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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The White House called it historic. Top Israeli and Palestinian officials held a rare meeting yesterday and agreed on a plan to cool tensions, but then chaos.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The killing of two Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank prompted hundreds of Israelis to go on a violent rampage, setting fire to dozens of Palestinian homes and cars. A Palestinian man was killed.

MARTÍNEZ: Let's get the latest from NPR's Daniel Estrin. He's in Jerusalem. Daniel, how did things devolve so quickly, considering there was an agreement to cool things down?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's a question of unraveling control on the ground. We have the extreme elements of Israel's right-wing government dictating harsher policies toward Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, officials are losing their ability and their will to clamp down on rogue gunmen. And we have seen especially bloody violence in the last few weeks. That is the context. So the goal of yesterday's talks in Jordan, which the U.S. orchestrated, was to calm things down, especially before April, when Ramadan and Passover coincide. That is a time when tensions tend to escalate.

Palestinian officials agreed to work with Israel to maintain law and order in the West Bank. And Israel agreed in writing to this four to six-month freeze on any new decisions on settlements in the West Bank. But then some senior far-right members of Israel's government took the reins and said, we are not freezing any settlement activity. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is walking it back. And now, as we see, events on the ground are overtaking everything.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And then things got really ugly yesterday.

ESTRIN: They did. During these talks in Jordan, a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank killed two young Israeli men in their early 20s - they were West Bank settlers, they were in their car - just underscoring the idea that the Palestinian Authority is being asked to rein in these gunmen. After the talks ended, Israeli settlers went on a rampage, the likes of which we have never seen, hundreds of settlers. Some of them were armed, some shooting.

They torched dozens of Palestinian homes and cars. They destroyed large swaths of a village nearby. These fires were enormous. Medics say some Palestinians were injured, one Palestinian shot and killed. And his brother told us he just got back a few days ago from Turkey, where he was volunteering with earthquake relief efforts. An Israeli military official told me, yes, the army failed to stop this. Israel has arrested eight settlers connected to those violent riots, released most of them.

MARTÍNEZ: And then there's ongoing political turmoil within Israel. What's the latest there?

ESTRIN: That's right. The government is bent on passing legislation, a judicial overhaul, to weaken the independence of the courts. There have been massive protests we saw this weekend and other weekends. There are calls for a national strike this coming Wednesday. We're seeing some Israelis starting to pull their money out of Israel, fearing a hit to the very strong economy here. The government so far is determined to carry out this plan. And we'll have to see if the recent West Bank violence derails that process.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: California is getting historic amounts of rain and snow this winter.

FADEL: Parts of Southern California were turned into a winter wonderland over the weekend after a winter storm dumped several feet of snow. In addition to the snowfall in higher elevations, the storm also brought several inches of rain to the area. And there's more wet weather in store this week. But the state remains under a drought emergency.

MARTÍNEZ: Hayley Smith covers drought and climate change for the LA Times. Hayley, I took one look outside this weekend and decided to stay in and watch my wife bake bread. So tell us about the conditions and its impact on all the residents here in LA.

HAYLEY SMITH: Sure. And thanks for having me. So this was a low-pressure system that started in the Gulf of Alaska and kind of slowly carved a path down through California. And I would say it was somewhat of a novel storm in Northern California, but it was a historic storm here in Southern California. And that's for a few reasons. One, we saw a lot of record-setting precipitation, including really high rain rates. The weather station at the Burbank Airport measured 4.6 inches of rain on Friday, which wasn't just a record for the day, but it was actually its fifth-wettest day ever.

But even more than the rain, what made this storm so historic was the snow. We were seeing snow at elevations as low as 1,500 or even a thousand feet, which is exceptionally low. For reference, the Hollywood sign is at an elevation of about 1,500 feet. And there were flurries there. And some people even made snowballs. The downside of all that is that hundreds of thousands of people are still without power. We've seen downed trees, rockslides, debris flows, a number of dangerous water rescues. So the storm did do some damage.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. If you live in Burbank, you know how odd it is to see snow on the Verdugo hills. It was there all weekend. It was a shock to see. Now, drought, though, here's the thing. California has been in a drought seemingly forever. So how much of an impact is all of this doing on that?

SMITH: That is definitely a question on everyone's mind, especially as millions of us are still under drought restrictions. That's got watering limitations and conservation orders. So I would say that from a surface water perspective, this storm and the series of storms that we saw earlier this year in January definitely made a difference. Our reservoirs are notably fuller, and we've had record snowpack. We're at 173% of normal snowpack statewide right now.

However - and this is a big however - California's water supply does not only come from surface water. Groundwater didn't really benefit much from these storms, and neither did the Colorado River, which is a huge part of southern California's water supply. So at this point, most experts and officials are saying it would still be premature to declare the drought over. But we are in much better shape than we were two months ago.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, more rain and snow is in the forecast for this week. I saw a lot of people stuck in flooding on the streets of LA and other parts of California, too. So what should Californians prepare for?

SMITH: Yeah. We had a little bit of a lull on Sunday. But we are expecting another system of storms to come in in the next couple of days. It should be weaker than what we saw this past week. But we still would advise people, prepare for potential power outages and the hazards that I mentioned earlier and, of course, you know, not drive in standing water. Learn how to turn on your windshield wipers and probably avoid mountain passes that are still stuck and snowed out.

MARTÍNEZ: Hayley Smith covers drought and climate change for the LA Times. Hayley, thanks.

SMITH: Thanks so much.

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MARTÍNEZ: Chicago voters are heading to the polls tomorrow to decide if the city's current mayor should serve another term.

FADEL: Yeah, Lori Lightfoot made history four years ago as the first openly gay and first Black woman to lead the country's third-largest city. Now she faces a stiff reelection battle and could be the first mayor in decades to not get a second term.

MARTÍNEZ: WBEZ's government and politics reporter Mariah Woelfel has been covering the race. Mariah, she made history four years ago when she was elected. She beat out - what? - more than a dozen people. But now she is facing a lot of challengers. Considering that, typically, the city's incumbent mayor wins reelection, why is so many people after her job?

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: Right. Well, like many other big-city mayors, Lightfoot faced a really unprecedented set of challenges in her first four years in office - elected in 2019, soon after hit with a global pandemic. She was elected as a political outsider, as a reformer who was going to put an end to long-standing political corruption in Chicago. When submitting her paperwork to run this time, she joked that she'd give this note of caution to her 2019 self.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Beware of a global pandemic.

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WOELFEL: Her term has been marked by pandemic-era challenges, you know, public disputes with the teachers' union over when to send kids back to school, with police over vaccine mandates. But I think most of all, people are lining up to replace her because she's dealt with an increase in crime that, you know, many cities across the country have grappled with that her opponents say they can do a better job of fixing.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Chicago is a big city, third-largest city, but largely a segregated one, too. There's a mix, though, of Black, Latino and white candidates. How is race playing a role in this election?

WOELFEL: Sure. The main point here is that there are seven Black candidates, one white, one Latino in the race. So some strategists fear that the Black community's vote, who want to see someone in office who will represent that community's issues - of course, those issues are diverse, but that that vote will be split among those seven candidates, leading to, you know, two others who might not have broad support getting into what's to be a likely runoff election. There's also one - only one white candidate, like I said, Paul Vallas. And he's just one of two candidates running to the right of Lightfoot politically. He's a Democrat, but more conservative than her as a Democrat. And he has a very clear and uncrowded lane with a tough-on-crime message. Delmarie Cobb is a veteran political strategist and said that's a factor in his frontrunner status this time.

DELMARIE COBB: The racial part of this is that whites will galvanize around Paul Vallas. And we've already seen that the wealthy Republican establishment is pouring money into his campaign right and left.

WOELFEL: Racial politics has a long history here in Chicago. And it's been on full display this election, too.

MARTÍNEZ: And we've talked about how Lightfoot is a first for the city. But if she does not win the race, she would join the city's only other female mayor - and that's Jane Byrne in the '80s - in not winning a reelection bid. Has being a female mayor been at all a factor for her so far?

WOELFEL: Well, I think Lightfoot would say absolutely, yes. It's been a hurdle for her reelection fight. She started this campaign saying to a crowd of people at a bakery on Chicago's South Side that she's a Black woman in America. People are betting against her every day. But that doesn't mean she's not ready for a fight. She's certainly had some major accomplishments, maybe some she hasn't gotten enough credit for. But she also has some very real things to answer for. She's reneged on a lot of progressive campaign promises that people are upset about - to reform the police in a more meaningful way, create a department of environment to prioritize ending environmental racism in the city, pushing for an elected school board, things that voters want to see her take on in a more meaningful way.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Mariah Woelfel, political reporter with member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks a lot.

WOELFEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.