News Digest — 1/21/21

U.S. Ambassador To Israel Bids Farewell With Trip To Western Wall

David Friedman completed his tenure Wednesday evening (20th) with a visit to the Western  Wall at Jerusalem’s Old City.

He was greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, Jerusalem Mayor, Moshe Lion and Mordechai Eliav, Director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

Eliav presented Friedman with the most recent archaeological findings from the Western Wall Tunnels.

Friedman came full circle, as when he began his role as ambassador, in May of 2017, his first act was to pray at the Western Wall.

During his time visiting the holy site, Friedman recited a psalm of thanks in front of the Western Wall stones, and spoke of the importance of Israel to him, particularly Jerusalem, in addition to his accomplishments while serving as ambassador.

He also said his goodbyes on Twitter, writing a farewell tweet: “I’m ending my diplomatic mission the way I started it – at the Western Wall – praying for my family & for the United States, Israel and their unbreakable bond.”



Israel’s Message To New U.S. Administration: No Removal Of Iranian Sanctions Without A New Nuclear Deal

In the past few weeks, officials in Israel have been preparing for the sweeping policy changes expected with the start of the Biden administration, the top priority issue being the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.  Jerusalem is very concerned by statements from the new U.S. administration that it intends to rejoin the 2015 deal, from which Biden’s predecessor withdrew in 2018.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated publicly a number of times that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to rejoin the 2015 deal.  Israel Hayom has learned that Netanyahu has underscored his position in closed-door talks, in which he said that the new U.S. administration must refrain from lifting the harsh economic sanctions currently in place on Tehran until Iran agrees to significant changes to the original joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement.

Last month, Israel Hayom reported that some of Biden’s people are of the opinion that prior to the U.S. lifting its sanctions against Iran, agreements must be reached on changes to the deal.  However, other senior staffers say that to stop Iran’s recent regional provocations – including stepping up its uranium enrichment to 20% — the U.S. must first re-adopt the original deal and reopen negotiations between Iran and the world powers, to be led by the U.S. for a “stronger, more long-term “ nuclear deal. 

Israel categorically rejects the second approach.  Netanyahu and other senior officials are convinced that the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA in its original format would be a huge prize for the Iranians, who would give nothing in return but would enjoy an influx of cash into their shattered economy.

“Past experience teaches us that Iran doesn’t use this money to benefit its people, or fight COVID, but to spread terrorism and regional aggression,” a high-ranking Israeli official told Israel Hayom.

New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the new administration would consult with Israel before deciding on a policy toward Iran.

Blinken told the Senate that the U.S. was seeking a long-term Iran deal that would remain in place, and would consult with its “allies” in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf States, before beginning any discussion of a return to the nuclear deal.



Iran Launches Huge Military Exercise

Iran launched a major military exercise Tuesday (19th) on its southern coast with a top general delivering subtle threats against the U.S. presence in the area, saying the goals of the maneuvers include testing Iran’s ability against “enemy naval targets.”

The multi-day exercise was under the command of Army Chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi and ground Forces’ Commander Brigadier General Kioumars Heydar, who told Iran’s Fars News Agency that the “infiltration operations on the surface and subsurface and the moving towards enemy naval targets are among other programs of the maneuvers.

The U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet patrols the international waters off Iran, and the Iranians at one point built a mockup of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that it used in war games last July to simulate an attack on American ships.

In 2019, Mousavi threatened that Iran would destroy Israel and overthrow the United States.

“Everyone will witness the demise of the Zionist regime.  That day is not far away,” Mousavi said at the time in comments reported by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.  “The resistance front will overthrow America and the imperialist regime,” he added, with “resistance front,” referring to Iran’s allies and proxy militias around the world.

The major military drill was launched a day before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden, who promised to bring the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear deal that President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2019 while reimposing harsh economic sanctions on Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly urged America to keep up the pressure on Iran, telling visiting U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this month, that America must “prevent Iran from continuing its campaign of aggression and terror throughout the region” and prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“If we just go back to the JCPOA, what will happen, and may already be happening is that many other countries in the Middle East will rush to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.  That is a nightmare and that is folly.  It should not happen,” Netanyahu said.



Scientists: COVID-19 South African Variant Defeats Plasma Treatment

The new COVID-19 variant, identified in South Africa can evade the antibodies that attack it in treatments using blood plasma from previously recovered patients, and may reduce the efficacy of the current line of vaccines, scientists said on Wednesday (20th).

Researchers are racing to establish whether the vaccines currently being rolled out across the globe are effective against the so-called 501Y.V2 variant, identified by South African genomics experts late last year in Nelson Mandela Bay.

“This lineage exhibits complete escape from three classes of therapeutically relevant monoclonal antibodies,” the team of scientists from three South African universities working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) wrote in a paper published in the bioRxiv journal.

“Furthermore, 501Y.V2 shows substantial or complete escape from neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” they wrote, adding that their conclusions “highlight the prospect of reinfection…and may foreshadow reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines.”

The 501Y.V2 variant is 50% more infectious than previous ones, South African researchers said this week.  It has already spread to at least 20 countries since being reported to the World Health Organization in late December.

It is one of several new variants discovered in recent months, including others first found in England and Brazil.

British scientists and politicians have expressed concern that vaccines currently being deployed or in development could be less effective against this variant.  They said there may be a need for new vaccines to be designed to tackle this evolving threat.



1500-Year-Old ‘Christ Born Of Mary’ Inscription Found

A Greek inscription, “Christ born to Mary” was discovered during Israel Antiquities Authority excavations in the village of et-Taiyiba in the Jezreel Valley.

Engraved in stone, the inscription comes from the frame of an entrance door of what appears to be a church dating from the Byzantine period (late fifth century CE).

According to Leah Di-Segni, a researcher at the Institute of Archeology of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this dedicatory inscription would have been engraved while casting the foundations of the church.

The full text she deciphered reads, “Christ born of Mary.  This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation … .  Whoever enters should pray for them.”

“The inscription greets those who enter and blesses them,” Di-Segni said.

Theodosius, whom the text refers to as the building’s founder, was one of the first Christian bishops.  He served as the regional archbishop – the religious authority of the metropolis of Bet She’an, to which et-Taiyiba belonged.

The inscription was uncovered in an archaeological excavation directed by Tzachi Lang and Kojan Haku of the Israel Antiquities Authority prior to the construction of a road inside the village.  Participants in the dig included students, volunteers, and workers from the local community.