.S. President Joe Biden will seek to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warns that Iran will not accept changes to the deal as a condition for the U.S.’s return. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Zarif said, Iran’s “return to the table will be jeopardized if Washington or its EU allies demand new terms for a deal that was already carefully constructed through years of negotiations.” Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Iranian diplomats have also reportedly been in touch with members of the Biden administration about restarting talks on Iran’s nuclear program. According to reports, Iran has identified seven preconditions to the resumption of talks. An Iranian official with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s office said contacts began before Biden took office and remain informal. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) has warned that time is running out to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. “It is clear that we don’t have many months ahead of us. We have weeks.,” said director general Rafael Grossi. He made the comments after Iran began enriching uranium up to 20%, closer to the 90% percent needed to create nuclear weapons. Reported by Fox News. Read more… Meanwhile, European nations are deeply concerned about Iran’s plans to produce uranium metal, saying Iran has “no credible civilian use” for the element. In a joint statement the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany said, “The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications.” Should Iran proceed with its plans, it would be another violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Iran pledged not to produce or acquire “plutonium or uranium metals and their alloys.” Reported by The Guardian. Read more…

Iran’s Supreme Leader Levels Implied Threat at Trump; Iranian Missles Land 100 Miles from Battle Group; Pompeo Says Al Queda Has Base in Iran

A Twitter account linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made an implied threat against now-former U.S. President Donald Trump. The site showed an aerial image of Trump playing golf with the caption, “Revenge is definite,” suggesting a drone strike against the former president. President Trump ordered the drone strike in January 2020 that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Twitter suspended the account. Reported by Fox News. Read more… Iran also fired long-range missiles into the Indian Ocean on January 16. The missiles splashed down within 20-miles of a commercial ship and 100-miles of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz. Iran routinely fires missiles into the Indian Ocean. Reported by Fox News. Read more… Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Al Qaeda has set up a “home base” in Iran. He also said that the terror group and Iran are “partners in terrorism.” Pompeo also confirmed that Al Qaeda’s number two man, Abu Mohammad al-Masri, was killed in Iran last year. Al Qaeda was responsible for planning and carrying out the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Suicide Bombings in Baghdad Kill At Least Six

Twin suicide bombings rocked Baghdad on January 21, killing at least six people and wounding at least 25 others. The explosions targeted a commercial center in the city. No group has claimed responsibility. Political tensions are on the rise as Iraq has elections slated to occur later this year. Reported by Fox News. Read more… Reported by The Guardian. Read more… (reporting 32 killed).

Palestinians to Hold Elections; Islamic Jihad Official Says Soleimani Called Shots in Gaza

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has announced parliamentary and presidential elections, the first in 15-years. The move came days before the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. According to Abbas’ office, parliamentary elections will occur on May 22 following a presidential vote on July 31. Reported by The Guardian. Read more…

Ziyad al-Nakhaleh, the secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, said that Iran’s general Qassem Soleimani was giving orders directly to the group and that rockets used to attack Israel were supplied by Iran. According to al-Nakhaleh, who gave his statements in an interview, “nothing happened [in Gaza] without his [Soleimani’s] direct orders and supervision.” Soleimani was killed in Baghdad in a drone strike in January 2020. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Pollard Returns to Israel

Israeli politicians are jockeying for position in the March 2021 general elections. Moshe Ya’alon has split from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and will run under his Telem party. Lapid tweeted regarding the move, saying “I value and respect Moshe Ya’alon very much and wish him luck.” Reports say that Ya’alon and Lapid were unable to come to terms on leadership roles within Yesh Atid. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Former science and technology minister Izhar Shay, who recently quit Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, announced he was joining Ya’alon’s party. Doctors Union chief Hagai Levine is also joining Telem. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Meanwhile, Gideon Sa’ar, a former Netanyahu protégé who split from the Likud last year, accused Netanyahu of overseeing “a focused attack on all of the institutions of the state.” He vowed to prevent the kind of assault on democracy seen in the United States last week, referring to the assault on the U.S. capital by protesters. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Former justice minister Avi Nissenkorn said events at the U.S. capitol show that democracy is “fragile,” warning that Israel’s democracy was in an even more precarious state than in the U.S. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz plans to stay in the fight in the March 2021 general elections, despite defections from his Blue and White party. Many members of the party, however, say Gantz must step down if the party is to have any future. Poll numbers for Gantz and Blue and White have been plunging. Reported by France24. Read more… Recent polls show that Likud is regaining lost ground ahead of the election, but still falls short of achieving a majority needed to form a new government. Reported by Times of Israel. Read more…

Israel says that two million Israelis will have received a two-dose Covid-19 vaccine by the end of January. Israel launched an aggressive campaign to administer the vaccine to Israelis in mid-December. Reported by France24. Read more… A new shipment of the Pfizer vaccine containing hundreds of thousands of doses has arrived in Israel. Reported by i24 News. Read more… On January 7, Netanyahu announced a deal with Pfizer to supply millions of doses of the vaccine to Israel. Netanyahu called it a “tremendous breakthrough” and said Israel would be the first country to inoculate all citizens by the end of March. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Jonathan Pollard has returned to Israel, where he and his wife were granted immediate citizenship. Pollard, a former navy intelligence analyst, spent 30-years in prison for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met them at the airport when they arrived. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon says that he hopes president-elect Joe Biden will “continue the momentum” created by President Trump’s peace initiative. Danon told Fox News that Trump’s initiative was not only good for Israel and the modern Arab countries, but also good for the U.S. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Kushner Brokers Peace Deal Between Saudi Arabia and Qatar

President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has done it again, with his chief advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner brokering a deal between Qatar and other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and its allies had cut-off diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 after the latter refused to accede to demands to shut down the Al Jazeera news network and reduce ties with Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia also closed its airspace to Qatari flights; in return, Qatar brought a $5 billion lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. The deal called for Qatar to drop the suit. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Iran Marks First Anniversary of Soleimani Assassination; Iran Issues Warrant for Trump’s Arrest; Iran Increases Uranium Enrichment, Seizes Tanker

Thousands commemorated the first anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani with a mock funeral procession and candlelight vigil in Baghdad. Soleimani was killed in Baghdad in a missile strike on January 3, 2020. Soleimani was the leader of the IRGC’s elite Quds force. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the strike. Thousands joined the procession along the road where Soleimani was killed. Reported by Fox News. Read more… In central Baghdad, tens of thousands of supporters of Iranian-backed paramilitary groups chanted anti-American slogans. Reported by Reuters. Read more… The new leader of the Quds force, Esmail Ghaani, later warned that Iran was still ready to respond to the attack. “From inside your own house, there may emerge someone who will retaliate for your crime,” Ghaani said in a televised event to mark the anniversary. Reported by Reuters. Read more… Days before the anniversary, Ebrahim Raisi, chief of Iran’s judiciary, said that no one, not even U.S. President Donald Trump, was “immune from justice” for his role in Soleimani’s killing. Reported by Fox News. Read more… Meanwhile, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Hossein Salami warned that Iran was prepared to respond to any military pressure from the United States. Read more… Salami also warned U.S. President Donald Trump that “revenge on the perpetrators of Soleimani’s martyrdom is definite and serious.” Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Also, on the anniversary, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif urged U.S. President Donald Trump not to be “trapped” by an alleged Israeli plan to provoke a war through attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Washington blames Iranian-back militias for rocket attacks on U.S. facilities in Baghdad. The warning came over Twitter, and stated, “Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs.” Reported by Reuters. Read more… Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz fired back, calling the tweet “nonsense” and saying it was Israel that needed to be on the alert for possible Iranian strikes over the anniversary. Reported by Reuters. Read more… Iraq issued an arrest warrant for U.S. President Donald Trump over the Soleimani killing. The warrant was issued by an Iraqi judge charged with investigating the killing. Reported by AP. Read more…

Iran also resumed enriching uranium up to the 20% threshold. The enrichment is occurring at an underground facility. Twenty-percent enriched uranium is only one step away from weapons-grade enrichment. By enriching uranium to the 20% level, Iran breached yet another provision of the 2015 nuclear accords, making it more difficult for president-elect Joe Biden to re-enter the deal after Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. Reported by Reuters. Read more… Reported by Fox News. Read more… China urged calm and restraint after Iran announced it was resuming 20% enrichment. Reported by Reuters. Read more… Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says, however, that Tehran is “not insisting nor in a hurry for the U.S. to return to the deal.” Reported by Reuters. Read more… Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 20% proves Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons. He also said, “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons.” Reported by i24 News. Read more… In return, Iran said it would deliver a “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it. Reported by Reuters. Read more… At the end of December, Iran warned Israel not to cross its “red lines” in the Gulf in the waning days of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. Reported by France24. Read more…

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps also seized a South Korean ship in the Persian Gulf. Iran claims the vessel was polluting the waters off Oman, but the more likely reason for the seizure is over the seizure of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions. Reported by Reuters. Read more… Iran denies the ship and crew are being held hostage. Reported by Reuters. Read more… South Korea has dispatched a delegation to Iran to negotiate the release of the ship and crew. Reported by Reuters. Read more…

Shortly before the seizure of the tanker, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Chris Miller ordered the carrier USS Nimitz to return to the Persian Gulf amid increased threats against U.S. interests by Iranian officials. Reported by Fox News. Read more… The Pentagon has also deployed more B-52 bombers to the Middle East as tension with Iran rise again. The deployment is to demonstrate military commitment to the region. Reported by Fox News. Read more… A fourth B-52 has been deployed to the area. Reported by Fox News. Read more…

Israeli Elections Upcoming in March

Israel’s unity government collapsed Wednesday, December 23, setting up new elections for the fourth time in under two years. The government collapsed after it failed to pass a budget by midnight Tuesday. The Knesset’s failure to pass a budget resulted in the automatic dissolution by law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s unity government. The unity government lasted only seven months before its collapse. New elections will occur March 23, 2021. And, unlike prior elections where Netanyahu faced challenges from left wing and centrist politicians, this time around he is likely to face a challenger from within the right wing. The most likely challengers are his former protégé Gideon Sa’ar, who bolted the Likud weeks ago to form the New Hope party, and Naftali Bennet, leader of the Yamina party. Reported by Fox News Read more… Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… The collapse was not without its share of drama. A last-minute bill on Monday that would have averted the dissolution of the Knesset by extending the deadline to pass a budget failed to pass. Four MKs, one from the Likud and three from the Blue and White parties were not present when their names were called. Likud MK Sharren Haskel and Blue and White MKs Asaf Zamir, Miki Haimovich, and Ram Shefa initially were absent. Likud MK Michal Shir showed up late before voting against the bill. Shir then announced she was leaving the Likud to join Sa’ar’s New Hope party. Shefer also arrived late and voted against the bill. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Blue and White leader Benny Gantz ejected Zamir and Haimovich from the Blue and White for their actions. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Right-wing lawmakers from Sa’ar’s New Hope party vowed last week they would not join a coalition with Netanyahu following the March elections. Ze’ev Elkin said the party wouldn’t join because Netanyahu’s “personal interests are guiding his decisions … and that makes it dangerous.” Continuing, Elkin said, “Netanyahu feels persecuted, he suspects everyone, the atmosphere is one of a cult of personality … of flattery. This is precisely what we want to change.” Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Meanwhile, protests continue against Netanyahu. Protests outside the prime minister’s home have continued for 27 weeks now. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Benny Gantz’s star may also be fading as dissent reigns in the ranks of his Blue and White party. Current polls show the party will take only 5-6 seats in a new election, and three top Blue and White MKs—Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, and Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay—have decided they will not remain with the party. Blue and White picked up 33 seats in the March 2020 election. Gantz has also burned his bridges with the centrist Yesh Atid-Telem party, led by former Gantz allies Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon. Gantz reneged on a promise not to sit in a government led by Netanyahu. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… The crisis within Blue and White led Gantz to confer with his party colleagues over the weekend. Gantz will reportedly make a decision about his political future over the coming days. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…

Amid the political turmoil, Israel’s Covid-19 crisis continues to worsen. Israel will be entering a third lockdown beginning Sunday, December 27. The lockdown will last for two weeks. There is an option to extend the lockdown, and health officials have already said it will likely be extended. New cases of the virus are now exceeding 3,000 daily. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… As the country enters lockdown, Jerusalem’s hospitals are near to capacity with Covid-19 patients. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… On Christmas day, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of Israel’s Health Ministry’s public health services, told Israel’s Channel 12 news that Israel aimed to begin vaccinating the public within 7-10 days. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more… Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he sought to reach a vaccination rate of 150,000 people a day within a week, and to have vaccinated over 2 million Israelis by the end of January 2021. Reported by The Times of Israel. Read more…