November 16, 2012
Tribunal Overturns Convictions of Two Croat Generals
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal overturned the convictions of two Croat generals on Friday for murdering and illegally expelling Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz, and ordered both men to be freed immediately.
The decision, by a 3-2 majority in the U.N. court's five-judge appeals chamber, is one of the most significant reversals in the court's 18-year history and overturns a verdict that dealt a blow to Croatia's self-image as a victim of atrocities, rather than a perpetrator, during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
The ruling triggered scenes of rapture in court and among Croat war veterans watching the ruling on big screens in the capital, Zagreb, but also triggered fury in Serbia where it was seen as further evidence of anti-Serb bias at the tribunal. Even liberal Serbs warned it created a sense of injustice and could stir nationalist sentiments.
Neither Ante Gotovina nor Mladen Markac showed any emotion as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron told them they were free men, but their supporters in the court's packed public gallery cheered and clapped.
On a lawn outside the tribunal, supporters sang, waved a Croat flag and sipped champagne, while the generals were returned to their jail cells to complete release paperwork before being flown back to Croatia, likely Friday afternoon.
A convoy of minibuses with a police escort sped out of the jail in the early afternoon, believed to be carrying the generals to an airport.
"I think right now what he wants to do is go home to his wife, his little boy, his daughter," said Gotovina's American lawyer, Greg Kehoe.
Gotovina and Markac were sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively in 2011 for crimes, including murder and deportation. Judges ruled both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs.
Serbia claims that some 600 Serbs were killed and more than 200,000 driven from their homes during the operation.
But the appeals judges said prosecutors failed to prove the existence of such a conspiracy, effectively clearing Croatia's entire wartime leadership of war crimes in the operation known as Operation Storm.
The operation came at the end of Croatia's battle to secede from the crumbling Yugoslavia and involved grabbing back land along its border with Bosnia that had earlier been occupied by rebel Serbs.
"Does this vindicate that particular operation as a proper and just attempt to bring back this land under Croatia? Of course," Kehoe said.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called the ruling "an important moment for Croatia."
The country's liberal president, Ivo Josipovic, said it was "proof that the Croatian army did not take part in a criminal enterprise" and "a symbolic satisfaction for all victims of the war."
Vesna Skare Ozbolt, former legal adviser of late President Tudjman, said the verdict "corrects all wrongs about our just war," and "proves that there was no ethnic cleansing in Croatia and that it was all lies."
Tudjman died in 1999, while under investigation by the tribunal.
While supporters of the generals at home in Croatia cheered and set off fireworks, the acquittals enraged hardline opponents of the U.N. court in Serbia who accuse its judges of anti-Serb bias.
The country's nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement the "scandalous" decision by the Hague court was clearly "political and not legal" and "will not contribute to stabilization of the situation in the region but will reopen all wounds."
Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, also branded the ruling as "scandalous," saying it endangers the general principle that war crimes must be punished. "This was one of the biggest war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, murder, expulsion and endangering of several hundred thousand people and no one was held responsible," Vukcevic told The Associated Press.
Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian government official who deals with the tribunal, said the court has "lost all credibility."
"What happened today is just evidence of selective justice which is worse than any injustice," Ljajic said. "The decision will only worsen the perception of the tribunal in our public."
Gotovina's and Markac's convictions were one of the few at the tribunal to punish perpetrators of atrocities against Serb civilians. The majority of criminals convicted have been Serbs. The Bosnian Serb wartime leader and military chief, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, are currently on trial for allegedly masterminding Serb atrocities.
Gotovina, 55, is especially popular among Croatian nationalists. The charismatic former soldier fought in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s and spent four years on the run from justice before being captured in the Canary Islands in December 2005.
The verdicts against the two generals had triggered anti-Western sentiments among nationalist Croatians ahead of the country's planned European Union entry in July 2013.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the EU's executive hopes "Croatia will continue to look to the future in spirit of tolerance and reconciliation which brought this country where it stands today on the threshold of EU membership."
The original convictions were based on a finding that Croat forces deliberately used illegal artillery attacks on four towns to drive Serb civilians from their homes. But appeals judges overturned that key finding and said that therefore no criminal conspiracy could be proven.
The majority said there was insufficient evidence to prove a campaign of illegal shelling, rejecting the trial judges' view that any shell that hit further than 200 meters (yards) from a legitimate military target was evidence of indiscriminate shelling. Judge Carmel Agius, in a written dissenting opinion Friday, called the appeals court's reasoning "confusing and extremely problematic."
There are no other Croat suspects on trial at the tribunal whose cases could be affected by the ruling.
Kehoe said the appeals judgment did not undermine the tribunal's credibility, but in fact proved its impartiality.
"Is it a vindication for the rule of law and justice? Yes it is," he said.
Croatian war veterans celebrated in the main square of the capital, Zagreb.
"Finally, we can say to our children that we are not war criminals," said veteran Djuro Vec. "We fought for justice, and that our fight was righteous and just."
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Zagreb, Croatia, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.
11/15/2012 12:36 PM
The Charming Hardliner: Xi Jinping Assumes Reins of Restive China
By Bernhard Zand in Beijing
China's once-a-decade transition of power is complete. The country's new supreme body, the Politiburo Standing Committee, will now be led by Xi Jinping. The charming 59 year old almost seems like a Western politician, but he is firmly committed to preserving the core dogma of the Communist Party.
A door opens in Beijing, and two men with black hair, dark suits and unassuming ties march out. They're China's new leaders. This is just how things happened 25, 20 and 10 years ago. But the country is vastly different than it was at any of those times.
The Communist Party congress was a secretive as a Vatican conclave, and its official minutes make no mention of just how breathtaking the change it has ushered in is for the country outside the Great Hall of the People. Thursday morning, after months of behind-the-scenes jostling for power and the weeklong congress, China's Communist Party presented the seven new men who will make up the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's leading body.
Xi Jinping, 59, has been appointed the general secretary of the Communist Party as well as chairman of the military commission, and he will become China's new president in March. Li Keqiang, has become the No. 2 figure in the party and is expected to become the country's premier or head of the National People's Congress in March.
Standing to the right of Xi and Li is a row of five men who have been viewed as the likeliest appointees to the Standing Committee for weeks. There is Zhang Dejiang, 65, the man who replaced Bo Xilai as the party chief of the massive city of Chongqing six months ago after Bo had his career upended by a murder and corruption scandal. There is Yu Zhengsheng, 65, the party chief of Shanghai, who is seen as sharing political views with Deng Xiaoping, the reformist who led the party between 1982 and 1987. There is Liu Yunshan, 65, who has been serving as propaganda chief. Lastly, there is Wang Qishan, 64, China's chief economist, and Zhang Gaoli, the surprisingly young-looking 65-year-old party chief of Tianjin, China's fourth-largest city.
One doesn't have to be an expert in Chinese politics to quickly discern who the boss is among these seven powerful men. Xi Jinping steps up to the rostrum with a smile and -- to the surprise of the reporters who have been kept waiting for more than an hour -- politely apologizes for the delay before introducing the other men. He speaks without notes, shifts his gaze around the room and never loses his train of thought. Western politicians have described Xi as a man who exudes tranquillity, and this is precisely the impression he makes on his first day as the head of China's Communist Party.
Promising a Better Life for All
This impression of calmness is only heightened when you compare Xi with the five other men standing on the stage. One of them attempts a smile, and Li Keqiang even manages a brief wave. But the only man exuding the same relaxed air as Xi is the one standing all the way to the right, who allows himself to occasionally shift his weight from leg to leg. This is Wang Qishan, who has been the vice premier in charge of the economy and financial affairs. The party apparently has much faith in him: On Wednesday, the Central Committee appointed him to serve as the head of the party's disciplinary committee -- a post guaranteed to keep him busy.
Indeed, the issue of discipline was one of the main subjects of the short speech Xi delivered after making the round of introductions. He noted how some party members had recently made grave mistakes involving corruption and bribe-taking. "We must make every effort to solve these problems," Xi said. "The whole party must stay on full alert." Xi refrained from naming names, such as that of Bo Xilai or Liu Zhijun, the minister or railways who was recently fired and is awaiting trial on corruption charges. But his threat somehow seems more credible than those of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who touched upon similar issues during the farewell speech he delivered last Thursday.
Xi mentioned "ethnic groups" three times in his address, placing much more emphasis on the issue than Hu did in his speech. It is an extremely pressing and worrisome issue. Since the spring, more than 60 Tibetan monks have immolated themselves, and Xi seems determined to make sure that the regime doesn't ignore the tragedy.
Xi also praised "the people" several times for their patience in building up the country. He said that the focus will now be on social security and providing people with "a better life." This might not be the "happiness" that is enshrined in the United States' Declaration of Independence and that many Chinese long for -- but it is still something.
Still, Xi left no doubt that he believes in the party's collectivist worldview. He noted that the capabilities of each individual are "limited," but that those of the party as a whole are not. He said that the responsibility of China's new leadership is "as heavy as Mount Tai," one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism. As long as it stays true to "socialism with Chinese characteristics," he continued, the party's position of leadership is ensured.
This is unmistakably the core of the dogma that the party is so eager to preserve -- but one that has increasingly little to do with the lives of so many Chinese. This is the core that the party will continue to embrace under the leadership of Xi Jinping and his team. But, as his speech made clear, the tone of China's leaders might soon change.
Putin, Merkel seek to soothe Germany-Russia tensions
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 16, 2012 7:08 EST
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday with the two sides seeking to soothe tensions over Berlin’s recent criticism of the Russian record on rights.
On the eve of the visit, German lawmakers from Merkel’s coalition urged the government to push for more democracy in Russia as they expressed concern over a crackdown on civil society since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May.
German government sources said on Thursday that Berlin would emphasise that a thriving free civil society was a chance for Russia rather than a threat.
However Merkel did not feel herself obliged to raise all the 17 demands on Russia raised in the German parliament resolution, a German source in Berlin added.
Merkel must tread a fine line between expressing rights concerns and the need to protect Berlin’s economic interests as a top client of state gas giant Gazprom as well as a leading investor in an overhaul of Russian infrastructure.
A week before the talks, German lawmakers passed a resolution co-authored by Andreas Schockenhoff, the government’s coordinator for German-Russian relations urging the government to push for more democracy and warning of a “confrontational course towards government critics” in Russia.
Moscow has been particularly needled by the public comments of Schockenhoff, who has shown no fear in taking issue with the Russian rights record and will accompany Merkel to Moscow.
But on the eve of the talks, the Kremlin showed little appetite for confrontation and dismissed any possible criticism as pre-election rhetoric.
“We know that as in all the other countries, someone there (in Germany) too will for sure seek to exploit relations with Germany’s closest partners to win extra points,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian journalists.
“We would not want Russian-German relations to be used in this way,” he said, noting Germany would hold general elections next year.
The talks are due to get underway at around 1200 GMT and wind up with a news conference in the Kremlin at 1500 GMT.
A fluent German speaker who spent five years as a KGB agent in Dresden, Putin has long prided himself on building a solid working relationship with Merkel, even though it has lacked the camaraderie he cultivated in his ties with her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.
He conspicuously made Berlin his first European destination after his inauguration in May.
Putin’s spokesman Peskov has told AFP that energy and the euro zone crisis will be among top issues, noting that Russia holds a large chunk of its foreign reserves in euros.
The European Union’s ongoing probe into Gazprom over concerns it was hindering competition in Europe is expected to be addressed, too.
Addressing the criticism of Kremlin’s rights record, Peskov said that Moscow also had questions for Berlin over Germany’s rights record.
11/16/2012 12:04 PM
Rugby vs. Softball: Barbs abound in Russian-German Consultations
By Benjamin Bidder in Moscow
Germany's relationship with Russia has eroded in recent years, with Berlin becoming much more critical of President Vladimir Putin's slow slide into authoritarianism. Ahead of Merkel's Friday arrival in Moscow, top Russian officials have ratcheted up the caustic rhetoric in response.
Elmar Brok, a prominent member of the European Parliament with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, has a long trip behind him. His plane landed at 3 a.m. local time in Moscow on Thursday; back in Brussels, the clock was just striking midnight. Between the Russian capital and the EU headquarters there is a three-hour time difference -- and significant political differences as well.
Brok traveled to Moscow for talks as part of the Petersburg Dialogue, the German-Russian forum called into being under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And this year, the dialogue has the monumental task of repairing the many rifts currently open between Moscow and Berlin. Just before Merkel herself arrives in Russia on Friday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, relations between the two countries are worse than they have been in a long time.
In particular, Berlin is concerned about the Kremlin having recently passed laws making it more difficult to organize and participate in demonstrations as well as making it easier to try people for treason. Putin's administration has also labelled non-governmental organizations as "foreign agents." Germany's federal parliament reacted last week with a resolution that was bitingly critical of Putin. Moscow then launched a verbal attack on Andreas Schockenhoff, the initiator of the resolution and Merkel's coordinator for cooperation with Russia.
Schockenhoff has been a vocal critic of the Putin administration in recent months, having blasted the Russian judiciary's handling of the protest punk band Pussy Riot as well as Moscow's approach to the conflict in Syria. Since then, Russian diplomats have been treating Schockenhoff as a persona non grata. Likewise a member of Merkel's conservative CDU, Schockenhoff recently tried to get an official appointment at the Russian Foreign Ministry as part of his duties as co-leader of the Petersburg Dialogue's civil society working group. But he was denied.
Russia's Step Backward toward Authoritarianism
This week's meeting of the Petersburg Dialogue marks the 12th annual gathering of the group, but never before has it been viewed so critically. In assembling its delegation, Moscow has long shown a preference for Kremlin loyalists over civil rights activists. And the German side has in the past gone out of its way to avoid being overly critical of Russia, making it seem almost complicit in Moscow's lax attitudes toward human rights. The gatherings have often seemed largely symbolic. Working group meetings lasted but a few hours -- to be followed by a choice cultural program.
It isn't just the Petersburg Dialogue, though, that is in the dock, but Berlin's entire approach to Russia. Germany has long seen itself as Russia's advocate in Europe. Both former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Schröder wanted to win over Russia as both a strategic partner and as a friend.
Increasingly, however, Berlin is unsure how it should deal with Russia's recent backsliding toward authoritarianism. Schockenhoff even suggested that the Petersburg Dialogue be ended should "a critical debate no longer be possible." Openness, however, has always been a problem for the Russian side; Putin's officials have often reacted to criticism with furious counterattacks and threats to break off talks. "The Sword of Damocles hangs above us," said one member of the German steering committee during meeting preparations.
At 8 a.m. local time, European parliamentarian Brok finds his way into the breakfast room of the five-star Moscow hotel Ukraina, a high-rise built in the Stalinist-Gothic style. When he looks out the window, he sees a hammer, sickle and red star hanging on the façade facing the hotel. The symbols of the once mighty Communist global empire have been newly restored. Bodyguards employed by rich oligarchs staying at the hotel lounge in leather armchairs in the lobby.
'We Cannot Accept That'
The Ukrainia hotel itself has become a symbol of the new Russia -- for the country's complicated history, its old claims to world power and its new self-confidence. Brok takes a bite of his fried egg. "I don't understand why Russia and Europe are not able to admit that they share strategic interests," he says.
In Moscow, the Petersburg Dialogue is trying a new approach this year, with new faces and more time for debate, spiced with a pinch of critique. German co-chair Lothar de Maizière showed the way during the event's opening earlier this week in comments following a speech by his Russian counterpart, the Putin confidant Viktor Zubkov. If Moscow requires NGOs to register as "foreign agents," de Maizière said, "we cannot accept that."
The audience was different as well, with the average age decidedly younger than in previous iterations. Twenty young delegates chosen from many more applications were invited to freshen up proceedings. Christopher Lauer, for example, floor leader for the Pirate Party in Berlin's city-state parliament, was present -- wearing tennis shoes. In his working group, he was sitting at a table with former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and speaking about Germany's protest culture.
But not all efforts at innovation have been welcomed at this year's Petersburg Dialogue. In the politics working group, German delegates had hoped to challenge the authors of the NGO law over the use of the term "foreign agents," but they were thwarted by the Russians. Furthermore, the second round of working group meetings was cancelled on short noticed in favor of a Tchaikovsky concert.
The Russian side reacted to the German request for an open discussion by ratcheting up the rhetoric. According to the schedule received by the German delegation, the brilliant and caustic speaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of former Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and member of parliament with Putin's United Russia party, was to speak. But the Germans only learned that Alexey Pushkov would speak after him when he took a seat next to Nikonov on stage. His name hadn't been included on the guest list.
Reminiscent of the Cold War
Pushkov, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in Russian parliament, long served as the host of a popular television show. Two decades ago, he was a speechwriter for Gorbachev. But what he had to say in the Hotel Ukraina was less reminiscent of Perestroika than it was of the Cold War.
The West, Pushkov barked, is treating Russia like a second-class partner, as though it "remains tainted by its Communist past." The United States and Europe, he continued, have long since ceased to be role models. In comments directed at Green Party parliamentarian Marieluise Beck, seated in the first row of the audience, Pushkov said that instead of warning Russia on civil rights, she should "found a human rights commission for Spain and Greece." During his 20 minute speech, Pushkov went on to attack Germany for behaving like a schoolmarm -- before marching off the stage and into his waiting car.
Schockenhoff was also sitting on the podium, but the Russians spoke as though he weren't present at all. The German parliamentary resolution, intoned a representative from the Russian Foreign Ministry, "was neither friendly nor objective, as though the author were unaware of the situation in Russia."
A former Gorbachev confidant then gave the Germans some advice "that you might not like, but which could be useful. You have to see the truth. The opposition you are working together with has neither influence nor support in the country."
Following the onslaught from Pushkov, Beck replied by politely recalling Gorbachev's idea of a shared European house. It is, she said, only natural to worry about what is going on in the neighborhood. But the Russians were in no mood for diplomatic nuance.
The aggressive tone could very well be a taste of what is awaiting Merkel upon her arrival on Friday. "They were playing rugby while we were playing softball," said a German participant after the session. "But we will remain friends nonetheless."
India’s public health system has collapsed: minister
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 16, 2012 7:27 EST
India’s rural development minister said Friday the country’s public health system had “collapsed” in a blunt assessment of his government’s failure to extend a social safety net for the poor.
Jairam Ramesh, known as a maverick with often outspoken views, stressed that 70 percent of spending on health was out of people’s own pockets, making it the single most important reason for indebtedness in rural areas.
“We all know that the health system in India has collapsed,” he told a forum in New Delhi.
“India is a unique country in the world where 70 percent of expenditure is private expenditure at a time when most other countries are having a debate on how to increase public investment in health,” he added.
“In many poor areas of India, the public health system simply does not exist.”
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in power since 2004, pledged earlier this month that health spending would triple in a five-year plan adopted by the government.
Spending in 2010 was 4.0 percent of gross domestic product, according to the World Health Organization — less than many African countries or Afghanistan and a fraction of developed nations, which spend around 10 percent.
Indians of all backgrounds and economic means generally choose to absorb the costs of a trip to one of India’s booming private hospitals instead of their public equivalents, which are often under-staffed and poorly equipped.
Ramesh said the other important factor pushing people into poverty in India, where 40 percent of the population live on less than $1.5 a day, was degradation of the environment.
“The last 25-30 years, with accelerated economic growth and the pressure that economic growth has brought to bear on our natural resources, it has created this new animal of ecological poverty that we have to now address,” he said.
He stressed the poor had “a disproportionate dependence” on forests, rivers and farm land, which are being steadily degraded under the pressure of the country’s rising 1.2 billion population and economic development.
November 15, 2012
Uruguay: A Vote for Marijuana
By DAMIEN CAVE
Uruguay moved a step closer to becoming the first country to legalize marijuana, with lawmakers introducing a bill that outlines how the drug would be produced, sold and regulated. The bill introduced Thursday in the lower house of Congress would allow citizens to grow up to six marijuana plants and to buy 1.4 ounces of marijuana every month. It would also allow for the licensing of marijuana clubs with up to 15 members, 90 plants and an annual production limit of nearly 16 pounds. Advertising and exports would be banned, and a regulatory institute would be created to control the drug’s production and distribution. President José Mujica has promoted the legalization of marijuana as a way to reduce the addiction and crime associated with harder drugs. Supporters expect the bill to become law by early next year.
Rooftop gardens growing in popularity in notoriously smoggy Mexico City
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 15, 2012 13:32 EST
A green revolution is sweeping across the car and concrete jungle of Mexico City, an infamously smoggy capital that was once dubbed “Makesicko City” by novelist Carlos Fuentes.
Residents are growing vegetables on rooftops, planting trees where buildings once stood, hopping on bicycles and riding in electric taxis, defying the urban landscape in this metropolis of 20 million people and four million cars.
“This is our vote for the environment,” said Elias Cattan, a 33-year-old bespectacled architect pointing to the lettuce, onions and chilies growing in a planting table and inside used tires on the balcony of his rooftop office.
“It’s a window to the future and it is very important that we reconnect with the earth,” he said as light rain fell on the sprouts atop the five-story building in the trendy Condesa neighborhood.
Like a growing number of chilangos — as Mexico City residents are called — Cattan bikes to work in a maze of roads renowned for their giant traffic jams.
Twenty years ago, the United Nations declared the Mexican capital the world’s most polluted city. Fuentes envisioned black acid rain in his novel “Christopher Unborn,” but in real life the air was so nasty that birds dropped dead in this megalopolis 2,240 meters (7,350 feet) above sea level.
While Mexico City still has high levels of pollutants, it has dropped off the top 10 blacklist, thanks to traffic restrictions and the closure of factories but also because other cities have become grimier.
The left-wing city government has carried out a “green plan” since 2007 to clean up the capital, but many citizens have also taken it upon themselves to change their habits.
The city has placed 500,000 plants across the city, expanded a popular bicycle loan program, opened a new subway line and launched an “eco” bus that runs on natural gas.
Electric, zero-emission taxis began buzzing in the city center this year. The vehicles recharge in power stations that get 25 percent of their energy from solar panels. Fully powered up, the cabs can run for six hours straight.
One of the taxi drivers, Cristobal Reynoso, said clients often realize they are in an electricity-powered vehicle only once they are in it.
“It’s a thrill when I tell them it’s electric, that it doesn’t use fuel or anti-freeze, that it doesn’t have an exhaust pipe, because they say, ‘we’re not polluting!’” Reynoso said.
Citizens are playing their part too.
Many go to Chapultepec Park on the first Sunday of every month to trade their recyclables — empty bottles, paper, cardboard — for locally-grown produce such as tomatoes, corn and nopal (an edible cactus) in a city program.
A corporate-funded citizen initiative known as VerdMX has installed huge “vertical gardens” to spruce up the city and clean the air. One of its most visible structures is a green arch on the heavily-traveled Chapultepec Avenue.
Growing plants, fruits and vegetables here requires creativity and lessons. The city and private groups offer advice to those who want to learn how to plant in a building.
“It’s easy, fun and cheap,” said Liliana Balcazar, deputy director of the city’s environmental education centers that show people urban gardening tricks. “You can do it anywhere that gets at least five to six hours of sun per day.”
“It’s like being in the countryside inside the city,” Balcazar said, noting that it is also a great source of healthy, home-grown produce for a population facing an obesity problem.
Cattan has received help from Gabriela Vargas, a 43-year-old former photographer whose passion was born 12 years ago, when she planted vegetables in her balcony to make tastier, healthier food for her daughter.
“When I started 12 years ago, I was the crazy one growing lettuce in her apartment. Now it’s very common,” said Vargas, project director for Cultiva Ciudad (Cultivate City), which advises schools, individuals and institutions.
Vargas now sees bigger: She plants trees.
Last year, her organization donated 6,000 trees to various city districts that were grown inside the city.
Her new project is an orchard where she will grow apple, guava, peach and medlar trees. The city is lending her a 1,650-square-meter (17,800-square-foot) terrain where a high-rise building was demolished.
While the city is getting greener, the smog is still visible, often clouding the surrounding mountain peaks.
Though carbon monoxide levels are down by 90 percent from 20 years ago, the city still has above recommended levels of ozone and suspended particulates, another pollutant.
“The good news is that the trend has been a consistent reduction (of ozone) in the last 10 years,” said Armando Retama, director of the city’s air quality monitoring service. “If the trend holds, Mexico City’s contamination problem will be almost resolved in 10 years.”
Spain halts evictions of vulnerable homeowners
By Agence France-Presse
Spain announced Thursday a two-year halt to evictions of the most vulnerable home owners as a public outcry mounted over suicides linked to desperate people facing expulsion.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-leaning government said it agreed on the moratorium “for humanitarian reasons” and the new measure was restricted to those most in need.
“These are urgent measures in difficult circumstances linked to the crisis”, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told a news conference after a weekly government meeting.
The Spanish Banking Association announced Monday it was freezing mortgage-related evictions for two years in extreme cases. Savings banks, too, suspended expulsions while awaiting new government rules.
Many people were shocked by two suicides in 15 days by indebted homeowners facing expulsion in Spain, where both banks and borrowers were hammered by a 2008 property crash.
On November 9, 53-year-old former Socialist politician Amaia Egana jumped out of her apartment window to her death in the northern Basque municipality of Barakaldo as bailiffs were set to evict her.
Her suicide came 15 days after 53-year-old Jose Luis Domingo hanged himself shortly before bailiffs came to turn him out of his home in the southern city of Granada.
11/15/2012 04:14 PM
'Horrible Citizens': The Life of Greece's One Percent
By Julia Amalia Heyer
The Greek economy has been tanking for years now as the country struggles to balance its budget by imposing deep austerity measures. But the country's richest residents haven't noticed. Many aren't taxed at all, and some of those that are prefer to dodge their obligation to the state instead.
He'd be happy to discuss art, says the spokeswoman of Greece's biggest shipping magnate. He'd be willing to talk about his collection and the market, or about his fondness for German painters, such as Neo Rauch or Otto Dix, from whom he owns several works. Perhaps he might even muse on the Botero painting he recently purchased for €330,000 ($420,000).
George Economou, though, would prefer not to discuss his country. "He is happy to answer questions on art," his handler repeats. She is standing in gold-colored sandals at the entrance to his villa in Maroussi, a northern suburb of Athens. Her billionaire boss behind her, wearing a pink shirt, khakis and boat shoes, is snatching an hors d'oeuvre off a serving tray.
Only a chosen few have received a fuchsia-colored invitation to attend the "Talking Heads" exhibition. Economou will be showing a large part of his collection for the first time this evening. The guests are milling about as a bartender in a large tent mixes mint, ice and the resin-flavored liquor mastika together for a Greek take on the mojito. Between bites, Economou explains that he views art as more than just an investment. His collection, he insists, means a lot to him and he expects it to keep growing.
Economou's little slice of heaven is well-protected. There are a number of guards, and those entering his art gallery must first pass through a security gate complete with a fingerprint scanner.
Sitting in a Mercedes luxury sedan with the air conditioning on high after the private viewing, Economou's daughter Alexandra says that her country is not as safe as it used to be and that she now only takes a taxi in a pinch out of fear of being abducted. Yes, even the rich in Greece have worries.
Last week, Greece's parliamentagreed to a new package of austerity measures that are supposed to reduce expenditures by €13.5 billion between now and 2015, primarily through salary and pension cuts. The measures will lower the average monthly salary in the country to some €950. Families making more than €18,000 a year will no longer receive child allowances. And, this month, Greece is once again trembling in fear over whether it will receive the next €31.5 billion tranche of loans from the European Union. If it doesn't arrive by the end of November, the country will become insolvent.
Stored away in Switzerland
At the same time, there are a number of lists circulating in Athens including names attached to unfathomable sums of money. These belong to politicians, actors and businesspeople, all of whom supposedly have accounts at the Geneva branch of the British bank HSBC. Experts estimate that Greeks have up to €170 billion in assets safely stored away in Switzerland.
"Greece is a poor country with very rich people," Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras recently said. And philanthropy, though a Greek word, is not widespread in practice. Members of the country's upper crust continue to exploit all the loopholes the government offers them. Indeed, the state makes it remarkably easy for them to do so: For a full year now, the government has been announcing that a treaty with Switzerland aiming to put an end to tax evasion is "just about to be concluded." But it has yet to be signed.
The privileged don't even bother to hide their wealth in public. In the rich neighborhoods -- whether Kifissia in northern Athens or Glyfada to the south -- people still speed about in their Porsche Cayennes and Hermès handbags can still be seen beneath café tables. Gucci, Balenciaga and Dior all maintain stores in the Greek capital. It's the florists around the corner that go out of business.
The Greek government can no longer pay its bills and owes private-sector companies some €9 billion. But even now, three years into the crisis, it continues to exempt commercial shipping companies, which make up its most successful industrial sector, from all taxes. This relief for the rich just puts more of a burden on the poor.
The EU's Directorate-General for Competition recently identified 57 different tax amnesties for Greece shipowners alone and, puzzled, sent a letter to the government in Athens.
Leon Patitsas, the 36-year-old heir to a shipping company, numbers among those who have benefitted from these exemptions. Hanging in his office are portraits of his forefathers next to framed pictures of tanker ships. Patitsas is the head of Atlas Maritime, which currently owns six active oil tankers with a seventh under construction in Shanghai. The Greek merchant marine fleet, Patitsas says, is the largest in the world and he believes the tax exemption enjoyed by his industry is a necessity rather than a privilege. "Shipping ensures 400,000 jobs in Greek shipyards that could go elsewhere at any time," he says.
'I Love My Country'
But shouldn't the shipping industry be showing solidarity with the state instead of threatening to leave at the first sign of taxation?
The state doesn't offer any security, Patitsas says, not to investors, businesspeople or him. He says that people in Greece think that capital is to blame for everything, and not the powerful unions that actually destroy jobs with their unrealistic demands rather than preserving them.
Greece-owned ships transport 20 percent of the world's seaborne cargo, though the ships usually sail under the flags of other countries. As such, the world's largest merchant fleet hardly contributes anything to Greece's economic performance, and shipping revenues aren't taxed. In fact, shipping companies don't even have to pay taxes for divisions that have nothing to do with transporting cargo on the seas.
Patitsas and his wife, a well-known fashion model and television presenter, recently gave birth to a son. Just a year ago, the two would occasionally allow themselves to be photographed at home for glossy magazines. But they don't anymore. "We have to be careful," Patitsas says. "A lot of people are envious." When asked what keeps him in Greece, he says: "I love my country."
While Greece has public debt of roughly €301 billion, its citizens have private assets worth almost twice as much. According to the independent Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), the top 20 percent of Greeks earn six times as much as the bottom 20 percent.
Patitsas' family comes from Oinousses, a small archipelago in the North Aegean sandwiched between the island of Chios and the Turkish coast. A number of major ship-owning families have roots on the island, including that of Elli Patera. She also numbers among those Greeks who have it all -- and always have.
A decade ago, Patera started her own business as a real estate agent because she was tired of merely being an heiress. She focused on her direct surroundings: properties in the high-class areas of northern Athens, villas hidden behind huge hedges and bungalows sporting five-car garages.
Horrible Citizens, Enthusiastic Patriots
At the moment, the 47-year-old is spending some time on Mykonos. The country's crisis has never reached this island, a favorite resort for the jet set and party locale for the well-heeled. One can buy rosaries designed by Chanel at the local jeweler, and one can enjoy a magnum bottle of Armand de Brignac champagne at the Nammos beach club, on Greece's most exclusive beach, for a cool €120,000.
Patera says her country is afflicted by the same maladies as her profession: Things have gotten out of proportion. Before 2009, she says that only one thing mattered: growth, growth, growth. Every house with a garden suddenly cost €5 million, she says. "Everyone wanted to buy -- the more expensive, the better."
But now, Patera says, the real estate market has dried up. Most owners continue to demand as much as they did before the crisis, €30 million for a house that isn't worth even half as much. No one can or wants to pay that much anymore. "We refuse to recognize the causes," she says. "Most people think that the crisis is only an evil, stupid idea of the Europeans."
Patera's background no doubt helps her keep a level head. People with enough money have no need for conspiracy theories. But what are rich people doing for their country?
Greek President Karolos Papoulias once said: "Everyone acts in accordance with their patriotism." Peter Nomikos says that Greeks are horrible citizens but enthusiastic patriots. The 33-year-old investor from a ship-owning family is actually trying to do something for his country. He has founded an initiative called "Greece Debt Free," which aims to help Greeks buy back their debts. This is an impossible undertaking not only because it involves the astronomical figure of roughly €300 billion, but also because three quarters of this debt is held by public creditors rather than being traded on the open market.
By August, donations to Nomikos' initiative had surpassed €2.5 million. The figure is constantly updated on the "Greece Debt Free" homepage. As of Monday morning, the sum lay at €2,510,072 -- or almost exactly where it was three months earlier.
Six Months for a Refrigerator
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, named after a Greek shipping magnate of the same name, has also allocated €100 million to immediate crisis relief efforts. It also invests money in things that the rich value: in a park in Athens, an opera and a library. The Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, which honors a deceased son of the former shipping magnate and husband of Jacqueline Kennedy, has launched an architecture competition aimed at beautifying downtown Athens. It also finances several cultural projects -- though a guest performance of Berlin's Schaubühne theater company probably isn't all that high on the list of priorities for people who can no longer afford to visit a doctor because they don't have insurance.
By way of welcome, Petros Kokkalis, a scion of what is perhaps Greece's most influential family, is handing out a green brochure showing vegetable patches. He has set up an enormous garden in one of the poorer parts of Athens. Kokkalis used to be a vice president of the Olympiacos Piraeus football club, which his father once owned. He used to drive flashy sports cars, but now he prefers a Volkswagen Golf. Kokkalis says the crisis has opened his eyes and made him more political. He also says he is keenly aware of his county's problems. For example, he says he had to wait six months for a permit just to install a bamboo bar with a refrigerator in his garden.
When asked whether it wasn't exactly this kind of governmental inaction that allowed his family to become wealthy, Kokkalis shrugs his shoulders and nods. The state still has to become more just and more effective he says.
Has he moved much money abroad? "Certainly not all of it," he replies. It's meant as a joke. He says he can't help it that he's rich and that he never did anything to make it that way. But the vegetable park is his project. Here, he shows school classes mint and oregano growing in beds and cockroaches in a terrarium. There are also horses on the property.
The entrance fee is €4, more than many schoolchildren can now afford. So Kokkalis is thinking about lowering the fee to €2. When asked why there is any admission fee at all, he replies: "We want the project to be self-sustaining."
His family is one of the richest in the country. His father, Socrates, is the founder of Intracom, a multinational technology group. He bankrolled an entire library at Harvard University, and he finances a program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe at its Kennedy School of Government. His son Petros says that the family now has to be careful to make sure that the 10,500 people working for the Kokkalis empire in Greece don't lose their jobs. It's important, he stresses.
George Economou, the billionaire shipowner and art collector, doesn't even want to answer the question of what he does for his country. His spokeswoman will only say: "No information will be disclosed on this matter."
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
In the USA...
Originally published November 15, 2012 at 9:45 PM | Page modified November 16, 2012 at 6:01 AM
BP agrees to pay $4.5B; three employees charged
Laying the blame for the deaths of 11 rig workers in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill on BP, federal prosecutors announced Thursday that two BP supervisors have been charged with manslaughter and the company will pay a $4 billion criminal fine, the largest in U.S. history.
By Bettina Boxall and Ronald D. White
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Laying the blame for the deaths of 11 rig workers in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill on BP, federal prosecutors announced Thursday that two BP supervisors have been charged with manslaughter and the company will pay a $4 billion criminal fine, the largest in U.S. history.
"Those deaths were in fact unnecessary," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in New Orleans, adding that the federal investigation continued into the 2010 Deepwater disaster and the nation's biggest offshore oil spill. "Our work is far from over."
The charges, contained in a criminal settlement with BP and an indictment handed down by a federal grand jury, paint a picture of a corporation that placed "profit over prudence," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.
Not only did the BP supervisors on board the rig the night of the explosion fail to take steps necessary to prevent the blowout when they realized they were losing control of the deep-sea well, company executive David Rainey later lied to Congress about the size and severity of the spill, prosecutors said.
"As part of its plea agreement, BP has admitted that, through Rainey, it withheld documents and provided false and misleading information in response to the U.S. House of Representatives' request for flow-rate information," the Department of Justice said in a news release.
The explosion on the night April 20, 2010, unleashed a gush of oil from broken equipment on the seabed that continued for 87 days off the Louisiana coast. More than 200 million gallons of oil were spilled, shutting down commercial fisheries, destroying the summer beach season along part of the coast and fouling coastal wetlands.
Still to be settled are federal civil claims for the spill's environmental damage that could cost BP billions of dollars more.
Also, a federal judge in New Orleans has not yet approved an estimated $7.8 billion settlement with more than 120,000 plaintiffs in a civil suit by fishermen, beachside property owners and business owners, among others.
As part of BP's settlement of criminal charges, prosecutors said BP had agreed to plead guilty to felony manslaughter, environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress, and would pay the record $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties.
About $2.4 billion of that will go to environmental restoration in the Gulf. The company will pay an additional $525 million civil penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for misrepresenting the size of the spill in SEC filings.
Robert Kaluza, 62, of Henderson, Nev., and Donald J. Vidrine, 65, of Lafayette, La. — the highest-ranking BP supervisors onboard that night — were charged with 11 felony counts of seaman's manslaughter, 11 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one violation of the Clean Water Act in a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.
Rainey, 58, of Houston, a former BP executive who helped oversee the spill response, was charged with obstruction of Congress and making false statements to law-enforcement officials.
At the height of the spill, then-BP President Tony Hayward was forced to step down, in part for commenting that "I'd like my life back" during the frenetic cleanup period when oil was washing ashore in Louisiana and many livelihoods were in ruins.
In a statement, Bob Dudley, BP's group chief executive, said the company deeply regretted the loss of life.
"From the outset, we stepped up by responding to the spill, paying legitimate claims and funding restoration efforts in the Gulf," he said in a statement. "We apologize for our role in the accident, and as today's resolution with the U.S. government further reflects, we have accepted responsibility for our actions."
Chris Jones, older brother of Gordon Jones, who died in the fiery explosion, was not satisfied with BP's mea culpa.
"The fact that BP is finally admitting that it is responsible is not shocking; the amount of money it is paying in fines is not shocking," said Jones, a litigation attorney in Baton Rouge, La. "What is shocking is that it has been three years since this happened and not once has a representative of BP said to us: 'I'm sorry for your loss.' It's par for the course."
"BP is simply going to sign a check for billions of dollars, then continue to do business in U.S. waters and make money for its shareholders," he said. "But Gordon wasn't able to live a day after April 2010."
British BP can easily absorb the $4.5 billion settlement, analysts said.
In the third quarter alone, BP raked in sales of more than $93 billion and had a net profit of more than $5.2 billion. That shows that "BP has made the most remarkable comeback from the most costly industrial accident in history," Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., said in a note to investors.
In addition, BP has raised $35 billion from asset sales, including a $2.5 billion proposal to sell its Carson, Calif., refinery and other assets.
BP's recent business performance has been so strong that some critics said the fine isn't punishment enough.
"This settlement is pathetic," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.
"The point of the criminal-justice system is twofold: to punish and to deter. This does neither. It is a weak-tea punishment that provides zero deterrence to BP or other companies."
What remains unclear is how the settlement will affect BP's business in the U.S., particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP remains active. The company has seven rigs drilling in the Gulf and has plans to add an eighth and possibly a ninth next year.
BP appeared to acknowledge the uncertainty in a statement: "Under U.S. law, companies convicted of certain criminal acts can be debarred from contracting with the federal government. BP has not been advised of the intention of any federal agency to suspend or debar the company in connection with this plea agreement. BP will continue to work cooperatively with the debarment authority."
November 15, 2012
In BP Indictments, U.S. Shifts to Hold Individuals Accountable
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
HOUSTON — Donald J. Vidrine and Robert Kaluza were the two BP supervisors on board the Deepwater Horizon rig who made the last critical decisions before it exploded. David Rainey was a celebrated BP deepwater explorer who testified to members of Congress about how many barrels of oil were spewing daily in the offshore disaster.
Mr. Vidrine, 65, of Lafayette, La., and Mr. Kaluza, 62, of Henderson, Nev., were indicted on Thursday on manslaughter charges in the deaths of 11 fellow workers; Mr. Rainey, 58, of Houston, was accused of making false estimates and charged with obstruction of Congress. They are the faces of a renewed effort by the Justice Department to hold executives accountable for their actions. While their lawyers said the men were scapegoats, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at a news conference, “I hope that this sends a clear message to those who would engage in this kind of reckless and wanton conduct.”
The defense lawyers were adamant that their clients would contest the charges, and prosecutors said that the federal investigations were continuing.
Legal scholars said that by charging individuals, the government was signaling a return to the practice of prosecuting officers and managers, and not just their companies, in industrial accidents, which was more common in the 1980s and 1990s.
“If senior managers cut corners, or if they make decisions that put people in harm’s way, then the criminal law is appropriate,” said Jane Barrett, a University of Maryland law professor and former federal prosecutor.
She noted that it was unusual for the Justice Department to prosecute individual corporate officers in recent years, including in the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers, where only the company was fined.
BP said on Thursday it would pay $4.5 billion in fines and other payments, and the corporation pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges in connection with spill. The $1.26 billion in criminal fines was the highest since Pfizer in 2009 paid $1.3 billion for illegally marketing an arthritis medication.
The crew was drilling 5,000 feet under the sea floor 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in April 2010 when they lost control of the well during its completion. They tested the pressure of the well, but misinterpreted the test results and underestimated the pressure exerted by the flow of oil or gas up the well. Had the results been properly interpreted, operations would have ceased.
Mr. Vidrine and Mr. Kaluza were negligent in their reading of the kicks of gas popping up from the well that should have suggested that the Deepwater Horizon crew was fast losing control of the ill-fated Macondo well, according to their indictment, and they failed to act or even communicate with their superiors. “Despite these ongoing, glaring indications on the drill pipe that the well was not secure, defendants Kaluza and Vidrine again failed to phone engineers onshore to alert them to the problem, and failed to investigate any further,” the indictment said.
The indictment said they neglected to account for abnormal pressure test results on the well that indicated problems, accepting “illogical” explanations from members of the crew, which caused the “blowout of the well to later occur.”
In a statement, Mr. Kaluza’s lawyers said: “No one should take any satisfaction in this indictment of an innocent man. This is not justice.”
Bob Habans, a lawyer for Mr. Vidrine, called the charges “a miscarriage of justice.”
“We cannot begin to explain or understand the misguided effort of the United States attorney and the Department of Justice to blame Don Vidrine and Bob Kaluza, the other well site leader, for this terrible tragedy.”
Several government and independent reports over the last two years have pointed to sloppy cement jobs in completing the well or the poor design of the well itself as major reasons for the spill. But none of the three was indicted in connection with those problems.
Mr. Rainey was a far more senior executive, one who was known around Houston and the oil world as perhaps the most knowledgeable authority on Gulf oil and gas deposits. According to his indictment, Mr. Rainey obstructed Congressional inquiries and made false statements by underestimating the flow rate to 5,000 barrels a day even as millions were gushing into the Gulf.
The indictment contended that he relied on a Wikipedia entry for spill-testing methodologies. One method he found produced an estimate of as much as 92,000 barrels a day, but Mr. Rainey withheld that possible estimate, it said.
BP did not rely on Mr. Rainey’s estimates as it plotted various engineering responses to the accident, according to the indictment. Around April 22, 2010, the indictment said, only two days after the accident, BP engineers prepared estimates of potential flow rates that ranged as high as 146,000 barrels a day. A BP team on May 11 estimated a range of 14,000 to 82,000 barrels a day.
But when a university professor publicly released an estimate of 70,000 barrels a day in May 2010, based on video footage of the leak, the indictment said, BP continued to defend the 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate and Mr. Rainey prepared a memo for the unified command handling the disaster justifying the 5,000-barrel estimate. He did not include his own higher possible estimates or others by BP.
In presentations to Congressional committees, Mr. Rainey stuck to his 5,000-barrel estimate, the indictment said, even while he was receiving information that contradicted the figure.
“Rainey withheld such information from other BP employees and from BP in-house and outside lawyers with whom he was working,” the indictment said.
The charges against Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison on each “seaman’s manslaughter” count, eight years in prison on each involuntary manslaughter count and a year in prison on a Clean Water Act count.
Mr. Rainey faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
In a statement on behalf of Mr. Rainey, his lawyers said: “We are profoundly disappointed that the Department of Justice is attempting to turn a tragic accident and its tumultuous aftermath into criminal activity. We are even more disappointed that BP has succumbed to the pressure and agreed to this extortionate settlement.” John Levy, a lawyer with experience in catastrophic accident cases, said the Justice Department was “clearly sending a message to all corporate executives that they have to be superdiligent, and I think it’s a growing trend.” He added, “You can’t put a corporation in jail.”
Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.
Postal Service losses tripled to $16 billion
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 15, 2012 18:52 EST
The US Postal Service tripled its losses in 2012, bleeding $15.9 billion as the state-owned enterprise faces tough competition and what it calls onerous and unfair retirement funding requirements.
The US mail said its losses rocketed in the year to September 30 from a $5.1 billion loss last year, with more than $11 billion sucked off to pre-fund health benefits for service retirees long into the future.
As it has over recent years, USPS issued a call for new legislation easing the pressure on it from retirement benefit funding obligations and allowing it more flexibility on delivery times, product range and pricing.
The country’s main mail operation said that unlike any other agency or business, it is required to pre-fund far into the future health care obligations for future retirees.
“It’s critical that Congress do its part and pass comprehensive legislation before they adjourn this year to move the Postal Service further down the path toward financial health,” said Postmaster General and USPS chief executive Patrick Donahoe.
Fighting back the challenge of agile competition from Fedex and UPS in the more lucrative parcel delivery business, USPS said its package operations brought in 8.7 percent more revenue to hit $11.6 billion.
But overall mail volume continued to shrink, by 5.1 percent, and operating revenues fell nearly one percent, to $65.2 billion.
USPS claimed that its operating losses fell due in part to improved productivity, largely from a 2.3 percent cut in work hours.
Chief financial officer Joseph Corbett said that despite having hit its debt limit, USPS continues to meet its delivery obligations and pay suppliers on time.
“Our liquidity continues to be a major concern and underscores the need for passage of legislation that gives the Postal Service a more flexible business model to improve its cash flow,” said Corbett.
The call came as US political leaders head into tough talks aimed at slashing government spending.
Attorneys: Obama’s ‘secret’ cyber security law may allow ‘military deployment within the U.S.’
By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, November 15, 2012 11:54 EST
The White House on Wednesday receieved a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (PDF link) from two attorneys with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), demanding that President Barack Obama release the text of what they called a “secret” new cyber security law that appears to enable “military deployment within the United States.”
The FOIA was filed in response to an article that appeared in The Washington Post this week, claiming that Obama issued a secret directive shortly before the elections that empowers the military to “vet any operations outside government and defense networks” for cyber security purposes.
However, because the exact text of the directive remains a secret, nobody can really say exactly what it does. That was somewhat disconcerting to American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Michelle Richardson, who told Raw Story on Wednesday that without the text, “it’s hard to see what they mean.”
In their FOIA, EPIC attorneys Amie Stepanovich and Ginger McCall go even further, arguing that the directive is tantamount to the president issuing a “secret law” that may enable “military deployment within the United States” in order to vet network security at companies like AT&T, Facebook, Google and others. And indeed, the Post‘s article seems to substantiate that concern, explaining that the order will help “finalize new rules of engagement that would guide commanders when and how the military can go outside government networks to prevent a cyberattack that could cause significant destruction or casualties.”
But that’s literally all anyone outside of the chain of command knows about this order, McCall told Raw Story Thursday afternoon. “We don’t know what’s in this policy directive and we feel the American public has the right to know.”
“The NSA’s cyber security operations have been kept very, very secret, and because of that it has been impossible for the public to react to them,” Stepanovich added.
In the USA
November 15, 2012
Affirmative Action Ban in Michigan Is Rejected
By TAMAR LEWIN
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled, 8 to 7, on Thursday that Michigan’s voter-approved 2006 ban on affirmative action was unconstitutional.
The ruling, in Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. University of Michigan, was not based on racial discrimination, but rather on a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The ban, the court said, unfairly placed a special burden on supporters of race-conscious admissions policies.
People trying to change any other aspect of university admissions policies, the court said, had several avenues open: they could lobby the admissions committee, petition university leaders, try to influence the college’s governing board or take the issue to a statewide initiative. Those supporting affirmative action, on the other hand, had no alternative but to undertake the “long, expensive and arduous process” of amending the state Constitution.
“The existence of such a comparative structural burden undermines the equal protection clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change,” said Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., writing for the majority.
The United States Supreme Court is considering an affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, challenging the use of race as a factor in admissions. But the Sixth Circuit case raises a different issue: the legality of statewide bans on affirmative action. Seven states besides Michigan — Arizona, California, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Washington — forbid the consideration of race in university admissions.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld California’s ban, and with the Michigan ruling, the stage may be set for the issue to go before the Supreme Court.
“I think this is very likely to go to the Supreme Court, because there’s a direct conflict between the circuits, it’s of great national importance and the 8-7 split on the Sixth Circuit is a signal that some ruling is needed,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped draft the California ban. “The only thing that might get in the way is if the Fisher case decides that all race-based action in education is unconstitutional, which would make it not technically moot, but less important.”
Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, said Thursday that he planned to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. “Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit,” he said in a statement.
George Washington, the Detroit lawyer who argued the case, said Proposal 2, as the Michigan ban is known, does not ensure merit. “The Big Lie told by the supporters of Proposal 2 is that grades and test scores are a neutral means for judging merit,” he said. “But that system is openly biased against black, Latino and Native American applicants.”
The University of Michigan’s affirmative action battle has been roiling for decades. The affirmative action litigation led to the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision that while a university could not establish racial quotas, it could consider race or ethnicity as a “plus” factor in a holistic review.
After those decisions, Ward Connerly, a black former University of California regent who was the driving force behind California’s affirmative action ban, worked with Jennifer Gratz, a white Michigan woman who was the plaintiff in one of the Supreme Court cases, to get the issue onto the Michigan ballot.
Michigan’s affirmative action ban, which applies to government hiring, government contracting and admission to public universities, became part of the state Constitution through a 2006 voter initiative that won 58 percent of the vote.
The district court that heard the challenge to the ban upheld it, but the three-judge appellate panel whose decision was appealed to the full circuit court struck it down, using the same reasoning as the full circuit court.
Wal-Mart workers begin Black Friday disruptions
By Paul Harris, The Guardian
Thursday, November 15, 2012 17:01 EST
Strikes and protests aimed at disrupting the retail giant Walmart during next week’s Black Friday sales events began on Thursday with walk-outs at a number of stores and the promise of more actions in the lead-up to what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.
The news comes amid controversy about plans by Walmart and other large chains to open on Thanksgiving evening, kicking off Black Friday a day early. It also comes as another strike has hit part of Walmart’s warehouse supply chain in southern California.
At least 30 workers from six different Seattle-area Walmarts have gone on strike, organisers and Walmart staff from the OUR Walmart group said. The group, which is not a union but has close ties with the labour movement, is seeking to protest what it says is low pay, too few hours and retaliation by managers against workers who speak out.
Seattle Walmart worker Sara Gilbert said she had taken the decision to go on strike to protest the fact that she could only make around $14,000 dollars a year. Despite working as a customer service manager, she said, her family remained reliant on food stamps and other benefits. “I work full time at the richest company in the world,” she said.
The Seattle strike is aimed at kickstarting a series of protests in the run-up to Black Friday, when more than a thousand separate demonstrations ranging from walk-outs to leafleting to flash mobs are planned. So far they are set to hit Walmart stores in Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington DC.
But organisers say they expect it eventually to be country-wide. “You are going to see unprecedented activity starting now and going into the holiday season. This is going to continue this year and next year,” said Dan Schlademan, director of the union-backed Making Change at Walmart group which is helping organise the effort.
Members of OUR Walmart are demanding better wages, better access to benefits and an end to what they say is retaliating against their members who protest or organise. Last month the group helped organise one of the biggest sets of protests to ever hit the retailer when workers held strikes at more than 12 different stores, earning national headlines across the US.
Walmart has said that the complaints of OUR Walmart members represent only a tiny fraction of its huge workforce of 1.3 million people. “There have been a very small number of associates raising concerns about their jobs,” said Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo. “When our associates bring forward concerns, we listen. Associates have direct lines of communication with their management team and we work to understand their concerns,” he added.
But the Black Friday protests are only one of several areas of controversy to hit Walmart in recent months. The company has also been struck by a series of strikes and protests in its warehouse supply chain, some of which is outsourced to third party logistics firms and staffing agencies.
Those outside companies have been accused by some campaigners of poor safety standards, meagre wages and also retaliating against workers who complain. A group of warehouse workers at a Walmart supply chain warehouse in southern California have also launched a strike action this week following a previous protest in September.
Some 30 workers held a picket outside a huge warehouse in Mira Loma, California, saying that previous strikers had been sacked or had their hours reduced. Javier Rodriguez, a forklift driver at the facility, said managers had drastically cut his hours after the last protest. “This is the form of retaliation that they use for me. It makes it hard to earn enough to feed my family and run my car,” he said.
The warehouse is run by logistics giant NFI but supplies goods only to Walmart. An NFI spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment but the firm has said previously that it adheres to all legal labour standards.
Meanwhile in Illinois, workers at another Walmart supply chain warehouse near the small town of Elwood filed charges to a state labour relations board alleging unfair practises by four different firms involved in the running and staffing of the warehouse. They also relate to claims of retaliation against workers who had previously gone on strike to protest an alleged practise of “wage theft” where employees are not paid for all the time they work.
November 15, 2012
Wal-Mart Inquiry Reflects Alarm on Corruption
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD and DAVID BARSTOW
Wal-Mart on Thursday reported that its investigation into violations of a federal antibribery law had extended beyond Mexico to China, India and Brazil, some of the retailer’s most important international markets.
The disclosure, made in a regulatory filing, suggests Wal-Mart has uncovered evidence into potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as the fallout continues from a bribery scheme involving the opening of stores in Mexico that was the subject of a New York Times investigation in April.
The announcement underscores the degree to which Wal-Mart recognizes that corruption may have infected its international operations, and reflects a growing alarm among the company’s internal investigators. People with knowledge of the matter described how a relatively routine compliance audit rapidly transformed into a full-blown investigation late last year — involving hundreds of lawyers and three former federal prosecutors — when the company learned that The Times was examining problems with its operations in Mexico.
A person with direct knowledge of the company’s internal investigation cautioned that Thursday’s disclosure did not mean Wal-Mart had concluded it had paid bribes in China, India and Brazil. But it did indicate that the company had found enough evidence to justify concern about its business practices in the three countries — concerns that go beyond initial inquiries and that are serious enough that shareholders needed to be told.
Wal-Mart issued a statement confirming the new disclosures, and said it would be inappropriate to comment further on the new allegations until it had concluded the investigations.
The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, with Wal-Mart’s cooperation, are also looking into the company’s compliance with the antibribery law.
The Times reported in April that seven years ago, Wal-Mart had found credible evidence that its Mexican subsidiary had paid bribes in its effort to build more stores, a violation of the corrupt practices act, and that an internal investigation had been suppressed by executives at the company’s Arkansas headquarters.
Wal-Mart has so far spent $35 million on a compliance program that began in spring 2011, and has more than 300 outside lawyers and accountants working on it, the company said. It has spent $99 million in nine months on the current investigation.
Consequences of the expanding investigation could include slower expansion overseas and the identification of even more problems. The company said in the filing on Thursday that new inquiries had begun in countries “including but not limited to” China, India and Brazil.
While the disclosure did not specify the nature of the possible bribery problems in the three countries, it “clearly will cause more scrutiny on every real estate project being considered, and one would think at the minimum it will slow down the process as more controls need to be passed through,” said Colin McGranahan, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein.
International growth is critical to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, and Brazil, India, China and Mexico together make up the largest portion of the company’s foreign locations.
Wal-Mart’s international division had been on a growth binge, though that has been slowing lately. In third-quarter results reported Thursday, the company said international sales rose 2.4 percent to $33.2 billion, making up about 29 percent of the company’s overall sales.
More than half of Wal-Mart’s 10,524 stores are international. Mexico has 2,230 stores. Brazil has 534, China, 384.
C. Douglas McMillon, chief executive of Walmart International, said in June that he did not expect the investigation to hinder international growth. “Only time will tell,” he said.
Wal-Mart’s expanding investigation began in spring 2011 as a relatively routine audit of how well its foreign subsidiaries were complying with its anticorruption policies. It is keeping the Justice Department and the S.E.C. apprised of the investigation.
The review was initiated by Jeffrey J. Gearhart, Wal-Mart’s general counsel, who had seen news reports about how Tyson Foods had been charged with relatively minor violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He decided it made sense to test Wal-Mart’s internal defenses against corruption.
The audit began in Mexico, China and Brazil, the countries Wal-Mart executives considered the most likely source of problems. Wal-Mart hired the accounting firm KPMG and the law firm Greenberg Traurig to conduct the audit. The firms conducted interviews and spot checks of record systems to check whether Wal-Mart’s subsidiaries were carrying out required compliance procedures.
For example, Wal-Mart’s anticorruption policy requires background checks on all third-party agents — lawyers, lobbyists — who represent the company before government agencies. The firms checked whether background checks were in fact being done. By July 2011, the firms had identified significant weaknesses in all three subsidiaries.
“It was clear they were not executing,” a Wal-Mart official with knowledge of the audits said.
The problems were enough to persuade Wal-Mart to expand the audit to all 26 of its foreign subsidiaries. This work began in autumn 2011. The outside firms dispatched “compliance teams” of lawyers and accountants all over the world. The teams attributed many of the problems they identified to a lack of training.
Senior Wal-Mart executives were concerned by the findings, but not overly alarmed. The audit was uncovering the kinds of problems and oversights that plague many global corporations.
But in late 2011, Wal-Mart learned that The Times was examining Wal-Mart’s response in 2005 to serious and specific accusations of widespread bribery by Wal-Mart de Mexico, the company’s largest foreign subsidiary.
In October 2005, a former lawyer for Wal-Mart de Mexico had spent hours telling company investigators how Wal-Mart de Mexico’s leadership had orchestrated a vast campaign of bribery to accelerate expansion. Hundreds of bribes, he said, were paid to obtain construction permits and other licenses needed to open new stores. The lawyer’s accusations were especially powerful because he had been in charge of getting permits for Wal-Mart de Mexico’s new stores.
Wal-Mart rapidly escalated its internal investigation. It hired new outside lawyers, this time from the firm Jones Day. They began to investigate whether top executives had quashed the company’s investigation into the lawyer’s claims. In December 2011, Wal-Mart sent Jones Day lawyers to Mexico to interview the lawyer and other crucial players. The company began to look into other specific accusations of wrongdoing, both in Mexico and it its other subsidiaries.
It effectively created two lines of inquiry — the first being the global compliance review begun by Greenberg Traurig and KPMG. The second was the internal inquiry into specific accusations of bribery and corruption.
Some changes at Wal-Mart have already resulted. General counsels for each country used to report in to the chief executives of that country — which could create conflicts of interest if the chief executive was involved in corruption — and now they report to the general counsel of Walmart International. The company recently hired several compliance executives, and a vice president for global investigations who had previously worked at the F.B.I. It has also changed its protocol on investigations, including asking international subsidiaries to alert the global ethics office in Bentonville before any inquiry into wrongdoing begins.
The new disclosure by Wal-Mart on Thursday “does support their effort to be transparent,” said Matthew J. Feeley, a lawyer with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney who focuses on foreign bribery cases. In cases like these, a company will regularly update the S.E.C. and the Justice Department with “very detailed presentations about the results of the internal investigation” in the hope of receiving lesser punishment from the agencies.
Though the government issued new compliance guidelines for the law on Wednesday, largely aimed at lawyers handling such cases, the Wal-Mart disclosure was not a result of those new guidelines. It was included in the company’s third-quarter earnings announcement.
It was not clear Thursday whether authorities in China, India and Brazil were conducting investigations of their own into Wal-Mart’s practices, as the authorities in Mexico have done in response to the bribery accusations in that country.
Last month, Indian regulators started looking into whether Wal-Mart violated an Indian foreign investment rule.
Charlie Savage, Vikas Bajaj and Andrew Downie contributed reporting.
November 15, 2012
Demystifying the Fiscal Impasse That Is Vexing Washington
By JACKIE CALMES
Many Americans must be wondering: What is all this about a “fiscal cliff”? And why did it receive so little attention during the presidential campaign?
Well, it’s complicated — the so-called cliff, that is. And most solutions are politically painful. In a rare show of bipartisanship, or mutual protection, both parties ducked the debate until after the election. What follows is an attempt to demystify the issue, which President Obama and the lame-duck Congress now are struggling over, and which may occupy them right through the holidays.
Q. What is the fiscal cliff?
A. The term refers to more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1 — for fiscal year 2013 alone — unless Mr. Obama and Republicans reach an alternative deficit-reduction deal. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, who is not known for catchy phrases, coined the metaphor “fiscal cliff” last winter to warn of the dangerous yet avoidable drop-off ahead in the nation’s fiscal path. It stuck.
Q. If we go over this so-called cliff, what happens?
A. Taxes would rise for nearly every taxpayer and many businesses. Financing for most federal programs, military and domestic, would be cut. Many economists say that while annual budget deficits are too high, these new taxes and spending cuts would be too much deficit reduction, too suddenly, for a weak economy. More than $500 billion equals roughly 3 percent to 4 percent of gross domestic product. The Congressional Budget Office has said the result would be a short recession, though some analysts say the measures could be managed so they do less damage. “Slope,” they argue, is a better metaphor than cliff.
Q. Exactly what tax increases are in store?
A. When a tax cut expires, the practical effect is a tax increase. And a slew of tax cuts — $400 billion for 2013 — expire on Dec. 31: All of the Bush-era rate reductions; smaller tax cuts that periodically expire for businesses and individuals; and the 2-percentage-point cut in payroll taxes that Mr. Obama pushed in 2010, which increased an average worker’s take-home pay by about $1,000 a year.
Also, 28 million taxpayers — about one in five, all middle- to upper-income — would have to pay the alternative minimum tax in 2012, raising their taxes more. That is because Congress has failed to pass an inflation adjustment, as it usually does, to restrict the number of taxpayers subject to the alternative minimum largely to the affluent.
Q. What spending would be cut?
A. An emergency unemployment-compensation program is expiring, which would save $26 billion but end payments to millions of Americans who remain jobless and have exhausted state benefits. Medicare payments to doctors would be reduced 27 percent, or $11 billion, because this year Congress has not passed the usual so-called “doc fix” to block the cuts, which otherwise are required by a 1990s cost-control law.
The biggest cut would be $65 billion, enacted across the board for most federal programs over the last nine months of fiscal year 2013, from January through September. This cut, known as the sequester, was mandated by an August 2011 budget deal between Mr. Obama and Congress that ended their standoff over raising the nation’s debt limit. In that deal, they agreed to reduce spending by $1 trillion over 10 years and to identify an additional $1.2 trillion in savings by January 2013. If they fail to agree on the second installment — as is the case so far — the automatic cuts will kick in.
Q. Why did the parties create such a fiscal and economic threat?
A. It was part intentional, part coincidental.
The intentional: Since Ronald Reagan’s administration, with mixed results, presidents and Congresses have occasionally mandated a self-imposed future crisis to force themselves to agree on unpopular tax and spending actions. In that spirit, the idea behind the August 2011 deal was that Republicans would so greatly fear the military cuts, and Democrats the domestic spending cuts, that they would negotiate a deficit-reduction alternative by the Jan. 1 deadline.
The coincidental: The measures from the 2011 deal are set to take effect at the same time as the changes to jobless benefits, the alternative minimum tax adjustment and the Medicare “doc fix,” and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — a confluence that the two parties did not fully expect back in August 2011. The nation will also reach its debt ceiling in January, creating additional uncertainty. Accounting maneuvers by the Treasury Department could push that deadline to March, but Mr. Obama wants a debt-limit increase as part of any deal, adding another item to the agenda.
Q. Can’t Democrats and Republicans agree on anything here?
A. They actually agree on a lot. Neither side favors the sequester, an expanded alternative minimum tax or Medicare cuts for doctors; the issue in preventing those outcomes is where to find offsetting savings to avoid adding to annual deficits. And both parties want to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers — on income below $250,000 for couples and on income below $200,000 for individuals.
Their main disagreement is a familiar one: the Bush rates on income above that, for the top 2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama campaigned against the rates in 2008 and in 2012. In December 2010, when the Bush tax cuts originally were to expire, Mr. Obama reluctantly agreed to extend all of them for two years in exchange for Republicans’ support for the temporary payroll tax cut and extended jobless aid. This time, he swears, is different.
Q. If the president extended all the Bush rates once, why wouldn’t he do so again for the right concessions?
A. The economy was weaker in 2010, and so was Mr. Obama. Republicans had just triumphed in the midterm elections, taking control of the House. Now Mr. Obama is fresh off re-election, and Congressional Democrats have gained seats. He vows that he will not allow the top tax rate to stay at 35 percent; a return to 39.6 percent would raise about $1 trillion over 10 years. Chastened Republicans have suggested they would support higher revenues, but only from limiting tax deductions for high-income taxpayers, not from higher rates. Mr. Obama has not ruled out a compromise that would limit deductions as well as setting the top rate above 35 percent but below 39.6 percent.
Q. What now? Might they really reach an impasse?
A. No one knows. Despite market jitters about that outcome, Democrats suggest that they are willing to let Jan. 1 come and go without resolution unless Republicans relent on the top rate. That could simply be bravado, to make Republicans blink. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll this week found that a majority of Americans would blame Republicans for failure.
Q. Is there a best-case outcome here?
A. Many budget experts and economists are hoping for a two-part deal. The first part would extend many of the tax cuts and repeal the automatic spending cuts to avert the changes scheduled after Jan. 1. But it would be contingent on the second part: a framework for reducing projected long-term deficits by overhauling both the tax code — to raise revenues — and entitlement programs — chiefly Medicare and Medicaid, whose rising costs in an aging population are unsustainable. Those overhauls would preoccupy Mr. Obama and Congress through 2013 and perhaps 2014.
Such an agreement would set specific targets for new tax revenue and spending cuts to reduce deficits by about $4 trillion over a decade, giving Congress and the president more time to work out the details. If they failed to do so, presumably other automatic changes might be in store as an enforcement action — setting up yet another looming deadline.
November 15, 2012
School Districts Brace for Cuts as Fiscal Crisis Looms
By MOTOKO RICH
During the campaign, both President Obama and Mitt Romney repeatedly extolled the value of schools and teachers. Mr. Romney, in their first debate last month, even vowed, “I’m not going to cut education funding.”
But if his fellow Republicans in Congress and Mr. Obama cannot agree on a resolution for the country’s looming debt crisis, the automatic budget cuts and tax increases that will kick in next year could spawn another round of belt-tightening at public schools already battered by the recession and its aftermath.
If the government is unable to come to a resolution, federal education programs for elementary and high schools would lose a little over $2 billion — or close to 8 percent of the current budget — starting next fall, according to the Office of Management and Budget and the Education Department.
School districts around the country are bracing for cutbacks. In Boston, programs for English language learners and students at risk of failing a grade would be curtailed. In Cleveland, where the district has already lopped 50 minutes off the school day and limited art and music, officials fear they would have to curtail a literary program for struggling fourth and fifth graders, and lay off more classroom teachers. Miami-Dade, which has so far avoided pink slips for teachers, would probably start issuing them.
While federal funding generally represents about 10 percent of public school budgets, schools have already lost millions of dollars in state money. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, 26 states cut funding this school year, and two-thirds of states are providing less money for public education than they did five years ago. It may be several years before state coffers recover enough to restore funding to previous levels.
At the same time, schools have been hobbled as another important source of financing — property tax collections — has plunged after the housing crisis.
While declines in state and local funding affect most public schools, cuts in federal funding would jeopardize services at schools that serve the neediest children. Federal funding for elementary and secondary education is directed primarily at low-income students as well as English language learners and those with special education needs.
“It in essence widens the gaps between the haves and have-nots,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The wealthy suburban communities that receive very little federal funding — it’s not going to have much impact on them.”
But at urban school districts where a majority of the students are poor, a decline in federal funding, he said, “is going to be catastrophic over the reductions they’ve had over the last four years.”
At the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass., a neighborhood of Boston, Andrew Bott, the principal, fears that the work the school has accomplished in recent years could be stalled. The school, which was one of the city’s worst performing a few years ago, has used federal funds to add an hour to the school day, establish academies during breaks in the school year for students who fall behind and bring in extra help for struggling readers. As a result, Mr. Bott said, test scores have improved. “Money isn’t always the answer,” he said. “But when you have a good plan and invest it well, it makes all the difference.”
Conservatives have argued that federal education spending has more than doubled in the last four decades, while test scores have not risen much. “I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that federal involvement in K-12 education has not resulted in meaningful academic gains,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy group.
But with schools being asked to raise students to higher standards, evaluate teachers more rigorously and compete internationally, education advocates say funding cuts are devastating.
“It’s lunacy to talk about cutting an investment,” said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, “when we know that we need to make sure that educating all kids is as effective and efficient and as great as possible to move all kids to 21st-century learning skills.”
In Cleveland, for example, where all students qualify for free or reduced lunch, the district has already slashed $114 million — close to 9 percent — from its budget over the past two years. Automatic cuts in federal spending could imperil $4 million more.
“We’re counting on federal funding,” said Eric S. Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where class sizes are up to 40 students in some schools. “Not to be able to do extras, but just to provide the basic instructional services that you would expect of a school district.”
Mr. Gordon said he found the prospect of federal education cuts particularly troubling after local taxpayers just approved an increase in property tax rates for the first time in 16 years to aid education.
Voters in several other states have also shown support for public schools, by either approving new taxes or rejecting measures that would have diminished education funding.
In California, a ballot initiative to increase annual taxes by $6 billion to help the state’s public schools passed easily this month. In Florida, voters defeated a measure that would have limited state revenues, and therefore endangered state education funding. And in North Dakota, voters rejected a ballot measure to eliminate local property taxes, a crucial source of school funding.
In a notable exception, public school budgets took a hit in Arizona on Election Day, when voters rejected a proposal to extend a temporary 1-cent sales tax that would have raised close to $80 million annually for both K-12 and higher education in the state. According to the Center on Budget report, state funding for elementary and secondary students has already fallen close to 22 percent in Arizona since 2008.
Supporters of the measure argued that the state had already cut full-day kindergarten, eliminated librarians and guidance counselors and increased class sizes. “Some of those things will now get worse,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, statewide chairwoman of a committee supporting the sales tax proposition. Opponents, who included the state treasurer, argued that education spending in the state was high enough, and that tough choices had to be made. What is more, said Jonathan Butcher, education director of the Goldwater Institute, which orchestrated the “no” campaign, the state had sought other ways to improve education, like broadening the number of charter schools. “Arizona has made bold steps to address the issue without just pouring money into the system and expecting money to solve the problem,” Mr. Butcher said.
Even those who support changes in educational policy — including the expansion of charter schools — say that cutting funding would harm students.
“Everyone should be strenuously advocating for changes that will improve the quality of teaching and instruction, but we should also recognize that those changes cost money,” said Jonah Edelman, chief executive of Stand for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group. It supported the sales tax in Arizona but has drawn fire from teachers unions and parent advocacy groups because it favors charter schools as well as other changes, including teacher evaluations tethered to test results.
“You can’t do, quote-unquote, reform on the cheap,” Mr. Edelman said.
Originally published Friday, November 16, 2012 at 10:13 PM
Israel steps up airstrikes; Jerusalem comes under rocket attack
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel expanded its fierce air assault on rocket operations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, striking security compounds, smugglers' tunnels and a three-story apartment building after an unprecedented rocket attack aimed at the holy city of Jerusalem raised the stakes in its confrontation with Palestinian militants.
Israeli aircraft also kept pounding their original targets, the militants' weapons-storage facilities and underground rocket-launching sites.
The Israeli military called up thousands of reservists and massed troops, tanks and armored vehicles along the border with Gaza, signaling a ground invasion of the densely populated seaside strip could be imminent.
Israel launched its military campaign Wednesday after days of heavy rocket fire from Gaza and has carried out some 800 airstrikes since, the military said.
Militants, undaunted by the heavy damage the air attacks have inflicted, have unleashed some 500 rockets against the Jewish state, including new, longer-range weapons turned for the first time this week against Jerusalem and Israel's Tel Aviv heartland.
Israel has slowly expanded its operation beyond military targets and before dawn on Saturday, the Gaza Interior Ministry reported, missiles smashed into two small Hamas security facilities as well as the massive Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, setting off a huge blaze that engulfed nearby houses and civilian cars parked outside. No one was inside the buildings at the time.
The Interior Ministry said a government compound was also hit as devout Muslims streamed to the area for early morning prayers. So, too, was a Cabinet building where the Hamas prime minister received the prime minister of Egypt on Friday.
In southern Gaza, Israeli aircraft Saturday went after the hundreds of underground tunnels militants used to smuggle in weapons and other contraband from Egypt, people in the area reported.
Missiles also knocked out five electricity transformers, plunging more than 400,000 people in southern Gaza into darkness, according to the Gaza electricity-distribution company. A three-story apartment building belonging to a Hamas military commander was hit, and ambulances ferried out inhabitants wounded by the powerful explosion. Others were thought to be buried under the rubble.
Four years ago, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza one week after the start of an operation also intended to halt unremitting rocket attacks on Israeli population centers by Hamas, an Islamist movement that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization.
It ended two weeks later amid loud international criticism and left 13 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, hundreds of them civilians.
Casualties have been far lower in the current operation, suggesting that Israel is highly motivated to avoid a repeat of Cast Lead, as the 2008-2009 operation was code-named.
By Saturday morning, Gaza medical officials said at least 30 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Three Israelis have been killed by the rocket fire from Gaza.
Friday began with a temporary truce between Israel and Gaza militants to accommodate a visit to the coastal strip by Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil. But the cease-fire quickly crumbled, as the Palestinians launched new waves of attacks and Gaza residents said Israel responded with renewed airstrikes. The Israeli military denied that.
The eerie wail of air-raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem after the start of the Jewish Sabbath in the holy city, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as a capital and about 47 miles from Gaza.
Jerusalem residents were shocked to find themselves suddenly threatened by rocket fire, which, for more than a decade, had been limited to steadily broadening sections of southern Israel.
The attack on the contested city was especially audacious, both for its symbolism and its distance from Gaza. Located about 50 miles from the Gaza border, Jerusalem had been considered beyond the range of Gaza rockets — and an unlikely target because it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest shrine.
Most of the militants' rockets do not have guided systems, limiting their accuracy, though Israeli officials believe the militants may have a small number of guided missiles that have not yet been used.
Earlier on Friday, Gaza gunmen fired toward Tel Aviv for the second straight day, causing no injuries.
Hundreds of rockets and mortar rounds have rained down on southern Israel since Wednesday from the other side of the Gaza border, including one projectile that slammed into an apartment building in the working-class town of Kiryat Malakhi, killing two Israeli men and one woman.
Israel, which previously could count on Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak's help in isolating Hamas, is testing fragile relations with the new Islamist government in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster in February 2011.
Egypt is now allied with Hamas and is under popular pressure to downgrade relations with the Jewish state. Hamas, after years of being shunned, feels emboldened by burgeoning ties with Egypt and other regional players, such as Qatar, and the group has called on Arab countries to form a united opposition against the Israeli occupation.
President Obama spoke separately to Israeli and Egyptian leaders Friday night as violence escalated. The White House says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Obama on Friday to provide an update on the situation.
Netanyahu expressed appreciation to Obama and the American people for U.S. investment in the Iron Dome rocket and mortar-defense system, which has been used to defend Israel against rocket attacks from Gaza, saving many Israeli lives, the White House said.
Obama reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to self-defense and discussed possible ways to scale back the conflict, the White House said. It did not offer specifics.
Separately, Obama called Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Friday and praised Egypt's efforts to ease tensions in the region, the White House said.
Obama expressed hope that Egypt's efforts would be successful, officials said.
November 16, 2012
As Battlefield Changes, Israel Takes Tougher Approach
By ETHAN BRONNER
TEL AVIV — With rockets landing on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Friday and the Egyptian prime minister making a solidarity visit to Gaza, the accelerating conflict between Israel and Hamas — reminiscent in many ways of so many previous battles — has the makings of a new kind of Israeli-Palestinian face-off.
The combination of longer-range and far deadlier rockets in the hands of more radicalized Palestinians, the arrival in Gaza and Sinai from North Africa of other militants pressuring Hamas to fight more, and the growing tide of anti-Israel fury in a region where authoritarian rulers have been replaced by Islamists means that Israel is engaging in this conflict with a different set of challenges.
The Middle East of 2012 is not what it was in late 2008, the last time Israel mounted a military invasion to reduce the rocket threat from Gaza. Many analysts and diplomats outside Israel say the country today needs a different approach to Hamas and the Palestinians based more on acknowledging historic grievances and shifting alliances.
“As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-48 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters — as has been the case since the 1930s, in fact,” Rami G. Khouri, a professor at the American University of Beirut, wrote in an online column. “Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.”
But the government in Israel and the vast majority of its people have drawn a very different conclusion. Their dangerous neighborhood is growing still more dangerous, they agree. That means not concessions, but being tougher in pursuit of deterrence, and abandoning illusions that a Jewish state will ever be broadly accepted here.
“There is a theory, which I believe, that Hamas doesn’t want a peaceful solution and only wants to keep the conflict going forever until somehow in their dream they will have all of Israel,” Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former leader of the Israeli Air Force, said in a telephone briefing. “There is a good chance we will go into Gaza on the ground again.”
What is striking in listening to the Israelis discuss their predicament is how similar the debate sounds to so many previous ones, despite the changed geopolitical circumstances. In most minds here, the changes do not demand a new strategy, simply a redoubled old one.
The operative metaphor is often described as “cutting the grass,” meaning a task that must be performed regularly and has no end. There is no solution to security challenges, officials here say, only delays and deterrence. That is why the idea of one day attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, even though such an attack would set the nuclear program back only two years, is widely discussed as a reasonable option. That is why frequent raids in the West Bank and surveillance flights over Lebanon never stop.
And that is why this week’s operation in Gaza is widely viewed as having been inevitable, another painful but necessary maintenance operation that, officials here say, will doubtless not be the last.
There are also those who believe that the regional upheavals are improving Israel’s ability to carry out deterrence. One retired general who remains close to the military and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that with Syria torn apart by civil war, Hezbollah in Lebanon discredited because of its support for the Syrian government, and Egypt so weakened economically, Israel should not worry about anything but protecting its civilians.
“Should we let our civilians be bombed because the Arab world is in trouble?” he asked.
So much was happening elsewhere in the region — the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, the Syrian civil war, dramatic changes in Yemen and elections in Tunisia — that a few rockets a day that sent tens of thousands of Israeli civilians into bomb shelters drew little attention. But in the Israeli view, the necessity of a Gaza operation has been growing steadily throughout the Arab Spring turmoil.
In 2009, after the Israeli invasion pushed Hamas back and killed about 1,400 people in Gaza, 200 rockets hit Israel. The same was true in 2010. But last year the number rose to 600, and before this week the number this year was 700, according to the Israeli military. The problem went beyond rockets to mines planted near the border aimed at Israeli military jeeps and the digging of explosive-filled tunnels.
“In 2008 we managed to minimize rocket fire from Gaza significantly,” said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. “We started that year with 100 rockets a week and ended it with two a week. We were able to give people in our south two to three years. But the grass has grown, and other things have as well. Different jihadist ideologies have found their way into Gaza, including quite a few terrorist organizations. More weapons have come in, including the Fajr-5, which is Iranian made and can hit Tel Aviv. That puts nearly our entire population in range. So we reached a point where we cannot act with restraint any longer.”
Gazans see events in a very different light. The problem, they say, comes from Israel: Israeli drones fill the Gazan skies, Israeli gunboats strafe their waters, Palestinian militants are shot at from the air, and the Gaza border areas are declared off limits by Israel with the risk of death from Israeli gunfire.
But there is little dissent in Israel about the Gaza policy. This week leaders of the leftist opposition praised the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military commander, on Wednesday. He is viewed here as the equivalent of Osama bin Laden. The operation could go on for many days before there is any real dissent.
The question here, nonetheless, is whether the changed regional circumstances will make it harder to “cut the grass” in Gaza this time and get out. A former top official who was actively involved in the last Gaza war and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it looked to him as if Hamas would not back down as easily this time.
“They will not stop until enough Israelis are killed or injured to create a sense of equality or balance,” he said. “If a rocket falls in the middle of Tel Aviv, that will be a major success. But this government will go back at them hard. I don’t see this ending in the next day or two.”
November 17, 2012
Israel Destroys Hamas Prime Minister’s Office
By ISABEL KERSHNER and RICK GLADSTONE
JERUSALEM — Israel retaliated for Palestinian rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with five airstrikes before dawn Saturday on the Gaza City offices of Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of Hamas — the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza.
The military said it had struck more than 200 targets overnight, including scores of underground rocket launchers and smuggling tunnels in Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border. Along with Mr. Haniya’s headquarters, which was destroyed, the military said in a statement that it had struck the Hamas police and homeland security headquarters, and the house of a Hamas commander, Ahmed Randor.
Seven Hamas militants were killed Saturday morning in two separate attacks — four in Rafah, and three in the Al Maghazi refugee camp, in the middle of the Gaza Strip, Hamas said.
Explaining the Israeli rationale for moving from attacking purely militant targets to government buildings in Gaza, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Saturday, “It is clear that Hamas itself makes no distinction between its terrorist military machine and the government structure and that they are intertwined.
“We have seen Hamas consistently using so-called civilian facilities for the purposes of hiding their terrorist military machine, including weapons,” he added.
About 30 rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on Saturday morning, one landing in the yard of a house. Three soldiers were slightly injured by one of the rockets, the Israeli military said.
Despite the fighting, Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem of Tunisia visited Gaza on Saturday, condemning the Israeli attacks during an appearance at the Al Shifa hospital.
“Israel has to understand that there is an international law and it has to respect the international law to stop the aggression against the Palestinian people,” The Associated Press reported Mr. Abdessalem as saying.
On Friday, emboldened by displays of Egyptian solidarity and undeterred by Israel’s advanced aerial firepower, Palestinian militants under siege in Gaza had broadened their rocket targets, aiming at Jerusalem for the first time, sending a second volley screeching toward Tel Aviv and pushing the Israelis closer to a ground invasion.
Israel’s government more than doubled the number of army reservists it could call to combat if needed in the increasingly lethal showdown with Gaza’s Hamas fighters and their affiliates, after they fired more than 700 rockets into southern Israel over the last year. The escalation has raised fears of a new chapter of war in the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Israeli military closed some roads adjacent to Gaza in anticipation of a possible infantry move into the territory, which would be the first Israeli military presence on the ground in Gaza since the three-week invasion of 2008-9.
Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas, said Saturday that the Tunisian foreign minister’s visit, following the visit Friday by the Egyptian prime minister, showed that “we as Palestinians are not alone.”
“All Arab nations are with us and against the occupation,” he said. “This will give a strong message to the international community.”
Asked about the possibility of a ceasefire agreement, Mr. Hamad said Israel would have to agree to cancel the buffer zone, a strip of land 300 meters, or almost 1,000 feet, wide along the northern and eastern Gaza borders where Israel does not allow people to go; those who enter can be shot.
Mr. Hamad said the attacks on Hamas government buildings are “a policy of Israel to put pressure on people” but would not significantly change the dynamic of the current fighting.
“Israel has the capacity to destroy all buildings in Gaza, all homes,” he said. “But this is against humanity.
“They destroyed our government buildings before many times, but we rebuild again,” he added. “It’s a long struggle, a long story. It will not stop today or tomorrow.”
The Israel Defense Forces said it would “continue targeting sites that are used to carry out terror attacks against Israeli citizens.”
Many residents of Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital despite objections from the city’s large Palestinian population and others throughout the Middle East, were startled Friday when wartime sirens warning of impending danger wailed at dusk, followed by at least two dull thuds. Hamas’s military wing claimed in a statement that they were rockets fired from Gaza, 48 miles away, and had been meant to hit the Israeli Parliament.
The police said one of the rockets crashed harmlessly in open space near an Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem. It was unclear where the others landed, but no damage or injuries were reported.
Earlier in Tel Aviv, 40 miles from the Gaza border, air-raid sirens wailed for a second day as a rocket fired from the territory approached. A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said it apparently fell into the Mediterranean.
Although the rockets missed their intended targets, the launchings aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the two biggest population centers, underscored the ability and willingness of Hamas rocket teams to target Israeli or Israeli-occupied areas that up until the past few days had been thought relatively immune.
“We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist or any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises,” Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas, said in a message reported by news agencies.
Even Saddam Hussein, when he led Iraq, avoided targeting Jerusalem when he aimed Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, not wishing to inadvertently destroy Muslim shrines or hit Arab neighborhoods.
Despite three days of repeated Israeli aerial assaults on suspected stockpiles of rockets in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said more than 100 were fired into Israel on Friday, apparently including Iranian-made Fajr-5 projectiles that Israeli officials say are the only ones in the Hamas arsenal with a range that can reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Hamas contended that it had produced those rockets, which the group called M75s, referring to a range of 75 kilometers or roughly 47 miles. Israeli munitions experts said they had never heard of that weapon.
Regardless, the rocket barrage caused widespread panic and damage. It also shattered plans for a temporary cease-fire during an unprecedented trip to Gaza by the Egyptian prime minister, Hesham Qandil, a visit that illustrated the shifting dynamics of Middle East politics since the turmoil of the Arab Spring uprisings began nearly two years ago. Under the last president, Hosni Mubarak, regarded by Israel as an important strategic ally, any relationship with Hamas would have been unthinkable.
“The time in which the Israeli occupation does whatever it wants in Gaza is gone,” Mr. Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, said in a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart.
The persistent ability of Hamas to keep firing missiles at Israel on Friday appeared to weigh heavily in the Israeli military’s calculations about a ground invasion. Mr. Netanyahu said the Israeli Army was “continuing to hit Hamas hard and is ready to expand the operation into Gaza.” Israeli television later reported that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had authorized the military to call up 75,000 reservists if necessary — more than double the 30,000 authorized Thursday.
No Israelis were reported killed in the rocket attacks on Friday, leaving the reported death toll on Israel’s side at three civilians. The number of Palestinians killed so far in the four days rose to at least 39, Gaza health officials said, underscoring what critics of Israeli policy called Israel’s disproportionate use of military force. Israeli leaders have said they are selectively targeting militants in the Gaza attacks, and they blame Hamas for installing rocket batteries in civilian areas.
The Israeli military said Friday night that it had killed Muhammad Abu Jalal, a Hamas company commander in Gaza, and Khaled Shaer, who was involved in rocket development. A military spokesman said that earlier in the day, the Israel Defense Forces had sent text messages to about 12,000 Gaza residents warning them to stay away from Hamas operatives.
In addition, the military said it had crippled Hamas’s burgeoning drone capabilities after striking a number of sites. Hamas, it said, had been developing unmanned aerial vehicles for use as another means of striking Israel.
At the four-story headquarters of Mr. Haniya, where weekly cabinet meetings were once held, a huge pile of rubble stood Saturday as testimony to the 4 a.m. barrage. Three Palestinian flags that used to hang over the entryway instead draped onto the dusty mess, their poles nearly perpendicular to the ground.
Amid the rubble were datebooks and personnel records. A copy of the official Palestinian book of laws had singed pages. Mr. Haniya’s gray-bearded face beamed from one page in Hamas’s signature green: the cover of a 2008 booklet declaring “the government’s achievements despite the obstacles.”
Just before 10 a.m. a security official who asked to be identified only as Abu el-Abed took one of the fallen flags and replanted it upright.
“We will rebuild this place as we have rebuilt others,” he said. “Every structure that is demolished or destroyed is a big loss. But the blood of anybody wounded is more important than any structure. This place will be rebuilt and the occupation will go and we will stay.”
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Jodi Rudoren, Fares Akram and Tyler Hicks from Gaza City, Alan Cowell from Paris, Rina Castelnuovo from the Gaza-Israel border, and Mayy El Sheikh and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.
11/16/2012 03:23 PM
The World From Berlin: Israeli Assault Is 'Strategically Counterproductive'
The current outbreak of fighting in Gaza is now in its third day, and Israel is threatening to escalate its war on Hamas with a ground invasion. German commentators on Friday worry that a move meant to win votes in an upcoming election could quickly veer out of control.
Israel's "Pillar of Defense" operation is underway in Gaza amid the biggest flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence in four years. Israel launched the operation in response to days of rocket fire out of the Hamas-led Gaza Strip, kicking it off on Wednesday with more than 50 airstrikes and the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas' top military commander.
On Thursday, Palestinian militants responded by launching nearly 150 more rockets into Israel, killing three people and firing into the Tel Aviv area. Late in the day, ground troops were massing near the border, and the government suggested that it was considering a ground invasion. This would mark a clear escalation of the conflict, which has reportedly already left at least 22 Palestinians and three Israelis killed and nearly 200 wounded in its first three days.
On Friday, thousands across Egypt demonstrated against Israel's attacks. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi denounced the attacks as "blatant aggression against humanity" and said Cairo "would not leave Gaza on its own," Reuters quoted the state news agency MENA as reporting. Likewise, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesaham Kandil was in Gaza City as a sign of solidarity, where he toured a hospital and condemned Israel's actions.
Although they don't see eye to eye on the ethical issues surrounding the targeted assassination of Jabari, German editorialists on Friday are in broad agreement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu primarily launched the offensive in order to bolster support for his Likud party in advance of the parliamentary election scheduled for January 22. They also worry that the fighting could threaten peace between Israel and Egypt and foster even more instability in the Middle East.
Left-wing daily Die Tageszeiting writes:
"It's easy to have sympathy for the fact that no one in Israel is mourning Ahmed Jabari. The murdered de facto commander of Hamas' military wing taught his enemies the meaning of fear."
"Targeted assassinations violate international law. Nonetheless, on the domestic political stage, there is much to be gained from the death of Israeli's archenemy…. But the attack on Ahmed Jabari led to an immediate escalation of the conflict and is strategically counterproductive for a government that wants to protect its people."
"Israel has also paid a high price on the diplomatic level. Egypt has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. The government in Cairo, which is trying to mediate between the two fronts, is angry…. But as terrible as the consequences of Jabari's assassination might prove to be for Israel, the pay-off for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come in the elections in two months' time."
Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Going beyond justified Israeli security interests, the 'Pillar of Defense' operation is a targeted attack on Hamas. The question is what Israel hopes it will achieve right now…. Its current heavy-handedness has primarily one purpose: There is an election campaign underway in Israel."
"The government in Jerusalem has made it clear that it will not shy away from a ground offensive if need be … but the only clear purpose of such a brutal mission would be to put a permanent end to Hamas. However, it's far too late for that. In contrast to the last war (in December 2008), Hamas now has Egypt's leadership behind it. So the attack on Gaza automatically carries a risk of regional spillover. As targeted as the launch of this military operation might have been, its continuation has already veered out of control."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"War is good for a hard-liner like Benjamin Netanyahu. Even a modest military engagement can win him votes…. When it comes to taking a tough, if not brutal course of action against the Palestinians, the Israelis have more faith in Netanyahu than in any of his rivals. In this respect, it isn't surprising that he should emphasize this quality by bombing the Gaza Strip again in the run-up to the coming election and ordering the murder of a senior Hamas leader. He sees civilian victims and international law as arguments for rather than obstacles to his re-election."
"(Netanyahu) and his collation partners are equally indifferent to the fact that the military strikes weaken Hamas at a time when it is gradually becoming more moderate, thereby paving the way for even more radical groups affiliated with al-Qaida. In fact, this benefits Netanyahu because any new outbreaks of terror provide him with more reasons to oppose an independent Palestinian state."
"However, his policy is highly dangerous for Israel, the Palestinians and, indeed, the entire region, which is regrouping in the wake of the Arab Spring. It could damage relations between the Arab and Western worlds for decades to come."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"In this case, there can be no doubt that Israel had the right to kill Hamas' head of military operations. After all, Hamas is the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, an entity that has repeatedly attacked Israel's civilian population over the years and in recent days. As the man primarily responsible for this war of terror, Ahmed Jabari was a legitimate military target."
"What's alarming about the current situation is not the Israeli attack but, rather, what preceded it. It shows that Hamas learned nothing from the last war…. You need to be either pretty stupid or drunk on your own propaganda to think that the Israeli government would tolerate days of rockets raining down on an area inhabited by a population of 1 million -- especially during election season."
"Whether the conflict escalates depends on Hamas. The Israelis have no interest in sending ground troops into Gaza again. Objectionable as it is, if Hamas falls, it will only bring even worse extremists to power…. The sooner Hamas accepts it must ensure peace in the south, the sooner this conflict will be over."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The Israeli government had no choice. After the rocket attacks in the country's south, it had to send out a clear message. No government can allow a million of its citizens to live in a state of emergency for years on end."
"But the Israeli offensive is fraught with political risks. Israel could have counted on Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's former leader, not to intervene in a conflict in the neighboring country. But now Mohammad Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has moved into the presidential palace in Cairo. He may come out in support of Hamas, which shares roots with the Muslim Brotherhood. He will also have to take into account all the people demonstrating against the Israeli offensive on Gaza in the mosques and on the streets."
-- Jane Paulick
U.S. gives ‘full backing’ to Israel while urging de-escalation of Gaza violence
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian
Friday, November 16, 2012 19:51 EST
The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, says the US has given his government a free hand in its assault on Gaza as the Israeli cabinet ordered a large call up of military reserves, prompting fears of a ground invasion.
The Palestinian delegation to Washington condemned the US response to the crisis as “biased and weak”, and called on the White House to stop Israel using American-made weapons against civilians. It also described as “shameful” what it called the justification of the murder of Palestinians by countries supporting Israeli actions, including Britain.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Mohamed Kamel Amr, on Friday to urge a de-escalation of a “very, very dangerous situation” in Gaza, according the State Department.
Oren spoke during a visit to Capitol Hill on Friday after both houses of Congress overwhelmingly voted for resolutions in support of Israel’s “inherent right to act in self-defence”.
“The United States has given us the full backing to take whatever measures are necessary to defend our citizens from Hamas terror,” he said. “Israel has received unequivocal and outstanding support from the United States and all branches of government. From the White House, from Congress, in both parties, completely bipartisan support.” Among the few voices of criticism raised was from congressman Keith Ellison, who said he visited Gaza after the last major Israeli attack four years ago.
“It’s a devastated area already. It’s only going to be made worse by this. Innocent people are dying. We need a ceasefire,” he said.
The Israeli ambassador has been leading a PR drive in Washington to cast Israel as the innocent victim of indiscriminate terror attacks, a claim strongly challenged by Palestinians who accuse Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, of engineering the conflict as a political strategy in the run-up to January’s general election.
Oren has likened the situation to 1948, during Israel’s war to establish its independence, and 1967, when a strike against Arab armies resulted in a swift victory that led to the occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He said Hamas has been “emboldened” by the Arab spring and that it is being armed with weapons from Libya, Sudan and groups in the Sinai.
Oren called the news that a rocket fired from Gaza landed within a few miles of Jerusalem an “escalation” in the crisis.
“We are prepared to take any and all measures to defend our citizens, including measures in the air and on the ground … Israeli ground forces have been moved to the border. There has been no crossing of the border to date, but those forces are deployed and ready to act, be there a need,” he said.
That position was unequivocally backed by the congressional resolutions without the call made by the Obama administration for Israel to show restraint and avoid civilian casualties.
The two houses of Congress expressed “unwavering commitment to the security of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders, and recognises and strongly supports its inherent right to act in self-defence to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism”.
The influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) said the resolutions “demonstrate that America continues to firmly stand with Israel and her right to defend herself”.
The Palestinian delegation to the US accused Washington of taking Israel’s side.
“The United States response is at best biased and weak because it completely ignored the fact that Israel started the escalation. The US has a moral obligation to ask Israel not to deploy its US-made weapons to kill and injure civilians. The US is also expected to tell Israel that there is no military solution to the conflict. The only way to achieve peace is to uproot the cause of its absence: Israel’s military occupation of Palestine,” it said. “It is shameful that certain countries are justifying the murder of Palestinian civilians. It is time for all to understand that Palestinian lives are as precious as any others in the region and around the world. The political complicity must end and Israel must be held accountable.”
Part of Oren’s push has been to win US public support with numerous television and radio interviews in which he has said that Israelis cowering from rockets fired from Gaza is equivalent to 40 million Americans having to hide in bunkers. Israeli diplomats have also compared Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza to Miami being shelled from Cuba. Critics pointed out that Cuba is not occupied by the US.
Oren also pushed a frequently heard line that civilian casualties during Israeli attacks are the fault of Hamas, which uses them for PR purposes.
“We are acutely aware that Hamas and other terrorist organisations embed their missiles, embed their troops and other military assets deep within the civilian populations and they’re doing their best to hid behind the civilian populations, using them as human shields,” he said. “We are making superhuman efforts to avoid civilian casualties.”
Palestinian officials have noted that Israel maintains its military headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
November 16, 2012
U.S. Fears a Ground War in Gaza Could Hurt Israel and Help Hamas
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about the escalating violence in Gaza, believing that a ground incursion by Israel there could lead to increased civilian casualties, play into the hands of the militant Palestinian group Hamas and inflict further damage to Israel’s standing in the region at an already tumultuous time.
Though President Obama uttered immediate and firm public and private assurances that Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks emanating from Gaza, administration officials have been privately urging Israeli officials not to extend the conflict, a move that many American officials believe could benefit Hamas.
A protracted escalation, the officials fear, could damage Israel’s already fragile relationships with Egypt and Jordan at a time when both of those governments have been coming under pressure from their own populations.
Mr. Obama telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday for the second time this week, and officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have been on the phone with their Israeli counterparts since then.
Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the Israeli Air Force’s commander in chief, was in Washington early in the week — before the Gaza crisis began — and met with American officials, although it was unclear whether he warned them beforehand that Israel intended to launch a missile strike against the Hamas military commander.
During this call with Mr. Netanyahu, the White House said that Mr. Obama “reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives.” The two leaders, the White House said, “discussed options for de-escalating the situation.”
Mr. Obama was also grappling with how to cajole an Egyptian government that is radically different from the one that the United States has relied on for so many years. This is no longer the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, who for decades stood with a succession of American leaders to try to rein in Hamas against popular opinion at home.
Now, Mr. Obama’s pleas are being directed to President Mohamed Morsi, who was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is skeptical of Israeli motives. Mr. Obama called Mr. Morsi on Wednesday, after Israel launched more than 50 airstrikes on Gaza, and called again on Friday. Israel said the airstrikes were in response to days of rocket fire out of Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, and were the beginning of a broader operation against Islamic militants.
During the phone call, Mr. Obama and Mr. Morsi “agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible, and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead,” the White House said in a statement.
A senior Obama administration official said the American message to Egypt had been “that we cannot have this conflict drag on, as it just risks greater threats to civilians.”
If Israel goes back into Gaza, both Egypt and Jordan — the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel — would come under pressure from their people to break off ties, a move that would undoubtedly strengthen Hamas.
But to the relief of Obama administration officials, Mr. Morsi so far has not hinted at such a move, which would threaten the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, a linchpin for stability in the region in Washington’s view. And administration officials say Mr. Morsi has indicated that he will try to calm the situation in Gaza before it worsens.
Whether that effort extends to lobbying for Hamas to crack down on jihadist groups that have been launching attacks on Israel, as Israel would like to see Mr. Morsi do, is not clear. But at the moment, the relative quiet out of Cairo is being viewed in Washington as a positive first step.
“If Morsi wanted to use this for populist reasons, he’d be adopting a different posture,” said Martin S. Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and the author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”
“If he wanted to take apart the peace treaty, this is his opportunity,” Mr. Indyk said. “The fact that he’s not and is instead apparently working with President Obama to calm the situation is important.”
But Mr. Morsi’s cooperation can only be counted on, another administration official said, so far as Israel does not invade Gaza, with the attendant civilian casualties. A ground war, the official said, “could mean all bets are off.”
And the consequences for Israel could be severe, according to experts. “It’s a question of diminishing returns, and the chances of mishaps go up,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He pointed to the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006 and the Israeli raids in Gaza in 2008 as examples where Israel suffered deeply in terms of international opinion after protracted fights with its Arab neighbors that produced televised images of Arab casualties.
“I’ve got to believe that the lesson from the 34 days in 2006, along with 2008, which went on for weeks, is that Israel does much better with short campaigns than with long ones,” Mr. Makovsky said.
11/16/2012 06:40 PM
Cairo's Balancing Act: Egypt Faces Fraught Diplomatic Test
By Ulrike Putz in Beirut
The outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence poses a delicate diplomatic challenge for the Egyptian government. While the powerful Muslim Brotherhood is sympathetic to Hamas and public anger is swelling in Egypt against the Israeli military operation in Gaza, President Morsi is also under international pressure to help broker a ceasefire and safeguard peace in the region.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil spent three hours visiting the Gaza Strip on Friday morning. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire during Kandil's brief visit with Hamas leaders, Israeli air strikes continued there, while Hamas fired further rockets at Israel.
Three days into what Israel is calling "Operation Pillar of Defense" the prime minister traveled to the region to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas. A further reason Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi -- a former Muslim Brotherhood leader -- dispatched the prime minister to Gaza was to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.
It remains to be seen if Kandil's efforts to broker a ceasefire will be successful. But his very presence in Gaza is evidence that Egyptian President Morsi is acutely concerned about the ramifications, particularly in light of the Arab Spring, of this latest flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Changing Power Structures
The current conflict recalls the war of 2008-2009, when Jerusalem chose to retaliate with a military strike against continued rocket and mortar fire from Gaza shortly after a US election and just months ahead of an election in its own country.
But there has been a shift in power structures since 2008. When "Operation Cast Lead" was launched, Egypt was still led by its long-standing despot, President Hosni Mubarak, a friend to Israel in its fight against the Palestinian Islamists he himself had reason to fear, and a staunch upholder of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed in 1979.
In 2007, when Hamas seized power, he ignored the plight of the civilian population and closed Egypt's border to Gaza -- shrugging off the objections of the Egyptian people.
Morsi is taking a different approach. His power base is sympathetic to the Palestinians and to Hamas, and he cannot afford to ignore their demands.
Hence Morsi's condemnation of the murder of Hamas' military leader Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday and of Israel's ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. Cairo recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv the same day, with Morsi urging both the UN Security Council and the Arab League to react immediately.
Hamas welcomed Egypt's response. "This is a new Egypt," said Hamas Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday. But for many in Egypt, Morsi has not gone far enough. Thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Thursday calling on the government to take a stronger stance against its neighbor.
A Diplomatic Balancing Act
Cairo's western allies have made it clear that they expect Egypt to exert diplomatic influence on Hamas. Whether or not Morsi manages to bridge the gap between the expectations of his supporters and the demands of Egypt's international alliance policies will indicate where Cairo's Muslim Brotherhood is planning to position itself in the Middle East's political landscape.
On Friday, the Egyptian media reported that Kandil was planning to present Hamas with a ceasefire plan which foresees Egypt committing itself to opening its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to goods. For the time being, it is only open to people, which means that Israel controls imports into Gaza -- and therefore, effectively, the entire economy of territories that are home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
If Hamas has its way, this will change. The Islamists will only be able to remain in power if the economic situation in Gaza improves. An open border with Egypt and a reliable market for products "Made in Gaza" would guarantee the movement's political survival. Some observers assume that Hamas renewed its firing of rockets on Israel in summer specifically in order to provoke an Israeli offensive, in the hope that it would end with a ceasefire with more favorable terms.
According to Egyptian media reports, Morsi's plan is to take Hamas to task on the Sinai question in return for opening the Rafah border crossing. The Sinai Peninsula is home to extremists, some of whom have ties to al-Qaida, which poses a growing problem for Egypt. It would be in Cairo's interest if Hamas relinquished its support of these Islamist militias.
On Wednesday, Israel launched an assault against targets in the Gaza Strip which has already claimed 20 Palestinian lives. Its aim is to stop Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. In recent days, hundreds of rockets have rained down on the south of the country, killing 3 Israelis. On Friday, as Hamas militants in Gaza said they had fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel appeared to be edging closer to a ground invasion, with the army calling up 16,000 reservists.
Gaza, an impoverished and besieged sliver of land
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 16, 2012 17:21 EST
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — The Gaza Strip, under fire from Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence campaign unleashed on Wednesday, is an impoverished and overpopulated enclave ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Some 1.6 million Palestinians live in the cramped territory spread over 362 square kilometres (140 square miles) along the Mediterranean, making it one of the most densely populated parts of the world.
The territory was evacuated in 2005 by Israel and in March 2006 became the de facto seat of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government after its victory in legislative elections.
The Palestinian Authority is itself based in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The economic and humanitarian situation in the enclave has been precarious since Israel imposed an economic embargo after Hamas seized power in 2007, ending a power-sharing deal with the secular Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas.
Under its blockade, Israel controls all goods entering the Gaza Strip, except those smuggled through tunnels under the border with Egypt. The blockade also involves a blanket ban on all weapons and munitions.
On May 31, 2010 Israeli naval commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists in a pre-dawn raid that sparked global outrage and plunged the Jewish state into a diplomatic crisis.
Power outages blamed on fuel shortages regularly plunge Gaza into darkness.
Adding to the hardships, there has been only limited reconstruction since the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 in response to daily volleys of rocket fire from Hamas and other armed factions.
The only access to the territory which is not controlled by Israel — the Rafah terminal at the border with Egypt — reopened in May 2011 after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak, but it is also often closed.
November 16, 2012
Syrian Opposition Group Seeks Backing in London
By JOHN F. BURNS
LONDON — A Western-led push to strengthen backing for Syria’s rebels gained momentum on Friday as leaders of a new umbrella group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, met here with officials from Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Turkey, Qatar and other Arab states.
Officials said the meetings explored a range of options for increasing pressure on the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, including easing the European arms embargo, which the rebels say has left them and civilians exposed to Mr. Assad’s heavy weaponry and airstrikes.
The meetings were the first foray outside the Middle East by the leaders of the new coalition, which was formed last weekend in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to unite rival rebel factions.
The group’s president, Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, and two vice presidents, Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, met with Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain, and then with the other officials.
Easing the arms embargo remains the most contentious issue. Britain and the United States fear worsening a conflict that has already cost roughly 40,000 lives, or seeing weapons flow into the hands of Islamic extremists who have taken up the rebels’ cause. They are also loath to deepen tensions with Russia and China, which have blocked efforts to unify the United Nations Security Council behind stronger measures.
Mr. Khatib and his deputies are traveling to France on Saturday to meet with President François Hollande, who has fully embraced the new coalition. Further discussions are scheduled for Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers.
France has already indicated that it favors easing the arms embargo to allow “defensive weapons” to be sent to the rebels.
Britain’s inclination to bolster the rebels stiffened after Prime Minister David Cameron visited a refugee center on Jordan’s border last week and saw the conditions being endured by tens of thousands of Syrians. “Frankly, what we’ve done so far is not working,” he said.
On Thursday, Mr. Cameron led a meeting at which Britain’s National Security Council reviewed military options, including establishing of a no-fly zone that would be enforced by Western combat aircraft; providing the rebels with guns; encouraging countries in the region, including Turkey, to provide weapons; and deploying small detachments of troops to assist in humanitarian efforts at camps outside Syria, according to British officials.
Mr. Hague told reporters on Friday that Britain would continue for now to supply only nonlethal assistance. But he said, “We cannot stand still; we cannot just say we will leave things as they are in Syria, because it is a gravely deteriorating situation.”
Britain sought to impress on Mr. Khatib and his deputies that Western support would be contingent on the rebels’ reining in human rights abuses by some rebel factions chronicled by aid organizations and Western reporters. But officials said Britain was likely to follow in France’s footsteps next week and formally recognize the coalition.
As the meetings took place in London, Reuters reported that a Syrian general and a dozen other officers were among 53 Syrians who defected to Turkey on Friday after heavy fighting on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria.
November 16, 2012
Protesters Come Up Empty in Jordan
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
AMMAN, Jordan — A wave of demonstrations against King Abdullah II set off by an increase in fuel prices appeared to reach its peak on Friday without having won any concessions from the monarchy.
Several thousand protesters gathered Friday in a central square of Amman, the capital, to chant slogans calling for the king’s ouster, a demand that just three weeks ago organizers had deemed far too controversial and legally risky under Jordan’s strict sedition laws.
“Qaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak all left,” the crowd chanted, referring to the former leaders of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. “Abdullah, go, go.”
Protests similar to those in Amman took place in cities and towns around the country, as well as at the funeral for a young man shot by the police after a demonstration on Tuesday night.
Since the end of World War I, Jordan’s monarchy has been an island of relative stability in the perpetually stormy Middle East, and King Abdullah may be Washington’s closest Arab ally in the region. As a pivotal buffer between Iraq, Syria and Israel, Jordan is the only other Arab state besides Egypt to recognize Israel. It also relies heavily on American foreign aid. This week’s demonstrations have been the sharpest challenge to the king’s rule since the start of the Arab Spring revolts.
But the crowd in Amman, which appeared to be largely middle class and led by organizers from the secular opposition, was still palpably more timid than the mobs that ultimately brought down other Arab autocrats.
Some demonstrators debated their own goals, wondering whether they should aim for lower fuel prices, a crackdown on corruption or, as the chanters demanded, the king’s abdication. Many in the crowd displayed a fear of the security forces, a crucial barrier that was overcome in the other Arab revolts. The arrival of a few hundred riot police officers almost provoked a stampede from the crowd, even though the police never advanced.
Calls from a protest leader to demonstrate fearlessness by clapping did little to dispel the sense of anxiety; the leaders broke up the demonstration a few moments later, after only about two hours.
Speakers urged demonstrators to regroup outside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry after dark, a classic opening gambit in the revolutionary playbook.
But before the evening rally was set to begin, rows of hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers swept through the street and chased away any would-be demonstrators. A parade of a half-dozen armored personnel carriers followed down the street, and hundreds of others deployed at crucial locations kept the capital locked down.
Despite the fizzled protests, organizers vowed to fight on, emphasizing what many said was the unprecedented turn from narrow demands for specific reforms to a broader assault on the privilege of the monarchy. And there were signs of growing boldness among Jordanians.
“I know the intelligence agencies have cameras taking our pictures,” said Emad Masamreh, 39, a store owner. “When I use my phone, there is somebody listening, I know.”
“But for 22 months I have been waiting to come down here,” Mr. Masamreh said, alluding to the flight of Tunisia’s dictator in January 2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring. “We have to get rid of these thieves. We have to change the whole system.”