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US Official: Report on Israeli Spying 'Completely False'

By JTA and VOA News

A senior US administration official said on Thursday that the report in Politico on alleged Israeli spying in the White House is "completely false." The unidentified official told Los Angeles Times reporter Noga Tarnopolsky that the Politico story "is completely false. Absolutely false. I checked." The report said that an investigation by security forces in the United States has led to the suspicion that Israel is behind the placing of miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as "StingRays," in the vicinity of the White House. The devices in question mimic regular cell towers to fool cell phones into giving them their locations and identity information. According to Politico, they also can capture the contents of calls and data use. Based on forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom the report said served in top intelligence and national security posts. Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denied the Politico report as he landed in Sochi where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu said, "Lies. Complete nonsense. I have a clear directive - no intelligence collections in the US, and this directive is completely enforced." Politico reported that the cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, D.C., likely were planted by Israel, Politico reported. The article published online Thursday cited three unnamed former senior officials that Politico said have "knowledge of the matter." Unlike other times when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel's behavior, one of the former officials told Politico. The devices likely were intended to spy on President Donald Trump and his top aides, one of the officials said. Trump has often used an insufficiently secured cellphone to communicate with friends and confidants, Politico reported. "It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible," a former senior intelligence official told Politico. The sources said the FBI based its accusation of Israel on a detailed forensic analysis, involving other security agencies. Israeli Embassy spokesman Elad Strohmayer denied that Israel placed the devices. "These allegations are absolute nonsense," he said. "Israel doesn't conduct espionage operations in the United States, period." Efforts of foreign entities to spy on administration officials and other top political figures are fairly common. "The Israelis are pretty aggressive" in intelligence gathering, a former senior intelligence official told Politico. One former official told the news magazine that there were "suspicions" that Israel was listening, saying that Israeli officials had a level of detailed knowledge "that was hard to explain otherwise." One of the U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.S. spies on Israel, too. Politico described the anonymous sources as having "knowledge about the matter" and that the devices were discovered some time ago. Two years ago, an unknown number of the devices was found near potentially sensitive locations in Washington during a U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigative project. The U.S., however, has not taken action against Israel for allegedly planting the devices. The report suggested the U.S. has downplayed Israel's alleged actions due to the very close relationship Trump has with Netanyahu. The report was published just before Israel's general election next week that has Netanyahu locked in a close race for reelection. It also came in a week during which Trump appeared to distance himself from Netanyahu's unwavering stance on Iran by signaling a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. An unidentified Israeli official told Kan 11 News that "This is a blood libel in the style of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Christian Evangelicals Harvest Land in Settlements Israel Hopes to Annex

By Reuters

It's harvest time in vineyards atop the hills of Shilo settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But it's not Jewish settlers picking the grapes, it's evangelical Christians. They are volunteers for the devout U.S. evangelical group HaYovel which brings Christians to help Jewish farmers in settlements that Israel has built on land that Palestinians seek for a state. Evangelicals have been a core support base for President Donald Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land. The West Bank holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a Biblical homeland - and who call the territory by its Hebrew Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria. The founder of HaYovel, Tommy Waller, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Jeremiah, which reads: "Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel...Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria." But that land is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the heartland of what the Palestinians see as a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. For the Tennessee-born Waller, helping the Jewish settlers cultivate the land means taking part in the fulfillment of a prophecy. "As a Christian, as a person who believes in the Bible, it was an amazing thing to get to a place where my faith was touchable," Waller said. "We share a commonality between Christianity and Judaism and that's our Bible, our scripture," said Waller at a vineyard on the outskirts of Har Bracha, another settlement whose farmers his volunteers assist. Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes. Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, claim the West Bank is vital to Israel's security. Relinquishing it to the Palestinians could put large swaths of Israel under threat of terrorist attacks, they say. Palestinians say there can be no viable Palestinian state without it. In the run-up to Israel's election next Tuesday, Netanyahu has renewed his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins. It's a position that the politically powerful U.S. evangelicals have embraced. "Evangelicals believe Judea and Samaria is Bible land, because it is," said Mike Evans, the Texas-based founder of 'Friends of Zion Museum' which sits in Jerusalem. "Do we think giving up Judea and Samaria is going to bring peace? No way," said Evans, who is a member of Trump's Faith Initiative. The prospect of annexation has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear that Netanyahu is likely to have Trump's backing. "We are worried about losing our lands," said Izzat Qadous, a retired school teacher from the Palestinian village Irak Burin, across the way from Har Bracha. "The same way they have annexed Jerusalem, they want to annex the West Bank and soon we will hear of Trump acknowledging the annexation of the West Bank." About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to official Palestinian figures and more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there, according to the Israeli statistics bureau. Evangelical leaders lobbied Trump earlier in his presidency for his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018. "He (Trump) is rewarding moral clarity and I believe the Jewish people should be rewarded for moral clarity with recognizing more of their land," said Evans, referring to the West Bank. Trump's administration includes evangelicals at some top positions - his vice president Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in March said that "the Lord was at work here" in respect to Trump's Israel policies. Evangelical support for Israel goes back decades, with political lobbying, fundraising and organized tours to the Holy Land. But some see the ties growing far stronger under both Trump and Netanyahu. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the evangelical base "has been wielding unprecedented and enormous influence within the United States for the sake of the "fulfillment of the prophecy," thereby giving Israel a free hand to carry out its most hardline and destructive policies against the Palestinian people." Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Netanyahu began cultivating ties with evangelicals during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s. "The Prime Minister has a keen sense of trendlines in the U.S.," said Gold. That effort may have paid off. "Benjamin Netanyahu among the evangelicals of the world is a rock star," Evans said. Critics, however, say Netanyahu has alienated many liberal American Jews by embracing Christian conservatives. Even in Israel's settlements, the evangelicals are sometimes greeted with suspicion. Some Israelis there fear that the Christians may have a missionary agenda - seeking to convert them. Evans said his mission in life is to defend the Jewish people. Others are nervous about some evangelical readings of the scriptures in which the Jews' return to the Biblical land is instrumental in bringing about the end of the world, at which point those who do not accept Jesus will not be saved. "These people are pursuing God like we're pursuing God," said Waller. "Obviously we have our own messianic belief, but those are future things, in the kingdom to come." On the other hand, some settlers see the evangelicals as helping them out in fulfilling their own vision. Nir Lavi, the owner of Har Bracha winery, says Hayovel's contribution to his business has been more than financial. "We are grateful," said Lavi. "It's a totally different phase of our own journey - the Jewish people's redemption in their land."

Israel Needs to be Ready for Terrorist `Dirty' Cyber Bomb

By the Jerusalem Post

The West and Israel must take necessary precautions to prevent terrorists from launching a "dirty" cyber bomb, Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Vincent Stewart, who stepped down a few months ago from his post as deputy head of the US Cyber Command, told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. Stewart, who also ran the US Defense Intelligence Agency, spoke to the Post on the sidelines of this week's ICT-IDC Herzliya counter-terror conference in his first interview with any media outlet since leaving the Pentagon. He said that while the West took cyber attacks from nation-states seriously, it is vastly underestimating the danger of a massive ISIS or al-Qaeda cyber attack which could cripple a country's entire infrastructure. Unlike nation states, he noted, terrorist groups are not deterred by the threat of a counter-strike. Stewart recounted that until 9/11, no one conceived that hijacked airplanes could be used by terrorists to destroy buildings. Even as Western governments now take cyber attacks seriously from countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, Stewart said that they are ill-prepared for a sophisticated attack from a terrorist group, which could "have the same effects as a `dirty' [nuclear] bomb." If large swaths of the US, Israel or another country "lose power for an extended period of time, it is not just about the inconvenience of losing power… Think about the impact on hospitals and refrigerated medicines." When a variety of medicines go bad, "how long will it be until there are serious health issues" in a widespread manner? While drawing attention to cyber terrorism, Stewart acknowledged that a nation state like Russia was still the most dangerous cyber adversary with "Russia viewing itself as a global power" and Russian President Vladimir "Putin believing he is almost the czar."

High Costs Mean Many Israelis Live Beyond Their Means

Israelis have on average a negative checking account balance of over $7,000, with some choosing to take out a loan repeatedly to cover the negative balance until the next paycheck. Half of all adult Israelis have good credit scores, on paper. But that does not mean they are managing to keep their head above water financially, according to a sampling of 50,000 users of credit rating app Captain Credit, which is operated by the Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and relies on the credit card database of the Bank of Israel. It is important to note that most credit cards issued in Israel are what is known in the rest of the world as charge cards or deferred debit cards, where the card holder's bank account is charged occurs once a month. Until the Bank of Israel's database went live five months ago with the aim of increasing transparency in the industry, obtaining a clear picture of Israel's consumer credit market was a difficult endeavor. While it was known that loan taking has become more commonplace over the past decade, exact data was unavailable, and many financial bodies downplayed it by stating Israel's domestic credit-to-GDP was still quite low relative to many OECD countries. The database, which can only be accessed by specific entities, contains financial data on around 5 million Israelis, including information about their loans—which currently stand at over NIS 150 billion (approximately $42.46 billion) combined. Dun & Bradstreet's sampling reveals a complex picture. While 50% of Israelis had what was considered good financial management skills, many displayed behaviors that led to their bank account being permanently overdrawn. "We saw quite a few cases where people take out a loan to catch up with their negative account balance, but very quickly reach that situation again and take out another loan," Moshe Yadgar, Captain Credit's CEO, said in a recent interview. Based on the sampling, 5% of Israelis are paying off at least five loans concurrently, he said. Another indication of problematic financial behavior is that 7.5% of the people sampled had at least five credit cards, which they used to bypass their credit limit, Yadgar said. It should be noted that Israel is among the most expensive countries in the OECD, with food prices 19% higher than the OECD average, out-of-pocket preschool spending the most expensive of all OECD countries, and people spending on average 25% of their gross adjusted disposable income on rent. Outside of Israel's very lucrative but small tech sector, it is low-wage jobs that drive employment in Israel. Tel Aviv, the country's tech capital and cultural center, has consistently been ranked among the most expensive cities in the world in terms of cost of living and setting aside real estate prices, costs are not much different in the rest of the country. According to the data, Israelis have on average a negative checking account balance of NIS 25,000 (approximately $7,090). While many choose to take out a loan to cover the negative balance until the next paycheck as the overdraft interest is usually higher than the loan interest, it is often a slippery slope. The data also shows that 10% of people take out a loan in order to purchase a car, while only 0.8% take out a loan to finance higher education, as public universities are government-subsidized in Israel and cost around NIS 10,000 (approximately $2,800) a year for a bachelor's degree and NIS 13,000 (approximately $3,700) a year for a master's degree. Israeli banks have imposed stricter consumer credit terms in recent years after seeing an increase in unrepaid loans. Estimates are that clients with a credit rating below 500, which make up 15%-20% of the Israeli public, will face difficulty in obtaining loans from the banks and will have to turn to non-bank lenders who typically impose higher interest rates.

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