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Media Summary

Netanyahu could legalise Marijuana

The BBC reports that Israel’s Supreme Court has disqualified the leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, Michael Ben Ari, from next month’s elections. In doing so, it overturned an earlier decision by the electoral committee. Ben Ari has faced criticism over his comments about Israeli Arabs. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said they amount to “incitement to racism”. The court also reinstated Israeli Arab parties previously banned from contesting the 9 April poll.

The Times reports that Israel, Egypt and the militant Islamist movement Hamas have agreed that the launch of two rockets from Gaza towards Tel Aviv, which could have triggered a war, was caused by incompetent maintenance workers. Shortly after 9pm on Thursday air-raid sirens sounded in Israel’s largest city, followed by explosions. The “attack” was a surprise, as it was the first time that Palestinian militants in Gaza had fired rockets of that range since the war in the summer of 2014, and the launch took place when the Hamas leadership was meeting a high-level delegation of Egyptian officers in Gaza to discuss a long-term ceasefire. Although the rockets caused no casualties, Israel swiftly retaliated with airstrikes against 100 targets related to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, including what it said were the headquarters of the organisation that directed militant attacks in the occupied West Bank, and a workshop that manufactured rockets. Instead of escalating the conflict with more rockets, Hamas sent an explanation through back-channels to Israel that the rockets had been fired by mistake. The Iranian-designed and locally built “Fajr M75” rockets had been on a launch-pad targeting Tel Aviv but were inadvertently set off during a botched routine maintenance job by a couple of low-level operatives, Hamas explained.

In the Independent, Bel Trew writes that: “Netanyahu and Hamas are losing the battle to stave off war – and the Israeli elections aren’t helping”. Trew argues that the incumbent Prime Minister and the Hamas leadership appear loathe to tumble back into conflict, but are facing searing pressure from all sides to do just that.

Reuters reports that according to Israeli officials, a Palestinian man stabbed an Israeli soldier to death in the occupied West Bank on Sunday and used his rifle to wound another soldier and a Jewish settler before escaping. The incident began at an intersection near Ariel, a large settlement, where the Palestinian, having carried out the stabbing and grabbed the slain soldier’s gun, fired at three vehicles, hitting a civilian, the Israeli military said. He then hijacked a car, driving it to another nearby junction where he shot a second soldier before continuing on to a nearby Palestinian village. It was not immediately clear if more than one assailant was involved. Settler officials identified the wounded civilian as a local rabbi. In public remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of several assailants, saying: “Security forces are pursuing the attackers. I am certain they will be apprehended.”

BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme included a report from the BBC’s Israel correspondent Yolande Knell. Knell reported on the attack in the West Bank near Ariel, the missile attacks on Tel Aviv last Thursday, and the demonstrations in Gaza against Hamas. Knell said demonstrators in Gaza are protesting against “the rising cost of living and high taxes in Gaza, and that’s led to dozens of arrests, people being beaten up by the Hamas security forces including journalists and human rights workers”. However Knell notes that while Israel would usually be pleased with demonstrations against Hamas “this is a kind of turmoil that will be more worrying for Israeli officials” noting that Israel doesn’t want to see “disintegration in Gaza possibly even leading to another full armed conflict” just before elections in April.

The Independent reports that Benjamin Netanyahu is considering legalising marijuana to court votes ahead of Israel’s elections. Asked about the issue during a live Facebook stream, the Likud party leader said he was “looking into it and will have an answer soon”. His declaration came after polls showed the country’s new Zehut party – led by the firebrand Moshe Feiglin – surged in popularity on the back of its promise to decriminalise the drug. The new libertarian group, while unlikely to score real support in the 9 April election, could take significant numbers of right-of-centre voters away from Netanyahu. His new stance on marijuana is being seen by some as a ploy to increase support among younger voters.

BBC Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, writes that for the victims of war crimes in Syria, justice remains elusive. Investigators from the UN as well as national governments have spent years collecting evidence of war crimes. But turning evidence into prosecutions is difficult, says Bowen. He argues that Syria’s wounds might have a chance to heal if war criminals face the law but the victor’s justice tends to apply when the fighting stops – so it looks as if the regime and its allies, for now at least, will be safe.

In the Telegraph, Josie Ensor reports on: “Why Syria’s war is far from over”.

The Guardian reports that the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has not attended a series of high-profile ministerial and diplomatic meetings in Saudi Arabia over the last fortnight and is alleged to have been stripped of some of his financial and economic authority. The move to restrict, if only temporarily, the responsibilities of the Crown Prince is understood to have been revealed to a group of senior ministers earlier last week by his father, King Salman. The king is said to have asked Bin Salman to be at this cabinet meeting, but he failed to attend. While the move has not been declared publicly, the Guardian has been told that one of the king’s trusted advisers, Musaed al-Aiban, who was educated at Harvard and recently named as national security adviser, will informally oversee investment decisions on the king’s behalf. The Saudi embassy in Washington has declined multiple requests for comment since the Guardian approached it on Tuesday.

Reuters reports that according to the pro-Syrian government al-Watan daily, military chiefs of staff of Syria, Iran and Iraq will hold a rare meeting in Damascus to discuss “ways to combat terrorism”.  The paper gave no further details of what would likely be discussed at the meeting, or its timing and location. Iran has been one of the most steadfast supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during eight years of civil war, and is also a close ally of Iraq. The United States has said it wants to limit what it calls Tehran’s destabilising influence in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Syria.

The Times reports that according to a book by an Italian who claims to have played a role, Israel was able to launch its surprise attack against Egypt and Syria at the beginning of the Six-Day War thanks to information provided to Mossad by an intelligence network of former Nazis. Adriano Monti fought, aged 15, in the international division of the German SS at the end of the Second World War and was recruited into a postwar intelligence organisation founded by General Reinhard Gehlen. Gehlen had run German army espionage efforts against eastern Europe during the war and worked closely with the CIA after it. His “Gehlen Organisation” became the backbone of West Germany’s foreign intelligence organisation, the BND. In his book Monti, 89, claims to have travelled to Cairo shortly before the outbreak of the war between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1967 to meet one of his network’s contacts, an escort called Marguerite. She was in contact with two East German military advisers to the Egyptian president, Abdel Nasser, who knew of Egypt’s war plans. In the book, Codename Siegfried 2: Discreet Services, Mr Monti describes meeting Marguerite at a bar in Cairo. “After the usual small talk she whispered in French: ‘June five, 8.15.’ ”

The Guardian reports that according to multiple sources at the United Nations environment assembly taking place this week in Nairobi, the United States and Saudi Arabia have hamstrung global efforts to scrutinise climate geoengineering in order to benefit their fossil fuel industries. The world’s two biggest oil producers reportedly led opposition against plans to examine the risks of climate-manipulating technology such as sucking carbon out of the air, reflective mirrors in space, seeding the oceans and injecting particulates into the atmosphere. Deeper analysis of the risks had been proposed by Switzerland and 12 other countries as a first step towards stronger oversight of potentially world-altering experiments that would have implications for food supply, biodiversity, global inequality and security. Some have been tried, but as yet none deployed at a scale that would affect the climate.

The Guardian and the Times report that, according to his family’s lawyer, a US navy veteran has been sentenced to 10 years in an Iranian prison, after he was arrested last July while visiting an Iranian woman in the city of Mashhad. The Guardian reports that Michael White, 46, was convicted of two charges – insulting the country’s top leader and posting a private photograph publicly – in separate hearings on 6 and 9 March, according to the lawyer, Mark Zaid. The basis for the first charge is not clear. The second charge appears to have been levelled after White uploaded a picture of himself sitting with the woman, an Iranian national, Zaid said. Iranian authorities have not released details of the charges.

The Telegraph reports that according to the US Counter-terrorism coordinator, Britain and other European nations are at risk from Iranian terror attacks on home soil and must do more to deter the regime. Nathan Sales said in an interview with the Telegraph that Iran has carried out a slew of assassination plots in Europe in recent years and could do so again. He praised the UK government for recently designating Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist group backed by Iran, as a terrorist organisation and urged other EU countries to match the move. Sales also pointed the expulsion of Iranian ambassadors from European countries in the early 1990s after a bomb attack, saying that playbook could be “instructive” for dealing with today’s threat. “It is unacceptable that Iran would regard the European continent as fertile ground for its campaign of terrorism,” Sales warned.

The Independent reports that Israel’s ex-army chief – and a frontrunner in the country’s upcoming elections – dismissed claims Iran stole a sex tape in a cyber-attack on his phone, calling the reports “political spin”. Benny Gantz denied he was compromised by the Iranian phone hacking incident that Israel’s internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, revealed to him a month ago. The former general instead hinted supporters of incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been behind rumours that a sex tape was among the embarrassing material extracted from Gantz’s personal device. Details of the security breach were leaked to Israeli network Channel 12 on Thursday night. “I’m not under threat of extortion, there is much more serious problem here than [my] phone. Somebody is making a spin here, making a big problem out of what doesn’t exist,” he said Friday afternoon.

All the Israeli media report the shooting attack yesterday near Ariel. Yossi Melman in Maariv argues that: “The Palestinian problem, which the Israeli government has tried to refrain from dealing with comprehensively, isn’t about to disappear. For some time now, alongside the war of attrition that has been waged in Gaza and this past weekend we received another reminder that the West Bank has been bubbling beneath the surface and the restiveness there has broken through the surface from time to time.” He adds that “In the current situation, any small incident (yesterday explosive and incendiary balloons were sent sailing into Israel once again), or a terror attack of the kind that was committed near Ariel, have the potential of producing an escalation in the violence. That state of affairs is likely to accompany us until the elections in another three weeks, and is likely to accompany us after the elections as well, until a new government is formed.”

Maariv reports on the controversy surrounding  Culture Minister Miri Regev’s comments about the attack when she said: “This is precisely the result of incitement. You saw on Friday my argument with Ahmed Tibi, who isn’t willing to condemn the murder of a girl in her bed. This is exactly what that says: when you encourage shahids and aren’t willing to condemn the murder of innocents. That’s the person that Gantz-Lapid want to form a blocking majority with.” The Blue and White Party issued a joint statement in the name of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, which read: “Never, in the entire history of the country, has it happened that an Israeli minister has exploited the death of people killed in terror attacks for political propaganda even before the funerals of the deceased. Out of respect for the victims we won’t respond beyond that.” Yaalon called on Netanyahu to fire Regev from the cabinet: “The blood of the victims hasn’t yet dried at the scenes of the terror attack, the manhunt for the murderers is underway, and the minister of unculture makes political, cynical, ugly and precedent-setting use of the price of terrorism. If Netanyahu has even a bit of stateliness left, he needs to fire her immediately from his government..” Tibi also responded to Regev’s statements and posted a video in which he said: “Miri Regev is exploiting the blood. This is incitement to murder. Between the two of us, I’m the one who wants to protect human life. The occupation policy is responsible for the ongoing bloodshed.”

Yediot Ahronoth, Maariv, Haaretz and Israel Hayom all report the decision by the Supreme Court to ban Michael Ben Ari of Jewish power from standing in the election. An opinion piece in Yediot Ahronoth by Ben-Dror Yemini disagrees with the decision believing it to be inconsistent and arguing that: “Democracy did not win yesterday; neither did values such as conciliation and equality. Radicalisation won.” Yemini argues that: “There is no argument regarding Michael Ben Ari’s disqualification. His statements in recent years were racist. The law in his case is clear. But it is entirely unclear why the High Court of Justice approved a candidate and a party that explicitly – and certainly implicitly, as the law stipulates – deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. He adds that “Parties like Balad and a candidate like Ofer Cassif are very serious cases. But the court disregarded the law…The High Court of Justice’s defence of Azmi Bishara’s legacy is not doing democracy a service. It encourages the radicalisation.”

Writing in Haaretz, Mordechai Kremnitzer believes that: “By barring Kahanist, Israel’s Supreme Court did its job: protecting democracy” and argues that the court: “Decided in accordance with the longtime judicial tradition it had formulated. Anyone who had bothered to read its previous rulings in similar cases would have understood that only in the event of a revolution, which there was no reason to expect, would the outcome have been different. The court’s consistent approach is that disqualifying a party or a candidate is an extreme move that seriously undermines basic rights, first and foremost the right to be elected, but also the right to vote; freedom of expression; the right to equality and the right to assembly. It is a step that should only be taken in the most radical, unequivocal instances where there is no choice but to invalidate a candidacy.” He warns that: “One must also make sure that out of a supposed desire to protect democracy, democracy isn’t trampled on by those who believe that expressing angry and outrageous opinions, including curses and derogatory remarks, is grounds for disqualification.” But Kremnitzer argues that: “Ben Ari’s case is different. Studying the things he has said, as the attorney general did, revealed incitement to racism of the most disgusting, dangerous kind. Precisely because he relates to Arab citizens of Israel not only as dogs and traitors, but as an enemy (except, he said, for 1 percent), his words may fall on attentive ears. It’s a good thing the Knesset will be spared the disgrace that the Israeli right doesn’t mind causing it. This is indeed the type of extreme case that makes the disqualification inevitable.”

Kan Radio reports the results of a poll broadcast last night which predicted for the first time that the Blue and White party has lost its lead and the Likud is predicted to be the largest party with 31 seats, compared to 30 seats for Blue and White. The Labour Party are predicted to win 9 seats followed by Hadash-Taal 8 seats. UTJ, Shas, United Right and Meretz 6 seats. Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut 4 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu and Raam-Balad 4 seats. Kulanu and Gesher are predicted not to receive enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Ronen Bergman in Yediot Ahronoth reports that Israeli intelligence officials believe that the espionage organisation that was behind the hack into Benny Gantz’s mobile phone is Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which has been behind many of the intelligence operations against Israel in the past three decades. The TV program Uvda reported last night that Gantz was not the only former senior Israeli official whose telephone was hacked, and that the former prime minister and defence minister, Ehud Barak, had also fallen victim to an Iranian hack. Bergman writes that:  “the Iranian hack of Gantz’s telephone is a major incident, but the fact that Israeli intelligence was aware of the hack and was able to warn Gantz, alongside other achievements that were scored against the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, attest to Israel’s ability to anticipate and expose the Iranian plans.” Yesterday, the Blue and White party called for the Attorney General to investigate the source of the leak of the story. “There are several indications that trace the leak to a certain bureau in Jerusalem.”  They further alleged that the leak was a serious breach of security: “If this was for political motives, then this is also a serious case of breach of trust. It’s hard to imagine a greater loss of moral path than a situation in which the state’s security and the people charged with it are coopted to serve narrow political interests.” They also asked the attorney general to instruct the prime minister, who is in charge of Israel’s cyber defence, “to refrain from making personal and political use of the officials subordinate to him, or of information that is in his possession.”