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Media Summary

Iran seizes South Korean oil tanker

BBC News, The Financial Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times report on Saudi Arabia and its allies lifting the boycott of Qatar and restoring full diplomatic ties with the country. On Tuesday the Saudi foreign minister announced that his country along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt agreed to “fully set our differences aside” with Qatar, after cutting ties with the country in 2017. Saudi Arabia and the UAE led the boycott of Qatar after accusing the country of sponsoring Islamist groups and for being too close to Iran. Qatar’s ruling emir arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday and was greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Martin Chulov notes in The Guardian that while Saudi Arabia ended its blockade of Qatar, there was “no mention of concessions, or further ultimatums, such as those that had led to the rift. The detente seemed borne more of exhaustion than compromise; the talk more of brotherly unity than lessons learned, and the end to it all more about the incoming US president than regional realpolitik.”

Frank Gardner writes for BBC News that “the UAE has grave doubts that Qatar is actually going to change its ways. Libya and elsewhere, notably the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE views as an existential threat to its monarchy. Meanwhile, the embargo has, if anything, pushed Qatar closer to Saudi Arabia’s ideological enemies: Turkey and Iran.”

The Independent reports that following a virial clip of Egyptian medics tending to coronavirus patients, the country has summoned the individual responsible for filming the video. The paper notes that the clip “allegedly depicts several patients in intensive care at Al-Husseiniya hospital in the northern governorate of Sharqiya dying after the hospital purportedly ran out of oxygen”. While the government denied such claims, Egyptian authorities opened an investigation into the hospital.

Michael Safi writes for The Guardian about a new art exhibition showcasing torn paintings and broken sculptures damaged from the Beirut blast: “A new exhibition in the city seeks not to put artworks together again but to remake them, despite the gashes in canvasses and grazes in sculptured stone. Wounded Art, a collection of works damaged and destroyed by the blast, opened this month in the city’s Villa Audi, a mosaic museum that was itself badly hit.”

BBC News, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph report on Iran’s seizure of a South Korean oil tanker. Iran claims the MT Hankuk Chemi was violating pollution rules, which the tanker’s operators denied. South Korea has filed a formal protest with Iran and called for the immediate release of the tanker and its five nationals aboard. There is speculation the Iranian seizure had more to do with $7bn in Iranian cash held in South Korean banks, which is restricted by US sanctions. The Iranian government went so far as to accuse South Korea for holding the money “hostage”.  South Korea has sent additional forces to the Strait of Hormuz – a destroyer carrying members of the country’s anti-piracy unit.

Reuters reports that a South Korean delegation is headed to Iran today to seek the release of its oil tanker and its 20-member crew.

The Independent reports that Iran has issued an Interpol arrest warrant for US President Donald Trump and 47 US officials over the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. A spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is very seriously following up on pursuing and punishing those who ordered and executed this crime.” Interpol previously rejected a similar warrant in July last year.

Reuters reports that the US has imposed fresh sanctions on Iran targeting 12 steel and metal makers, including a Chinese company and three foreign-based sales agents. US Tresury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement: “The Trump Administration remains committed to denying revenue flowing to the Iranian regime as it continues to sponsor terrorist groups, support oppressive regimes, and seek weapons of mass destruction.”

Josef Federman writes for The Associated Press about how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has placed his world-leading vaccination drive at the centre of his re-election campaign — launching an aggressive media blitz portraying him as almost singlehandedly leading the country out of the pandemic. He appears to be betting that a successful vaccination effort can persuade voters to forget about his corruption trial and the economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.”

All the Israeli media focus on the government decision to implement a tighter lockdown starting midnight on Thursday. The lockdown will last at least two weeks and it will include the school system. On Kan News Health Minister Edelstein warned that Israel is in the midst of a terrible outbreak, double the country’s rate of infection on the eve of the second lockdown in September. Therefore, he said that a total lockdown is necessary for at least two weeks. Edelstein said the British mutation of the coronavirus was largely responsible for the renewed spike in infection rates and he stated that he hoped that the police enforce the lockdown in all sectors. Edelstein also said that nearly 1.5 million people have been vaccinated, including more than 55 percent of individuals in high-risk categories. Edelstein said that the vaccination drive would resume when a sufficient quantity of vaccines produced by the Moderna company arrives in Israel to inoculate people with both doses. According to the Health Ministry  there are over 8,000 new daily coronavirus cases for a second day in a row.  Yesterday 8,164 people tested positive, after 121,816 tests had been conducted, placing the contagion rate at 6.8 per cent. 824 patients are in serious condition, with 207 connected to ventilators. The official death toll since the start of the pandemic now stands at 3,495. In the first five days of January, 139 coronavirus patients had passed away. Maariv reports that Health Ministry officials recommended closing the school system without any exceptions, restricting workplace attendance to essential workers and a ban on leaving one’s place of residence for non-essential purposes (such as buying food or medicine). These exceptions will be limited to one’s city or town or residence. The one-kilometre limit on leaving one’s home will remain in place. Restaurants will continue to offer delivery service only. The ban on visiting other people’s homes will remain in place and an additional reduction will be made in the number of people allowed to gather in public places: Five people in closed spaces (down from the current limit of 10; 10 in open spaces (down from the current limit of 20).

Israel Hayom reports on an attempted terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction southwest of Jerusalem was thwarted  yesterday when a knife-wielding assailant was shot dead by a civilian at the scene, according to the Israeli military. No other casualties were reported.

In political news, Maariv highlights Blue and White Minister of Social Equality, Meirav Cohen joining Yesh Atid, where she is expected to feature in a high position on the list. At a press conference last night Cohen said, “I decided to go into politics to turn Israel into a place where people can grow old with pride, a place where the elderly, Holocaust survivors and the weakest in society get fair and respectful treatment. I decided to go into politics to make Israel a fairer country. I wake up every morning to help people. But you can’t really help, you can’t give people a functioning government which will focus on the major challenges before us when you have a prime minister who chooses to drag the country to elections time and again and is driven by personal interests.  When you’re navigating and lose your way, you need to go back to the last point where you knew you were on the right path. For me, that point was the unity with Yesh Atid. Thank you to Yair Lapid who opened his door and his heart to me. Together, we’ll bring about the change this country needs.” Meirav is 37, an economist by training. She was one of the founders of the ‘Hitorerut’ (Wake-up) movement in Jerusalem. She focused her work on the weakest in society and she has been a campaigner for the elderly and for equality for women in employment.

Haaretz covers Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who leads the newly formed Israelis Party, announcing that four women have joined his party. “We aspire to have 50 percent women on our Knesset slate and in professional positions,” Huldai said at a press conference. The four new members are information scientist Prof. Karine Nahon, educator Karen Tal, Adi Tzabari, who serves as the general director of Tel Aviv’s municipal education and culture company, and former Blue and White MK Einav Kabla. Ynet reports that Minister Rafi Peretz, the leader of Jewish Home announced that he will not run for Knesset in the upcoming elections and that he is quitting political life. Peretz, 64, also announced he is stepping down as the party leader and will not run in its upcoming primaries.

Haaretz also reports that New Hope and Yamina parties have signed a surplus-votes agreement ahead of the election. The move could leave the Likud without anyone to sign such an agreement, as Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu made a similar deal. The paper explains, “After all the votes are counted, and the votes for parties that didn’t cross the electoral threshold are filtered out, all the remaining valid votes are divided by 120. This gives what’s called the per-seat index, which is how the number of Knesset seats each party gets is determined. That generally leaves each party with a remainder of votes. If two parties have a surplus-votes agreement, both parties’ surplus votes are combined. If there are enough excess votes to qualify for another seat, the larger party of the pair gets it. Such agreements are generally signed between parties that are ideologically close.” During the last five election campaigns, Yamina, Jewish Home or the Union of Right-Wing Parties had signed surplus-votes agreements with Likud.

Channel 12 News includes its latest poll. The Likud receives: 27 seats, New Hope: 18, Yamina: 14, Yesh Atid-Telem: 13, Joint List:10, Shas: 8, United Torah Judaism: 8, The Israelis: 6, Yisrael Beiteinu: 6, Blue and White: 5, Meretz:5.  Amit Segal explains this poll shows that the “Netanyahu bloc” will be unable to put together a governing coalition regardless of whether or not the Yamina Party joins. However, if Yamina were to join the “anti-Netanyahu bloc,” that group of parties would be able to form a coalition.

In the commentary, Sima Kadmon writes in Yediot Ahronot, “Two planets exist in parallel alongside one another. One planet is inhabited by the politicians, the people who are planning for an election in another two and a half months in an almost total disconnect from the existential issues. On that planet, the parties have been preoccupied with proudly showing off their new recruits, holding press conferences, issuing excited statements about their Knesset lists, and they have been focused on whether or not to hold a primary, surplus vote agreements, polls, commentary and so forth. It has been business as usual, far from the teeming multitudes and out of touch with public sentiment.  Meanwhile, the other planet has been ravaged by a terrifying pandemic and life has just about turned into science-fiction. On that planet, nine million people have been in the grip of existential anxiety on a daily basis, fearing for their physical and financial wellbeing, and the only things that they care about are whether there is going to be another lockdown or not, whether schools are going to be shut down or not, whether they’ll get to be vaccinated before the supply of vaccines runs out or not, and whether the mutation is impervious to the vaccine or not. Two planets, two parallel worlds, and not even a single leader who inspires confidence.”

Israel Hayom reports the governments of Israel and Greece are on the way to a “massive defence deal” after the Israeli Defence Ministry won a tender to build a training base for the Greek Air Force, to be executed by Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd. Elbit will also operate the base, to be known as the Flight Training Center, for a period of 20 years and deliver training aircraft fleets equipped with its avionics and embedded training solutions. Elbit will also supply the base with its flight simulators and training aids, as well as ongoing logistical support.  The Greek Air force will also acquire 10 Italian M-346 training aircraft, which the Israeli Air Force also uses to train cadet pilots.  The deal is worth a reported $1.68 billion.

Haaretz reports President-elect Joe Biden is set appoint Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, to serve as deputy secretary of state. Sherman previously served as under-secretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, and has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. “The administration has set Iran back on a path to perhaps working to obtain nuclear weapons, exactly what we stopped from happening,” Sherman said after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, calling the decision “one of the worst foreign policy blunders in US history.”