European Council: No federal Europe this winter
13 December 2012
The last EU summit of the year will not take the path of economic and monetary union closer. The fault lies with Berlin and Paris, who have agreed to bury the roadmap which was presented to them by Herman Van Rompuy. The debate on the future of the Union has been kicked into the long grass to return in 2014, after the German and European elections.
François Hollande and Angela Merkel are doing a stark disservice to the European Union. The Franco-German duo, for once in agreement, yesterday decided to bury a strategic debate on the future of Europe. It’s a debate that has been delayed, confuscated or even prohibited.
Before the meeting, the 27 EU countries had committed to adopting a "roadmap" policy before the end of the year. This was to set out the milestones of an “intégration solidaire” (united integration), to use a cryptic utterance dear to French President Holland. What financial solidarity? What common budgetary capacity? What democratic oversight?
It was not about wrapping up every issue, or engaging in an irresponsible headlong rush, but about setting in motion all the institutions of the Union, and, above all, about opening up a major and open debate. For at least two reasons: the survival of the eurozone is at stake, and the 27 member states have not averted the disaster by deciding, at each one of the numerous “last chance” summits, on another move forward regarding financial solidarity amongst themselves.
However, this sideways shift – and this is the second reason – was done under pressure from the markets, without any political vision, and, above all, out of the public view.
Disagreeing about the contours of a new European federalism, the French and the Germans prefer to take the stance of the ostrich.
Angela Merkel is entering an election period and wants to avoid the slightest risk, while François Hollande fears nothing more than reopening old wounds in his majority government. End of story.
But this petty politics is based on risky assumptions – as if the crisis were finally behind us, and that the peoples of Europe would settle for a short-sighted austerity.
View from Lisbon and Rome: A decisive summit - another one
“Today and tomorrow, the European Council will discuss a roadmap for the reform and completion of the Economic and Monetary Union, which will play a decisive role in overcoming the eurozone crisis,” writes Maria João Rodrigues in Público. The EU affairs specialist and former politician continues –
after three years of inadequate measures that allowed the crisis to spread, major proposals have at last been tabled for discussions, in which Portugal will have to play an active role to ensure that the decision making process is not dominated by an intergovernmental logic favouring the most powerful countries. The equality of Europe’s member states and citizens, which has been significantly undermined in recent times, can only be served by the community method, which is based on the European Commission’s right of initiative and an active role for the European parliament.
“The final summit of a difficult year for the EU will be marked by an atmosphere fraught with worry and alarming uncertainty over just about everything relating to Europe – its future, its identity, its integration process and its federal dream,” writes Enzo Bettiza in La Stampa. For the Italian columnist –
the summit on December 13 and 14 will be fragmented into 48 hours of secretive corridor encounters and discreet bilateral meetings. Now that they have avoided the stumbling block of Greece and temporarily frozen the Spanish deficit, the French and the Germans who are the main protagonists at the summit will get to grips with the two major threats to the cohesion of the EU, that is to say the political turmoil in Italy and the drift towards Euroscepticism in an anti-bureaucratic United Kingdom, behind the closed doors of private diplomatic dinners.
12/13/2012 06:06 PM
Hollande's World: French in Denial as Crisis Deepens
By Romain Leick
In the midst of the economic crisis, France's Socialists are denying reality. The minister of industrial renewal is calling for nationalization of some industries, while the president shies away from necessary structural reforms. Business leaders fear the clock has been turned back 30 years.
The minister compares his office with a position on the battlefield, one that you only leave as a fallen soldier -- or when the last bullet has been shot.
Arnaud Montebourg, the French minister of industrial renewal, carries his head high. In his mind, politics is a combat sport. A shiny, decorative sword hangs on the wall behind him in his office on the third floor of the enormous Ministry of the Economy, Finances and Industry in Paris. The 50-year-old combative politician tends to rush headlong into battle, but he is often left with no choice but to carry out the maneuver he despises the most: retreat.
That was the case last weekend, after Montebourg had become locked in a spectacular wrestling match with the steel giant ArcelorMittal, which employs 20,000 people at 150 sites in France. In Florange, north of the city of Metz, which sits near the borders with Germany and Luxembourg, the company planned to permanently shut down two blast furnaces and lay off 630 workers.
The industrial site, in the economically depressed Lorraine region, has long been unprofitable, and ArcelorMittal suffers from overcapacity. The plant closing probably wouldn't have attracted much attention, but Montebourg, who sees the preservation of industrial jobs as his primary goal, needed a success -- and forgot the principle of proportionality.
Instead, he brought out the biggest gun in the Socialist government's arsenal, and threatened the company with the temporary nationalization of the Florange site, and declared its main shareholder and CEO, Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, to be a persona non grata because he doesn't respect France. Mittal was shocked and requested a meeting with French President François Hollande. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was forced to recognize that Montebourg had set a fuse which, if lit, could cause the government to explode.
Good Versus Evil
France's business leaders felt as if they had been set back 30 years, to a time when the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, began his term with a wave of nationalizations and, after two years, was forced to reverse his policy. Some even drew a comparison with 1945, when the government nationalized automaker Renault after accusing it of having collaborated with the enemy. Wasn't Montebourg, who had always been an eloquent preacher of deglobalization, dividing business owners into different camps, good and evil, patriotic and unpatriotic?
"Has the government forgotten that nationalization means expropriation?" asked Laurence Parisot, the appalled head of MEDEF, the employers' union.
The liberal economist Nicolas Baverez, who predicted "France's downfall" 10 years ago and has just written a book titled "Réveillez-Vous" ("Wake Up"), saw the wrangling over Florange as proof that the French left still hasn't accepted globalization, and acts as if the country were an economic and cultural preserve. "The idea of nationalization sends an ominous message to all investors," Baverez said.
Even Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici carefully distanced himself from Montebourg, saying: "Our policy differs from the past experiences of leftists in power."
But the workers at the Florange site and their unions were thrilled with Montebourg's threat. According to a snap poll, a majority of the French people and, in particular, leftist voters, appreciate such showdowns with the patrons, or business owners. It's no accident that France's young people see working in the public sector as the ideal professional career. The government promises protection and security.
'Culture of Equality'
France is characterized by a "culture of equality," not one of competition, says historian Emmanuel Todd, noting that this is a legacy of the French Revolution. It seems only logical that Montebourg is sometimes compared with Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the Jacobin executioner who denounced others in the name of the people.
But Hollande and Ayrault realized that this time the minister was probably on the wrong track. The prime minister withdrew the threat to nationalize Florange, and in return ArcelorMittal agreed to avoid layoffs at the site, although the two blast furnaces will remain shut down.
The drama over a few hundred jobs would probably be little more than an odd political comedy if it didn't highlight France's current situation and the president's dilemma. Hollande knows that he has to break open fossilized habits and structures, even though the society, like the Socialists, is stuck in its old way of thinking. He is also aware that one reason he was elected to succeed the high-strung and confrontational Nicolas Sarkozy was so that he could reassure the French, not stir them up and frighten them.
Hollande's efforts to reassure people are evident in his rhetoric. When Louis Gallois, the former head of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), wrote a government-commissioned report, in which he called for electroshocks to improve French competitiveness, Hollande turned it into a "pact."
Instead of referring to structural reforms, he uses the seemingly harmless word "change." And when companies complain about the lack of "flexibility" in the French labor market, Hollande promises more "malleability."
The shift from the class struggle to a German-style social democracy, which is still something akin to heresy for the French left, amounts to a "Copernican revolution," says Finance Minister Moscovici. As if it weren't self-evident, he constantly tells his fellow party members and his voters: "Being leftist doesn't just mean distributing; it also means producing. Being leftist doesn't just mean supporting purchasing power, but also strengthening supply. And being leftist also means knowing that there is no reform policy without social dialogue."
The country, which derives its national identity from the Revolution, lacks this culture of compromise and consensus, which is why France often sees chaotic and violent outbursts of protest for relatively minor reasons. The unions don't go on strike when negotiations with employers have failed, but before they have even begun -- a questionable approach to impressing one's opponent.
The 'Party of Fear'
France is worried, France is beset by doubts and France is depressed, says writer Jean d'Ormesson, a member of the Académie Française. The philosopher Pascal Bruckner confirms his diagnosis: "France's biggest party is the party of fear. The French are afraid of the world, afraid of others and, most of all, afraid of their own fear."
This leads them to turn a blind eye to reality. They feel vindicated in their repression of reality by the crowds of tourists in the country, who value France precisely because of the museum-like quality of its savoir vivre.
President Hollande, a cautious tactician by nature who prefers to bypass obstacles rather than to jump over them, initially believed that he could take his time with the introduction of important reforms. One of the reasons he chose Ayrault to head his government was because of Ayrault's complacent approach. Together, Hollande and Ayrault allowed half a year to pass without embarking on any significant reforms. It was lost time, former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, the éminence grise of the Socialists, said recently.
A Plethora of Public Servants
Even former EADS chief Gallois, an advocate of the rapid restoration of French competitiveness, had to admit that a program like Germany's Agenda 2010 package of reforms would not be accepted in France. Nevertheless, he did not mince words in his report on the state of the French economy, noting that industry's share of economic output has declined from 18 percent in 2000 to 12.5 percent today. This puts France in 15th place among the 17 countries in the euro zone, and significantly behind Italy. The country's industrial sector has lost 2 million jobs since the Mitterand era. In 2011, France had a trade deficit of €71.2 billion ($93.1 billion), compared with a surplus of €3.5 billion in 2002. At the same time, the national debt has grown to 90 percent of the gross domestic product.
"Whenever a new problem popped up in the last 25 years, our country reacted by increasing spending," says banker Michel Pébereau.
Public sector spending now accounts for almost 57 percent of GDP, more than in Sweden or Germany. For every 1,000 residents, there are 90 public servants (compared with only about 50 in Germany). The public sector employs 22 percent of all workers.
La douce France is a sleepy country of bureaucrats and government officials who want their peace and quiet. But the bad news is beginning to pile up for Hollande.
Montebourg's agitation can be partially explained by the fact that since the Socialists came to power, the country has added another 150,000 unemployed, bringing the national unemployment rate to 10.7 percent. Some 45,000 people were added to the unemployment rolls in October alone. Instead of straightening up industry, Montebourg is preoccupied with fighting redundancy programs.
Only now has the government brought itself to grant companies €20 billion in tax relief to reduce labor costs. But it was a somewhat half-hearted step. Gallois considered €30 to €50 billion necessary. Last week, the government was confronted with another disastrous report, this time on the situation facing France's young people, who have been especially hard-hit by poverty and unemployment.
Sociologist Olivier Galland, who headed the study, detects a feeling of bitterness and abandonment among 16- to 25-year-olds. "All of the elements are in place that could trigger yet another explosion," like the one in the late fall of 2005, when there was rioting in the outskirts of major French cities.
"The system won't survive if we don't change," says Gérard Dussillol, a French expert on finance who works for a Franco-Belgian think-tank. He believes that "France, as a domino, can shake the entire system of the euro zone."
Karl Lagerfeld's 'Spa Tax'
Even fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld no longer has anything good to say about his adopted country, where he claims to pay €2 million in annual taxes, which he calls "a sort of spa tax to the French state." French politics, with its symbolic tax on the rich, has become "grotesque," says Lagerfeld, while the French have "sterilized themselves intellectually." The only thing that still works in the country is fashion, he said in an interview in Berlin.
There are many indications that time is running out for Hollande, that Prime Minister Ayrault's days could already be numbered, and that the valiant knight Montebourg, who had initially aspired to be Ayrault's successor, is more likely waging a tragic battle against the windmills of globalization.
A recent issue of the magazine supplement to the daily newspaper Le Parisien, showed Montebourg photographed wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt made by the Breton clothing manufacturer Armor Lux, holding up a "made-in-France" Moulinex mixer. It was an emblem of the old France, at a time when there was no globalization and the world was still all right.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
12/13/2012 05:11 PM
The Ugly German Rears Its Head: Why Germany Can't Shed Its Troubling Past
An Essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit
The 2006 World Cup in Germany seemed like a fairy tale come true for the country. Suddenly, years of troubling history seemed to lift amidst euphoria over the cosmopolitan twist fate had brought to the country. But this year, amid fresh debates over xenophobia, many are left wondering if the ugly German is back.
How splendid we were in 2006. The world liked us, even loved us, because we were so good at exuberantly letting our hair down. The Germans danced to celebrate the football World Cup they were hosting, and almost everyone was pleased to join the party. Sixty years after World War II and the Holocaust, the nation of perpetrators seemed to have come out from under its depression, and the world seemed prepared to take these Germans into its heart.
Now we seem ugly again. When the Greeks or the Spaniards protest against the supposed dictate of the Germans in euro policy, some of their posters depict Nazi motifs. When America author Tuvia Tenenbom recently traveled through Germany, he discovered plenty of anti-Semitism. His book, recently published in German, has triggered an intense discussion. We're back where we didn't want to be, caught in the spell of a Nazi past, one that also dominates the present.
But we don't even need the opinions of others to bring us to this conclusion. What were our big issues in 2012?
In April, author Günter Grass wrote a poem that was so sharply critical of Israel that the Nobel laureate came under the suspicion of being anti-Semitic. A few members of the Pirate Party sounded so naïve when they talked about the Nazis as to create the impression that they had understood nothing about Germany's past. Germans spent half the summer debating whether Nadja Drygalla, whose boyfriend was a member of a neo-Nazi group, should be allowed to compete in the London Olympics as part of the German women's rowing eight team. The other half of the summer was dominated by the debate over whether a Russian opera singer with a swastika tattoo should be allowed to sing at the Bayreuth Festival. In late August, several media organizations, including SPIEGEL, reported that neo-Nazis had infiltrated a neighborhood in the western German city of Dortmund, and that they had even established a presence in the fan section of the city's football club, Borussia Dortmund.
Throughout the year, we read news reports on the upcoming trial of a presumed member and supporter of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right terrorist group believed responsible for the murder of nine men of immigrant origin and a policewoman. Many of the reports addressed mistakes made by the authorities. Another ongoing story was the question of whether the interior ministers of the German states plan to launch a new case to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
Is There Anything Left To Be Happy About?
Wow! Now that's quite a lot to process. When we look back at the media reports of 2012, there is much about this year that hints at the country's Nazi past. And there doesn't seem to be anything left of the happy, cosmopolitan Germany of 2006, nor of the exciting summer of 2010, when a young German team thrilled the world with its coltish and offensive approach to football at the World Cup in South Africa. Many of the players were children of immigrants, and Germany came across as a relaxed, multicultural nation.
Well, what's so important about football, one might ask? The answer is that it does indeed play a big role in shaping the image a country projects internationally. Without its footballers, Brazil would not be seen as a nation of lightness and ease. In 2010, it was the Germans who showed the world what beautiful football was all about. No one begrudged them their victories, which isn't really the case most of the time. Those were our golden days.
At the end of 2012, it seems as if we were the gloomy Germans once again, the Germans who either cannot or don't want to shed their horrific past. It seems that it's time for us to adjust our self-image once again.
The first realization of this year is that the others won't allow us to shake off our past. Angry Greeks don't need Grass, the NSU or Drygalla's boyfriend to be reminded of the Nazis. The horrors of the Nazi occupation are still burned into the collective memory. There are times when this is irrelevant, but the economic crisis isn't one of those times. No one in Greece wants to be told what to do by Germans anymore.
Of course, history is also being exploited here. In reality, Chancellor Angela Merkel's actions aren't all that rigid and merciless, and calling her a new Hitler is quite a stretch. In the end, she is consistently committed to helping the Greeks. For those wanting to portray her as especially hideous, the job is a relatively easy one -- all people have to do is add a swastika armband or a Hitler moustache to a photo or drawing of the chancellor to convince everyone of how evil this women supposedly is, and of what a terrible position her victims are in.
The Nazis are also useful. For some people in other countries, they are part of a story to which people can relate, which is why it is repeated again and again. When Hollywood shows an interest in Germany, it's usually in the Nazi era. Quentin Tarantino shot the dark Nazi comedy "Inglourious Basterds," and Tom Cruise portrayed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the film "Valkyrie". Modern-day Germany is too boring for Hollywood. When Germans are needed on a Hollywood set, it's as Nazis or their opponents. Anti-Semitic Germans also make for a promising narrative for author Tenenbom.
The True Scandal
We can celebrate as exuberantly as we wish, and we can play football as magnificently as we sometimes do, and yet the Nazi story will be with us for a long time to come. The reality is that there is hardly anything that interests the Germans as much about themselves as their relationship to the Hitler era. This is borne out by the great debates of the year: Grass, Drygalla, the NSU and Bayreuth. But it seems almost ridiculous for half the country to obsess over whether a young woman with a questionable boyfriend should be allowed to row for Germany. Do we have nothing better to do?
As lively as these debates are, they have also been repeated ad nauseum. Why all this constant rehashing of Hitler and the past, some ask? But it's really about the present. Hitler isn't the problem. The problem is our society.
The scandal isn't that Nadja Drygalla was part of the German rowing team. The scandal is that young Germans in the 21st century feel the need to be neo-Nazis. The scandal is that neo-Nazis now dominate a neighborhood in the Ruhr region, a region that, ironically enough, was long proud of its capacity to integrate different ethnic groups. The scandal is that for years a terrorist group was able to pass undetected as it shot and killed people from immigrant communities, and that some public servants couldn't or wouldn't see what monstrosities were taking place in Germany.
Does it happen elsewhere? Of course it does. Other countries, like Hungary, the Netherlands, France and Denmark, even have radical right-wing parties represented in their national parliaments. Does that mean it isn't really all that bad in Germany? No, it is. Even after almost 70 years, it does make a difference whether an act of xenophobia happens in Germany or in Spain. We remain a special case, because Hitler is one of us.
I recently met a man named Noah Klieger, and the circumstances were as follows: He is a Jew from Israel who managed to survive Auschwitz by claiming he was a boxer, which meant that he received larger food rations for being in exhibition bouts. I am a German whose grandfather was in the SA. I don't know what he did, because he didn't talk about it. Our family has a document, a piece of paper from the SA's personnel files, on which are printed three words that I have trouble associating with my Opa, who I remember as a thin, quiet and kind man. I loved him. The words on the piece of paper are: "Good for brawls."
When I spoke with Klieger, I thought about the fact that my grandfather didn't want people like him to be alive. My grandfather had no objection to all of the Jews being exterminated, and perhaps he even participated. I didn't mention this to Klieger, because I wasn't the subject of our conversation, and because such a confession would have seemed strange to me. But Klieger could certainly imagine that my deceased relatives must have at least tolerated the extermination of the Jews. The same applies to most Germans he encounters.
That's why no one wanted to accept the possibility of a normal relationship developing between Germans and Israelis that's identical to the normal relationship between Spaniards and Israelis. It's why Günter Grass was so off the mark with his poem directed against Israeli policy. Of course Germans can criticize Israel, and I too cannot endorse the Netanyahu government's settlement policy. But I think that we have to find a special tone, and that we can't argue without taking history into account. Grass, a man of words, wasn't able to find this tone.
A Shadow that Constantly Regenerates Itself
Here is another realization of 2012: The Germans lack a suitable approach to questions surrounding these issues. It was awkward, the way German sports officials dealt with Drygalla. They were so afraid that they would do something wrong that they kept pressuring the woman until she finally decided to go home. In the NSU case, on the other hand, the authorities were so negligent and careless that five senior members of the domestic intelligence agency have since resigned. And then there are the foolish words of some members of the Pirate Party, which sometimes were not the product of a right-wing extremist mindset but rather of an idiotic thoughtlessness in dealing with German history.
For Germany, all of this means that it isn't possible to shake off the shadow of the Nazi years, because people in other countries have a need or a desire to continue remembering the atrocities. It isn't possible, because the shadow is constantly regenerating itself, and because the history of xenophobia is more far-reaching, and German xenophobia seems different from its Spanish or British versions.
An Accurate Image of Germany Today
In fact, shaking off this shadow isn't even desirable. All nations live with their history and in their history. Being a Spaniard means having internalized Spain's history. The sum of our memories coalesces into a mentality. Engagement with the past helps people understand themselves and makes life interesting. If done well, it protects us from the mistakes that were made in the past.
In the 1950s, the Germans largely refused to accept the malignant part of their history, both in West Germany and East Germany. In the late 1960s, an alarmist attitude developed as a reaction. Then references to the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust became part of a totality, extending to almost all aspects of life. Many were obsessed with a constant fear that it could happen again. Extreme left-wing terrorists fought the nation of then Chancellor Willy Brandt, which sought to expand democracy, calling it pre-fascist. It was absurd and idiotic.
We shouldn't be thinking in terms of totality but parallelism. Sometimes we address our history and its aura in the present, and sometimes we don't. Then we celebrate, or we work, or we do whatever we need to do. This works, of course. There are times when my grandfather feels like a heavy burden to me, when I ask myself what he did and why, and if any of it is still part of me. But those times are temporary; I don't go through life feeling despondent.
No one expects us to. Berlin, once the center of Hitler's demonic Reich, is now the capital of party life, one of the world's top destinations for young people looking for fun. They come flying in on weekends and go dancing with happy-go-lucky Germans at famous clubs like the Berghain or the Kater Holzig. Unfortunately, their travel guides tell them that if they happen to be dark-skinned, they should be careful in some neighborhoods. They experience the relaxed nature of everyday life in the popular Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg districts, and perhaps some of them find the time to visit the Holocaust Memorial. When they fly home, they take along an accurate picture of Germany today.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Slovenia: The placid people’s revolt
14 December 2012
Jutarnji List Zagreb
In early December, thousands of demonstrators took to the the streets of Maribor to drive out the local mayor. What was the motive for the eruption of discontent in a city where people are usually so well behaved? The economic crisis and the impunity of the country’s political elite, a Slovenian journalist explains. Excerpts.
Maribor has always had a reputation for being a town where nothing happens. The rate of abstention in elections is higher there than it is elsewhere, and local residents have no great commitment to political and social causes.
How then was it possible that in the space of a week 20,000 people brandishing placards against the city’s mayor would turn out to protest in Freedom Square, and later throw eggs, chairs and petrol bombs at the town hall? We still can’t believe it.
All the more so because, in a kind of generalised ecstasy, the entire country then took to the streets to demonstrate its solidarity with Maribor.
In 20 years of independence, the protest was entirely unprecedented. People even talk about “the Maribor uprising” as though it was a historical event. But what were its causes?
At the top of the list, there was the mayor of Maribor, Franc Kangler, and his decision to install fixed speed cameras at all of the city’s major junctions.
In just a few days, the cameras recorded 70,000 offences – which meant that the same number of fines were issued to locals who are already suffering from the effects of the economic crisis. At the same time, the speed cameras had been installed at locations where it was be easy to catch drivers committing offences, and not, for example close to schools. But that is not all.
The concession to operate the speed cameras had been granted to a private company, and the bulk of the funds from fines (approximately 93 per cent) was paid to this company, which had promised to renew the city’s traffic-light system.
In short, the mayor had recorded yet another success in his political "mission impossible", to privatise the state. Before long the first signs of dissent appeared, and the burning of speed cameras became increasingly commonplace in Maribor.
‘Unbridled neoliberal capitalism’
The speed camera privatisation was the most recent of a series of unpopular initiatives organised by Maribor’s local authorities, which were committed to unbridled neoliberal capitalism. Starting in 1997, they privatised the sewage system, water distribution, public transport, the city’s cable cars, the municipal undertakers –as a result, the cost of dying in Maribor had risen to the point where it was twice as expensive as it was in Ljubljana!
Recently the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption revealed “abuses of power” and “systematic corruption” in Maribor. The discovery came as no surprise to local citizens. The Commission had simply confirmed what they already knew.
However, dissent spread like wildfire across the country because the problem was not confined to Kangler and his scams.
In Ljubljana, Kranj, Celje and Trbovlje, people took to the streets carrying candles to protest against corruption, nepotism and local oligarchs. They were concerned that the entire territory of Slovenia would turn into an extended Maribor.
Slovenians are envious of Croatia, which convicted its former prime minister, Ivo Sanader, of corruption and sentenced him to a long spell in prison (10 years in the initial trial).
Nothing like that has ever happened in Slovenia. If Prime Minister Janez Janša, who continues to avoid prosecution for long-standing corruption charges refuses to abandon his post, why should leave theirs? Several Slovenian mayors have been found guilty of the mismanagement of public funds, but they have never had to bother with retributive justice. A number of MPs, who have also been found guilty are also refusing to resign from political office.
The Slovenian political elite has nothing but disdain for court rulings, which it likes to present as evidence of political plotting. However, Slovenia’s citizens have had enough of all of this, and what has happened in the country is proof of this fact.
December 13, 2012
As a Premier Prepares to Depart, the Talk Is of Lost Opportunities
By RACHEL DONADIO
ROME — As Prime Minister Mario Monti prepares to exit the stage, he has burnished Italy’s image — and his own — abroad, but he is less beloved at home. Italians are irate about higher taxes, while critics say that Mr. Monti failed to carry out the basic structural changes he said were needed, leaving a legacy more of austerity than growth.
While Mr. Monti passed tax increases, introduced a property tax, raised the retirement age and made changes to Italy’s labor laws, a host of bills aimed at limbering up Italy’s ossified economy have languished in Parliament, blocked by anxious lawmakers within his governing coalition.
But Mr. Monti, who arrived last year as a technocratic white knight whose mandate was to make the tough decisions needed to set Italy right, has struggled to stop them.
Even sympathetic critics say Mr. Monti did not do nearly enough with his mandate, especially in the first months of his government, when market pressures gave him more leverage over lawmakers who helped drive up the spending that got Italy in trouble in the first place.
“The labor market reform was under expectations,” said Tito Boeri, an economist at Bocconi University in Milan. “It didn’t do things it could do. It took very long to negotiate, and at the end brought very modest reforms.” He added that Mr. Monti was also “very timid” about liberalizing the guilds that serve as entry barriers for most professions.
That is largely because the parties nominally supporting his government were looking to save their seats and did not want to alienate their constituents. A bill that would have reduced the number of Italian provinces, eliminating a level of state spending and bureaucracy, was blocked in Parliament, as was a bill that would cut state spending on politicians.
“Paradoxically, the government of technocrats was blocked by the ‘technocracy,’ people in the public administration in Italy who have been there for years and who tried to make it hard for the government,” Mr. Boeri said.
Mr. Monti has said he has done the best he could with limited time.
It is not hard to understand Italians’ dissatisfaction. The austerity measures have exacerbated Italy’s worst recession in 60 years. Consumer spending suffered its sharpest year-on-year drop since World War II, according to Italy’s leading business association. Home sales were down 23 percent in the second quarter of the year compared with the same period last year.
Bank lending has plummeted and unemployment is at 11.1 percent, rising to 36.5 percent for young people, and experts say the figure may be even higher. Italy has one of Europe’s lowest employment levels, and some workers have been put on government-subsidized furloughs.
Much to Italians’ chagrin, the second installment of a new property tax came due just ahead of the holiday shopping season.
“This government has really given us a good thrashing,” said Rosaria Cistello, 62, as she worked at a laundromat in Rome. “Even the honest technocrat only managed to impose taxes on citizens, not to change the system.”
With growth prospects slim — Italy has not grown in two decades — some say Mr. Monti should have used the European Central Bank’s new bond-buying mechanism, which would have locked Italy into budgetary commitments set by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for the bank’s buying Italian bonds to keep interest rates down.
“Had we had an I.M.F. program right now there would be much less uncertainty,” said Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, a former member of the bank’s executive board. If the recession deepens, the credit crunch worsens and reforms stall, he said, Italy may need external help to service its debts in the future. Others say such help can be politically toxic.
With more economic turmoil ahead, it remains to be seen who will govern Italy after the elections. Although former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi startled markets recently by saying that he would run again, he now appears to be looking for ways to back out.
Nothing is certain in the political chaos, but it appears unlikely that Mr. Monti will run in early elections expected in February. Even if Mr. Monti were to decide to run, it is unclear what party he would ally with, since Italy lacks a mainstream center-right.
Lost in the theatrics is Pier Luigi Bersani, the understated leader of the center-left Democratic Party and a former economic growth minister who looks poised to win elections by a large margin. He is trying to forge an image as a reliable leader on board with Mr. Monti’s agenda.
But Mr. Bersani’s party, which is backed by Italy’s largest labor union, will have trouble governing without the help of centrist parties and the smaller Left Ecology and Freedom party, which does not agree with many of Mr. Monti’s neoliberal reforms.
“The most likely scenario today is that the Democratic Party with the Left Ecology and Freedom party will win both in the House and in the Senate,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.
There is wide speculation that instead of running for office, Mr. Monti, who will remain in Parliament as a senator for life, could replace Giorgio Napolitano, who is 87, as president of Italy.
“These are the most unpredictable elections in years,” said John Foot, a professor of Italian history at University College London. “It’s not worth trying to predict anything. You will just be proved wrong straight away.”
Most Italians long for stability. “The real issue with Italian politics is that no one has had a plan, a program for the past 20 years,” said Antonio Torda, 53, who owns a housewares shop in Rome.
Mr. Torda said he had “deep respect” for Mr. Monti, but wished he had passed some growth measures. Now, he said, “We need a political government that really makes decisions, takes responsibility for them and then asks the electorate whether they were right or wrong at the next turn.”
“Just regular democracy,” he added.
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.
Human rights court: CIA beat and sodomized wrongly detained German citizen
By Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian
Thursday, December 13, 2012 19:54 EST
CIA agents tortured a German citizen, sodomising, shackling, and beating him, as Macedonian state police looked on, the European court of human rights said in a historic judgment released on Thursday.
In a unanimous ruling, it also found Macedonia guilty of torturing, abusing, and secretly imprisoning Khaled el-Masri, a German of Lebanese origin allegedly linked to terrorist organisations.
Masri was seized in Macedonia in December 2003 and handed over to a CIA “rendition team” at Skopje airport and secretly flown to Afghanistan.
It is the first time the court has described CIA treatment meted out to terror suspects as torture.
“The grand chamber of the European court of human rights unanimously found that Mr el-Masri was subjected to forced disappearance, unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition outside any judicial process, and inhuman and degrading treatment,” said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
He described the judgment as “an authoritative condemnation of some of the most objectionable tactics employed in the post-9/11 war on terror”. It should be a wake-up call for the Obama administration and US courts, he told the Guardian. For them to continue to avoid serious scrutiny of CIA activities was “simply unacceptable”, he said.
Jamil Dakwar, of the American Civil Liberties Union, described the ruling as “a huge victory for justice and the rule of law”.
The use of CIA interrogation methods widely denounced as torture during the Bush administration’s “war on terror” also came under scrutiny in Congress on Thursday. The US Senate’s select committee on intelligence was expected to vote on whether to approve a mammoth review it has undertaken into the controversial practices that included waterboarding, stress positions, forced nudity, beatings and sleep and sensory deprivation.
The report, that runs to almost 6,000 pages based on a three-year review of more than 6m pieces of information, is believed to conclude that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” adopted by the CIA during the Bush years did not produce any major breakthroughs in intelligence, contrary to previous claims. The committee, which is dominated by the Democrats, is likely to vote to approve the report, though opposition from the Republican members may prevent the report ever seeing the light of day.
The Strasbourg court said it found Masri’s account of what happened to him “to be established beyond reasonable doubt” and that Macedonia had been “responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the US authorities in the context of an extra-judicial ‘rendition’”.
In January 2004, Macedonian police took him to a hotel in Skopje, where he was kept locked in a room for 23 days and questioned in English, despite his limited proficiency in that language, about his alleged ties with terrorist organisations, the court said in its judgment. His requests to contact the German embassy were refused. At one point, when he said he intended to leave, he was threatened with being shot.
“Masri’s treatment at Skopje airport at the hands of the CIA rendition team – being severely beaten, sodomised, shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation – had been carried out in the presence of state officials of [Macedonia] and within its jurisdiction,” the court ruled.
It added: “Its government was consequently responsible for those acts performed by foreign officials. It had failed to submit any arguments explaining or justifying the degree of force used or the necessity of the invasive and potentially debasing measures. Those measures had been used with premeditation, the aim being to cause Mr Masri severe pain or suffering in order to obtain information. In the court’s view, such treatment had amounted to torture, in violation of Article 3 [of the European human rights convention].”
In Afghanistan, Masri was incarcerated for more than four months in a small, dirty, dark concrete cell in a brick factory near the capital, Kabul, where he was repeatedly interrogated and was beaten, kicked and threatened. His repeated requests to meet with a representative of the German government were ignored, said the court.
Masri was released in April 2004. He was taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, by plane to Albania and subsequently to Germany, after the CIA admited he was wrongly detained. The Macedonian government, which the court ordered must pay Masri €60,000 (£49,000) in compensation, has denied involvement in kidnapping.
UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, described the ruling as “a key milestone in the long struggle to secure accountability of public officials implicated in human rights violations committed by the Bush administration CIA in its policy of secret detention, rendition and torture”.
He said the US government must issue an apology for its “central role in a web of systematic crimes and human rights violations by the Bush-era CIA, and to pay voluntary compensation to Mr el-Masri”.
Germany should ensure that the US officials involved in this case were now brought to trial.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
Nuclear power becomes a campaign issue in Japan
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 13, 2012 14:44 EST
The future of nuclear power in Fukushima-scarred Japan has emerged as a major campaign issue for the first time in weekend polls, but experts warn little thought has gone into how to replace atomic energy.
Environmental issues have rarely topped the agenda in Japanese elections, which tend to focus on the country’s moribund economy and a policy drift fuelled by the passage of seven prime ministers in six years.
But Sunday’s vote comes as a rising tide of anti-atomic sentiment is forcing an energy policy rethink, putting the fate of a power source that once generated about one-third of Japan’s electricity in doubt.
All but two of the nation’s 50 reactors now sit idle, switched off after a quake-triggered tsunami slammed into the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March last year, setting off the worst nuclear accident in a generation.
“Restarting (nuclear plants) is absolutely unthinkable,” said Hajime Kemuriyama, a Fukushima city resident.
“We are still suffering from the impact of radiation. I want politicians to address our daily problems.”
Kemuriyama’s view is a typical one in Japan, with recent opinion polls suggesting about 70 percent of the electorate want atomic power phased out.
Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power’s recent admission that it knowingly played down the risks to the plant before the tsunami disaster added to a feeling that Japan had been duped by a powerful industry in league with its regulator.
An expert declaration earlier this week that one plant sits on a seismic fault which may still be geologically active, has further underlined apprehensiveness in the quake-prone country.
Last month, anti-nuclear parties banded into the Tomorrow Party of Japan, headed by high-profile regional politician Yukiko Kada, on a platform of phasing out atomic power.
“We will create a new party, in response to people saying they don’t have any party to choose from,” Kada told a press conference near Lake Biwa in a region with a number of ageing nuclear reactors.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan vowed earlier this year to ditch nuclear power by 2040, bowing to public pressure as thousands gathered to protest outside Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s official residence.
But it quickly backpedalled on that pledge with a more vague promise to work towards a nuclear-free country.
To plug its power gap as reactors have gone offline, Japan has turned to pricey fossil-fuel alternatives, sending energy imports soaring and generating widening trade deficits for the world’s third-largest economy.
None of the anti-nuclear parties have specified exactly how the energy gap would be overcome, offering only general discussion about “efficiency” and renewables.
Zero-nuclear advocates say investing in renewable energy would pay off by spawning new industries, stoking job creation and economic growth — vital in an indebted country that has seen nearly two decades of deflation.
But Shinzo Abe, leader of the business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and frontrunner to become Japan’s next leader, has derided the zero-nuclear goal as unrealistic and “irresponsible”.
The LDP has hinted at keeping nuclear power, saying it would decide on reactor restarts in three years and the nation’s “best energy mix” within a decade.
His opponents say the LDP’s cosy attitude to regulation was a big factor in the lax supervision that worsened the disaster at Fukushima.
The polarising debate on atomic energy is one of the key differences among a dozen parties contesting the election including the Communists who also have a zero-nuclear platform.
But opinion polls indicate that despite their apparently popular stance on ridding Japan of nuclear power, Tomorrow and the Communists are struggling to gain popular support.
Sadafumi Kawato, professor of politics at Tokyo University, warns the debate is not being played out in a serious way that would allow citizens to balance the risks of nuclear safety against those of energy security.
“Not many people have a deep understanding of the nuclear industry,” he said. “It’s hard for voters to judge the safety of nuclear plants.”
That leaves the average citizen wrestling with little more than gut feelings, which they find difficult to weigh against what they know are real needs for an energy-hungry country.
NASA video debunks Mayan doomsday myth
By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Thursday, December 13, 2012 19:48 EST
Time to retrieve that resignation letter from the boss’s desk, return the life savings to your bank account and attempt to return to normal life – Nasa has announced that the world will not end on 21 December.
In a video published on YouTube, the space agency sought to calm fears – triggered by the supposed end of the Mayan calendar – that Christmas was about to be spoiled by the disintegration of Earth and the extinction of its 7 billion population.
The film was scheduled to be published on 22 December 2012, explaining why the world didn’t end the previous day. “If you’re watching this video it means one thing – the world didn’t end yesterday,” runs the commentary.
But Nasa is so confident in its prediction that it has released it now.
The prediction that the world would end four days before Christmas 2012 – potentially wreaking havoc with gift buying and travel plans – is a long-standing misconception, Nasa explains.
An accompanying post on the agency’s website, titled Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End, says that 21 December this year has been labelled as the end of all things because the Mayan calendar ends on this date.
But “just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012,” Nasa says. Instead, it just starts over again.
Another factor in the end of the world prophecy comes from claims that a “supposed planet” called Nibiru is heading for Earth, hellbent on destruction.
“This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012,” and linked to the end of the Mayan calendar, Nasa said.
As astrobiologist David Morrison puts it in the Nasa video: “If there were anything out there like a planet headed for earth it would already be one of the brightest objects in the sky. Everybody on earth could see it. You don’t need to ask the government. Just go out and look. It’s not there.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QY_Gc1bF8ds
In the USA...
Originally published December 13, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Page modified December 13, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Embattled Rice ends bid to succeed Clinton at State Department
Susan Rice faced waning political support on Capitol Hill, and President Obama's aides weighed whether contentious confirmation hearings would undercut other priorities at the start of his second term.
By Anita Kumar and William Douglas
Experience: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, January 2009-present; senior national-security adviser on Barack Obama's presidential campaign, 2008; senior foreign-policy fellow, Brookings Institution, 2002-08; senior adviser for national-security affairs, John Kerry presidential campaign, 2004; assistant secretary of state for African affairs, 1997-2001; special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs, National Security Council, 1995-97; director for international organizations and peacekeeping, National Security Council, 1993-95; management consultant, McKinsey, 1991-93.
Education: Bachelor's degree, history, Stanford University, 1986; master's degree, international relations, Oxford University, 1988; doctorate, Oxford University, 1990. Rice was a Rhodes Scholar.
Family: Husband, Ian Cameron; two children.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running Thursday to be the next secretary of state, bowing to a torrent of criticism by Republicans on Capitol Hill over remarks she made after a deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama that she was confident she could serve in the nation's highest diplomatic post but wanted to spare the nation what would have been a contentious confirmation process at the onset of Obama's second term.
"If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities," she wrote. "That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."
Rice faced waning political support on Capitol Hill, and Obama's aides weighed whether contentious confirmation hearings would undercut other priorities at the start of his second term. While it appeared the White House had the votes to cut off a filibuster in the Senate and win confirmation, the fight could have dragged on for weeks and could have damaged her effectiveness as secretary of state.
One former administration official said Rice was in direct communication with Obama staffers but was not forced to pull out.
"She made this decision on her own over the past couple of days," said a second source, who requested anonymity. "It became clear this was not going away."
Obama had never said he would nominate Rice, but she had been widely considered one of the president's top choices to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who plans to leave as soon as a successor is named.
The most prominent name mentioned as a possible nominee now is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his party's 2004 presidential nominee. As a member of the Senate, he likely would win easy confirmation from his colleagues.
That, in turn, would require a special election in Massachusetts and likely give Scott Brown, a moderate Republican who lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November, another chance to run.
White House aides said the president is considering three possibilities to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. They include Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is former U.S. senator from Nebraska; Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter; and Michelle Flournoy, who was the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon for most of the first Obama administration.
If nominated and confirmed, Flournoy would be the first woman to run the Defense Department. She grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, when her father worked as a TV cinematographer at Paramount Studios, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1979.
Rice will continue to serve as ambassador and in Obama's Cabinet.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed disappointment that a black woman they called qualified was denied a chance to serve in the high-profile position.
The president repeatedly defended Rice from criticisms, led by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, that she misled Americans after the attack in Libya that killed four Americans. And he appeared to be ready to fight for her.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me," he said at a news conference the week after his re-election.
Obama on Thursday called Rice an "extraordinarily capable, patriotic and passionate public servant," and he credited her with helping secure international support for sanctions against Iran and North Korea, achieve an independent South Sudan and advocate for human rights.
"I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an adviser and friend," Obama said.
"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first."
Late last month, Rice took the unusual step of meeting with GOP lawmakers who opposed her potential nomination. Normally, nominees make those visits to Capitol Hill after they're nominated.
Several, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as well as Graham and McCain, said later that they remained concerned and would try to block her nomination.
Graham said Thursday that he respects Rice's decision but continues to question what happened in Libya on Sept. 11. "When it comes to Benghazi, I am determined to find out what happened — before, during and after the attack," he said.
A spokesman for McCain said the senator thanks Rice for her service to her country and wishes her well. "He will continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans," spokesman Brian Rogers said.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and information-management officer Sean Smith were killed when the consulate came under attack. Several hours later, two other Americans, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died at a CIA compound a mile away where surviving Americans from the consulate fled.
Republicans criticized Rice for describing the attack on Sunday talk shows after the Sept. 11 attack as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation, suggesting it was a deliberate bid to protect Obama's record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign. Rice said she relied on talking points the intelligence community provided, an initial assessment that turned out to be incorrect.
Rice, a Stanford University graduate and Rhodes scholar, earned a reputation as a confident, hard-charging diplomat dating to Bill Clinton's presidency. Her sometimes blunt style has earned her as many friends as critics.
Another complication was Rice's wealth and the suggestion of a possible conflict of interest. She and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars' worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice violated no laws and properly revealed the stock on government financial-disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she had become secretary of state, one of her first acts may have involved the pipeline's permit.
Obama: ‘Bigger fish to fry’ than recreational pot users
By David Edwards
Friday, December 14, 2012 8:44 EST
President Barack Obama says that the federal government should not make going after marijuana users in states that have legalized the drug a “top priority.”
During an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters that will air on Friday, the president indicated that federal law enforcement officials would take the same approach to Washington and Colorado after they legalized weed for recreational use that had been taken in other states which had laws allowing medicinal marijuana.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama explained. “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”
But the president also said that he did not support marijuana legalization “at this point.”
“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” he said. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”
Obama said that he advised his daughters not to “make the same mistakes I made” with his heavy marijuana use growing up in Hawaii.
Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday said that the Justice Department was still considering the appropriate response to legalization in Washington and Colorado.
“We are looking at those two initiatives those two statutes and trying to determine exactly how we will respond and expect we will be doing so relatively quickly,” he insisted. “There are a number of issues that have to be considered among them the impact that drug usage has on young people, we have treaty obligations with nations outside the United States, there are a whole variety of things that have to go into the determination that we are in the process of making.”
Senate Judiciary chair floats federal marijuana legalization
By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, December 13, 2012 13:43 EST
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested to U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske in a letter released Thursday (PDF) that Congress may consider legalizing marijuana in the wake of Colorado and Washington voting in favor of regulating the drug similarly to alcohol.
But, Leahy wrote in the letter, he wants to know where the administration stands on the laws before the committee takes up the question.
“How does the Office of National Drug Control Policy intend to prioritize Federal resources, and what recommendations are you making to the Department of Justice and other federal agencies in light of the choice by citizens of Colorado and Washington to legalize personal use of small amounts of marijuana?” Leahy asked Kerlikowske.
“What assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face Federal criminal penalties for carrying out the duties assigned to them under state law?”
The answer, he suggested, may be that Congress must exercise one of its “legislative options,” like amending the law “to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law.”
“In order to give these options full consideration, the Committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington,” he concluded. “I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.”
Leahy’s letter also explained that he plans to hold Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Obama administration’s marijuana strategy sometime next year.
It’s not clear yet what the Obama administration is going to do about two states flouting the federal prohibition of marijuana, but The New York Times said recently that the Justice Department is still reviewing its options. Apart from a guidance by the Department of Transportation reminding people that marijuana is still illegal, the federal government hasn’t said much else about it.
Many Americans see hint of Apocalypse in extreme weather
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 13, 2012 21:36 EST
A third of Americans believe the intensity of recent natural disasters is linked to the Apocalypse described in the New Testament, according to a poll released Thursday.
Many more blame global warming, the survey added.
Seeking to explain floods and heat or cold waves, 36 percent of those surveyed, and 66 percent of Evangelical Christians, evoke the end of the world, said the poll by the Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service.
But 63 percent of those polled blame climate change, and 67 percent say the US government should do more to address this problem.
Some 15 percent of those polled believe the world will end during their lifetime, and two percent say it will happen on December 21 of this year as some believe was predicted by the Mayan calendar.
A total of 1,018 adults took part in the poll, which was carried out between December 5 and 9 and had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
Originally published December 14, 2012 at 4:03 AM | Page modified December 14, 2012 at 6:46 AM
Pentagon to send missiles, 400 troops to Turkey
By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey —
The U.S. will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack, the Pentagon said Friday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed a deployment order en route to Turkey from Afghanistan calling for 400 U.S. soldiers to operate two batteries of Patriots at undisclosed locations in Turkey, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters flying with Panetta.
Germany and the Netherlands have already agreed to provide two batteries of the U.S.-built defense systems and send up to 400 German and 360 Dutch troops to man them, bringing the total number of Patriot batteries slated for Turkey to six.
German lawmakers voted 461-86 Friday to approve the deployment of two Patriot missile batteries. The mandate allows Germany to deploy a maximum 400 soldiers through January 2014. NATO foreign ministers endorsed Turkey's request for the Patriots on Nov. 30.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict in the Arab state began in March 2011. Turkey has condemned the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, supported Syrian rebels and provided shelter to Syrian refugees. Ankara is particularly worried that Assad may get desperate enough to use chemical weapons.
During a brief stop at Incirlik Air Base, Panetta told U.S. troops that Turkey might need the Patriots, which are capable of shooting down shorter-range ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
He said he approved the deployment "so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defense it may very well need to deal with the threats coming out of Syria," he said.
The U.S., Germany and the Netherlands are the only NATO members who have the upgraded PAC-3 missiles, capable of missile interception. Each battery has an average of 12 missile launchers, a NATO official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because alliance regulations do not allow him to speak on the record.
In a statement issued Friday NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "the deployment will be defensive only."
"It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey's population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on NATO's south-eastern border," Lungescu said.
Panetta did not mention how soon the two Patriot batteries will head to Turkey or how long they might stay.
Earlier this week in Berlin, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Link told lawmakers that current plans call for the missile sites to be stationed at Kahramanmaras, about 60 miles north of Turkey's border with Syria. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday that the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. are working closely with Turkey "to ensure that the Patriots are deployed as soon as possible." But he predicted they would not become operational before the end of January. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, three years after the alliance was formed.
At Incirlik Air Base, about 60 miles north of the Syrian border, an Air Force member asked Panetta what the US would do if Syria used chemical or biological weapons against the rebels. Panetta said he could not be specific in a public setting, but added, "we have drawn up plans" that give President Barack Obama a set of options in the event that U.S. intelligence shows that Syria intends to use such weapons.
Asked by another Air Force member whether he thought Syria would "react negatively" to the Patriot deployments, Panetta said, "I don't think they have the damn time to worry" about the Patriots since the regime's leaders are struggling to stay in power.
He indicated that Syria's reaction to the Patriots was not a major concern to him.
Separately, NATO will deploy its Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, or AWACS, to Turkey on a training exercise this month, the NATO said.
He said the exercise was not connected to the deployment of the Patriots.
The aircraft, which can detect launches of ground-to-ground missiles, will exercise command and control procedures as well as test the connectivity of various NATO and Turkish communications and data sharing systems, the official said.
Originally published December 14, 2012 at 4:06 AM | Page modified December 14, 2012 at 6:48 AM
Narrow 'fiscal cliff' bargain gains currency
By ANDREW TAYLOR and JIM KUHNHENN
Hopes dimming for a wide-ranging bargain, the White House and many congressional Republicans are setting their sights on a more modest deal that would extend current tax rates for most Americans, raise rates for top earners and leave other, vexing issues for the new year.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met late Thursday for less than an hour at the White House, but there were few signs of progress. Both sides agreed to describe the talks as "frank," a less than optimistic assessment that suggested the president and the speaker stuck to their opposing positions.
Boehner was sticking with his plans to leave for his home state of Ohio on Friday, limiting opportunities for further in-person talks in the coming days.
While Boehner took the lead in negotiations, a growing number of Senate Republicans were calling on their House colleagues to yield on their opposition to letting top tax rates increase on income over $250,000 for couples, while extending Bush-era tax cuts for everyone else.
Such a step would require capitulating to Obama's demands, but it would leave other fiscal issues unsolved until 2013, including an increase in the nation's borrowing limit. Republicans have insisted that the debt cap is a key piece of leverage to extract spending cuts from the Obama administration.
"I think it's time to end the debate on rates," Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said. "It's exactly what both parties are for. We're for extending the middle-class rates. We can debate the upper-end rates and what they are when we get into tax reform."
"He's got a full house and we're trying to draw an inside straight," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said. When it was observed that making a straight would still be a losing hand, Isakson said: "Yeah, I know."
White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded that "one aspect of a way to deal with this at the very least would be to pass the tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. That would deal with a chunk of the so-called fiscal cliff."
But he said Obama remained committed to a broad deal that combined existing spending cuts and reduced the deficit significantly. "He doesn't want to pass up that opportunity," Carney said.
A narrow deal, involving only an increase in top marginal rates for top income earners would guarantee a second round of negotiations and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.
Carney took a hard line on using the debt ceiling as leverage.
"We cannot play this game, because while it might be satisfying to those with highly partisan and ideological agendas, it's not satisfying to the American people and is punishing to the American economy," he said. "We cannot do it."
Thursday evening's meeting came shortly after Obama suggested that the sluggish pace of deficit-cutting talks between the administration and congressional Republicans was a result of a "contentious caucus" of GOP lawmakers who were making it difficult for Boehner to negotiate.
Boehner saw it differently. "Unfortunately, the White House is so unserious about cutting spending that it appears willing to slow-walk any agreement and walk our economy right up to the fiscal cliff," he said earlier in the day.
Thursday night's meeting was the two men's second face-to-face encounter in five days as they seek to find an agreement that avoids major tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to kick in in January.
Boehner remains caught between a tea party faction and more pragmatic Republicans advising a tactical retreat. He dodged two questions on whether he would allow Obama's proposal for higher tax rates for upper earners to proceed despite GOP opposition to the idea. Such an approach was employed by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan when Democrats controlled Congress but President George W. Bush occupied the White House.
Obama, in an interview during the day with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, said that the notion of not raising taxes "has become sort of a religion for a lot of members of the Republican Party. I think Speaker Boehner has a contentious caucus, as his caucus is tough on him sometimes so he doesn't want to look like he's giving in to me somehow because that might hurt him in his own caucus."
While the impasse over the president's demand for higher tax rates continues to be a main obstacle in negotiations, Boehner complains that the president refuses to offer spending cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare whose costs are rapidly rising.
The White House has pointed out that it has offered about $600 billion in specific savings over the next decade, including about $350 billion in spending reductions in health care programs such as Medicare.
Particularly noteworthy were comments by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to Politico.com, in which Cornyn, soon to be the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, "I believe we're going to pass the $250,000 and below sooner or later, and we really don't have much leverage" because those rates are going to expire anyway on Dec. 31.
Cornyn is a top confidant of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who keeps a tight rein on the Senate GOP caucus.
December 13, 2012
The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis
By PAUL KRUGMAN
We are not having a debt crisis.
It’s important to make this point, because I keep seeing articles about the “fiscal cliff” that do, in fact, describe it — often in the headline — as a debt crisis. But it isn’t. The U.S. government is having no trouble borrowing to cover its deficit. In fact, its borrowing costs are near historic lows. And even the confrontation over the debt ceiling that looms a few months from now if we do somehow manage to avoid going over the fiscal cliff isn’t really about debt.
No, what we’re having is a political crisis, born of the fact that one of our two great political parties has reached the end of a 30-year road. The modern Republican Party’s grand, radical agenda lies in ruins — but the party doesn’t know how to deal with that failure, and it retains enough power to do immense damage as it strikes out in frustration.
Before I talk about that reality, a word about the current state of budget “negotiations.”
Why the scare quotes? Because these aren’t normal negotiations in which each side presents specific proposals, and horse-trading proceeds until the two sides converge. By all accounts, Republicans have, so far, offered almost no specifics. They claim that they’re willing to raise $800 billion in revenue by closing loopholes, but they refuse to specify which loopholes they would close; they are demanding large cuts in spending, but the specific cuts they have been willing to lay out wouldn’t come close to delivering the savings they demand.
It’s a very peculiar situation. In effect, Republicans are saying to President Obama, “Come up with something that will make us happy.” He is, understandably, not willing to play that game. And so the talks are stuck.
Why won’t the Republicans get specific? Because they don’t know how. The truth is that, when it comes to spending, they’ve been faking it all along — not just in this election, but for decades. Which brings me to the nature of the current G.O.P. crisis.
Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. From the beginning, however, these ideologues have had a big problem: The programs they want to kill are very popular. Americans may nod their heads when you attack big government in the abstract, but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. So what’s a radical to do?
The answer, for a long time, has involved two strategies. One is “starve the beast,” the idea of using tax cuts to reduce government revenue, then using the resulting lack of funds to force cuts in popular social programs. Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug.
Arguably more important in conservative thinking, however, was the notion that the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”
O.K., you see the problem: Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up. Worse, from the Republican point of view, all of their party’s sources of strength have turned into weaknesses. Democratic dominance among Hispanics has overshadowed Republican dominance among southern whites; women’s rights have trumped the politics of abortion and antigay sentiment; and guess who finally did get Osama bin Laden.
And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.
So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.
It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.
Our best hope is that business interests will use their influence to limit the damage. But the odds are that the next few years will be very, very ugly.
December 14, 2012
As State Budgets Rebound, Federal Cuts Could Pose Danger
By MICHAEL COOPER
After years of budget cuts and sluggish recovery, states expect to see their revenues climb back to prerecession levels this year for the first time since the financial crisis hit. But even as some states hope to restore some of the deep spending cuts they have made, they face a new threat.
Washington’s efforts to tame the federal deficit, state officials fear, could end up further whittling away the federal aid that states depend upon and weakening the economy as it slowly mends.
Those worries cloud a year that should be a turning point of sorts for the states. A fiscal survey of states released Friday by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers found that states expect to collect $692.8 billion in general fund revenues this fiscal year, which is more than they collected in 2008, the last fiscal year before the recession.
That is good news, but perhaps not as good as it initially appears. Adjusted for inflation, this year’s revenues are still expected to be 7.9 percent below the 2008 levels. And with Medicaid costs continuing to rise — states now spend more on Medicaid than on elementary and high school education — states find themselves hard-pressed to restore many of the deep cuts they have made to other services.
Now many governors are bracing for the prospect of cuts in federal aid, which provided states with roughly a third of their revenue last year.
“What we’re really seeing here is there is not enough money to make up for any federal cuts,” said Scott D. Pattison, the executive director of the state budget officers’ association. “What I’ve heard from the state budget people is that they’ve told departments and agencies in state government: Do not expect us to have the money available, even if we wanted to, to make up for federal cuts.”
The slow recovery is uneven, the fiscal survey found: 21 states are still not collecting as much revenue as they did before the recession, and almost half are spending less than they did before the recession. With Medicaid costs continuing to rise, many states were forced to continue to make cuts in other areas. The survey found that while states are spending more on Medicaid and elementary and secondary education this year, they are still cutting higher education, public assistance and corrections. Transportation spending is roughly flat.
The pressure states are under can be seen in some of the actions they are taking. Pennsylvania is thinking of privatizing the management of its lucrative state lottery, and is weighing a bid from the company that runs the National Lottery in Britain. Connecticut is planning another round of cuts that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warns “will have a real impact on people’s lives.” Ohio, which, like many states, has struggled to find money to maintain and improve its highways, announced a plan on Thursday to borrow against future toll revenues to pay for transportation projects.
Some services may never rebound from recent cuts, Mr. Pattison said, as states spend a bigger share of their limited resources on health care and education. “In most states, I think, parks and recreation will never get back to the general fund levels they had in the past,” he said. “They’ll be primarily funded by fees: campsite fees, admission fees, things like that. It’s a small part of the pie, but I think it’s an example of an area of state government that’s just suffered in the recession and is not going to see a return, because the focus will be on these other areas.”
Dan Crippen, the executive director of the National Governors Association, characterized the slow growth in state revenues this way: “While up is certainly better than down, no one is out singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ ”
States fear the outcome of the budget talks between President Obama and Congress, whether a deal is reached by the end of the year or not.
“If Congress fails to act by the end of the calendar year, federal funds flowing to states would decline under the process of automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequester,” the report, the Fiscal Survey of States, warns. “But even if a sequester is avoided, the likely policies required to address the nation’s long-term fiscal debt problems may also reduce the level of federal funds for states.”
Mr. Crippen said that governors had been meeting with federal officials to try to make sure that they understood how changing the tax code or cutting federal spending would affect states.
Capping deductions for state and local taxes, he said, would have big ramifications for some states. Ending the tax exemption for municipal bonds could raise borrowing costs. If planned spending cuts to the military are allowed to take effect next year, it could hurt the economies of states heavily reliant on military spending. And if those cuts are averted, they could be replaced with more cuts to state grants.
“States understand that there are going to be reduced resources to states coming from the federal budget,” Mr. Crippen said. “States are going to need, as these programs get revamped and cut, a lot more discretion if they’re going to provide the same level, or even near the same level, of services that they’re providing today.”
The fiscal woes of states have been raising concern in recent years. Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Richard Ravitch, the former New York lieutenant governor, formed a State Budget Crisis Task Force to shine a spotlight on the issue.
As the group released its findings on New Jersey’s fiscal problems in Trenton on Thursday, Mr. Ravitch said he had been stunned to learn that after the financial turmoil of 2008 no one in federal government was keeping close track of state and local fiscal troubles, since those levels of government employ about 19 million people and pay for 70 percent of America’s infrastructure.
“If we don’t solve this,” he said, “it’s our democratic process that’s going to be in the greatest jeopardy.”
December 13, 2012
In the Fiscal Debate, an Unvarnished Voice for Shielding Benefits
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON — When President Obama cut a deal with Congressional Republicans in December 2010 to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, Senator Bernard Sanders, the brusque Vermont independent who calls himself a socialist, decided it was time for a protest.
He had a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal in a Senate cafeteria, marched into the chamber and began talking. He talked for so long — railing for 8 hours 37 minutes about economic justice, the decline of the middle class and “reckless, uncontrollable” corporate greed — that his legs cramped. So many people watched online that the Senate video server crashed.
Today the issue of tax cuts for the wealthy is once again front and center in Washington, as part of the debate over how to reduce the federal deficit. And Mr. Sanders is once again talking, carving out a place for himself as the antithesis of the Tea Party and becoming a thorn in the side to some Democrats and Mr. Obama, who he fears will cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits as part of a deficit reduction deal.
A number of Congressional Democrats agree with Mr. Sanders that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but he may be the most vocal.
He is emboldened by his recent re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote — “Seventy-one percent, but who’s counting?” Mr. Sanders said — and he appears to be making a little headway. Mr. Sanders has been pressing Mr. Obama to take Social Security off the negotiating table, and the White House now says changes to the retirement program should be considered on a “separate track” from a deficit deal.
“I think maybe he has learned something,” Mr. Sanders, 71, said of the president, who is 20 years his junior. “After four years he has gotten the clue that you can’t negotiate with yourself, you can’t come up with a modest agreement and hope the Republicans say, ‘That’s fair, you’re O.K., we’ll accept that.’ He’s reached out his hand, and they’ve cut him off at the wrist.”
The Senate is a polite place, so Republicans have little to say about their colleague from Vermont with the thick Brooklyn accent. (He acquired it growing up in Flatbush.) After four years of accusing Mr. Obama of practicing “European-style socialism,” they are hardly enamored of a man who actually embraces European-style socialism, and who carries a brass key chain from the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs, who ran in the early 1900s as the Socialist Party candidate.
“Bernie?” Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, said with a raised eyebrow and a sly smile. “He’s one of a kind.”
Vermont Republicans are a bit more pointed. Richard Tarrant, a businessman who ran against Mr. Sanders in 2006 and was trounced, agrees with him that taxes should rise for the rich. But he sees his former opponent as a populist “advocating class warfare” and raising “false hope” about programs that are unsustainable.
Mr. Sanders, who has a habit of answering questions with questions, says it is Republicans who are engaging in class warfare.
“Do we really say we’re going to balance the budget on making major cuts in disability benefits for veterans who have lost their arms and legs defending America, while we continue to give tax breaks to billionaires?” he thundered, without pausing for breath. “Is that what the American people want? They surely do not, and only within a Beltway surrounded by Wall Street and big-money interests could anyone think that is vaguely sensible.”
Mr. Sanders, who on Wednesday was appointed chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has 28 of the Senate’s 51 Democrats with him on keeping Social Security out of the deficit talks; all signed a letter that he and the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, sent to the president. In the House, 104 Democrats — more than half of the caucus — signed a similar appeal. And 13 Senate Democrats, plus Mr. Sanders, signed a second letter demanding that entitlement programs be spared “harmful cuts.”
To Mr. Sanders, “harmful cuts” means any cuts in benefits. He says that entitlement spending should be trimmed only by wringing out inefficiencies. Many budget experts say that is unlikely to produce as much savings as the president and Republicans want. But Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, believes that Mr. Sanders has some silent support.
“I think Senator Sanders represents the majority of our caucus,” Mr. Harkin said. “Not all of it, but the majority. They may not be saying it in the same way that Sanders says it, not as aggressively as Senator Sanders. But I think that’s where they are.”
With his gruff exterior and utter lack of interest in the false pleasantries of politics, Mr. Sanders, a onetime college radical who led a sit-in in 1962 at the University of Chicago to protest discriminatory housing policies, is an unlikely figure to have gained admittance to the Senate, often called the world’s most exclusive club.
Before becoming successful in politics, he knocked around from job to job — carpenter, tax clerk, freelance writer. He took his first trip to Vermont in the mid-1960s after picking up a tourist brochure at Rockefeller Center. He and his wife at the time bought 85 acres of woodlands for $2,500 and began spending long summers in a “sugar cabin” — a shack where maple syrup is made — without electricity or indoor plumbing. In 1968, they moved permanently.
In 1971, he ran for the Senate in a special election on an antiwar platform and got 2 percent of the vote. Ten years later, he squeaked past a six-term Democratic incumbent to become the mayor of Burlington, winning by 10 votes. In a small state like Vermont (population 626,000), Mr. Sanders has proved to be a master of retail politics. This year, he held dozens of town meetings and won without running a single television advertisement.
“Bernie engages everyone,” said Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. “He walks the streets of Burlington alone, without an entourage. People will come up to him and say, ‘You lousy communist S.O.B.,’ and he’ll say: ‘What do you mean? Clarify yourself.’ ”
If Mr. Sanders could have his way, the United States would be like Finland or Sweden, where the government guarantees child care and health care. His philosophy flows from his Brooklyn boyhood; he grew up the son of a paint salesman in a home, he said, where “money was always a source of friction.”
The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment; the young Mr. Sanders slept in the living room with his older brother. His mother, who died at 46, dreamed of owning a “private house.” His father, a Polish immigrant, reminded him of Willy Loman, the hard-working character in “Death of a Salesman,” who is fired after 34 years with the same company.
The play offers a lesson that the senator says is too often forgotten in Washington, “of people who have money not understanding what it’s like not to have money.” Mr. Sanders intends to make people understand, and if he thinks it is necessary to stand on the Senate floor for another 8 hours 37 minutes, he just might do it.
The vicious red states are engaging in an attack on the public school system
By: Dennis S
Dec. 13th, 2012
One of the great ironies of our time was splashed across the front page of my local newspaper the other day in the form of the following headline; “SC focuses on funding teacher recruitment efforts.”
As Robin once said during the Batman TV series back in the 60′s, “Holy Smokes Batman”, because that’s what that headline represented; a complete smokescreen camouflaging the fact that Haley has presided over the dismantling of public educator jobs during the entirety of her term. With State Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais playing Robin to Haley’s Batman, a total of 4,000 teacher positions were to be wiped out. That’s probably an accurate figure considering the legislature had cut hundreds of millions from the education budget.
Of course favored monster corporations retained a goodly portion of sales tax exemptions totaling a billion dollars and when Boeing fled the Washington state International Association of Machinists and Aerospace union (IAM) to come to the low-wage nirvana of North Charleston, somehow the money was found for a $900 million incentive kitty awaiting their poaching in exchange for jobs paying far less than union wages. A recent IAM organizing attempt in the North Charleston assembly facility fell on deaf ears. South Carolina workers are terrified for their jobs.
To make things worse for education, absent some kind of bi-partisan agreement, the Committee for Education Funding, with an Executive Board made up of some of the nation’s top public education leaders has compiled some very disturbing facts. Sequestration threatens to cut fiscal year 2013 Department of Education programs by $4.1 billion; Head Start, another $725 million, both records. For fiscal years 2014-2022 additional cuts will rip the guts out of U.S. educational efforts. Pell grants will be included in the massacre.
Nationwide, teaching positions have represented well over half of those jobs lost in the public sector. The national employment numbers for teachers feel by 7.2% between 2007-2008 and 2010-2011. Do I detect a pattern here? Of course, there was always the relief of the American Jobs Act. Objective professional economic experts predicted AJA would have added anywhere from 1.9 to 2.6 million jobs, not only in the education sector, but also for firemen, police and other public sector workers involved in infrastructure improvements and assorted other projects. The Republicans blocked the legislation insisting trickle down was the answer.
We’re not even counting those teachers who flee the profession for the greener grass of the private sector where each new year won’t bring the specter of budget cuts (education is always first in line) and the politicizing of an educator’s every move.
The story behind the local headline I referenced at the beginning of this article was in reaction to a South Carolina education oversight panel that recommended “legislators spend more on programs designed to draw high school students into teaching and fill slots in the state’s neediest schools.” It seems the state colleges are graduating 2,000 education majors annually, when the need is 4,000. Where have I heard that number before?
There are a couple of active teacher unions in the state and neither have any power whatsoever. They can’t collectively bargain or anything else meaningful to working teachers. They’ve got some fighters but they’re handcuffed by anti-union statutes everywhere they turn. Regurgitating the party line, union-hating types say unions will never fly in the Palmetto state because they serve only to protect indifferent and incompetent teachers.
Are there bad union tenure-protected apples in schools? Of course, just as Jimmy Swaggart chased whores, Bernie Madoff stole billions and politicians from both parties have repeatedly stepped down in disgrace. But the Harvard Educational Review conducted a detailed statistical study comparing the effectiveness of union and non-union teachers. The union crowd drubbed the opposition. Attending high school in a union state raised your SAT score by 50 points. Southern states poor academic performance was tracked almost entirely to lack of unions. The study reasoned that union states did better because of, and I’m directly quoting the study here; “better working conditions, greater worker autonomy, security and dignity; improved administration, better training of teachers and great levels of faculty professionalism.
So if the education grads are really that smart, they’ll pack up and set off for states with strong teacher unions. More money, better benefits and an all-around better teaching environment. Interestingly enough, when I lived in Ohio, recruiters would journey down south and pick off the best and the brightest of education grads. Maybe the fact that union-friendly Ohio paid $10,000 more per year than South Carolina had some of the best and brightest heading to Yankee country. Last year Ohio voters batted back a draconian law severely limiting collective bargaining rights. That will make the state even more attractive to college grads in all disciplines.
If you’re still wondering why there are continuing attacks on public schools and their unions, here is your answer. PoliticusUSA has covered this territory before, but the 2012 state legislative, gubernatorial and House of Representative’s votes prove there is still much work to be done. There are two elements involved for the elected radicals of the right driven by American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation. One is the pure lust for money in the private sector. Pay teachers and administrators less, spend less on materials and technology than the public sector and fatten up the bank accounts of corporations operating private schools at the expense of children. There are plenty of teachers out there who will work relatively cheap since livable union wages are quickly becoming a thing of the past, especially in red RTW states.
Another reason for the fiscal attack on public schools that is little publicized is that private schools are much less subject to tests and regulations and much more accepting of the nutbag curriculum of the sanitized version of history making it appear that anything progressive is the devil’s workshop; speaking of which, many so-called secular private schools will manage to sneak in weekday Sunday school not to mention the serious instruction in such wackadoo subject matter as Creationism, Intelligent Design and some form of climate denial in science classes.
Those are the goals and lazy and uninformed Republican voters have let corporate-run ALEC and tea party extremists get away with pushing them on the state level and in the House of Representatives.
I can’t say this enough; start looking for Democratic candidates now for congressional and state races and show up at the polls. If we let this current crop of gullible, low-information Republican voters continue to grow unabated, women, teachers, workers, minorities and gays can kiss their prospects for fair and equitable treatment goodbye.
December 13, 2012
Two Space Probes to Crash, Intentionally, on Dark Side of Moon
By KENNETH CHANG
NASA’s latest Moon mission will end on Monday — not with a whimper, but a splat.
Two splats, actually.
Ebb and Flow, two space probes the size of washing machines that have been orbiting the Moon and measuring its gravity field, will perform an orchestrated death plunge on Monday, crashing into the body’s dark side.
The exercise will not be for the advance of science, but rather something of a garbage-disposal operation, to make sure that the probes — which are running out of fuel — do not come to rest in a historically significant place, like on Neil Armstrong’s footprints.
The Moon has been affronted this way many times before, especially during the space race of the 1960s, but NASA is now trying to dispose of its litter more carefully.
This time, the first impact will come 40 seconds past 5:38 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 17 when Ebb slams into a mountain near the Moon’s north pole at 3,760 miles per hour. The second, from Ebb’s twin, Flow, will come 20 seconds later.
Unfortunately, since the action will happen on the dark side of the Moon, there will be nothing for earthlings to see.
“We’re not expecting a flash that is visible from Earth,” Maria T. Zuber, the mission’s primary investigator, said Thursday during a telephone news conference.
That is all by design as NASA wraps up its Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission, or Grail, for short.
To map the gravity, the two spacecraft are in an orbit passing over the Moon’s north and south poles. They pass over all parts of the lunar surface as the Moon rotates below.
If the probes’ fuel ran out and their orbits decayed, they could crash anywhere on the Moon, including a slim chance — eight in one million — that one of them could obliterate those famous footprints or another historic site.
With the spacecraft guided into a mountain, the chances are zero.
Even in their demise, however, Ebb and Flow may be able to aid the cause of science. Another of NASA’s spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, will pass over the crash sites, and scientists hope that they will be able to tell something about the mountain — which is a remnant of a crater rim — from the gouges created by Ebb and Flow.
Asked what the crash might look like to someone standing there, David Lehman, the project manager for Grail, said, “It’ll be like a washing machine landing on top of you, and it’ll be a very bad day for you.”
Launched in September 2011, the two spacecraft slipped into lunar orbit at the beginning of this year.
For the primary mission, the two spacecraft orbited at an altitude of 34 miles. Wobbles in the distance between them told of variations in the Moon’s gravitational field. For example, the gravity would be stronger when the spacecraft passed over a mountain field or a clump of dense minerals.
Because of Ebb and Flow, scientists now have more precise measurements of the Moon’s gravity than of the Earth or any other planet.
After the primary mission was completed, the two spacecraft were nudged to a lower altitude of 14 miles — for more precise measurements — and then, on Dec. 6, even lower to 6.6 miles. But maintaining that low altitude depleted the maneuvering fuel.
Data from the Grail mission already has shown that the Moon’s crust is thinner than had been thought, and that it was pulverized by impacts during the early history of the solar system.
The Moon’s density, deduced from the gravity, places constraints on what it could be made of.
For example, Dr. Zuber said, the Moon appears to contain the same abundance of aluminum as the Earth, supporting the theory that the Moon was formed out of a cataclysmic collision of a Mars-size body and the Earth.
The data so far does not support a hypothesis that the Earth once had two Moons that later collided and combined into one.
The gravity data could also help future travelers, human and robotic, navigate to a precise location on the Moon’s surface.
“This actually decreases the costs of future exploration of the Moon,” Dr. Zuber said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 14, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of a NASA mission. It is the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, not the Grail Recovery and Interior Laboratory.
December 14, 2012
Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut
By JAMES BARRON
A 20-year-old man wearing combat gear and armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in an attack in an elementary school in central Connecticut on Friday. Witnesses and officials described a horrific scene as the gunman, with brutal efficiency, chose his victims in two classrooms while other students dove under desks and hid in closets.
Hundreds of terrified parents arrived as their sobbing children were led out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in a wooded corner of Newtown, Conn. By then, all of the victims had been shot and most were dead, and the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, had committed suicide. The children killed were said to be 5 to 10 years old.
A 28th person, found dead in a house in the town, was also believed to have been shot by Mr. Lanza. That victim, one law enforcement official said, was Mr. Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, who worked at the school. She apparently owned the guns he used.
The principal had buzzed Mr. Lanza in because she recognized him as the son of a colleague. Moments later, she was shot dead when she went to investigate the sound of gunshots. The school psychologist was also among those who died.
The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman killed 32 people and then himself.
Law enforcement officials said Mr. Lanza had grown up in Newtown, and he was remembered by high school classmates as smart, introverted and nervous. They said he had gone out of his way not to attract attention when he was younger.
The gunman was chillingly accurate. A spokesman for the State Police said he left only one wounded survivor at the school. All the others hit by the barrage of bullets from the guns Mr. Lanza carried died, suggesting that they were shot at point-blank range. One law enforcement official said the shootings occurred in two classrooms in a section of the single-story Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Some who were there said the shooting occurred during morning announcements, and the initial shots could be heard over the school’s public address system. The bodies of those killed were still in the school as of 10 p.m. Friday.
The New York City medical examiner’s office sent a “portable morgue” to Newtown to help with the aftermath of the shootings, a spokeswoman, Ellen Borakove, confirmed late Friday.
Law enforcement officials offered no hint of what had motivated Mr. Lanza. It was also unclear, one investigator said, why Mr. Lanza — after shooting his mother to death inside her home — drove her car to the school and slaughtered the children. “I don’t think anyone knows the answers to those questions at this point,” the official said. As for a possible motive, he added, “we don’t know much for sure.”
F.B.I. agents interviewed his brother, Ryan Lanza, in Hoboken, N.J. His father, Peter Lanza, who was divorced from Nancy Lanza, was also questioned, one official said.
Newtown, a postcard-perfect New England town where everyone seems to know everyone else and where there had lately been holiday tree lightings with apple cider and hot chocolate, was plunged into mourning. Stunned residents attended four memorial services in the town on Friday evening as detectives continued the search for clues, and an explanation.
Maureen Kerins, a hospital nurse who lives close to the school, learned of the shooting from television and hurried to the school to see if she could help.
“I stood outside waiting to go in, but a police officer came out and said they didn’t need any nurses,” she said, “so I knew it wasn’t good.”
In the cold light of Friday morning, faces told the story outside the stricken school. There were the frightened faces of children who were crying as they were led out in a line. There were the grim faces of women. There were the relieved-looking faces of a couple and their little girl.
The shootings set off a tide of anguish nationwide. In Illinois and Georgia, flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims. And at the White House, President Obama struggled to read a statement in the White House briefing room. More than once, he dabbed his eyes.
“Our hearts are broken,” Mr. Obama said, adding that his first reaction was not as a president, but as a parent.
“I know there is not a parent in America who does not feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” he said.
He called the victims “beautiful little kids.”
“They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” he said. Then the president reached up to the corner of one eye.
Mr. Obama called for “meaningful action” to stop such shootings, but he did not spell out details. In his nearly four years in office, he has not pressed for expanded gun control. But he did allude on Friday to a desire to have politicians put aside their differences to deal with ways to prevent future shootings.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, who went to Newtown, called the shootings “a tragedy of unspeakable terms.”
“Evil visited this community today,” he said.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, described “a very horrific and difficult scene” at the school, which had 700 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It had a security protocol that called for doors to be locked during the day and visitors to be checked on a video monitor inside.
“You had to buzz in and out and the whole nine yards,” said a former chairwoman of the Newtown board of education, Lillian Bittman. “When you buzz, you come up on our screen.”
The lock system did not go into effect until 9:30 each morning, according to a letter to parents from the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, that was posted on several news Web sites. The letter was apparently written earlier in the school year.
It was Ms. Hochsprung, who recognized Mr. Lanza because his mother worked at the school, who let him in on Friday. Sometime later, she heard shots and went to see what was going on.
Lieutenant Vance said the Newtown police had called for help from police departments nearby and began a manhunt, checking “every nook and cranny and every room.”
Officers were seen kicking in doors as they worked their way through the school.
Lieutenant Vance said the students who died had been in two classrooms. Others said that as the horror unfolded, students and teachers tried to hide in places the gunman would not think to look. Teachers locked the doors, turned off the lights and closed the blinds. Some ordered students to duck under their desks.
The teachers did not explain what was going on, but they did not have to. Everyone could hear the gunfire.
Yvonne Cech, a school librarian, said she had spent 45 minutes locked in a closet with two library clerks, a library catalog assistant and 18 fourth graders.
“The SWAT team escorted us out,” she said, and then the children were reunited with their parents.
Lieutenant Vance said 18 youngsters were pronounced dead at the school and two others were taken to hospitals, where they were declared dead. All the adults who were killed at the school were pronounced dead there.
Law enforcement officials said the weapons used by the gunman were a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns. The police also found a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine.
One law enforcement official said the guns had not been traced because they had not yet been removed from the school, but state licensing records or permits apparently indicated that Ms. Lanza owned weapons of the same makes and models.
“He visited two classrooms,” said a law enforcement official at the scene, adding that those two classrooms were adjoining.
The first 911 call was recorded about 9:30 and said someone had been shot at the school, an almost unthinkable turn of events on what had begun as just another chilly day in quiet Newtown. Soon, frantic parents were racing to the school, hoping their children were all right. By 10:30, the shooting had stopped. By then, the police had arrived with dogs.
“There is going to be a black cloud over this area forever,” said Craig Ansman, who led his 4-year-old daughter from the preschool down the street from the elementary school. “It will never go away.”
Reporting on the Connecticut shootings was contributed by Al Baker, Charles V. Bagli, Susan Beachy, Jack Begg, David W. Chen, Alison Leigh Cowan, Robert Davey, Matt Flegenheimer, Joseph Goldstein, Emmarie Huetteman, Kristin Hussey, Thomas Kaplan, Elizabeth Maker, Patrick McGeehan, Sheelagh McNeill, Michael Moss, Andy Newman, Richard Pérez-Peña, Jennifer Preston, William K. Rashbaum, Motoko Rich, Ray Rivera, Liz Robbins, Emily S. Rueb, Eric Schmitt, Michael Schwirtz, Kirk Semple, Wendy Ruderman, Jonathan Weisman, Vivian Yee and Kate Zernike.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 15, 2012
An earlier version of this article suggested that the gunman in the Connecticut shooting used a rifle to carry out the shootings inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School. In fact, according to law enforcement, the guns used in the school shooting were both handguns.
Another mass killing, another debate on gun control
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, December 15, 2012 2:13 EST
The deaths of 20 children in a devastating shooting rampage at an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday once again reignited the debate over US gun laws that until now has yielded little change.
After the latest massacre, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama appeared on television with tears in his eyes to make an emotional plea for “meaningful action” in the wake of the latest outrage.
“As a country we have been through this too many times,” Obama said, mentioning earlier shooting massacres, in Colorado, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Earlier, though, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to discuss the political fallout, telling reporters this was a day “to feel enormous sympathy for families that are affected.”
But congressman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, immediately responded: “If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don’t know when is.”
“Yet another unstable person has gotten access to firearms and committed an unspeakable crime against innocent children. We cannot simply accept this as a routine product of modern American life,” he said.
“I am challenging President Obama, the Congress, and the American public to act on our outrage and, finally, do something about this.”
Obama’s presidency has been marred by several mass killings since 2009, including a 2011 attack on Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a point-blank shot to the head, and a rampage at a Colorado movie theater in July that left 12 dead, including the shooter.
After a massacre this summer that killed six people at a Sikh temple, the White House rejected the idea of new gun control legislation.
Obama’s position was that the administration would do everything in its power to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and unstable individuals, while protecting Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.
The constitution’s Second Amendment is defended tooth and nail by the US gun lobby, which has been successful in blunting past drives to restrict the sale of high powered weapons.
To change the laws, Obama needs Congress to act, and so far the Republican opposition has blocked all reforms of the federal gun laws, including a return of the ban on assault rifles passed under president Bill Clinton but which expired in 2004 under president George W. Bush.
The US media has once again revived the debate, as it did after the killings in Aurora, Colorado this summer and earlier this week after three people were killed in a shooting at an Oregon shopping mall.
“Today is not the day to talk about the politics,” USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page told Politico. “Is this the tipping point? I don’t know the answer to that.”
“There has got to be some kind of measurable change, some kind of reaction,” said Alex Wagner, an anchor at MSNBC.
“One would hope that there will be some political capital to reform the way in which we handle gun and gun violence in this country.”
But defenders of the Second Amendment are unmoved. Just as after previous killings, they insist that restrictions on the sale of semi-automatic weapons is not the solution.
“There’s a good side of guns and you can’t forget about either,” said Alan Gottlieb, the head of the Second Amendment Foundation, told AFP.
“There was nobody in that school who was allowed to have a firearm to protect themselves or those children. And I find that to be deplorable”
“I’m sure the person who committed this horrible act knew he could go in and do it because no one else could have a gun. He didn’t care about the law because he was going to break it anyway,” he said.
15 December 2012 - 13H46
World leaders express shock over latest US shooting
AFP - World leaders expressed shock and horror after a gunman massacred 20 small children and six teachers Friday in the US state of Connecticut, in one of the worst school shootings in history.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon wrote to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy to give his "deepest condolences at the shocking murders," a statement said.
"The targeting of children is heinous and unthinkable," he added in condemning the "horrendous" crime.
European Union diplomacy chief Catherine Ashton expressed "shock" at the "tragic shooting."
The head of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso spoke of his "deep shock and horror" upon hearing of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which he called a "terrible tragedy."
"Young lives full of hope have been destroyed," he said in a statement.
There were almost no non-fatal injuries, indicating that once targeted, there was rarely any chance of escape, and that the gunman, believed to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza, was unusually accurate or methodical in his fire.
"The news is just awful. The thoughts and prayers of Canadians are with the students and families in CT affected by this senseless violence," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote on his Twitter account.
His Foreign Minister John Baird said Canadians "stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends at this difficult time."
The child victims were reported to be aged between five and 10.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter of condolence to the community, which was read aloud at a vigil in Newtown Friday evening.
"I ask God our father to console all those who mourn and to sustain the entire community with the spiritual strength which triumphs over violence by the power of forgiveness, hope and reconciling love," the pope wrote, according to US media.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he "was shocked and deeply saddened to hear about today's horrific shooting."
"My thoughts are with the injured and those who have lost loved ones. It is heartbreaking to think of those who have had their children robbed from them at such a young age, when they had so much life ahead of them."
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sent a message to President Barack Obama in which she said she was "deeply shocked and saddened" to hear of the shootings.
"The thoughts and prayers of everyone in the United Kingdom and throughout the Commonwealth are with the families and friends of those killed and with all those who have been affected by today's events."
French President Francois Hollande also extended his condolences in a message to Obama.
"This news... horrified me and I wish to express my deep shock and consternation," Hollande said.
The foreign ministry also issued a message in which it offered "France's full support to the American people and authorities."
Mexico's newly inaugurated president, Enrique Pena Nieto, also expressed his support to the US after the deadly shooting.
"My solidarity with the American people and President @BarackObama after the tragedy this morning in Connecticut," he wrote on Twitter.
And Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said "Australia grieves with America today following the mass shooting of primary school children and teachers in Connecticut.
"Like President Obama and his fellow Americans, our hearts too are broken.
"We share America's shock at this senseless and incomprehensible act of evil."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Saturday offered his support for the tragedy, expressing "deep admiration over the manner in which the American people have reached out to comfort the afflicted."
"We pray for healing, and that this heartbreak will never be visited on any community ever again," he said in a statement.
Iran was quick on Saturday to express condolences after the "tragic" shooting rampage.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast condemned the "tragic incident" and expressed sympathy with the families of the victims, the state broadcaster's website IRIB reported.
He also called on American society to mobilise against "warmongering and the massacre of innocent people anywhere, through terrorism, whether state-sponsored or not."
Man stabs 22 children at China primary school
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 14, 2012 7:19 EST
A man stabbed 22 primary school students in a knife attack in China on Friday, officials said, the latest in a series of assaults.
The attacker “has been detained”, said a spokesman for the Guangshan county government in the central province of Henan, where the stabbing happened.
“Twenty-two elementary school students were stabbed, so was an adult villager” but none of the victims died, the official, who declined to give his name, told AFP.
The state-run China News Service said a man attacked the students with a knife outside an elementary school, resulting in injuries which were “not life threatening”. It did not give the children’s exact ages.
China has seen several violent attacks against children over the past two years, including a spate of five incidents in 2010 which killed 15 children and two adults and wounded more than 80.
The assaults have forced authorities to increase security around schools and led to calls for more research into their root causes.
Violent crime has been on the rise in China in recent decades as the nation’s economy has boomed and the gap between rich and poor has expanded rapidly.
Studies have also described a rise in the prevalence of mental disorders, some of them linked to stress as the pace of life becomes faster and socialist support systems wither.
But authorities say that murder, which carries the death penalty, remains far less common than in most Western countries.
Obama signs Russian human rights law, angers Putin
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 14, 2012 20:06 EST
President Barack Obama Friday signed legislation that sanctions alleged Russian human rights abuses, which outraged Moscow after being coupled with a bill granting it normal trade relations.
Obama signed the measure into law a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the so-called Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials allegedly implicated in the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement minutes after Obama formally signed the legislation in the Oval Office, saying the move amounted to “open meddling” in its internal affairs and was “a blind and dangerous position.”
Magnitsky was held in pre-trial jail on fraud allegations when he died in 2009 at age 37 of several untreated conditions.
Prior to his arrest, he claimed to have discovered a major tax fraud covered up by Russian interior ministry officials and testified against them.
Putin’s comments came before the Russian lower house gave initial backing to a bill that Moscow sees as tit-for-tat retaliation for the Magnitsky legislation passed by Congress last week.
“The investigation (into Magnitsky’s death) is not over yet, and it’s not yet clear who is right and who is wrong there, what the situation is. This is a purely political, unfriendly act,” Putin said.
“I don’t understand why,” he said. “Why do they need it? They (the United States) talk of a reset but they themselves make the situation worse.”
The legislation approves establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia, ending Cold War-era restrictions, and grants the same status to Moldova.
The repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment was meant to reflect the changes in the world with Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization.
The White House opposed turning the trade bill into a referendum on Russia’s human rights record amid already-strained ties, after Obama engineered a “reset” of relations with Russia in his first term.
Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, earlier gave initial backing to the bill that would blacklist some Americans with entry bans and asset freezes in retaliation for the Magnitsky bill.
In the first of three readings, 431 lawmakers voted in favor and two against. Once passed by the Duma and the upper house, the Federation Council, the bill will need to be signed by Putin to become law.
While initial discussion in Moscow revolved around sanctioning US officials implicated in the controversial Guantanamo prison or torture, deputies later decided to switch focus to Russian children allegedly abused on American soil.
One United Russia deputy has already dubbed the legislation the “Dima Yakovlev Bill” in honor of a two-year-old Russian boy who died of heat stroke in 2008 after his adoptive American father forgot him in a car in summer temperatures.
The father was controversially acquitted of involuntary manslaughter by a county judge in Virginia, a decision that was slammed by Moscow and eventually led to a new US-Russia adoption law that gave Russia more oversight.
The blacklist will also include judicial officials who handed out “baseless and unfair” verdicts on Russians. The blacklist will be kept by the Russian foreign ministry, the bill says.
Egypt divided by religion and politics votes on new constitution
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 14, 2012 23:59 EST
Egyptians vote Saturday on a new constitution supported by the ruling Islamists but bitterly contested by a secular-leaning opposition that failed to scupper the referendum with mass protests.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces and are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm in the first round. The rest of the country votes on December 22.
Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city, was the scene of clashes on the eve of the referendum between opponents of the draft charter and Islamists after a cleric told worshippers at a mosque to support the constitution.
Hundreds of protesters later besieged the mosque, where the cleric took refuge.
The charter is at the heart of a power struggle between President Mohamed Morsi and the opposition, backed by judges who accuse the Islamists of overreaching.
The vote will be staggered over two rounds to ensure there will be enough judges to monitor polling stations amid a rift within the judiciary over the referendum process.
The first round’s unofficial results are expected hours after the polling stations close.
Morsi has ordered Egypt’s military to help police maintain security until the results of the referendum are known. A total of 130,000 police and 120,000 soldiers are being deployed, interior ministry and military officials told AFP.
The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, had mulled a boycott before urging Egyptians to vote down the charter, which rights groups say limits the freedoms of minorities and women.
International watchdogs, including the UN human rights chief, the United States and European Union, have expressed reservations about the draft because of loopholes that could be used to weaken human rights, including those of women, and the independence of the judiciary.
The referendum was only made possible after Morsi assumed sweeping powers that stripped a court of the right to annul the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly that drafted the charter, as some expected it to do earlier this month.
Morsi was forced to rescind his powers after mass protests outside his palace in northern Cairo led to the worst violence between the opposition and Islamists since his election in June.
Analysts said the proven ability of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement to muster voters was likely — but not certain — to ensure that the draft constitution is passed.
The opposition, after failing to derail the referendum, has had little time to organise a rival campaign to scrap the charter, and has threatened to boycott the second round if it decides that the vote is unfair.
15 December 2012 - 14H40
Egyptian ruling party accused of "vote rigging"
AFP - The opposition accused President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood of attempted "vote rigging" in Saturday's referendum on a new constitution for Egypt.
The National Salvation Front, in a statement, expressed "deep concern... over the number of irregularities and violations in the holding of the referendum," charging it "points to a clear desire for vote rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood."
The statement, however, did not call for a boycott which the Front had threatened if it felt the referendum was unfair.
Instead it urged voters to reject the new constitution, which was largely drafted by Morsi's Islamist allies.
The Front sent a separate statement with a long list of alleged irregularities recorded.
The violations cited included unsealed ballot papers, Muslim Brotherhood members coercing people into voting for the charter, an absence of judges to monitor and polls being closed early.
In Cairo's Nasr City, where Islamists held a pro-constitution rally on Friday, a judge forbade Christians from voting, the Front said.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, is split over the draft charter, which is being decided in a staggered referendum being held Saturday and a week later.
Morsi's camp argues the text needs to be adopted to stem the instability which has endured since the overthrow early last year of Hosni Mubarak.
But the secular-leaning opposition sees the proposed constitution as undercutting human rights, especially for women and religious minorities, and boosting military powers to usher in sharia-style laws wanted by the Islamists.
Egypt has weathered three weeks of protests against Morsi and the draft charter. Last week, clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo left eight people dead and hundreds injured.
December 14, 2012
Obama Walks a Fine Line With Egyptian President
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Tanks and barbed wire had surrounded Egypt’s presidential palace and crowds of protesters were swarming around last week when President Obama placed a call to President Mohamed Morsi.
Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood stood accused of a sudden turn toward authoritarianism, as they fulminated about conspiracies, steamrollered over opponents, and sent their supporters into a confrontation with protesters the night before that call; the clash left seven people dead. But Mr. Obama did not reprimand Mr. Morsi, advisers to both leaders said.
Instead, a senior Obama administration official said, the American president sought to build on a growing rapport with his Egyptian counterpart, arguing to Mr. Morsi that it was in his own interest to offer his opposition compromises, in order to build trust in his government.
“These last two weeks have been concerning, of course, but we are still waiting to see,” said another senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid aggravating relations with Egypt. “One thing we can say for Morsi is he was elected, so he has some legitimacy.” He noted that Mr. Morsi was elected with 51 percent of the vote.
As Egyptians vote Saturday on the draft constitution, the results may also render a verdict on Mr. Morsi’s ability to stabilize the country and the Obama administration’s bet that it can build a workable partnership with a government guided by the Brotherhood — a group the United States shunned for decades as a threat to Western values and interests.
White House officials say that as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mr. Morsi has a unique chance to build a credible democratic process with broad participation, which is the surest source of stability.
But critics of the Brotherhood have cited Mr. Morsi’s strong-arm push for the Islamist-backed charter as vindication of their argument that Islamist politics are fundamentally incompatible with tolerance, pluralism and the open debate essential to democracy. They say that his turn to authoritarianism has discredited the Obama administration’s two-year courtship of Egypt’s new Islamist leaders.
Some say they suspect the White House may envision the trade-off it offered to the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak: turning a blind eye to heavy-handed tactics so long as he continues to uphold the stability of American-backed regional order.
And by muting its criticism, the Obama administration shares some of the blame, said Michael Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation in New York and an Egyptian-American in Cairo for the vote. “Silence is acquiescence,” he said, adding about Mr. Morsi: “At some point if you are so heedless of the common good that you are ready to take the country to the brink and overlook bodies in the street, that is just not O.K.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers, though, say that in Egypt the dual goals of stability and democracy are aligned, because in the math of the revolution Egyptians will no longer accept the old autocracy.
As for Mr. Morsi, administration officials and other outside analysts argue that so far his missteps appear to be matters of tactics, not ideology, with only an indirect connection to his Islamist politics. “The problem with Morsi isn’t whether he is Islamist or not, it is whether he is authoritarian,” said a Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.
What is more, the leading opposition alternatives appeared no less authoritarian: Ahmed Shafik, who lost the presidential runoff, was a former Mubarak prime minister campaigning as a new strongman, and Hamdeen Sabahi, who narrowly missed the runoff, is a Nasserite who has talked of intervention by the military to unseat Mr. Morsi despite his election as president.
“The problem with ‘I told you so’ is the assumption that if things had turned out differently the outcome would be better, and I don’t see that,” the diplomat said, noting that the opposition to the draft constitution had hardly shown more respect than Mr. Morsi has for the norms of democracy or the rule of law. “There are no black hats and white hats here, there are no heroes and villains. Both sides are using underhanded tactics and both sides are using violence.”
Critics of the draft constitution say it does not adequately protect freedom of expression or women’s equality. Under a more conservative Islamist government, certain provisions could give new power to Muslim religious authorities to exert over law and society. The draft document retains a longstanding provision declaring the principles of Islamic law to be the main source of legislation. A new clause broadly defines those principles in accord with Sunni Muslim traditions. Critics say that could someday be used to the disadvantage of non-Muslim lawmakers or jurists.
But White House officials say that although the charter may be vague, it does not impose a theocracy. “The question will be, how does the next Parliament implement what is in the constitution, and what is their vision for Egypt?” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Critics fault some of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies for rallying his supporters with calls to defend Islamic law. Critics say invoking religion unfairly demonizes their opponents, most of whom are also observant Muslims, and widens the polarization that has paralyzed Egyptian politics. But Mr. Morsi has not joined their calls.
Other scholars of the Brotherhood say Mr. Morsi’s recent strong-arm tactics may have more to do with the history of the Islamist political movement. He grew up in the Brotherhood when it was an outlawed secret society under the Mubarak police state, concerned most of all with survival and prone to see persecution around every corner.
White House officials defended Mr. Morsi, arguing that he was learning from his mistakes. Afraid that the courts might dissolve the constitutional assembly or even remove his powers, Mr. Morsi badly overreached with a decree putting himself above the courts until ratification of a new charter.
But he has steadily retreated in the face of pressure from the street. And after the deadly mistake of turning to their Islamist supporters for protection of the palace, the Brotherhood has carefully kept all its rallies far from its opponents to avoid any further violence.
Looking past the referendum, White House advisers say they are urging Mr. Morsi to spend any political capital he gains on reaching out to his opponents, to build the legitimacy for his government and the political process. Mr. Morsi’s advisers say a “national dialogue” committee he convened is still working on such proposals.
Under current Egyptian law, the president is allowed to fill about a third of the seats in the upper house of Parliament, known as the Shura Council, and one idea is that he could appoint political opponents, evening out the balance. The chamber is the sole legislature until parliamentary elections, handling delicate matters like the election laws.
“Our point to him is going to be, as the democratically elected president of Egypt who has just passed a constitution, the onus is going to be on you to try to heal this divide,” the White House official said. “And we will look for concrete measures of that, like a willingness to appoint people to the Shura Council.”
“And we are saying the same thing to the opposition,” he added. “They have got to be willing to participate.”
« Last Edit: Dec 15, 2012, 08:58 AM by Rad »
December 14, 2012
Syrian Rebel Lays Out Hostage Demands, as Case Sullies a Cause
By C. J. CHIVERS
BAB AL-SALAM, Syria — When Syrian rebels stopped two buses of Lebanese travelers in the spring and took 11 passengers hostage, they set off a cascade of fallout: riots at the Beirut airport, retaliation kidnappings against Syrians in Lebanon and a deepening of the sectarian character of the war.
Since that day in May, as civil war has raged and opposition fighters have gained momentum in their bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the rebels have continued to detain most of their prisoners, having released two as a good-will gesture. The rest, nine men who the captors insist are members of Hezbollah — which the prisoners deny — will be released only as part of a prisoner exchange, the rebel commander holding the group said.
The commander, Amar al-Dadikhi of the North Storm brigade, which has been holding the prisoners at an undisclosed location in Syria’s northern countryside, said in interviews that he would free the hostages if the Syrian government released two prominent opposition figures and if Lebanon freed all Syrian activists in government custody.
The men’s prospects for freedom, he said, are “in the Syrian government’s hands, and the Lebanese government’s hands.”
Their detention began after they were removed at gunpoint from buses driving though Syria while returning from a Shiite religious pilgrimage to Iran. The case has remained stubbornly unresolved, even as it has raised questions about the character and criminality of some of the rebels whom the West has hesitatingly backed.
The taking of the hostages also sullied the reputation of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized antigovernment fighting groups. Without any public evidence to support the claim that the hostages are members of Hezbollah, the case has exposed the limits of the Free Syrian Army’s influence over rebels who fly its banner.
The Free Syrian Army’s leadership appears not to have been able to persuade Mr. Dadikhi to release the men, even as it seeks international recognition and tangible military aid, two desires undermined by the hostage case.
Mr. Dadikhi, a large and scarred man who is alternately praised by many opposition activists for battlefield bravery and whispered about as an accomplished smuggler who once maintained extensive ties to the government, claims to have 1,300 armed fighters and a network of cross-border contacts. His control of the border crossing that leads to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, makes him a power broker by default.
Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, a former Syrian military officer and one of the Free Syrian Army commanders in the Aleppo region, declined to comment on the case beyond saying that he was aware of the demands of Mr. Dadikhi, whom he called Abu Ibrahim.
“Abu Ibrahim has his requests,” he said. “If they are taken care of, he will free the Lebanese.”
Relatives of the hostages, reached by telephone in Beirut, expressed deep anger upon hearing Mr. Dadikhi’s demands. “Let them capture someone from the regime. Why abduct Lebanese? What do we have to do with the revolution?” said the wife of one of the hostages. “They are liars; they won’t release them. It is just blackmail.”
Mr. Dadikhi allowed two journalists from The New York Times to meet with two of the hostages — Ali Abbas, 30, and Ali Tormos, 54 — for about 30 minutes on Thursday afternoon. The men appeared to be in good health, and they said they and the other hostages had not been harmed.
They expressed weariness and asked that Lebanon and Syria meet their captors’ demands. “It has been a long time, and we want to go home,” Mr. Abbas said.
The interview was held in a former government office at the border crossing from Syria to Kilis, Turkey. Mr. Dadikhi agreed to leave the room while the hostages spoke. The meeting remained all but scripted.
Mr. Tormos called for the removal of the Assad government. In behavior common to hostages seeking good relations with their captors, he and Mr. Abbas praised Mr. Dadikhi and described their living conditions in cheerful terms.
At one point, Mr. Tormos gestured to Mr. Abbas and said: “He has gained weight. I have seen it.”
He added, “As God is my witness: No one has bothered us or hurt us or told us bad words.”
Mr. Abbas said that they had ample food, medicine and heat, and access to a television — conditions many people in Syria do not have as the war enters its second winter.
Mr. Dadikhi’s demands were carefully pitched to the message of the revolution, and he insisted that he wanted no money as part of a ransom deal. The prospects that Syria and Lebanon will accept his conditions are nonetheless uncertain.
The two opposition figures whose release he has sought by name — Tal al-Mallohi and Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush — have not been heard from during the hostages’ detention. Many activists fear that they are dead.
Ms. Mallohi, a teenage blogger at the time of her arrest, had no direct participation in the uprising. Her blog, which included poetry she wrote, expressed support for Palestinians and called for a better life in Syria. She was seized by security officers in late 2009 and jailed, accused of spying. The uprising began in 2011.
At the time, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information called her “the youngest prisoner of conscience in the Arab world.” As protests began against the Assad government, the opposition adopted her as a revolutionary symbol and an example of government repression.
Colonel Harmoush, the first prominent defector from the Syrian Army, fled Syria in June 2011 and claimed that the government had ordered the army to fire on civilians.
He disappeared from Turkey in August 2011 and soon appeared on Syrian state television to recant his statements, in what the opposition called a coerced appearance.
Mr. Dadikhi acknowledged that Ms. Mallohi and Colonel Harmoush might be dead, and he said that if the government had killed them, he would not retaliate. “We will not do the same as the regime and kill our prisoners,” he said.
Mr. Dadikhi also demanded that Lebanon release any anti-Assad activists it had arrested since the uprising began. He said he did not have a count of activists in Lebanese custody, but he suggested that the number could be up to a hundred.
He added that he had tried to contact the American Embassy in Turkey to broker the hostages’ release, but that he had received no reply.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
15 December 2012 - 14H35
Russia arrests opposition leaders at banned rally
December 15, 2012.
AFP - Russian police Saturday arrested several opposition leaders, including well-known blogger Alexei Navalny, as hundreds of people packed a central Moscow square in defiance of an official ban to protest Vladimir Putin's rule.
Scores of Muscovites, many holding white roses, defied the authorities by turning up at Lubyanka Square, the seat of the FSB security services, despite temperatures of minus 14 degrees C (seven degrees F) and warnings that the unsanctioned rally would be broken up.
Navalny, possibly the most charismatic figure in the protest movement against the Russian president, was detained a day after investigators launched a new criminal probe against him for suspected fraud. patisserie
"It's raving mad. (They) simply snatched me from the crowd," Navalny tweeted from inside a police van.
Besides Navalny, police also arrested Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of leftist group the Left Front, and activists Ilya Yashin and Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin's late mentor Anatoly Sobchak.
"Looks like I am a very dangerous criminal," Sobchak quipped on Twitter.
The prominent figures arrested all noted on Twitter that the police vans holding them had been equipped with webcams to keep close watch on their behaviour.
Police put the turnout at around 500 people, half of them journalists and bloggers, but an AFP correspondent said the real number of the protesters appeared to be significantly higher.
People laid white lilies, carnations and chrysanthemums at the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to victims of Stalin-era purges adorning the square, as a helicopter hovered overhead.
One hour into the rally, the monument was blanketed by piles of flowers.
"Our authorities are repressive," one protester, 48-year-old businessman Andrei Genin, told AFP, sporting a white ribbon, the symbol of the opposition movement against Putin.
City authorities had earlier banned an opposition march through the city, and the opposition Coordination Council had urged Russians to simply turn up at Lubyanka Square.
On the eve of the protest, Russian authorities launched a second major investigation against Navalny, accusing the protest leader and his brother Oleg of embezzling 55 million rubles ($1.8 million, 1.4 million euros) from a trading company.
Navalny, who has already been charged with embezzlement in an earlier case in which he faces up to 10 years in prison, vowed to press ahead with his political activism.
In a separate event, his supporters convened in the Russian capital to establish a new political party that would represent the interests of middle-class urbanities, the backbone of the anti-Putin protests.
Dubbed "The Popular Alliance", the party will promote the "middle class and the European choice", activist Leonid Volkov told Echo of Moscow radio, noting that Navalny himself would not be an official member.
The opposition movement is hoping to maintain momentum despite internal divisions between liberals, leftists and nationalists and the authorities' tough crackdown on dissenters since Putin's return to the Kremlin in May.
Even supporters admit that the euphoria that marked the first opposition protests that erupted after fraud-tainted parliamentary polls last December has largely died down.
Up to 120,000 people gathered near the Kremlin walls at the peak of the protests last winter, a huge number for a country that lost its taste for street politics after the turbulent 1990s.
The last major rally, in September, drew around 14,000 people, according to police, though the opposition argued many more had shown up.
Weeks after his inauguration, Putin signed off on a raft of laws that critics have attacked as a bid to quash dissent.
Scores of activists now face jail time for taking part in a May 6 protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors.
Ahead of Saturday's rally, Moscow prosecutors delivered a warning to leading activists, while police urged Russians to refrain from "provocations".
Smaller rallies were held in several cities across Russia.
Sixty people held a 40-minute march in Tomsk in western Siberia despite temperatures of minus 35 degrees C, a representative of the Solidarnost (Solidarity) movement, Ksenia Fadeyeva, told AFP.
Fourteen people marched in the city of Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia, police said.
December 14, 2012
Russia Opens New Inquiry Targeting an Activist
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
MOSCOW — The police opened a new criminal investigation on Friday against Aleksei Navalny, the street protest leader and anticorruption activist, who is already being questioned in two other cases.
The new charges became public the day before a planned opposition rally, which Mr. Navalny said in an interview he would lead despite the announcement.
The organizing committee for the rally, which Mr. Navalny heads, had asked to gather at Lubyanka Square, in front of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the K.G.B. When it became clear on Thursday that the city would deny a parade permit, Mr. Navalny called for supporters to come out anyway.
On Friday, the Investigative Committee, a prosecutorial agency, posted a statement on its Web site announcing the new investigation.
Prosecutors described a Rube Goldberg-like plan by Mr. Navalny and his brother, Oleg A. Navalny, who is a post office employee and had not been a public figure until now, to steal money in business deals between 2008 and 2011.
The statement said the two overcharged for the services of a private courier company operating between Moscow and the city of Yaroslavl. It said that Oleg obtained a contract from a commercial enterprise, which was not specified other than to note it was partially foreign-owned, to ship parcels along this route. He worked through a company registered by Aleksei in 2008.
Over three years, this company billed the client for 55 million rubles, or almost $1.8 million, the statement said.
Investigators subsequently appraised the shipping cost for this quantity of parcels over this distance at 31 million rubles, or about $1 million, and said the brothers had knowingly overcharged for the service.
The investigators said a portion of the profits, 19 million rubles, or almost $619,000, was subsequently laundered through a wicker basket weaving enterprise owned by their parents.
“Hey you in the Investigative Committee! Have you gone crazy?” Mr. Navalny wrote in a Twitter post after reading the statement on Friday morning. In an interview, he denied wrongdoing and said the link to the planned protest on Saturday was obvious.
“I did not steal your packages, you goats,” he wrote in another Twitter post.
The police on Friday searched Mr. Navalny’s office, the office of his brother at the postal service and the basket factory owned by his parents.
Mr. Navalny has been under investigation since 2010. The police are looking into whether he gave bad advice to a timber company several years earlier, when he worked as an adviser to a regional governor.
That case is pending; the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison. It is unclear what sentence he could receive under the new charges.
Mr. Navalny has also been questioned as a witness in an investigation into violence at a protest on Bolotnaya Square in March.
This month, protesters had wanted to lay flowers on a stone in Lubyanka Square commemorating victims of secret police repression. After weeks of talks, the city offered a permit for a rally in a different location and a day later, on Sunday.
Previous large protests in Moscow had been permitted, even as masses of riot police officers and Interior Ministry troops staged in buses on nearby streets, hinting at the prospect of a showdown.
On Friday, the Moscow Police Department said in a statement carried by Interfax that it would prevent any “unsanctioned gatherings.” The police have been issuing specially marked yellow vests to journalists who intend to cover the protest, suggesting anybody without one risks arrest.
« Last Edit: Dec 15, 2012, 09:06 AM by Rad »
December 14, 2012
Hard-Line Israeli Foreign Minister Resigns
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — Facing indictment for breach of trust and fraud, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned his post Friday afternoon amid mounting political pressure, upending the campaign landscape five weeks before national elections.
Mr. Lieberman, a powerful but polarizing figure, wrote on his Facebook page, “I know that I committed no crime,” but said he was stepping down so “I will be able to put an end to this matter swiftly and without delay and to clear my name completely.”
Mr. Lieberman, who is also a member of Parliament, indicated that he still hoped to compete in the Jan. 22 balloting, suggesting a possible plea bargain. The expected indictment, which prosecutors announced on Thursday, concerns a relatively minor offense compared with a broader case of money laundering and fraud that was dropped after an investigation stretching for more than 12 years.
“I believe that the citizens of the State of Israel are entitled to go to the polling stations after this matter has already been resolved,” Mr. Lieberman’s statement said. If a legal ruling could be made before the elections, “I might continue to serve the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel as part of a strong and united leadership that will cope with the security, political and economic challenges facing the State of Israel.”
Mr. Lieberman, 54, leads the secular, ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which joined forces in October with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. A populist immigrant from the former Soviet Union, he was widely considered as a potential successor to Mr. Netanyahu as leader of Israel’s right wing, though his hard line on the Palestinian question, among other issues, alienated many Western allies.
After the charges were announced, Mr. Lieberman told supporters that he had been hounded by corruption accusations since July 1996, when he served as a top aide to Mr. Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister. “Since then till today, not a day has passed without me being referred to as ‘a suspect,’ ‘being under investigation,’ ‘being an intelligence target,’ ” Mr. Lieberman said. “This has been one long and rolling case, receiving a different title every now and then.”
The conduct for which Mr. Lieberman will face indictment stems from an investigation into other allegations. He is accused of promoting Israel’s former ambassador to Belarus for another post after the ambassador gave him confidential information regarding an Israeli police investigation into Mr. Lieberman’s activities.
But Mr. Lieberman will not face charges on the underlying, more serious case, in which he was suspected of receiving millions of dollars from international tycoons with business interests in Israel through companies formally led by family members or associates.
Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, said Thursday in a report announcing his decision that he could not adequately prove a link between Mr. Lieberman and the money, though he said, “The suspicions against Lieberman’s series of intricate and intertwined, underhanded actions cannot be ruled out.”
Born in Moldova, Mr. Lieberman enjoys wide support among Israel’s one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He lives in a West Bank settlement considered illegal under international law, and he is perhaps the government’s harshest critic of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, having called for his ouster and denounced as “diplomatic terrorism” his recent bid for upgraded Palestinian status at the United Nations.
Polls have consistently shown that Mr. Lieberman’s joint ticket with Mr. Netanyahu, known here as Likud Beiteinu, is expected to receive up to 40 of the 120 seats in Israel’s next Parliament, by far the largest bloc. The merger was seen as crowning him a top contender to eventually follow Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister.
Opposition leaders, who on Thursday had called for Mr. Lieberman’s resignation, were swift to embrace it on Friday, but not without adding jabs.
Zahava Gal-On, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, said Mr. Lieberman had “spared himself ignobility and disgrace” by stepping down, according to the Web site of Channel 2 News. Shelly Yacimovich, chairwoman of the Labor Party, said he had “severely undermined the rule of law and damaged the public’s faith in its elected officials and democracy.”
Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who now heads the new Hatnua Party, issued a more moderate statement, saying: “Avigdor Lieberman performed the right and necessary action. We hope he will receive a swift legal proceeding.”
Mr. Netanyahu had no immediate comment on Mr. Lieberman’s resignation Friday, but on Thursday had offered only support. “I believe in Israel’s legal system and respect it,” the prime minister said in a statement. “The right that it grants any Israeli citizen to defend himself also extends to Minister Lieberman, and I hope for him that he’ll be able to prove that he’s also innocent regarding the only case that remains.”
Under Israeli law, when a cabinet minister resigns, the prime minister becomes “custodian” of his portfolio, and Mr. Netanyahu is expected to handle foreign affairs himself at least until after the elections.
Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 14, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the forming of a coalition between Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud. It took place in October, not last month.