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Media Summary

Iran rejects EU-led talks with the US over the JCPOA nuclear agreement

The BBC, Independent, Financial Times and The Telegraph lead with Iran refusing the EU’s proposal to hold an informal meeting with the US on ways to revive the JCPOA nuclear deal, insisting that America must first lift all of its unilateral sanctions. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said it was not an appropriate time for the talks proposed by the EU. The US said it was disappointed but that it remained ready to “re-engage in meaningful diplomacy” on the issue.

The Times writes that Israel’s most celebrated spy may be exhumed and returned from Syria under a deal mediated by Russia. The Syrian regime has always refused to hand over the body of Eli Cohen, who was caught sending secrets back by radio to his handlers from Damascus and was hanged in 1965. Some view a series of deals, which have already led to the return of an Israeli woman and the purchase by Israel of the Russian Sputnik-V coronavirus vaccine for Syria, as part of a possible broader rapprochement.

The Guardian follows the comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this morning that Iran was behind the attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week. The report notes that in recent years Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept a permanent Syrian military presence there.

In The Times, Rafaello Pantucci argues that the UK Supreme Court’s decision to refuse Shamima Begum entry back to the UK after she left for Syria to stay under ISIS control in 2015 has not solved the problem of returning foreign fighters for the UK authorities.

Meanwhile, Sadakat Kadri argues in The Guardian that the UK Government has for too long focused too much of Islamist terrorism and has ignored far-right terror. “Tracking the far right’s surge is essential, but reshaping counter-terror while maintaining public confidence and safeguarding civil liberties isn’t going to be easy,” Kardi writes.

The Independent reports that Israel has revealed new details of an ongoing investigation into an oil spill earlier this month that washed up roughly a thousand tonnes of tar on its shoreline and caused potentially irreversible ecological damage to the region’s marine wildlife and biodiversity. The investigation is being carried out in cooperation with authorities in Greece and has been underway since at least mid-February.

Reuters reports that the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has called for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to be punished after a US intelligence report said he had approved the killing of Khashoggi. The US has imposed sanctions on some of those involved but not Prince Mohammed himself. The Saudi government, which has denied any involvement by the crown prince, rejected the report’s findings.

The Guardian reports on the first ever papal visit to Iraq this coming Friday, during which Pope Francis will meet beleaguered Christian communities and one of the world’s most influential Muslim leaders.

In the Israeli media, Yediot Ahronot reports that the cabinet will meet this afternoon to discuss the reopening of air travel to and from Israel. The regulation that mandates all returning Israelis be quarantined in state facilities was extended by 72 hours over the weekend and is scheduled to expire on Saturday midnight, 6 March. The question about what kind of quarantine requirements will apply to returning Israelis have not been finalised. Health Ministry officials want to mandate that everyone arriving in Israel be quarantined in a state facility, but this option has met stiff resistance from Israel Airports Authority officials. A new pilot programme to oblige returning Israelis to wear an electronic bracelet for the duration of their quarantine is scheduled to begin today. Deputy Health Minister MK Yoav Kisch, who is overseeing the matter within the Health Ministry, rejected the criticism. “We aren’t forcing anyone to wear a bracelet,” he said. “It’s merely an automatic tool that allows for more effective home quarantine thanks to which we will be able, among other things, to reopen the skies.” In response to public criticism, the exceptions committee will stop operating by the end of this week and an inquiry will be conducted into requests that were submitted by Israelis who were stranded overseas seeking permission to return home to Israel, but had their requests denied.

In Yediot Ahronot, Nahum Barnea responds to reports about the ultra-Orthodox community’s special treatment at Ben-Gurion airport. He writes: “The year of coronavirus set Israeli society back in several major spheres. Because of a misguided and hastily-made decision by the finance minister, hundreds of thousands of people went back to working off the books. They aren’t going to go back to working legally quickly. The changes in the sphere of employment are just the tip of the iceberg…. that crisis of confidence, which is possibly the worst such crisis of confidence since the Yom Kippur War, has passed over the Haredim. Barena goes on to say: “The Haredim are acting the way they have always acted; they haven’t changed. In the year of the coronavirus, we have learned how much the state has changed, how much the government has changed — and not for the better.”
Maariv runs a commentary piece that argues, “On the one side, there were those who were shocked and who also highlighted the aspect that Haredi voters were being brought back [via Ben-Gurion Airport] while secular voters were not able to exercise their right to vote in three weeks. On the other side of the divide, journalists argued that the [Channel 12] investigative report was flawed and biased and that it was all nonsense. But beyond the political positions that animate the analyses in Israel’s media in 2021, there is also a truth. And that truth is that the number of crooked deals for the Haredi sector in the course of this past year—because of the holy alliance between Netanyahu and the Haredi parties—has gone past all norms and boundaries.”

Also in Yediot Ahonrot, Sarit Rosenblum writes a commentary on the government’s decision last night to allow middle school students in green and yellow localities return to classes as early as tomorrow, and not next week, as originally planned. Rosenblum writes: “There is no dispute that returning students of all ages to school is an incomparably important goal. All children, small and big, have paid a high price this past year… Kindergartens and schools are venues with a high risk of infection of COVID-19. The crowding in Israel’s classrooms, the faulty ventilation and the lack of enforcing social distancing measures all provide fertile ground for infection. Despite that, almost nothing was done in the last few months to protect our children, and the school system has continued to operate as if there were no coronavirus in the air. The majority of children still study in large classes, nothing was done to adapt them to the pandemic, and they come into contact with staff that changes in their after-school groups, and their teachers and assistants. With that being the situation, there is no real way to ensure that they will stay healthy.” Netanyahu also announced that the school year would be extended into July, though the existing contracts with the teachers’ unions and other procedural impediments may ultimately render that plan unviable.

Maariv reports that Israel is embarking on a new COVID-19 vaccination campaign for all Palestinian labourers who have a work permit for Israel and the settlements. The cabinet gave its approval in response to the recommendation to do so by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Office and the Health Ministry, for medical reasons. It is expected to vaccinate more than 100,000 workers. Over the weekend, the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister said it would enact a partial lockdown in the West Bank for the next 12 days after cases more than doubled over the past two weeks.

Israeli airstrikes were reported over southern Damascus last night. According to Syrian media reports, Syrian air defence systems were operated in the Damascus area last night in response to a missile attack. A Syrian army source said that most of the missiles that were fired by Israel had been intercepted before reaching their targets. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a compound south of Damascus that is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and with Hezbollah was attacked. There were no reports of casualties.

Israel Hayom reports on the new revelations in the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that the Barack Obama administration offered the Assad regime an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for severing ties with Iran and Hezbollah, a few months before the Syrian civil war erupted in March of 2011.

Kan Radio News and Channel 12 reports that a resident of Mevasseret Tziyon, from the the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem, was killed after being hit by a transport vehicle as the police were attempting to disperse a demonstration against the Prime Minister and ministers who were at the time meeting at the [nearby] Education Ministry. The driver, a resident of East Jerusalem, fled the scene and was arrested by the police within minutes. Before being admitted to the hospital he told the police that he had come under attack and had felt that his life was in danger, and that that was why he drove off from the scene. He said that he had hit the victim accidentally, and denied that he had deliberately run him down.