In the USA...
November 20, 2012
Obama, in Cambodia, Sidesteps Ghosts of American Wartime Past
By PETER BAKER
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.
President Obama’s visit to a country deeply scarred by its involvement with the United States did nothing to purge the ghosts or even address them. Mr. Obama made clear he came only because Cambodia happened to be the site for a summit meeting of Asian leaders, but given the current government’s human rights record, he was intent on avoiding much interaction with the host.
“How are you?” Mr. Obama asked Prime Minister Hun Sen when he showed up, unsmiling, for a meeting made necessary by protocol. “Good to see you.”
Those, as it turned out, were the only words he uttered publicly to or about Cambodia during his two days here. In private, aides said, Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Hun Sen about repression. While they usually characterize even the most hostile meeting in diplomatic terms, in this case they were eager to call the meeting “tense.”
But the president’s public silence disappointed human rights organizations that had called for a more explicit challenge to Mr. Hun Sen’s record of crushing opposition. And it left to another day any public examination of the United States’ role in the events of the 1970s that culminated in the infamous “killing fields” that wiped out a generation of Cambodians.
Theary Seng, president of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, said, “President Obama should have met with the human rights community and activists challenging the Hun Sen regime, and while then and there, offer a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.”
Gary J. Bass, a scholar of war crimes at Princeton, said Mr. Obama passed up a chance to publicly exorcise a painful history. “It’s a missed opportunity for Obama,” he said. “Obama is right to evoke America’s better angels, but that’s more effective when you give the complete story.”
White House officials were sympathetic, but they said the focus of Mr. Obama’s stop in Phnom Penh was on the summit meeting, organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, not on a visit to Cambodia or the relationship between the two countries.
“It’s not a lack of appreciation; it’s the circumstances of the visit,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “President Obama’s always willing to confront the history we have in the nations we visit and believes it’s important to acknowledge the past so we can move beyond it. The fact is, this particular visit was structured to focus on the summits that the Cambodians were hosting.”
Some activists said that Mr. Obama’s visit would help Cambodia’s transition.
“The U.S. president’s visit to Cambodia is an important part of that process,” said Youk Chhang, a survivor of the genocide and executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private research group. “Cambodians look to the United States more than any other country as a beacon for leadership on human rights and democracy issues as well as what can be achieved by a free and fair market system.”
Michael Abramowitz, who directs the genocide prevention center at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recently visited Cambodia on a fact-finding mission on the Khmer Rouge trials.
He saw value in Mr. Obama’s visit. “Even though President Obama would likely not have visited Phnom Penh were it not for the Asean meeting, the presence of the first U.S. president on Cambodian soil has enormous symbolic importance,” he said.
Left undiscussed during the visit was the grim history between the United States and Cambodia. President Richard M. Nixon, trying to cut off North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam, ordered a secret bombing campaign that dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on Cambodia from 1970 to 1973. The United States also backed a coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk as head of state.
Many Cambodians responded by joining a Communist resistance, which led to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that went on to orchestrate a genocide that resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979, when the group was pushed out of power by Vietnamese forces.
Even today, Cambodia is struggling with that history. A United Nations-Cambodian war crimes trial is trying the senior surviving leadership of the Khmer Rouge on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The United States has supported and helped finance the trials, although human rights groups complain that the Cambodian government has been tampering with the court.
Mr. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia for decades with little tolerance for dissent. Opposition leaders have been jailed and killed, and his allies have been seizing land on a large scale, according to human rights groups.
That complicated the question of Mr. Obama’s trip. Past presidents have confronted American actions; President Bill Clinton made a trip to Vietnam in 2000 to reconcile years after the war, while George W. Bush, during a trip to Eastern Europe, expressed regret for the Yalta accords, which he viewed as allowing the Soviet Union to control the region for decades after the end of World War II.
But Mr. Obama was reluctant to engage in a discussion of America’s responsibility in Cambodia while the current government is so repressive. Such a discussion could serve to elevate rather than diminish Mr. Hun Sen, American officials said.
Mr. Obama refused to make joint statements with Mr. Hun Sen, as he normally does with leaders hosting him, on the assumption that any criticism of the government would be censored, but the pictures of the two leaders side by side would be used to validate the Cambodian leader.
Instead, Mr. Obama used almost their entire private meeting to press Mr. Hun Sen on human rights, aides said. He emphasized “the need for them to move towards elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Even if Mr. Obama did not address the past during this visit, Mr. Rhodes noted that the United States government has been supporting the genocide trials and efforts to dispose of unexploded mines and ordnance.
“We have done important work to help the Cambodian people move forward with their tragic past,” he said. “We want to continue that support.”
November 20, 2012
Administration Defines Benefits That Must Be Offered Under the Health Law
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took a big step on Tuesday to carry out the new health care law by defining “essential health benefits” that must be offered to most Americans and by allowing employers to offer much bigger financial rewards to employees who quit smoking or adopt other healthy behaviors.
The proposed rules, issued more than two and a half years after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, had been delayed as the administration tried to avoid stirring criticism from lobbyists and interest groups in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.
Insurance companies are rushing to devise health benefit plans that comply with the federal standards. Starting in October, people can enroll in the new plans, for coverage that begins on Jan. 1, 2014.
The rules translate the broad promises of the 2010 law into detailed standards that can be enforced by state and federal officials. Under the rules, insurers cannot deny coverage or charge higher premiums to people because they are sick or have been ill. They also cannot charge women more than men, as many now do.
“Thanks to the health care law, no one will be discriminated against because of a pre-existing condition,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, who issued the rules with Phyllis C. Borzi, an assistant secretary of labor, and Steven T. Miller, the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
The rules lay out 10 broad categories of essential health benefits, but allow each state to specify the benefits within those categories, at least for 2014 and 2015. Thus, the required benefits will vary from state to state, contrary to what many members of Congress had assumed when the law was adopted.
Most states are defining essential benefits to be those provided by the largest health plan in the state’s small-group insurance market. However, to comply with the law, federal officials said, insurers must provide certain additional benefits, including dental care and vision services for children, treatment of mental health and drug abuse problems, and “habilitative services” for people with conditions like autism or cerebral palsy.
The proposed rules go beyond informal guidance issued by the administration last December, most notably by requiring more comprehensive coverage of prescription drugs.
Administration officials originally suggested that insurers would have to cover at least one drug in each therapeutic class. The new rules will, in many states, require insurers to cover two or more drugs in each class.
Stephen E. Finan, a health economist at the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society, said, “The proposed rule is an improvement over the bulletin issued last year, but still does not guarantee that cancer patients will have access to all the major cancer drugs they need.”
The rules limit insurers’ ability to charge higher premiums based on age. Under the rules, the rate for a 63-year-old could not be more than three times the rate for a 21-year-old. Many states now allow ratios of five to one or more, the administration said.
The White House said it wanted to “minimize disruption of rates in the current market.” But the administration decided not to allow a transition to the new age-rating standards, and insurers said that premiums could increase substantially for young adults.
Karen M. Ignagni, the president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said the White House needed to focus on the affordability of coverage for consumers and employers.
In the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama said he would lower annual premiums by $2,500 per family by the end of his first term. But after a quick look at the proposed rules on Tuesday, Ms. Ignagni said she was concerned that “many families and small businesses will be required to purchase coverage that is more costly than they have today.”
The rules also give employers new freedom to reward employees who participate in workplace wellness programs intended to help them lower blood pressure, lose weight or reduce cholesterol levels. The maximum permissible reward would be increased to 30 percent of the cost of coverage, from the current 20 percent.
The rules would further increase the maximum reward to 50 percent for wellness programs intended to prevent or reduce tobacco use.
Rewards could amount to several thousand dollars a year, officials said, because total premiums in employer-sponsored health plans now average more than $5,600 a year for individual coverage and nearly $16,000 for family coverage.
The rules include several provisions to prevent discrimination against employees. Employers must, for example, allow workers to qualify for rewards in other ways if it would be “unreasonably difficult” for them to meet a particular standard. For example, if an employee does not meet a standard for cholesterol, the employee might qualify for a reward by following a nurse’s recommendations for diet and exercise.
The new law seeks to protect consumers by limiting what they must pay for health care before insurers begin to pay. In the small-group market, these deductibles are limited to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for family coverage. However, the administration said that insurers could charge higher deductibles, if necessary, to hold down the overall value and cost of a plan, reflected in the premiums.
Cindy Mann, the top Medicaid official at the Department of Health and Human Services, said many of the new requirements for essential benefits would apply to private plans that insure low-income people on Medicaid.
CIA closes dedicated climate change unit
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 19:02 EST
WASHINGTON — The CIA has shuttered its unit dedicated to studying the impact of climate change on national security, shifting its activities elsewhere, an official said Tuesday.
“As part of a broader realignment of analytic resources, this work continues to be performed by a dedicated team in a new office that looks at economic and energy matters affecting America’s national security,” said CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz.
“The mission and the resources devoted to it remain essentially unchanged.”
The Center on Climate Change and National Security was founded in 2009 under the leadership of then CIA director Leon Panetta, who now heads the Pentagon.
It was aimed at studying the security ramifications of climate-related issues such as desertification, rising sea levels, migration and competition for natural resources.
Republican members of the US Congress, many of whom doubt the scientifically accepted evidence that climate change is underway, have opposed the unit since its establishment and unsuccessfully sought to block funding for it.
Panetta was replaced in September 2011 by David Petraeus, who has since resigned over an extramarital affair, and the unit no longer enjoys as much internal support, according to Greenwire, a specialized publication.
Under former president George W. Bush, the United States, one of the world’s biggest polluters, opposed international measures such as the Kyoto Treaty designed to slow global warming.
President Barack Obama has now vowed a new push for action on the matter in his second term, saying the United States had a duty to come together to curb emissions in the wake of last month’s devastating Superstorm Sandy.
Climate change played little role in the election campaign until days before the vote, when Sandy tore through the East Coast and the Caribbean, killing more than 110 people in the United States alone.
Some US lawmakers take issue with the view of most scientists that industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing the planet to warm.
Word of the center’s closure comes just days before the opening of an international conference in Doha on global warming.
Bernanke steps up warnings over fiscal cliff
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 18:39 EST
WASHINGTON — Fed chairman Ben Bernanke stepped up his warnings Tuesday over the looming “fiscal cliff,” saying its mandatory tax hikes and spending cuts posed a “substantial threat” to US economic recovery.
With President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress locked in crunch talks on avoiding the cliff and slashing the budget deficit, Bernanke said rising cuts to federal spending were already holding back growth.
“Congress and the administration will need to protect the economy from the full brunt of the severe fiscal tightening at the beginning of next year that is built into current law — the so-called fiscal cliff,” the US central bank chief said in a speech in New York.
“The realization of all of the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that make up the fiscal cliff, absent offsetting changes, would pose a substantial threat to the recovery,” he said, according to the prepared text.
“Indeed, by the reckoning of the Congressional Budget Office and that of many outside observers, a fiscal shock of that size would send the economy toppling back into recession.”
Bernanke said the Federal Reserve already views growth as disappointingly slow and troubled by threats from the eurozone crisis, slow job creation and the reticence of banks to loosen lending standards — which Bernanke said is holding back recovery in the housing sector.
The unemployment rate, currently 7.9 percent, remains “well above” what Fed officials want to see, Bernanke said, adding that the country has “some way to go before the labor market can be deemed healthy again.”
But Bernanke pointed out that pressures to wind up the stimulus programs and other policy actions designed to pull the country out of recession, and stepped-up efforts to rapidly reduce the federal budget deficit, are now “restraining” gross domestic product growth.
“Indeed, under almost any plausible scenario, next year the drag from federal fiscal policy on GDP growth will outweigh the positive effects on growth from fiscal expansion at the state and local level,” he said.
Bernanke’s warning came as the White House and top officials from Congress are locked in talks to avert the cliff and set a long-term plan for reducing the deficit, which has topped $1 trillion a year for four years running.
The cliff comprises two challenges: a drastic spending reduction program, and the expiration of a broad range of “temporary” tax decreases.
Both are to take place on January 1, and together would suck at least $500 billion out of the economy, forcing it into recession.
Republicans and Democrats have sharply differed on what kind of long-term spending reductions and increases in tax revenues should be put in place to replace the cliff.
Bernanke said that the deficit is “on an unsustainable path,” requiring a “credible framework” to stabilize and reduce the country’s debt and deficit load.
But he warned policymakers “to avoid unnecessarily adding to the headwinds that are already holding back the economic recovery.”
“Preventing a sudden and severe contraction in fiscal policy early next year will support the transition of the economy back to full employment,” he said.
Asked after the speech how the central bank could mitigate the impact of the fiscal cliff, Bernanke replied: “I don’t think the Fed has the tools to offset that.”
But analysts found Bernanke sounding somewhat more optimistic about the economy’s potential than he had in recent months, presuming the fiscal cliff is averted.
“For his standards, this was probably one of the most ‘upbeat’ speeches that Fed Chairman Bernanke has given over the last five years,” said economist Harm Bandholz of UniCredit.
New York sues Credit Suisse over mortgage securities
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 18:40 EST
NEW YORK — The state of New York sued Credit Suisse for fraud Tuesday over the sale of questionable mortgage securities that dealt buyers $11.2 billion in losses in the US housing meltdown.
Following a similar suit against JPMorgan Chase in October, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the Swiss bank deceived investors over the quality of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) that it sold in 2006 and 2007.
The suit said that the bank knew that the RMBS it was selling as quality investments were full of high-risk, subprime home loans that the bank’s own traders branded “garbage.”
Moreover, Credit Suisse extended financing to the originators of the bad loans which it packaged into RMBS for sale.
The bank was “more focused on keeping a high volume of loans coming to them from originators than they were on keeping defective loans out of the pools of collateral underlying their RMBS,” the suit said.
The losses sustained were roughly 12 percent of the total initial value of the securities of nearly $94 billion, and the attorney general’s office said it was seeking to recoup the losses for investors.
“This lawsuit against Credit Suisse marks another significant step in our efforts to hold financial institutions accountable for the misconduct that led to the worst financial crisis in nearly a century,” said Schneiderman in a statement.
The suit came out of a joint RMBS task force looking into the causes of the housing and mortgage securities market meltdown that sparked a national financial crisis and sent the country into deep recession in 2008-2009.
The task force also involves the US Justice Department, the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Finance Agency and others.
FHFA inspector general Steve Linick said in a statement that defrauded investors included housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government was forced to rescue after the market collapsed.
“As victims, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have sustained significant losses, which to date have been borne by taxpayers. This lawsuit sends the clear message that reckless lending practices will not be tolerated,” Linick said in a statement.
Compared with the October 1 suit against JP Morgan Chase, which appeared to move sooner than New York’s task force partners had intended, the action against Credit Suisse had the full backing of the task force.
JPMorgan Chase was sued over $22.5 billion in losses on RMBS issued by the former investment bank Bear Stearns, which JPMorgan Chase acquired during the crisis.
November 20, 2012
U.S. and Mexico Sign a Deal on Sharing the Colorado River
By IAN LOVETT
CORONADO, Calif. — The governments of the United States and Mexico signed an agreement on Tuesday to overhaul how the two countries share and manage water from the Colorado River, which provides water to more than 33 million people in seven states and Mexico.
Under the agreement, the two countries will share in both surpluses and water shortages. During drought years in the United States, less water will be sent to Mexico. In exchange, during years of plenty, Mexico will be allowed to store some of its water north of its border.
In addition, the countries will allocate some water to restore the ecological health of the river’s delta in Mexico.
Speaking at the signing of the agreement here, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it the most important adjustment to rules on the Colorado River since the 1944 treaty between the two countries that set the terms for use of the river’s water.
Mr. Salazar said he hoped the new agreement would be the end of “water wars,” which in times of drought have pitted those who rely on the river against each other. The 1,450-mile river runs from the Rockies to the Gulf of California.
“The Colorado River, in so many ways, makes us one people, and together we face the risk of reduced supplies in years ahead,” he said. “More than ever, we are working together in times of drought as well as in times of abundance. We will cooperate to share, store and conserve water as needed.”
Until now, the United States has sent 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado to Mexico every year, regardless of rainfall. With more dry years recently, however, American officials wanted to reduce the amount it shares with Mexico when the river’s level was low.
In return, Mexico, which had little storage capacity, will be allowed to store some of its surplus water in Lake Mead, which straddles Nevada and Arizona. That will keep the water level there more predictable. Lake Mead supplies water to the Las Vegas area.
In addition, the United States will help finance improvements to Mexico’s water infrastructure, which was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2010.
Finally, the agreement will reconnect the Colorado River with the Gulf of California. Currently, it peters out about 60 miles short of the sea. That will help to restore the river delta, which experts said had become desertlike.
The United States and Mexican governments will each supply 5,000 acre-feet of water a year to the delta, as will a coalition of environmental organizations. Native plants from the delta will also be restored, which will provide a habitat for migratory birds.
“This agreement is a model for how we need to be doing water management in the future,” said Taylor Hawes, the director of the Colorado River Program for the Nature Conservancy, one of the nongovernmental organizations that will help supply water to the delta. “This is our hope for how we can manage rivers in a way that works for multiple parties and multiple interests in the future.”
The agreement runs for five years, after which, officials on both sides said, they hoped to reach a new agreement that would extend its principles.
Republicans Change Their Talk, but Still Walk Their Hateful Walk
By: Rmuse November 20th, 2012
There is a proverb, “actions speak louder than words” that many people refer to when they feel they are being scammed, and it means it is more effective to act directly than to speak of action. It also can be associated with a related adage that, “if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” and it is very apropos to the Republican Party and their recent assertion they are changing to attract more voters as a response to their crushing defeat in the recent election, but they are adhering to same hateful agenda. The sad fact is regardless the GOP’s words that they heeded the voters’ message, they are plotting the same course with the same players the voters rejected two weeks ago.
Republicans have lambasted Willard Romney for his comments in a call with donors that President Obama won because he gave gifts to women, minorities, and students, while they plod ahead with Romney and Ryan’s failed recipe to save the economy from “takers” by proposing harsh austerity measures to avoid the so-call fiscal cliff. They have also said they have to start reaching out to those groups and let them know they “like them,” but their actions belie their pathetic words. The Republican Party has tried this tactic before in 2010 when they promised their focus was on creating jobs, but like 2011, they are lying.
After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans stayed on message with their Pledge to America that they would create jobs right up to the first day of the 112th session of Congress when they shifted their focus from jobs to reading the Constitution, repealing Obamacare, redefining rape, and assailing women’s right to choose their own reproductive health. Within a week of voters rejecting more tax cuts for the rich in 2012, Republican leaders asserted they would maintain the wealthy’s tax cuts that Romney and Ryan campaigned on and lost. Shortly afterward, they spent their time looking for a scandal in the Benghazi attack the killed four diplomats, and promoted Romney’s tax plan to cut taxes and close loopholes (read limit middle class exemptions). It is 2011 all over again, and Speaker of the House John Boehner proved he was serious about pushing tax cuts and austerity measures when he appointed Ryan as point-man for talks to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Ryan immediately said the Romney-Ryan plan voters rejected was very popular and that his Path to Prosperity budget was the message voters mandated in the election. Republicans either did not get the voter’s message, or they are totally disregarding the will of the people and moving forward with their hateful agenda while their message machine expresses love and affection for Americans Romney disparages when he thinks no-one is listening, and Republicans are fully behind him; in private.
In twelve states, Republican governors are refusing to create health insurance exchanges to stonewall implementation of the Affordable Care Act to show their opposition to President Obama and to protect themselves politically from accusations of abetting a law conservatives fervently oppose. On Wednesday in Ohio, Republicans on the House of Representatives Health Committee advanced a bill to strip $1.7 million in federal funding from Planned Parenthood to show their new-found love for women. Teabagger darling Marco Rubio said Republicans have to reach out to Latino voters who overwhelmingly supported President Obama in the election, but he supports the GOP version of the Dream Act that falls well short of the plan Republicans have opposed, and besides restrictive requirements, it has no path to citizenship the Dream Act offers and is being panned by advocates.
Republicans have not learned anything from the election except to say they do not like Romney in public despite moving forward with his agenda. They had a stellar opportunity to garner support from the groups who abandoned them at the ballot box, but they have proven they still support Romney’s hateful agenda while they criticize him in public. If they were sincere about their newfound love for Americans they would have, upon returning November 13, passed the Dream Act, the farm bill, middle class tax cuts, and all of the President’s jobs bills. Instead they focused on Benghazi, Romney’s tax plan, Ryan’s austerity budget, and opposing the Affordable Care Act. All that is missing thus far is a secret meeting and agreement to oppose all of the President’s economic policies, but their renewed love for Romney-Ryan is evidence they already planned their obstructionism.
The GOP cannot admit they lost the election and Americans are not going to be fooled by their rhetoric until they start backing it up with actions that speak louder than words. The people should have noticed that when John McCain’s daughter lashed out at Republican insensitivity toward women and gays, she prefaced her outrage with an admission she wept when Romney lost the election. However, she should take refuge that despite the GOP’s crushing defeat, they are moving forward to implement the Romney-Ryan agenda that belies their love for Americans who rejected them in the election, and with two years to contradict their newly discovered friendlier rhetoric, the people will have plenty of time to see their deceit and reject them again in 2014.
The Time is Now for Obama to Educate in Order to End the GOP Assault on Social Security
By: Rmuse November 21st, 2012
Human beings are unique in their ability to learn because they can transfer knowledge from one person to another through teaching, training, or research, and if the educational process is successful, it can have a formative effect on the way others think or act. Successful politicians understand that affecting the way voters think is crucial to garnering support for their favorite agenda, and Republicans have been relentless in teaching the public that Social Security is adding to the deficit and in jeopardy of going broke, and they are not alone. There has never been a better time for President Obama to educate the people about Social Security and its non-effect on the deficit and its financial health.
A couple of days ago, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein joined Republicans’ “entitlement bashing” rhetoric and said “in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained because we can’t afford them, “and his remedy was raising the Social Security retirement age for workers to receive benefits. It is easy for a Wall Street CEO whose net worth is $450 million to launch another 1% assault on the rest of America, but his GOP idea will have deleterious effects on Americans he thinks should work longer before they retire.
Before getting into why Blankfein’s contention about the affordability of maintaining Social Security in its current form is fallacious, there are some prescient facts President Obama and Democrats must teach the population. First, Social Security is a worker-funded retirement savings account, not an entitlement; unless one considers that after paying into Social Security for 45 years a worker is entitled to their own money, and then it is an entitlement. Second, the Social Security Trust is forbidden, by statute, to take one penny from the federal government under any circumstance so it adds nothing to the deficit, and raising the retirement age or cutting benefits will not reduce the deficit. For the record, the Trust funds its own extremely low administrative costs (about 2% ) making it the most fiscally efficient program in the nation’s history.
Social Security does not now, and never has had any effect whatsoever on the national debt regardless how often Republicans claim otherwise. They are, after all, habitual liars, and why any sane American believes cutting benefits or raising the retirement age will reduce the deficit is mindboggling. Further, Social Security is able to pay 100% of benefits for decades, and if rich Americans like Blankfein paid the same percentage as people who work for a living, the Trust would be solvent forever. Just raising the income cap will ensure it could continue paying benefits for at least 75 years, but Republicans will never tell the public that inconvenient truth. However, Blankfein did tell some inconvenient lies.
He said, “Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised because we can’t afford them.” Blankfein is not very proficient at simple arithmetic because most Americans start working at age 18, and if they retire at age 62, then they worked for 44 years, not 25. Republicans have pushed raising the retirement age for years, and it may be great for men like Blankfein who sits in a chair earning $16 million a year, but for the average American with repetitive or physically taxing occupations, working extra years will cause serious problems.
Life expectancy for wealthy Americans in non-physical jobs has been increasing over the past thirty years, but poorer workers in physically demanding jobs have not seen the same life expectancy gains. If the retirement age is raised to 70, the average retiree would see their benefits cut by 19% because they most likely will die before getting a return on their investment. As it is now, the average benefit for a worker 65 and older is, on average, just over $12,000 annually, and for most retirees represents the majority of their income after paying in to the system for nearly 50 years, not, as Blankfein claimed, 25 years.
If Blankfein thinks “we” cannot afford to maintain Social Security in its current form, then there are adjustments to maintain it that may not please him one bit. The “we” Blankfein is referring to does not include the wealthy elite like himself, because Willard Romney is worth less than Blankfein and earns about the same as the Goldman Sachs CEO and his payroll tax rate was .02% of his income while every American earning less than $110,100 pays 4.2 percent through the end of this year. Self-employed workers pay 4.2% and 6.2% to match what an employer would contribute.
The question Americans should ask Republicans is why the wealthy are allowed to pay such a remarkably low rate. As noted above, Social Security would be solvent for at least a century if everyone, especially the uber-wealthy, made payroll tax contributions on all their earnings. However, America is the land of inequality, and the wealthy will never be required to pay the same rate as most working Americans until the President and Democrats educate the people about why cutting benefits or raising the retirement age is unnecessary since it does not add to the deficit.
Republicans have attempted to kill the New Deal’s Social Security Act since its inception in 1935, and attaching it to the nation’s deficit is their latest attempt to slash benefits and punish workers who paid into it their entire working lives. In fact, they have spent 50 years attempting to destroy successful government program to bolster their argument that government has no useful purpose whether it is the Veterans Health Administration or Social Security, and their goal is saving money for more tax cuts for the wealthy.
President Obama encouraged his supporters to “push him” to work for the American people, but he should not need to be pushed to telling the American people four simple facts. Social Security is not an entitlement, is not broke, does not add one penny to the nation’s deficit, and requires only one adjustment; make filthy rich men like Lloyd Blankfein pay the same rate as a plumber, butcher, or carpenter who actually works for a living.
Hamas and Israel agree to cease fire
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 21, 2012 13:09 EST
A deal to end a deadly week-long conflict between Hamas and Israel in and around the Gaza Strip was agreed on Wednesday, a senior Hamas official told AFP.
“The deal has been agreed. There will be an announcement in half an hour,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
UPDATE (1:43 p.m. Eastern)
CAIRO — Israel and Hamas agreed Wednesday to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire accord to end a week of violence in and around the Gaza Strip following days of marathon talks.
Here is the text of the ceasefire agreement which is set to take effect at 1900 GMT:
“Israel shall stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.
“All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.
“Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas. Procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.
“Other matters as may be requested shall be addressed.”
“Setting up the zero hour understanding to enter into effect.
“Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon.
“Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. In case of any observations, Egypt as a sponsor of this understanding, shall be informed to follow up.”
November 22, 2012
Israel and Hamas Maintain Cease-Fire, After Push by the U.S. and Egypt
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and JODI RUDOREN
CAIRO — A cease-fire agreed to under intense Egyptian and American pressure between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to halt eight days of bloody conflict seemed to be holding on Thursday, averting a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip without resolving the underlying disputes.
With Israeli forces still massed on the Gaza border, a tentative calm in the fighting descended after the agreement was announced on Wednesday night. Some of the tens of thousands of Israeli reservists called up during the conflagration appeared to be making preparations on Thursday to redeploy away from staging areas along the Gaza border where the Israeli military had mounted a buildup of armor and troops.
The success of the truce will be an early test of how Egypt’s new Islamist government might influence the most intractable conflict in the Middle East.
In southern Israel, the target of more than 1,500 rockets fired from Gaza over the past week, wary residents began to return to routine. But schools within a 25-mile radius of the Palestinian enclave remained closed and thousands of soldiers, mobilized for a possible ground invasion, remained along the Gaza border. The military said that a decision regarding the troop deployment would be made after an assessment of the situation later Thursday.
A rocket alert sounded at the small village of Nativ Haasara near the border with Gaza on Thursday morning, sending residents skeptical from the start about the cease-fire running for shelter. The military said the alert had been a false alarm.
In Gaza, traffic returned to streets that had been deserted, stores and markets opened and workers began the huge task of cleaning up the debris left by days of aerial and naval bombardment. Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza in support of the cease-fire as the Hamas leadership emerged from the fighting claiming victory.
Israel Radio said a dozen rockets were fired from Gaza in the first few hours of the cease-fire, but Israeli forces did not respond. In the rival Twitter feeds that offered a cyberspace counterpoint to the exchanges of airstrikes and rockets, the Israel Defense Forces said they had achieved their objectives while the armed Al Qassam Brigades in Gaza said Israeli forces had “raised the white flag.”
After more than a week of nights punctuated by the crash of bombardment and the sound of outgoing missiles, reporters in Gaza said the night had been quiet.
At the same time, Israeli security forces said on Thursday that they detained 55 Palestinian militants in the West Bank after earlier confrontations. The army said the detentions were designed to “continue to maintain order” and to “prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Israeli communities.”
The United States, Israel and Hamas all praised Egypt’s role in brokering the cease-fire as the antagonists pulled back from violence that had killed more than 150 Palestinians and five Israelis over the past week. The deal called for a 24-hour cooling-off period to be followed by talks aimed at resolving at least some of the longstanding grievances between the two sides.
Gazans poured into the streets declaring victory against the far more powerful Israeli military. In Israel, the public reaction was far more subdued. Many residents in the south expressed doubt that the agreement would hold, partly because at least five Palestinian rockets thudded into southern Israel after the cease-fire began.
The one-page memorandum of understanding left the issues that have most inflamed the tensions between the Israelis and the Gazans up for further negotiation. Israel demands long-term border security, including an end to Palestinian missile launching over the border. Hamas wants an end to the Israeli embargo.
The deal demonstrated the pragmatism of Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who balanced public support for Hamas with a determination to preserve the peace with Israel. But it was unclear whether the agreement would be a turning point or merely a lull in the conflict.
The cease-fire deal was reached only through a final American diplomatic push: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred for hours with Mr. Morsi and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the presidential palace here. Hanging over the talks was the Israeli shock at a Tel Aviv bus bombing on Wednesday — praised by Hamas — that recalled past Palestinian uprisings and raised fears of heavy Israeli retaliation. After false hopes the day before, Western and Egyptian diplomats said they had all but given up hope for a quick end to the violence.
Tellingly, neither Israel nor Hamas was represented in the final talks or the announcement, leaving it in the hands of a singular partnership between their proxies, the United States and Egypt.
There were immediate questions about the durability of the deal. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has in the past not fulfilled less formal cease-fires by failing to halt all missile fire into Israel by breakaway Palestinian militants.
Neither side retreated from threats to resume the conflict if the deal fell through, and both said they had only reluctantly agreed under international pressure. In a televised news conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel declared that some Israelis still expected “a much harsher military operation, and it is very possible we will be compelled to embark on one.”
But he said that in a telephone conversation with Mr. Obama earlier in the evening, “I agreed with him that it is worth giving the cease-fire a chance.” He added that he had reached an undisclosed agreement with Mr. Obama to “work together against the smuggling of weapons” to Palestinian militants, for which Mr. Netanyahu blamed Iran.
Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s top leader, thanked Iran for its military support in a triumphal news conference in Cairo. “This is a point on the way to a great defeat for Israel,” he said. “Israel failed in all its objectives.”
He suggested that the West had come to Hamas and its Islamist allies in Egypt pleading for peace. “The Americans and the Europeans asked the Egyptians, ‘You have the ear of the resistance,’ ” he said, using the term Hamas prefers to describe itself and other Palestinian militants fighting the Israeli occupation. “Egypt did not sell out the resistance as some people have claimed. Egypt understood the demands of the resistance and the Palestinian people.”
The agreement postponed the resolution of the most contentious issue: Israel’s tight restrictions on the border crossings into Gaza under a seven-year-old embargo imposed to thwart Hamas from arming itself. The one-page “understanding” regarding the cease-fire called for “opening the crossing and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods,” but it also said that “procedures of implementation will be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the cease-fire.”
But however fragile the cease-fire may be, the deal itself may be a turning point for Egypt’s Islamist leaders, in both their relations with the West and their role in the region. Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak — a reliable ally of Washington and Israel — many in the West have been worried about how Egypt’s leaders might respond to the next confrontation that pits their allies in Hamas against Israel. As a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Mr. Morsi often railed against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and praised Hamas for rejecting the Western-backed peace process in favor of armed resistance.
Advisers to Mr. Morsi acknowledged that the latest Gaza battle had put them in a bind, caught between the electorate’s anger at Israel and Mr. Morsi’s own vows — to Egyptians and the West — to encourage peace in the region. “If he responds fully to public opinion, he risks what we have been trying to do for peace and stability in the region,” said a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.
When the test came, several American diplomats said, Mr. Morsi chose pragmatism over ideology, working closely with Washington to bring the antagonists to the table.
American officials and Mr. Morsi’s advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Egyptian president and Mr. Obama had given the other room to manage the demands of their domestic constituencies. They spoke by telephone at least six times during the week of fighting, officials said. Mr. Morsi had looked past Mr. Obama’s repeated statements of support for Israel’s right to self-defense, while Mr. Obama did not object as Mr. Morsi publicly blamed the Israelis for instigating the conflict and then using excessive force.
But behind the scenes, the Americans pushed the Israelis toward a truce and Mr. Morsi pressured Hamas, as the parties all acknowledged on Wednesday.
Essam el-Haddad, Mr. Morsi’s top foreign policy adviser, said, “I think that the United States from the first moments was trying to find an end to the bloodshed.”
“Yes, they were carrying the point of view of the Israeli side, but they were understanding also the other side, the Palestinian side,” he said of President Obama’s role. “The sincerity and understanding was really very helpful.”
Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority’s commissioner for international relations, who was in Cairo during the early stages of the talks and met with key players, said the published agreement was intentionally kept “as vague and as general and as concise as possible to avoid problems and misunderstandings.”
Egypt’s role in the cease-fire remains unclear, Mr. Shaath said.
“How much Egypt can really take the responsibility of a total sealing of the borders not to allow a bullet to come through, above or below?” he said.
Although the memorandum of understanding did not clarify how Gaza’s borders might be opened, Egyptians, Israelis and Americans briefed on the talks said that Egypt had broached the possibility of expanding the traffic of people and goods at Rafah. Egypt has historically resisted a broader opening of the crossing, and Israel enforces its embargo on the other sides of Gaza, fearing that it would face an influx of refugees or end up with responsibility for the impoverished enclave.
Israel also fears that an open border crossing would become a conduit for weapons.
But the people briefed on the talks said the Egyptians were considering restoring something like a previous arrangement, under which the Palestinian Authority and the European Union would operate the border crossing to provide Israel and Egypt some measure of security.
The arrangement might also force Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to work together. Mr. Morsi’s advisers say they are intent on reconciling the rival factions.
After the agreement was announced, the White House said, Mr. Obama called Mr. Morsi and each thanked the other.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Jodi Rudoren from Gaza. Reporting was contributed by Fares Akram from Gaza, Isabel Kershner and Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem, Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo, Rick Gladstone from New York, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
Israel-Palestine: Fortunately no-one’s waiting for Europe
21 November 2012
El Periódico de Catalunya Barcelona
Left on the sidelines by the Arab Spring, the EU has not found its voice in the renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is as if the EU has given up on playing a role in a region that is in its own backyard.
The escalating war between Israel and Gaza confirms the arrival of new players on the scene, come to restart efforts at mediation to end the violence. The initiative lies with an Egypt that has broken with the Mubarak era, a Turkey that continues to consolidate itself as a regional power, and Qatar, a newcomer to the international scene, but with sufficient means and interests (political, strategic and religious) to claim a seat at the negotiation table. The changes brought by the Arab Spring are evident for all to see.
And Europe? It’s not at the table and isn’t expected to be. Its role in the conflict was to pay the bill the Palestinians could not pay, and that in many cases the Israelis would have had to pay. It was a role that it fulfilled neatly and that, deep-down, saved the EU some headaches. Now, it’s not that Brussels is reluctant to pay the bill. It’s that it can’t even agree to draft a press release.
On Monday, when the foreign ministers drafted the document, the UK and France advocated to ask Israel not to launch a ground attack, while Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, supported by Germany, imposed her own point of view.
The Arab Spring left the EU on the sidelines
First, she condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza that are targeting Israel. Secondly, she defended Israel's right to protect its own people. And thirdly, she urged Tel-Aviv to "act proportionately and ensure that civilians are protected." That Gaza, the most densely populated zone in the world, is suffering from an Israeli blockade does not merit a mention.
The reality is that the operation launched by Israel, officially to stop the firing of rockets by hitting the rocket launch sites from the air and from warships, has killed at least 127 Palestinians, many of them women and children, injured more than 900, and destroyed several civilian buildings. Compared to the damage and the casualties caused by Palestinian rockets (three dead), none of that proportionality that Europe is demanding is much in evidence.
The Arab Spring left the EU on the sidelines. After talking repeatedly of the need for democracy in the region while keeping up its support for autocracies considered a lesser evil than Islamism, Europe did not know how to respond to the uprisings. It still doesn’t. Beyond signing statements that the reality on the ground reduces to empty rhetoric, the EU is de facto renouncing any role in resolving a conflict raging only a few kilometres away. It seems as if Europe has no interest whatsoever in the area, and it should have.
November 21, 2012
Egypt Leader and Obama Forge Link in Gaza Deal
By PETER BAKER and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
WASHINGTON — President Obama skipped dessert at a long summit meeting dinner in Cambodia on Monday to rush back to his hotel suite. It was after 11:30 p.m., and his mind was on rockets in Gaza rather than Asian diplomacy. He picked up the telephone to call the Egyptian leader who is the new wild card in his Middle East calculations.
Over the course of the next 25 minutes, he and President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt hashed through ways to end the latest eruption of violence, a conversation that would lead Mr. Obama to send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the region. As he and Mr. Morsi talked, Mr. Obama felt they were making a connection. Three hours later, at 2:30 in the morning, they talked again.
The cease-fire brokered between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday was the official unveiling of this unlikely new geopolitical partnership, one with bracing potential if not a fair measure of risk for both men. After a rocky start to their relationship, Mr. Obama has decided to invest heavily in the leader whose election caused concern because of his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing in him an intermediary who might help make progress in the Middle East beyond the current crisis in Gaza.
The White House phone log tells part of the tale. Mr. Obama talked with Mr. Morsi three times within 24 hours and six times over the course of several days, an unusual amount of one-on-one time for a president. Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr. Obama told aides that he considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.
“The thing that appealed to the president was how practical the conversations were — here’s the state of play, here are the issues we’re concerned about,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “This was somebody focused on solving problems.”
The Egyptian side was also positive about the collaboration. Essam el-Haddad, the foreign policy adviser to the Egyptian president, described a singular partnership developing between Mr. Morsi, who is the most important international ally for Hamas, and Mr. Obama, who plays essentially the same role for Israel.
“Yes, they were carrying the point of view of the Israeli side but they were understanding also the other side, the Palestinian side,” Mr. Haddad said in Cairo as the cease-fire was being finalized on Wednesday. “We felt there was a high level of sincerity in trying to find a solution. The sincerity and understanding was very helpful.”
The fledgling partnership forged in the fires of the past week may be ephemeral, a unique moment of cooperation born out of necessity and driven by national interests that happened to coincide rather than any deeper meeting of the minds. Some longtime students of the Middle East cautioned against overestimating its meaning, recalling that Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood constitutes a philosophical brother of Hamas even if it has renounced violence itself and become the governing party in Cairo.
“I would caution the president from believing that President Morsi has in any way distanced himself from his ideological roots,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But if the president takes away the lesson that we can affect Egypt’s behavior through the artful use of leverage, that’s a good lesson. You can shape his behavior. You can’t change his ideology.”
Other veterans of Middle East policy agreed with the skepticism yet saw the seeds of what might eventually lead to broader agreement.
“It really is something with the potential to establish a new basis for diplomacy in the region,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who was Mr. Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East until earlier this year and now runs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It’s just potential, but it’s particularly impressive potential.”
The relationship between the two leaders has come a long way in just 10 weeks. Mr. Morsi’s election in June as the first Islamist president of Egypt set nerves in Washington on edge and raised questions about the future of Egypt’s three-decade-old peace treaty with Israel. Matters worsened in September when Egyptian radicals protesting an anti-Islam video stormed the United States Embassy in Cairo.
Mr. Obama was angry that the Egyptian authorities did not do more to protect the embassy and that Mr. Morsi had not condemned the attack. He called Mr. Morsi to complain vigorously in what some analysts now refer to as the woodshed call. Mr. Morsi responded with more security for the embassy and strong public statements that the attackers “do not represent any of us.”
Washington was again leery when the Gaza conflict broke out last week and Mr. Morsi sent his prime minister to meet with Hamas. But as days passed, Mr. Obama found in his phone calls that Mr. Morsi recognized the danger of an escalating conflict.
During their phone call on Monday night, Mr. Obama broached the idea of sending Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Morsi agreed it would help. The president then called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to talk through the idea. At 2:30 a.m., having changed out of his suit into sweats, Mr. Obama called Mr. Morsi back to confirm that Mrs. Clinton would come.
After leaving Phnom Penh the next day en route back to Washington, Mr. Obama picked up the phone aboard Air Force One to call Mr. Morsi to say Mrs. Clinton was on the way. By Wednesday, he was on the phone again with Mr. Netanyahu urging him to accept the cease-fire and then with Mr. Morsi, congratulating him.
“From Day 1, we had contacts with both sides,” said Mr. Haddad, but the United States stepped in “whenever there was a point at which there would be a need for further encouragement and a push to get it across.” Mr. Haddad said the United States played an important role “trying to send clear signals to the Israeli side that there should not be a waste of time and an agreement must be reached.”
“They have really been very helpful in pushing the Israeli side,” he said.
In pushing Hamas, Mr. Morsi came under crosscurrents of his own. On one side, advisers acknowledged, he felt the pressure of the Egyptian electorate’s strong support for the Palestinian cause and antipathy toward Israel as well as his own personal and ideological ties to the Islamists in Hamas. But on the other side, advisers said, Mr. Morsi had committed to the cause of regional stability, even if it meant disappointing his public.
Analysts further noted that Mr. Morsi needed the United States as he secures a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund at a time of economic trouble. “There’s no way Egypt is going to have any kind of economic recovery without Washington,” said Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to the Palestinian negotiators during the last decade.
As for Mr. Obama, his aides said they were willing to live with some of Mr. Morsi’s more populist talk as long as he proves constructive on the substance. “The way we’ve been able to work with Morsi,” said one official, “indicates we could be a partner on a broader set of issues going forward.”
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 21, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She is Tamara Cofman Wittes, not Teresa.
Originally published Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 6:17 PM
Gaza clash transforms Egypt's president
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi played a pivotal role in brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, becoming a major regional player.
By HAMZA HENDAWI
The Associated Press
The Gaza cease-fire deal reached Wednesday marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country's name mediated for it and turned himself into Israel's de facto protector.
The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas.
In return, Morsi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the United States and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt but throughout the weeklong Gaza crisis saw him as the figure most able to deliver a deal with Gaza's Hamas rulers.
"I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met Morsi on Wednesday, said at a Cairo news conference with Egypt's foreign minister during which the accord was announced.
After Israel launched its assault on Gaza a week ago, aimed at stopping militant rocket fire, Morsi's palace in a Cairo suburb became the Middle East's diplomacy central. He held talks with Turkey's prime minister and the emir of Qatar, Germany's foreign minister and top Arab officials. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Morsi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis.
Throughout it all, Morsi and his aides sided openly with Hamas, accusing Israel of starting the assault and condemning its bombardment, which has killed at least 140 Palestinians. Five Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket fire during the battle.
Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer, hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group and Hamas' own parent organization. Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Morsi hasn't even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in late June, though he has referred to its people as "Israelis."
The Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate "Muslim lands." Two months ago, Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Badie proclaimed that regaining Jerusalem can "only come through holy jihad." The group opposes Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
But since coming to power, the group has had to yield to pragmatism, and Morsi has promised to abide by the peace accord.
When the Israeli offensive began, President Obama spoke to Morsi after talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Obama and Morsi disagreed over whom to blame for the violence, they agreed to work together to halt it.
That Israel was comfortable with an Islamist like Morsi mediating may not be a measure of trust as much as a realization that only the Egyptians can persuade their Hamas cousins to enter a deal and ensure an end to rocket attacks.
The cease-fire announced Wednesday defines Egypt as the "sponsor" of the deal to which each side would appeal over violations. That potentially puts Egypt in the uncomfortable position of ensuring that militants in Gaza don't fire rockets. If the deal falls apart, Egypt could face damage to its credibility or strained ties with one side or the other. Many questions remain, including the extent to which Morsi will be able to guarantee the conduct of Hamas. He proved unable to broker a deal before Clinton arrived in the region.
Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, also handled the Gaza conflict differently than his predecessor, longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled nearly two years ago.
An ally of Israel and deeply opposed to Hamas, Mubarak's government helped Israel blockade Gaza after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. When Israel and Hamas last went to war in 2008, Mubarak was accused by critics of secretly supporting Israel's ground offensive.
During that offensive, far bloodier than the past week's, Mubarak kept the sole border crossing between Egypt and Gaza mostly shut, preventing some of the more seriously wounded Palestinians from receiving treatment in Egyptian hospitals.
Mubarak's government was also wary of any deals that would legitimize Hamas' rule in Gaza. Mubarak feared a strong Hamas would embolden Islamists at home, particularly his nemesis, the Brotherhood.
Morsi has not completely thrown open the crossing as Hamas would like. But during the past week, Egypt let in wounded Palestinians and bolstered Hamas with waves of delegations entering Gaza to show their support.
Morsi also sent his prime minister to Gaza on a symbolic visit soon after hostilities began. A photograph of a tearful Hesham Kandil kissing the body of a Palestinian child was splashed across the front page of every Cairo newspaper.
Morsi's quick actions last week bought him time with his own public to work diplomatic channels to end the hostilities. While he recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv, he also kept Egypt's intelligence service in touch with its Israeli counterparts, maintaining Mubarak-era contacts in the service of post-Mubarak goals, according to former Egyptian intelligence officials in close communication with their former colleagues.
"Everyone is looking at Egypt today as playing a pivotal role," Yitzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Cairo from 2009 to 2011, said in a phone interview before the cease-fire was concluded. "Morsi has succeeded in placing himself at the center of the Arab world."
Since his presidency began, Morsi has used foreign policy to make a splash. Critics say that allows him a high international profile with little accountability and is easier than tackling the daily hardship of a population weighed down by unemployment, price increases and surging crime.
Morsi began with a hard-hitting speech in Iran last August calling on Iran's ally Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. He founded a working group with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to look for an end to Syria's civil war. The effort has gone nowhere and the Saudis have since pulled out, but Morsi is none the worse for it.
Gaza is more hazardous for him if the cease-fire fails. Egyptians feel strongly about what they see as decades of suffering by the Palestinians at the hands of Israel.
Their opposition to Israel runs deep after four full-blown wars with it in six decades. A resumption of Israeli attacks on Gaza, for example, could land Morsi in hot water with the Egyptian public.
Also, Morsi has to contend with growing criticism by critics that his preoccupation with Gaza pulled him away from pressing issues at home.
More than 50 children were killed last week when their school bus was hit by a train at a railway crossing in southern Egypt, an incident that led to charges of negligence against Morsi's government.
Street protests against his policies and the Brotherhood left one person dead and hundreds wounded in Cairo since Monday. Charges of illegitimacy now swirl around a panel drafting a new constitution after liberals and Christians pulled out in protest against the domination of the process by Morsi's Islamist allies.
On top of that, Egypt said Tuesday that it reached an initial understanding with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan to kick-start the economy. Egypt will have to reduce subsidies for basic items such as fuel, risking social unrest.
"Morsi's popularity can't go on eroding like this forever" without a backlash, said rights activist Mohsen Kamal. "He is vulnerable to dramatic and maybe even violent changes if he ignores what is happening."
Sensing the mounting problems at home, Morsi called off plans to travel to Pakistan for a summit of eight Islamic nations, sending his vice president instead. He will stay home, an official announcement said, "to follow up on domestic issues and the observation by all parties of the cease-fire in Gaza."
« Last Edit: Nov 22, 2012, 08:21 AM by Rad »
November 21, 2012
Iranian Missiles in Gaza Fight Give Tehran Government a Lift
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — Above the bustling Niayesh highway in the western part of the Iranian capital, a huge billboard hangs on an overpass to remind drivers of Iran’s missile abilities. Cars zip underneath the image of a green missile on a launcher and text in Persian saying “Destination Tel Aviv.”
Few here take note of the sign, as average Iranians are too busy trying to cope with rising prices and occasional shortages brought about by a faltering economy. But Iran’s missiles and weapons technology are getting plenty of attention hundreds of miles away in Gaza, giving the country’s ruling clerics a rare bit of good news in what has otherwise been a long, dismal year.
The Israeli attack on the Palestinian coastal strip, and the retaliation by Hamas with Iranian-supplied missiles that brought Israel’s major cities within range for the first time, turned the tables for the Islamic republic. With the declaration of a cease-fire in Gaza, and with President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt earning plaudits for brokering the deal, some of the euphoria in Tehran has been tempered. But the diplomatic gains to Iran from the fighting will remain.
Before Gaza, Iran was reeling from a number of setbacks, and not just the tightening of Western sanctions this summer, which cut oil exports and sent the national currency into free fall.
The clerics had to endure the indignity of Mr. Morsi, speaking at a conference in Tehran, smashing their long cherished dreams of a strategic partnership by criticizing Iran’s support for its lone regional ally, Syria, in its brutal prosecution of its civil wear.
Even Hamas, Iran’s longtime ideological partner, openly turned its back on Tehran and Damascus and sided with the alliance of Sunni Muslim kingdoms against the Syrian government. Newer and more dynamic countries, like Qatar and Egypt, emerged to take the lead on issues in Syria and Gaza, making Iran’s uncompromising message of resistance look stale.
Then, a week ago, when Israel struck back against the rockets and missiles coming from Gaza, all the regional players were roughly pushed back into their traditional roles, beginning with Mr. Morsi, who led the effort to broker a cease-fire just as the country had done when Hosni Mubarak was president. Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, who in October had paid an unprecedented visit to the Gaza Strip, presenting himself as Hamas’s new benefactor, waited four days before giving a statement on the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
Throughout the battle, Iranian-designed missiles, the Fajr-3 and the Fajr-5 that allowed Hamas and another Gaza-based movement, Islamic Jihad, to hit Israel’s heartland, sent Israelis fleeing to bomb shelters. While political support and money helps, Palestinian leaders said, Iran’s weapons technology is a far greater help.
“The arms of the resistance, including those of Hamas, are Iranian, from the bullet to the missile,” Ziad al-Nakhla, deputy leader of the Islamic Jihad, told the Lebanese Al Manar TV in Cairo on Tuesday. “If it wasn’t for these arms, the Israeli Army’s weapons would have run over the bodies of our children,” he added, lauding the “great sacrifices” Iran had made by “shipping” these weapons to Gaza.
Iranian officials have not been shy about taking credit for the changes in the battlefield, even though analysts noted that admitting to transferring weaponry could lead to future reprisals. “We proudly say we support the Palestinians, military and financially,” the head of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, told local reporters this week. “The Zionist regime needs to realize that Palestinian military power comes from Iranian military power.”
Mr. Larijani even nodded to the other problems facing Iran, which suddenly did not loom so large. “We may have inflation, unemployment and other economic issues in our country,” he said. “But we are changing the region, and this will be a big achievement.”
The highest commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, was even more blunt. Missile technology, he said, “has been transferred to the resistance, and an unlimited number of these missiles is being built.”
The celebration in Tehran might not last long, analysts say. Hamas leaders were lavish in their praise of Mr. Morsi for his role in arranging the cease-fire, saying he had well represented the group’s interests. And Egypt could close the tunnels that are used to smuggle the missiles into Gaza.
Nevertheless, they say, the fighting has done much to repair the damage to Iran’s regional image inflicted by the Syrian conflict. “This war has brought Iran and Hamas back together, and the debate over the Syrian issue is over,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, who heads the international department of the influential Islamic Coalition Party.
In the end, Iran’s leaders believe that military power is the only measure of success, and they have little faith that cease-fires and diplomacy will accomplish anything lasting. For average Iranians, though, Iran’s missile program and the events in Gaza are faraway problems, and many said the triumph may be short-lived.
“Maybe in the short term Iran is increasing its influence among the Palestinians, but politics are fast nowadays,” said Allahgoli Abbaspour, 53, a shop owner. “The Palestinians need their independence, but I doubt they will ever get it. It’s not like normal Iranians have anything to say about this.”
Ramtin Rastin contributed reporting.
November 22, 2012
Deadly Strikes by Syrian Forces Close a Hospital in Aleppo
By ANNE BARNARD and HANIA MOURTADA
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Airstrikes by the Syrian government damaged a hospital in the northern city of Aleppo early on Thursday and flattened a building next to it, killing at least 15 people and leaving as many as 40 missing in an attack that closed one of the city’s few functioning medical facilities, antigovernment activists said.
Video purporting to depict the aftermath showed the facade shorn off the first three stories of the hospital, with its name, Dar el-Shifa, in red letters on its tower. Beside it, another building was reduced to a two-story pile of rubble. People milled in the street, shouting “God is great.”
Among the 15 people confirmed dead were two hospital workers and two children, said Abu Louai al-Halabi, an activist in Aleppo, adding that up to 40 people were still believed to be trapped under the rubble. One man was pulled out alive several hours after the explosion, according to another video posted on the Internet by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels, meanwhile, claimed to have seized a military base in eastern Syria, giving them control of an area of oil-producing territory as tensions increased between ethnic Kurds and antigovernment rebels in northeastern Syria.
The developments came a day after a well-known antigovernment activist was arrested during a bold protest that showed that the nonviolent opposition movement is still struggling to survive even as civil war deepens.
In the old market in central Damascus, the activist, Rima Dali raised a banner calling for “the end of all military operations” — an act of extraordinary defiance during a time of tight security and surveillance in the capital.
Ms. Dali and three other women stood in wedding dresses in the middle of the arched Souk al-Hamediya, usually bustling with spice sellers but apparently nearly empty. Photographs were posted on Ms. Dali’s and other activists’ sites.
“Syria is for all of us,” the banners read. “You are tired and we are tired. We want to live. Another solution ...” A video e-mailed by another activist appeared to show the women being led away by security forces.
Ms. Dali had been arrested in March for standing silently in front of Parliament with a sign reading, “Stop the killing” and calling for “Syria for all Syrians.”
Such acts of defiance have been eclipsed as the Syrian protest movement grew into a civil war that has killed more than 30,000 people but beneath the surface tensions still ripple between rebel leaders and government opponents who favor a less violent approach.
In eastern Syria, a journalist in the province of Deir Az-Zour reported that rebels appeared to control two of the three oil fields there, siphoning light crude to burn for heat and to sell, and robbing the government of key revenues.
In Ras al-Ain, near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria, antigovernment activists said that numerous units of rebels and Kurdish fighters appeared to be massing and that residents feared imminent clashes.
Tensions have been growing in the area between rebels and Kurds from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which long received support from the Syrian government.
November 21, 2012
Mountaintop Town Is a Diverse Haven From Syria’s Horrors
By JANINE DI GIOVANNI
MALOULA, Syria — In a country clouded by conflict, where neighbors and families are now divided by sectarian hatred, this mountaintop town renowned for its spiritual healing qualities and restorative air is an oasis of tolerance. Residents of the ancient and mainly Christian town — one of the last places where Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken — vowed at the beginning of the Syrian conflict 20 months ago not to succumb to sectarianism and be dragged into the chaos.
Their determination was all the more remarkable given the town’s location, on the main road from the battered city of Homs to the increasingly embattled capital, Damascus. But it reflects a bitter history.
A Unesco World Heritage site, Maloula was besieged during the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925, when rebel Druze, Christians and Muslims tried to throw off the colonial yoke of France. The history of that insurrection lingers bitterly; many older residents were weaned on stories of women and children hiding in the caves of the three mountains that surround the town to escape atrocities.
The Christians are largely from the Greek Catholic and Antiochian Orthodox offshoots; the Muslims are Sunnis. But most people are loath to classify themselves by religion, preferring to say simply, “I am from Maloula.”
Mahmoud Diab, the Sunni imam of the town, said: “Early on in this war, I met with the main religious leaders in the community: the bishop and the mother superior of the main convent. We decided that even if the mountains around us were exploding with fighting, we would not go to war.”
Born and raised in Maloula, Mr. Diab, who is also in Syria’s Parliament, sat in the courtyard of his mosque, shadowed by olive and poplar trees and a fading poster of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whom he supports. “It’s a sectarian war, in politics, it’s another name,” he said with a shrug. “But the fact is, there is no war here in Maloula. Here, we all know each other.”
Mr. Diab said that tolerance had been a tradition since St. Takla, the daughter of a pagan prince and an early disciple and possibly the wife of St. Paul, fled to these mountains in the first century. She was escaping soldiers sent by her father, who was threatening to kill her for her religious beliefs. Legend has it that, exhausted and finding her way blocked by the sharp, rocky sides of a mountain, Takla fell on her knees in desperate prayer, whereupon the mountains parted. Hence, “Maloula,” meaning “entrance” in Aramaic.
“Here in these mountains are all different people, different religions. But we decided adamantly that Maloula would not be destroyed,” Mr. Diab said.
At the ancient shrine of St. Takla, Christian nuns, true believers in the Assad government, live isolated, quiet lives, devoted to God and country. They sleep in small, spotlessly clean chambers and pass their time working, praying and tending the needs of the sick.
The convent is silent except for birdsong and the sound of nuns scurrying up and down marble stairs with large glass jars of apricot jam, which they make and sell.
The convent is one of 40 holy sites in Maloula, which before the war was a place where Muslims and Christians prayed to cure infertility or other ailments, and drank water from the crack in the rock that St. Takla was said to have parted.
The nuns rise at dawn and spend the day in prayer and contemplation and welcoming the sick. They also run a small orphanage.
But religion is not an issue, said Mother Pelagia, who has lived in this convent for 30 years, and is Greek Catholic.
“We had an Iraqi Muslim man who was badly wounded who came here to be healed,” she said.
Maloula was once a place where doctors sent patients to recuperate, so fresh was the air. Now, in the 21st month of the uprising, while people are fleeing embattled Homs, Damascus and Aleppo to seek refuge with relatives overseas or in parts of Syria not at war, people are also returning to Maloula.
“It’s my country,” said Antonella, a Syrian-American who left Los Angeles and Miami three years ago to return to her birthplace and start a cafe.
She had a chance to leave when the war started and fighting was close to Maloula, but refused. “I want to be here,” she said.
“There were 50 tour buses a day here when I first came back,” she said wistfully, looking around her empty cafe, where she serves American-style food.
Last winter, when there was fighting in Yabrud, across the mountain, and people were dying, she realized her country was at war. “I fell into a depression.”
But Antonella said, “The truth is, even if Maloula is quiet, no one knows where this is going,” adding that her allegiance was largely with Mr. Assad. “The rebels have destroyed our country.”
It is the war, but also the economy. Because of sanctions and the fact that transit has been halted across borders, food costs are skyrocketing. Foreign tourists have stopped coming. People buy only what is necessary. Small businesses, like Antonella’s, are dying.
“This is the beginning of World War III,” predicts her brother Adnan, also a returnee. “It is starting in Syria, but it will engulf the region. This is a proxy war.”
It is a common refrain in Syria — that the country is being used because of its geopolitical significance — but most people interviewed in Maloula and other small Christian and Alawite villages believe the war will spread beyond the country’s borders.
The question lingers, unspoken, here. Can a town renowned for its tolerance resist the centrifugal pressures of a vicious, sectarian civil war?
“Everyone is a Christian and everyone is Muslim,” said Mr. Diab, the imam, who refused to break down the percentage of Muslims in the town. “The situation here will not deteriorate; it’s the opposite. People support each other.”
While Mr. Diab is reluctant to take sides — far less so than the Mother Pelagia, who said she “loves” Mr. Assad — he said: “I am with the law. I just want the country to be legally run.”
“If we become Salafist,” he said, referring to the fundamentalist strain of Islam that has taken on new prominence in the Arab Spring, “we lose all of this ethnic mix, and that is tragic. Everyone has to be like them. There is no room for anyone else.”
While Maloula is only one hour from Damascus, it is still untouched. But during a drive down the mountain, back on the Homs highway and into the city again, reality crept back. At more than a dozen checkpoints, grim-faced soldiers checked documents and car trunks, searching for weapons and rebels.
Another car bomb had exploded in Damascus, and the gray, acrid smoke plumes curled in the air, a warning sign of darker days to come.
Maaloula is an ancient Christian town dug into a cliff side near Damascus where the residents still speak Aramaic the language of Jesus. This image shows some of the tightly situated homes in the city which are painted predominantly in blue in homage to the Virgin Mary.
November 21, 2012
Congo Rebels, After Victory, Vow to Take the Capital
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — No visa is necessary to cross this border anymore. Nor do red-eyed soldiers hang around reeking of home-brew. Gone, too, are many of the quasi-government officials who used to buzz around this border post harassing travelers and squeezing out bribes, including one little man who claimed to be a health officer and had “Doc” scribbled in Magic Marker on his coat.
Instead, the doorway to Goma, one of Congo’s largest and most strategic cities, is now manned by lean, young rebels in crisp fatigues. They captured this town on Tuesday, ridding it of an often sloppy and menacing Congolese Army presence, and on Wednesday the rebels announced at a triumphant rally that Goma was just the beginning.
“We’re going to Kinshasa!” vowed Col. Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the M23 rebel group.
Kinshasa, the capital, is nearly 1,000 miles away, but the rebels are beginning to eat away at that distance, day by day. On Wednesday, rebel forces met virtually no resistance as they swept into the strategic town of Sake, down the road from Goma. Local militiamen have also pushed the army out of other areas as more of this vast and complicated country spins out of government control.
Until this week, many naysayers had dismissed the M23 as a parochial, small-time militia, with discipline but neither the resources nor the manpower to upend Congo.
But now it seems the rebels are rapidly gaining momentum — and making allies along the way. Antigovernment fury is spreading across the country, with people enraged at President Joseph Kabila for allowing Goma to fall.
“Our president is a thief, a thief!” exclaimed Jean-Claude Dumbo, an unemployed man in Goma. “He doesn’t pay the army. He steals it all for himself.”
Protesters in several cities continued to raze buildings and set cars afire on Wednesday, directing some of their venom toward the United Nations, whose peacekeepers stayed riveted in the seats of their armored personnel carriers, not firing a shot, as the rebels marched into downtown Goma. United Nations officials have said that they did not have the numbers to beat back the rebels and that they were worried about collateral damage, but many Congolese have rendered their own verdict. On Wednesday, rioters in Bunia, north of Goma, ransacked the houses of United Nations personnel.
Whether the M23, whose ranks are thought to number no more than 3,000, has the capacity to shape all this discontent into a national uprising and overthrow Mr. Kabila remains to be seen.
A big factor will be neighboring Rwanda, which is widely suspected of arming the M23 and sending Rwandan soldiers to fight covertly alongside the rebels. Twice before, in 1996 and 1998, Rwanda clandestinely fomented rebellions in eastern Congo that eventually reached all the way to Kinshasa. At the time, the Rwandan government lied about its involvement, denying that it had thousands of troops inside this country. One top commander back then, James Kabarebe, who is now Rwanda’s defense minister, even hijacked planes in Goma and flew across Congo with hundreds of soldiers to open a new front.
Mr. Kabarebe was recently accused by United Nations investigators of being the secret puppeteer behind the M23, pulling the strings as a way for Rwanda to control Congo’s lucrative mineral trade and dominate this area. Rwanda has vehemently denied such involvement.
Some human rights groups say that Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations and a leading contender to be President Obama’s next secretary of state, has been far too soft on Rwanda, which is a close American ally and whose president, Paul Kagame, has known Ms. Rice for years. The activists have accused her of watering down language in a Security Council resolution that would have mentioned Rwanda’s links to the rebels and say she also tried to block the publication of part of a report that detailed Rwanda’s covert support for the M23.
Erin Pelton, her spokeswoman, said the United States was helping to “reinforce the diplomatic effort” and declared it “patently untrue” that the United States had blocked the investigative report.
Mr. Kabila is learning that he cannot rely on his army to quell this rebellion, which is no surprise, given that Congo’s military has been notoriously corrupt, dysfunctional and predatory for years. Instead, Mr. Kabila now seems to be hoping that diplomacy can save him. Over the past few days he has been meeting with Mr. Kagame, and some indications emerged Wednesday night that Mr. Kabila had been persuaded to negotiate with the M23, despite earlier refusals.
But that may be problematic, too. Human Rights Watch said that the M23’s commanders were responsible for “ethnic massacres, recruitment of children, mass rape, killings, abductions and torture.”
So far in Goma, the rebels have been quiet. A beat of life had returned to the streets by Wednesday afternoon, with some shops opening their doors and people casually strolling down the road.
“Of course we were scared when these guys came in with guns and we didn’t know who they were,” said John Kamata, a former government worker now looking for a job. “But they’ve been O.K. There hasn’t been any killing yet.”
November 21, 2012
Security Chief in Benghazi Assassinated, Libyan Says
By KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — A senior Libyan security official was assassinated outside his home in the eastern city of Benghazi, officials said Wednesday, the same city where the United States ambassador and three other Americans were killed at their diplomatic compound in September. The Libyan official’s death was the latest in a series of mysterious killings that have raised fears about the country’s precarious postwar security.
The official, Faraj Mohammed al-Drissi, who had held the post of Benghazi’s security director for only a few weeks, was fatally shot late Tuesday night as he was returning from work, said Wanis al-Sharif, a local Interior Ministry official.
Around 10 p.m., a Mitsubishi Lancer pulled up on Mr. Drissi’s street. Three men got out and opened fire, Mr. Sharif said, adding that the motive for the killing was unknown.
The killing was the latest blow for Benghazi, which has staggered since armed men attacked United States intelligence and diplomatic buildings in September, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in an assault that upended the city’s fragile power structure. The attack led to a popular revolt against the militias that have held sway since the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last year, including hard-line Islamist groups, which have been criticized for being a law unto themselves.
It also led to closed hearings in the United States into how the Obama administration handled the attack, including questions by Republican and Democratic lawmakers about possible security lapses at the Benghazi compound.
Government officials loudly promised to assert the state’s control, while privately conceding that they were outgunned and incapable of fulfilling such a pledge. Militia leaders have rejected efforts by the government to rein them in, saying they would consider disbanding only if their leaders were given senior posts in the government.
The assassinations in Benghazi started last year and reflected the city’s factional fights. The first victims were former Qaddafi officials, usually from feared agencies under the Interior Ministry, whose bodies were found dumped on the outskirts of the city, bound and shot. The weak transitional government, bereft of a judicial system, has never prosecuted anyone for the attacks.
In recent months, the killings of former officials have continued, but increasingly, attacks have targeted the symbols of the fledgling state and its allies, including police officers and members of Benghazi’s diplomatic corps.
Officials promised to investigate the attack on the United States facilities, with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and said they had drawn up a list of a suspects, including members of a well-known militia. But more than two months later, no one has been charged in the attack.
November 21, 2012
U.N. Ambassador Defends Remarks on Benghazi Attack
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) — The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, broke her silence on Wednesday and defended her remarks about the attack on a United States diplomatic mission in Libya that killed four Americans, including the United States ambassador to Libya.
Several prominent Republicans have accused Ms. Rice of mischaracterizing the nature of the attack when she appeared on television talk shows five days later and said that preliminary information suggested that the assault was the result of protests over an anti-Muslim film, rather than a premeditated strike.
“I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community,” Ms. Rice told reporters at the United Nations on Wednesday in her first comments on the controversy. “I made clear that the information provided to me was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers.”
The American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the attack, which raised questions about the security of diplomatic missions, United States intelligence about the threat and the adequacy of the immediate response.
“Everyone, particularly the intelligence community, has worked in good faith to provide the best assessment based on the information available,” said Ms. Rice, who is seen as a possible nominee to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Republicans who have led the criticism of Ms. Rice, vowed last week to oppose any attempt by President Obama to elevate her to a cabinet position requiring Senate confirmation.
Ms. Rice said Wednesday that some statements by Mr. McCain about her were “unfounded.”
“I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him,” she said.
The White House has also said that Ms. Rice relied on intelligence estimates that were provided to her. Last week Mr. Obama warned Republicans who had a problem with his administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack to “go after me” rather than Ms. Rice.
11/21/2012 07:20 PM
'We Are the State': Grassroots Movement Gains Momentum in Russia
By Benjamin Bidder and Matthias Schepp
President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed the leaders of Russia's opposition with Soviet-style methods. But he will not be able to stop the modernization of Russian society in the same way. A new grassroots movement is already taking shape.
On an island in the Moskva River, in the shadow of the Kremlin towers, the new Russia fills in the gaps left behind by the old one: artists' cafés, nightclubs and the editorial offices of Internet media have moved into the former buildings of the "Red October" chocolate factory. The factory, nationalized after the October Revolution and renamed "Candy Factory No. 1," is now a gathering place for young and affluent Muscovites, artists and the "it girls" of the Russian capital.
On this day, the opposition's new Coordinating Council is holding its first meeting in a bar that used to be a cocoa warehouse. Waiters have pushed together lounge chairs to form a rectangle, and there are two microphones in the room. One is for the delegates, and the other is pinned to the lapel of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger.
A few weeks ago, Navalny was elected chairman of the 45-member Coordinating Council. He heads a colorful group that includes a Jewish poet, a right-wing extremist, a liberal economist and Sergei Udalzov, a neo-Stalinist who called for the return of the Soviet Union in 2004.
The group is united by one overriding goal: to eject President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin and offer a direct democratic response to his Potemkin village-style democracy, with its Kremlin-controlled parties.
The choice of blogger Navalny to head the council happened mainly via the Internet, where he was voted into first place and subsequently selected by the body as its chairman. Writer Dmitrii Bykov took second place and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov was third. The opposition TV station Dozhd had previously hosted televised debates among the candidates in the style of American presidential debates. "Our committee is supposed to coordinate the efforts of millions of people who are waiting for changes," Navalny said. "This is something that has never existed in this country before."
A Spark of Hope
That's true. For decades, the opposition was a quarrelling bunch of ideologically entrenched people who tended to tear each other apart. The newly elected Coordinating Council includes both Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who was expelled from the Russian parliament, the Duma, and blonde socialite Kseniya Sobchak, the daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg, one of Putin's mentors.
Sobchak, pretty, rich and largely apolitical for years until she attended the large protest rallies last December, came in fourth in the online vote. Her boyfriend, liberal opposition politician Ilya Yashin, was fifth. Until recently, however, the two were garnering less attention with political statements than with an attractive photo shoot in Hello!, the Russian version of People, which depicted them in various poses at the five-star Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakesh: playing chess, with their arms around each other, wearing Moroccan kaftans and holding iPads.
The magazine spread promptly reinforced the view held by many Russians that "the people at the top are all the same, swimming in luxury." This illustrates the new opposition's next problem: So far, it hasn't managed to tie in the political protests of Moscow's middle and upper classes with social dissatisfaction in the country. Blue-collar workers and farmers are still Putin voters.
Nevertheless, the newly elected council has sparked hope, both in the country and beyond Russia's borders. Could it be true that the traditionally divided opposition is now putting on a united front? Could it even be capable of posing a threat to Putin? Does this first meeting of Putin's opponents perhaps mark the birth of an opposition government, the nucleus of a parliament legitimized by the will of the people?
The composition of the council, with representatives from very different parts of society, suggests that this could be the case, but the numbers do not. Only 81,808 Russians, or less than a tenth of a percent of the population of 142 million, participated in the Internet election. "It wouldn't be a bad result for the Seychelles," the normally pro-opposition Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote derisively.
Important opposition leaders, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and leftist Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, promptly boycotted the election, partly because of Navalny. "He has a neoliberal economic program inspired by oligarch-ideologues and a nationalist worldview," says Ponomarev. "If he came into power, it would be worse than under Putin."
The council meeting in the former cocoa warehouse ends in a quarrel. Communist politician Udalzov wants to organize another major rally instead of "rattling on about rules of procedure." The youngest council member, Maxim Kaz, disagrees. The 27-year-old doesn't think much of demonstrations and wants the subject removed from the agenda. "Then go fuck your mother," Udalzov responds.
After the meeting, Udalzov and Navalny attend a rally in front of the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of Putin's intelligence service. They are arrested by the police and released a few hours later. "The usual pointless games," says Kaz, before leaving to give a TV interview on the need for bike paths in major cities.
A few days later Kaz, with his long hair and baggy jeans, drives his SUV into the courtyard of a concrete apartment building in the Shchukino district in northwestern Moscow. After dropping out of three different academic programs, Kaz became the Russian poker champion. He is considered a rising star of the non-parliamentary opposition.
His poker career has made him independent. Kaz's company seeks out talented players, lends them the fees for major tournaments and, in return, collects a share of the prize money. Kaz earns about €250,000 ($320,000) a year, enough to keep his head clear for future political plans.
Kaz gave a much-noticed speech at a major anti-Putin rally, and on March 4, when Putin was elected president for the third time, he captured a seat on the district council of Shchukino, a bastion of Putin's United Russia Party. The district is home to the Kurchatov Institute, the cradle of the Soviet atom bomb, and the streets still bear the names of Soviet-era generals.
Kaz is late, and when he arrives 14 council members are already waiting for him in room 103 of the district administration building. He sits cross-legged on a chair. The chairman, a woman born in 1941, promptly calls him to order: "Feet down, comrade Kaz!" "Municipal hell," Kaz tweets with his iPhone.
The struggle between the new and the old Russia is also a generational battle. Kaz's main adversary in Shchukino, Sergei Yeremeyev, head of the district administration, is 59. He worked in a secret arms factory during the Soviet era, and today he is part of Putin's feared "vertical power structure," the system that guarantees the Kremlin influence, even at the local level. It has little to do with democracy and much to do with feudalism. Yeremeyev, for example, was appointed by prefects, who in turn were appointed by the mayor of Moscow. The mayor, in turn, is appointed by the president. None of them is elected, and yet they hold considerable power. The same holds true throughout the country.
Shchukino's budget is the equivalent of €200 million ($257 million). "But the elected representatives of the people can dispose of only 2 percent of the budget," says Kaz.
He is currently spending a lot of time attending meetings on kindergarten budgets and building renovations. He is also scrutinizing the activities of administration chief Yeremeyev. Is it corruption when he only obtains the approval of the district council for construction projects after the work has already begun?
Kaz has learned to write petitions and read laws. "We have to understand the system so we can change it," he says. In Shchukino, he pushed for the purchase of park benches so that retirees could sit down and rest. He has the district council meetings videotaped and posts the videos on the Internet.
But Kaz achieved his greatest success last year, when city officials turned sidewalks along Tverskaya Street into parking spaces. He found 50 volunteers who spent a day keeping track of how many drivers benefited from the parking spaces and, conversely, how many pedestrians had to squeeze past the parked cars. The results were so clear that the city quickly imposed a stopping restriction along the street.
It is small victories like these that he talks about in the McDonald's restaurant on Pushkin Square as he picks French fries from a tray. It's a new and different way to make life difficult for the Kremlin. In the long run, it could be more of a threat to Putin than any Coordinating Council.
'Change from Below'
Kaz plans to run for a seat in the Moscow city parliament next year. "We have to establish a counterweight to the old people and the conservatives," he says, "a reformist camp that brings new leaders to the top."
A new grassroots movement consisting largely of young urbanites is currently taking shape, says sociologist Natalya Subarevich. "Putin will not be able to stop change from below," explains political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, saying that while Putin's methods hail from the Soviet era, "the society is now post-Soviet."
Thousands of kilometers south of Moscow, a 25-year-old has just demonstrated how to undermine the dominant position of his party United Russia. Irina Oleinikova spearheaded a local protest movement and entered into an alliance with the Communist Party. Then, in the municipal election in the small city of Kuleshovka, she beat the United Russia candidate. Oleinikova is only half her rival's age, but she captured twice as many votes, and today she is Russia's youngest mayor.
Kuleshovka, a city of 14,000, is in the grasslands of the Don River delta. The ruins of a combine for child nutrition, the largest in the country during the Soviet era, stand on the town's outskirts. Some aspects of the Soviet Union have survived in the city administration. The unfriendly receptionist is a holdover from the 1980s, when the aging Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the country, and gaudy sports trophies are still on display in the office.
The new mayor requested the personnel files of all her employees and asked for a list of all real estate owned by the city. Her predecessor had as many incriminating files as possible destroyed. Now Oleinikova wants to gain an overview of what's left. She has two main objectives for the first few weeks after taking office. First, she wants to speed up internal communication by having a modern telephone system installed. Second, she plans to retrieve the right to dispose of real estate owned by the city from the county executive. "Big changes start with small things," she says. "We are the state."
Oleinikova's path to the highest office in the city began last April, when more than 200 angry citizens stopped a crew of workers who were cutting down trees on the edge of a popular oak forest in the center of the town. Oleinikova was also fond of the area, which brought back memories of picnics with her parents and the games she used to play there when she was in school.
When the police arrived to arrest the ringleaders, Oleinikova, a lawyer and sociologist, forced them to document that 29 healthy trees had been cut down. From then on, she was the leader of the protest movement. As it turned out, the mayor had only given permission to clear allegedly sick trees, but a developer had plans to build at the site. It was obviously a backroom deal.
"People are starting to fight for their rights," says Oleinikova. And what is taking place in Kuleshovka is now happening all over the country.
In the neighboring city of Bataysk, residents recently went to court because of election fraud. In Usinsk in northern Russia, an environmental initiative group is fighting against pollution in the Pechora River caused by an oil company. And in St. Petersburg, a young lawyer advises and represents female workers, on a pro-bono basis, who were let go because they were pregnant. Tens of thousands of large and small non-governmental organizations are currently active in Russia, despite new, repressive laws.
Is all of this a sign of change from below, a paradigm shift in 1,000 years of Russian history, in which subjects were always waiting for a strong czar? And times when Russian rulers clung to power until revolts flushed them away? It's still too early answer these questions definitively, but it is clear that something is indeed changing.
The Center for Strategic Research in Moscow has been studying the coordinates of Russian society for years. It was the only institute to predict last winter's mass protests.
"We are witnessing a growing divide between the people and the government," says Mikhail Dmitriev, the center's president. The Kremlin, he adds, is deluding itself when it celebrates shrinking numbers of participants in demonstrations and the declining popularity ratings of opposition leaders like Navalny and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov as a victory.
Dmitriev, an economist, believes that Russian sensitivities are reflected in statistics. He knows the rows of figures that attest to the successes of Putin's early reforms by heart. He is also familiar with the figures showing that Russia has managed to eliminate extreme poverty, which is defined as having to make do with less than €2 a day. He can also name the indicators of a growing middle class, including the fact that there are now 180 registered mobile phones for every 100 Russian citizens. According to another statistic, Russians now spend more on cat food than the Americans.
"All of this points to dramatic changes," says Dmitriev. "Now that the refrigerators are full and trips abroad are affordable, citizens want legal certainty and more political say." And perhaps they also want change from below.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
November 21, 2012
As ‘Foreign Agent’ Law Takes Effect in Russia, Human Rights Groups Vow to Defy It
By ELLEN BARRY
MOSCOW — Workers at the human rights organization Memorial arrived at work on Wednesday morning to see a phrase spray-painted across their office building: “FOREIGN AGENT.” Vandals scrawled the same words in giant, sloppy white letters across the door of For Human Rights, which represents citizens in disputes with the Russian police or prosecutors.
The phrase, which to Russians evokes treachery and cold war espionage, was repeated many times on Wednesday, when a new law came into force requiring nonprofit groups that receive financing from outside Russia to identify themselves as “foreign agents.”
The law was hurriedly passed two months after the inauguration of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has accused foreign governments of provoking the large anti-Kremlin demonstrations that began here last winter. The law has been accompanied by other measures discouraging interaction with foreigners, like expanding the legal definition of treason to include “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization.”
Many groups like Memorial and For Human Rights have decided to defy the new law, despite the threat of fines, a forced shutdown or, if prosecutors choose to pursue a criminal charge, a prison sentence of up to two years. Oleg P. Orlov, Memorial’s chairman, said that accepting the “foreign agent” label would so undermine public trust that rights advocates would no longer be able to carry out work like monitoring prison conditions or researching disappearances in the restive North Caucasus.
“A foreign agent equals a traitor, a betrayer of the homeland,” he said. Groups that comply, he added, “will be outcasts in this society. They will be branded. The public will look at them with suspicion, and officials will simply refuse to associate with them. They will be outcasts.”
It is unclear how the Russian authorities will enforce the vaguely worded law, which will be overseen by the Justice Ministry. The requirement applies only to organizations engaged in “political activities,” like trying to influence public opinion or advocating to change policy. Various groups say they are poised to contest any penalties through the court system, in part to test the constitutionality of the new law.
“We will risk a fine, and it’s possible that a question of a criminal charge will arise,” said Pavel Chikov, who heads a legal organization, Agora. “But if we are forced to choose between ceasing our work and risking a criminal investigation, I will choose the latter.”
Government officials spoke approvingly of the new law, saying foreign money must be excluded from politics in order to defend Russia’s sovereignty.
Western-financed programs proliferated during the 1990s, when Russia’s economy and political system were a shambles and foreign governments hoped to help guide the development of a post-Soviet state. Mr. Putin intends to uproot the vestiges of those projects, which he believes have undermined support for him in Russia.
A particular grievance is the United States-funded election monitoring group Golos, which documented and publicized voter fraud ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections, adding fuel to the burst of protest. In September, Russia announced the end of two decades of work by the United States Agency for International Development.
Veronika Krasheninnikova, the head of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives, in Moscow, said that she believed Washington had advised Russia’s nonprofit groups to defy the new law, forcing the Russian government to take harsh measures.
“Confrontation will be beneficial for these organizations,” she said, during a Wednesday round table on the new law. She added: “We will be told, ‘Look how much you lose in the eyes of the world.’ If we are afraid of the West, it would be better to give up right now, to surrender, put on white ribbons and white flags and announce capitulation.”
Referring to the pro-American president of Georgia, she added, “All normal people know that if Washington praises you and holds you up as an example, it means that you have turned into a Saakashvili and betrayed your country.”
Among those poised for a prolonged standoff with the authorities is Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a Soviet-era dissident who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group. Ms. Alexeyeva said she was ready to go to great lengths to avoid being affected by the law.
She said she will refuse any further foreign financing for the Helsinki Group and, if necessary, sell her collection of ceramic figurines to raise money and move the entire organization into her apartment.
“A law like this is just not going to work,” she said. “I am an old person. I was 25 years old when Stalin died, and I spent my childhood and youth in a totalitarian state.”
She added that Russia has changed greatly since then. “Stalin, in order to create a totalitarian state, brought down an iron curtain around the country. And we’ve just joined the World Trade Organization,” she said. “So why did we join the World Trade Organization? How are we going to be able to fence ourselves off in a globalized world? No, Putin was born too late.”
« Last Edit: Nov 22, 2012, 08:13 AM by Rad »
Croatia: Ivo Sanader — fall of an almost perfect leader
Jutarnji List, Die Presse
Jutarnji List, 21 November 2012
“You are a corrupt prime minister and a war profiteer”: quoting the judge presiding over his trial, Jutarnji List announces the conviction of Ivo Sanader, who received a ten year sentence for corruption. The Zagreb daily explains that the verdict against Sanader, Croatia’s prime minister from 2003 to 2009, has set –
… a historical precedent. The rule of law and the vox populi are finally in agreement. The verdict confirmed something that was common knowledge: that Croatia had a corrupt prime minister and corrupt authorities, which were willing to sell out vital state interests for a few million euros. [...] Sending Sanader to jail should mark the definitive end of the gangster government model. [...] It is good news for Croatia’s image in the world, [because] the drive to combat corruption was one of the main conditions imposed on Croatia in the process of its accession to the EU.
The disgraced former head of state will leave behind a somewhat paradoxical legacy, adds Jutarnji List –
He cleaned up the HDZ [the Croatian Democratic Union which ruled the country in the wake of independence in 1991], getting rid of the hard right. He rebuilt bridges with Serbian minority and gave the impression of being a cultivated statesman (speaking fluent English, German, Italian and French), who knew what he wanted. He opened doors to EU accession negotiations with his determination to give full cooperation to the tribunal in The Hague, which included handing over General Gotovina who was on the run [His arrest was one of the conditions of the EU accession negotiations. However, Gotovina was finally acquitted on 16 November].
Sanader was found guilty of receiving 10 millions euros from the Hungarian energy consortium MOL, and 500,000 euros from the Austrian bank, Hypo Group Alpe Adria. “The long fall of Ivo Sanader” culminated with the first ever corruption conviction against a former European prime minister, remarks Die Presse. The Viennese daily looks back on the many scandals involving Hypo Group Alpe Adria, which was very present in the Balkans in the 1990s before being nationalised when the financial crisis erupted in 2008, and notes that the implications of the affair go beyond the borders of Croatia –
Sanader played a key role, but he was not the only one. In comparison to the sums that disappeared after the nationalisation of the bank, the kickbacks received by Sanader amounted to peanuts. [...] For Croatian journalist Predrad Lucić, there should be a slew of convictions: “from Munich to Thessaloniki. Everyone is delighted to have found a scapegoat in Sanader.
November 21, 2012
Rift Grows in French Party Over Close Leadership Vote
By STEVEN ERLANGER
PARIS — The confusion and embarrassment surrounding France’s main opposition party, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, continued to grow Wednesday after former Prime Minister François Fillon, who was declared a narrow loser in a leadership election on Monday night, claimed that he had actually won the race.
Rather than losing by 98 votes out of the more than 176,000 ballots cast, Mr. Fillon said, he won by 26 votes, if 1,304 apparently overlooked ballots from three overseas territories were counted.
After two major electoral defeats — President Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed bid for re-election in May and the loss of control of the national legislature in June — the party is bitterly divided over its direction. Jean-François Copé, 48, who was declared the winner of the leadership contest, wants to move the party further to the right to counter the rising popularity of the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, while Mr. Fillon, 58, wants to move the party back toward its Gaullist roots and more centrist positions.
Mr. Fillon’s challenge to the outcome of the leadership balloting kept the pot boiling for the party, which was embarrassed when both candidates claimed victory on television on Sunday night and their supporters attacked one another on France’s leading political talk shows. There was new talk that the party could split in two, which would benefit the governing Socialists.
A Fillon supporter, Éric Ciotti, said that the leader of the internal commission charged with counting the votes — Patrice Gélard, a senator and an expert in Soviet law — “had recognized the error during a telephone conversation” with Mr. Fillon on Wednesday morning. But Mr. Gélard said that he could not reverse the count, and that all complaints would have to be made to an appeals commission.
Mr. Copé reacted with annoyance to Mr. Fillon’s claim, saying that it made no sense, that he opposed a recount, and that he urged Mr. Fillon and his allies “to take the hand I hold out to them.”
“The time has come to build together, rather than to create tensions over issues that have no substance,” he added.
Mr. Copé, who has said he thinks that Fillon allies stuffed ballots around Nice, in southern France, said with exasperation on Wednesday that he was ready to take all complaints to the party’s appeals commission, if necessary, and that it would “look more closely at the results in Nice.”
Mr. Fillon called on a party figure from the wing of former President Jacques Chirac — Alain Juppé, another former prime minister and a co-founder of the party — to run the party temporarily. Mr. Juppé has begged both sides to stop the squabbling, but one Copé supporter, Thierry Mariani, reacted to the call for Mr. Juppé to step in by saying, “Alain Juppé is not the Good Lord.”
Mr. Fillon, who was favored to win the election and clearly feels that it has been stolen from him, said in a statement that the party’s “credibility and unity are threatened,” adding, “I do not want our movement to be torn apart by the suspicions that now hang over this election.”
November 22, 2012
Sarkozy in Court Over Suspicions of Illegal Donations
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PARIS (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy went before a judge on Thursday to respond to suspicions he illegally accepted donations from France's richest woman to fund his 2007 election campaign.
The judge in Bordeaux could decide whether the 57-year-old conservative, a polarizing figure who often faced criticism for cozy ties to the rich, will be charged with taking advantage of the 90-year-old L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Sarkozy has consistently denied all allegations.
Bettencourt's former accountant told police that she handed over €150,000 ($192,000) in cash she was told would be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer. In July, a magistrate ordered the seizure of Sarkozy's diaries.
The sum, although it pales in comparison to U.S. campaign funding amounts, shocked many French citizens because spending on political campaigns is tightly limited here. Individual campaign contributions to candidates are limited to €4,600, and no candidate can spend more than €22 million on an entire presidential campaign. The French government reimburses some of that money to the winner.
By comparison, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the campaign for this year's U.S. presidential elections.
The probe centers on the finances of Bettencourt, Europe's richest woman and the focus of a long-running family feud over her fortune that ballooned in 2010 into a multi-layered investigation and political affair. Bettencourt, who was reported to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, has since been placed under legal protection.
Sarkozy's lost his immunity from prosecution when he lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande in May. Since then, his conservative UMP party has fallen into disarray. The former president's ties to the wealthy alienated many in France, but he remains popular among the country's conservatives despite the legal problems that have dogged him since leaving office.
Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, told the Sipa news agency that after Thursday's hearing Sarkozy could either face preliminary charges or be given special witness status with the possibility of facing charges later.
November 21, 2012
Veto on Female Bishops Leaves Anglicans in Crisis
By ALAN COWELL and JOHN F. BURNS
LONDON — In a sign of deepening crisis in the Church of England after it rejected the appointment of women as bishops, its spiritual leader said Wednesday that the church had “undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility” and had a “lot of explaining to do” to people who found its deliberations opaque.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, was speaking after an emergency meeting of bishops called to debate Tuesday’s narrow balloting by its General Synod rejecting the ordination of women as bishops, even though female priests account for one-third of the Church of England’s clergy members.
Female priests hold senior positions like canon and archdeacon, and some had been hoping to secure appointments as bishops by 2014 if the change had been approved.
The vote represented a direct rebuff to Archbishop Williams’s reformist efforts during his 10 years as head of the church and a huge setback to a campaign for change that has been debated intensely and often bitterly for the past decade.
More than 70 percent of the 446 synod votes on Tuesday were in favor of opening the church’s episcopacy to women. But the synod’s voting procedures require a two-thirds majority in each of its three “houses”: bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops approved the change by 44 to 3, and the clergy by 148 to 45. The vote among the laity, though, was 132 to 74, six votes fewer than the two-thirds needed.
The Church of England is the so-called established church, meaning that it is recognized by law as representing the official religion, enjoys special privileges and is supported by the civil authorities.
Some lawmakers suggested on Wednesday that the synod vote would create a crisis of church-state relations, since the rejection of female bishops contradicted national laws on gender equality. Prime Minister David Cameron, already at loggerheads with the church over the government’s plans to legalize same-sex marriage next year, urged the church authorities on Wednesday to devise a way out of the impasse.
“I’m very clear the time is right for women bishops; it was right many years ago,” he told Parliament on Wednesday. “They need to get on with it, as it were, and get with the program. But you do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work while giving them a sharp prod.”
Addressing the synod on Wednesday in unusually unambiguous language, Archbishop Williams declared, “We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do.”
“Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society.
“Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society,” he added, acknowledging criticism from within that the church — already facing dwindling congregations — has lost a broader relevance to modern society.
“We have, as a result of yesterday, undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society,” he said.
The archbishop is to retire next month after spending much of his time devising complex compromises intended to prevent a schism between reformers and traditionalists.
The archbishop has already acknowledged failing to accomplish a lasting reconciliation, but the vote on Tuesday robbed him of a final opportunity to salvage something of a legacy.
“Very grim day,” Justin Welby, bishop of Durham and the archbishop’s recently appointed successor, said in a Twitter message overnight. “Most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and cooperate with our healing God.”
Both Archbishop Williams and Bishop Welby support women as bishops. The vote on Tuesday left Bishop Welby set to preside over a church seemingly unable to resolve an issue that is one of several contentious debates relating to gender and sexuality.
The vote appeared to require reformers to begin the debate within the church all over again, with procedures that, if unamended, could delay another vote until 2019. The reaction among reformers was vociferous, and often angry, with some talking of breaking with the church. Many traditionalists had made similar threats if they were outvoted, some saying that they would consider quitting the Anglican fold and, along with other Anglo-Catholics, join the Roman Catholic Church, which has adopted measures to encourage a shift of allegiance, including provisions that allow married Anglican ministers to serve as Catholic priests.
November 22, 2012
Economic Crisis Leaves Hard-Hit Spaniards Scrimping on Funerals
By DAN BILEFSKY
BARCELONA — María Cristina Riveros can barely afford to live, let alone die. So when the end comes, she insists, there will be no spray of red roses or marble tombstone to mark her grave. Instead she is donating her body to science, to avoid being a financial burden on her family.
“I’m not upset about death — I’m upset about life,” said Mrs. Riveros, 53, an unemployed geriatric nurse and single mother, as she waited in line on a recent day for food at a church here. Her 16-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare immune deficiency, needs €9,000, or about $11,500, for an operation, she said. Monthly insurance payments for her own funeral were out of the question.
Europe’s grinding economic crisis has left hard-hit Spaniards scrimping on death. They are defaulting on cemetery plots — and thousands face being evicted from them. They are opting for inexpensive funerals, or financing them in monthly installments. Pricey extras like grief therapy, organists to play “Ave Maria” or elaborate floral arrangements are being pruned.
But while austerity tears at the funeral industry — and some say the social fabric of the country — it has been a boon for science. Donating a body has become such a popular alternative to the cost of a funeral that some medical schools complain they do not have enough refrigerators to store all of them.
Here at University of Barcelona’s medical school, José Luis Ramón, who is in charge of donations, said people registering to donate their bodies had increased this year by nearly one-quarter, to 1,500, spurred by bad economic times and altruism. The bodies are being used for medical school dissection classes and to test cutting edge surgical techniques and innovative prosthetic silicone molds for patients with spinal diseases.
When he screened donors, Mr. Ramón said, some wanted to confirm that the university would pay for the transport of their bodies from the hospital to the laboratory.
“One woman wanted to know how much she would save, including the cost of gas,” he said.
Antonio Crespo, director of morphological science at Santiago de Compostela University, said it had received so many donation applications this year that the university was now referring would-be donors to Valencia Medical School, about 960 kilometers, or 600 miles, away.
The crisis is saving lives in other unexpected ways as well. While despondent Spaniards being evicted from their homes have committed suicide in recent days, road deaths are down, as a growing number of Spaniards are unable to afford car repairs or the price of gasoline.
For the first time since the general traffic agency began keeping records in 1960, only one death was reported on Spanish highways during the last weekend of October, and overall road deaths have fallen about 46 percent to 1,022 this year, compared with 1,903 three years ago.
When deaths do occur, the costs of disposing of the body are now cut in just about every conceivable way.
A typical funeral costs about €3,000, including the cost of an embalmer and the transport of the body to the funeral home and cemetery, said Eduardo Vidal, chief executive of Grupo Mémora, Spain’s largest funeral provider. But many Spaniards, he said, are opting for cheaper €1,000 funerals and choosing cut-rate coffins made from composite wood. Paying by monthly installments jumped by 40 percent, he noted. Others were dipping into their inheritances to pay funeral bills, he said.
In the past, Mémora would make handsome profits from the repatriation of bodies when someone died abroad. But fewer Spaniards were taking vacations, let alone dying on them.
And even if someone from Barcelona died in, say, Bilbao, about 600 kilometers or six hours away by car, Mr. Vidal noted, the families were increasingly opting to cremate the body and transport the urn by car or train rather than paying for a hearse to transport the body, a savings of about €1,000.
Expensive memorials, too, have gone the way of better times. In the past, some wealthy Spaniards had greeted a sudden and tragic death in the family by splurging on a €3,000 diamond, created from the carbon in a lock of hair or the cremated ashes of a loved one. That’s now a rarity.
Even preserving a piece of muscle tissue for future DNA testing, a growing trend before the crisis, was now regarded as an extravagance at €300.
But worries over funeral expenses were being somewhat offset, experts said, by the fact that more Spaniards were getting death insurance, for fear of not being able to afford sudden and spiraling funeral costs, said Javier Fernández, a spokesman for Unespa, the national insurance association.
At Barcelona’s serene Poblenou cemetery, where rows of handsome flower-adorned niches are stacked vertically in a Mediterranean tradition going back centuries, the director general of Barcelona’s cemeteries, Jordi Valmaña, insisted that the close ties of the Spanish family and Catalan culture meant that people saved for funerals, even in hard times like these. The municipality provided charity funerals for the poor and destitute. “In our tradition people will do whatever it takes to honor the dead and their heritage,” he said.
Yet scattered among the endless rows of niches were more than a dozen eviction notices taped over the names of the dead. Many of them dated to 2009 during the height of the crisis, and the municipality said it waited five years before enforcing evictions. In Spain, evicted bodies are typically moved to less expensive upper niches or buried in unmarked graves.
At Son Valenti cemetery, in Palma, Majorca, 6,200 grave owners have defaulted on their annual rent of €10.50 per body, forcing the local municipality to evict entire families from their niches.
Spaniards are also selling their family graves, arguing that it is better to use their money in the here and now. One family from Andalusia said they had recently exhumed more than a dozen relatives going back several generations and cremated them rather than pay thousands of euros in annual upkeep for their graves. They declined to give their name for fear of being ostracized by neighbors.
Fausto Ruiz, an economic consultant, wants to sell his family plots at the Montjuïc cemetery, a sprawling cemetery on a rocky hillside that holds some of the city’s most venerated citizens, including the former president of Catalonia, Francesc Macià, and the painter Joan Miró. There, ornate mausoleums, niches and graves can cost €100,000 or more.
Mr. Ruiz, who is asking €80,000 for his plot, said he hoped to put the money toward supporting his aging mother, whose expensive tastes had survived the downturn. He said his father, who is 82 and recovering from a stroke, wanted to be buried in a less expensive niche at another cemetery.
“My mother protested,” he said. “But we overruled her because during a crisis, you have to prepare for the worst.”
Silvia Taulés contributed to reporting.
The Christian Science Monitor
Spanish government struggles to respond to home eviction suicides
In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide. The issue is galvanizing opposition to austerity measures.
By Andrés Cala, Correspondent
posted November 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm EST
Vilma Margarita Mejía cannot stop crying. She is weak and only whispers complete sentences after taking a deep breath. Any day now, today perhaps, police will come to her door and forcefully evict her, her two sons, and one brother from the home she’s lived in for 20 years.
Nothing could prevent the bank from auctioning her apartment this week – not even a failed suicide attempt, or the fact that one of her sons recently underwent open heart surgery, or that she is awaiting a second operation possibly related to cancer. She is now illegally occupying the small space she has patiently decorated for years, but homelessness and an uncertain future are now a question of time.
“I’ve begged, but the bank would get mad at me and say I was making up my cancer. But I have nowhere to go and all my money went to the doctors,” Mrs. Mejía, originally from Ecuador, says quietly, sitting in the raucous office of a civil society group demanding reform to an “illegal” eviction law.
Mejía’s case and dozens more like it were the tipping point for pampered Spaniards. The evictions and a string of poverty-related suicides have come to embody painful austerity imposed by the government and Europe, and society is rallying around this common cause to rebel against the gradual tightening of an economic noose.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered a concession last week, after failing to strike a deal with the main opposition Socialist party to reform the eviction law. They instead decreed a two-year ban on evictions of the most precarious residents, as long as they meet strict criteria.
Mejía spent most of her two decades in Europe working as a nanny in Britain and Spain. The economic crisis and her health made employment slippery. She might have been one of the few who would have benefitted, but the decree is not retroactive.
The government also refused to change the law to allow more indebted families to transfer back the property in lieu of payment. Under Spanish law, mortgage holders remain liable for outstanding debt even after eviction.
Few are happy with the decree. Banks, those awaiting evictions, civil society activists, and other political parties have all criticized the measure. Nearly 80 percent of Spaniards and 62 percent of supporters of the ruling party think the government decree is insufficient, according to a poll released this week.
“Almost nobody will meet the criteria,” says José Mario Ruiz, spokesman of the Mortgage Victims’ Platform, the civil society group leading demands for a more “humane” eviction law. His office was crammed by dozens of people, most of them foreign-born, awaiting evictions this year during a meeting to explain the government’s new decree.
“Most of you won’t benefit from this law. It’s a Band-Aid. All you can do is fight, fight, fight and demand a real solution from the government,” one of the speakers said amid bouts of anger and muted whimpers.
There have been some 400,000 evictions orders since 2007, according to a report put together by a group of Spain’s top judges. The government claims that only a small fraction of the evictions, as low as 1 percent, are mortgage-related – bank-driven evictions of main family residences of those in more precarious situations.
The majority of them were not homes, and most homes were second or vacation properties, although the government also acknowledges it has no data on how many needy families have lost their homes.
“I laugh at government numbers. Of the 400,000, at least 10 percent resulted in evictions of the main residence of distressed families,” says Mr. Ruiz, also one of Madrid’s top leaders. “And that will soon jump to at least 20 percent as they process the pending eviction proceedings.”
The Spanish judges’ report and another conclusion issued by the European Court of Justice's advocate general Juliane Kokott suggest Spain’s evictions laws are “abusive” and incompatible with EU law protecting consumers.
The government has promised to carry out a comprehensive reform of the law, in consensus with other parties. How much help those on track for eviction get will largely depend on popular pressure, experts say.
In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide, two of them last week.
The shock is understandable. Over most of the last decade, Spain gloated about its unmatched economic growth in Europe and an impressive global expansion of its companies, especially in banking, telecommunications, and energy.
Most Spaniards had jobs, and immigration from Europe and Latin America was encouraged to satisfy labor needs as thousands of properties were built. Many bought homes, and some bought two and three, as just about everyone was offered credit at low interest attached to what some suggest are predatory conditions.
But since the crisis began when a huge construction boom burst in 2007, wealth destruction has been unparalleled. Spain’s proud welfare state and safety net is unraveling as the government trims spending while raising taxes amid the worst economic downturn anybody can remember.
The country now faces historic unemployment that tops 25 percent, soaring poverty levels, mass emigration, and little sign of a turnaround. Most analysts forecast further economic contraction in 2012 and 2013, and only discrete growth thereafter.
The suicides catalyzed a popular backlash against government austerity and its consequences: evictions, chronic unemployment, rising poverty, and erosion of the prized free healthcare and education. Spaniards cannot understand how their pain and taxes are bailing out the country’s banks, while citizens are being left without recourse or aid, in many cases forcing them to become homeless.
Civil disobedience is on the rise and the government is worried. Thousands have protested, and regional governments and courts are increasingly refusing to execute evictions orders. Some policemen are also objecting on conflict of conscience grounds. And Vigo, a large port city on the Atlantic coast, threatened to pull public money out of banks that evict people.
“It’s going to be hard to get a satisfactory reform. The ruling party is conservative,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert on social movements. Eviction is just part of the broader degradation in the quality of life as a result of austerity-driven policies imposed by Europe, he says.
“It would make little difference if we had a more progressive party. We don’t have a horizon with many options. The only way out is for Spain and Europe to change simultaneously,” Dr. Bouza says.
But popular frustration will continue growing and inevitably impose change, Bouza says. “All together we are in the middle of a very drastic scenario of transition into something else. The question is if we can do it without any serious consequences.”
But while most agree increasing turmoil will eventually pressure politicians to recalibrate the austerity-heavy recipe to return to growth, “it will be too late for me,” Mejía sighs.
EU budget: Maximum spending, minimum gain
22 November 2012
Der Standard Vienna
The EU spends a third of its budget to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor in Europe. Despite the billions from Brussels, though, the poorer countries have not caught up. Could the 27 please rethink that when they discuss the EU budget?
However the negotiations on the EU budget turn out, it is quite likely that, as with other budget items, the EU Cohesion Fund will be scaled back over the next few years. At the same time we can assume that the funds, a pillar of EU policy for decades, will by and large survive. Neither the sum nor the strategies of the programme, administered by the Austrian Johannes Hahn, will change much.
This could be the chance, though, to discuss the overall cohesion policy, which eats up about a third of the EU budget. The purpose of the so-called structural funds is to reduce the disparities between rich and poor in the Union, so boosting productivity and spurring economic growth in the less developed regions. For decades the main beneficiaries have been the southern Europeans – that Austria’s Burgenland also got nearly a billion euros was more of a sweetener than a necessity. Since the enlargement to the east, the ex-communist countries are also hoping for the windfall from Brussels.
As pleasant as it is for individual states to have vital infrastructure projects co-financed from the outside, the economic balance works out rather miserably: despite all the aid, the gap between northern and southern Europe has not shrunk. The poorer countries have indeed grown stronger in a few short years, but when it comes to productivity and competitiveness they are still lagging behind.
The short-term economic boom was paid for mainly by debt, and now in the crisis the gap is again widening sharply. The European debt crisis also signals the failure of the entire European policy of convergence, to which the Cohesion Fund belongs.
A monetary union needs generous transfers
One can clearly see from just this tool alone that money does not always pave the way to prosperity. Most of the funding flows down the traditional routes. While better roads and railways do increase the productivity of an economy, other factors, like education, entrepreneurship, and legal certainty, are much more significant.
The EU funds have indeed created jobs and strengthened purchasing power in the recipient countries, but they have failed to correct those countries’ structural flaws. In fact, they did the opposite: by helping to conceal the flaws, they contributed to delaying the reforms that are needed.
These programmes proved to be particularly useless in the eurozone crisis. A monetary union needs generous transfers to correct imbalances. However, since the deployment of the structural funds is scheduled years in advance, the recipient countries have to set aside a great deal of capital of their own for the so-called co-financing, which makes that money unavailable just when it is really needed – around now, for example, to tackle youth unemployment in Spain or Portugal.
A meaningful reform would see the EU stop financing more roads and bridges and start instead to create a genuine crisis fund that responds flexibly to the needs of Member States and that could now balance out the rigours of austerity. For the Eastern Europeans, though, that would be unacceptable, even if they benefit from the Cohesion Funds less than was thought. In a EU that measures political success only by how much a country pays in and cashes out, such a paradigm shift is unfortunately unimaginable.
Structural funds: Funds benefit all EU
Why demand more money from the EU if the funds are not spent correctly? The answer lies in motorways, explains Romanian newssite Gândul, comparing the state of the Romanian motorway network – and its financing – with that of Poland. In Romania, there are only 516 kilometres of motorway, half of which were opened to traffic after the country joined the EU in 2007. In comparison, Poland, a champion in matters of absorption of EU funds, has built approximately 1,300 kilometres of motorway financed by 6 billion euros in European funds. That leads Polish daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna to note that –
When decent infrastructure is finally built in our country, that will open opportunities for making money not only for Polish, but also for EU companies. So money invested in the cohesion policy is a good investment for the entire Union, not only for us. This is not simply aid to the poor, something that societies of the old Union are more and more reluctant to give.
11/22/2012 10:52 AM
Dead-End Road for Mr. No: David Cameron's Risky EU Showdown
By Carsten Volkery in London
All eyes are on British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday as European Union leaders gather in Brussels for talks aimed at passing the bloc's next budget. His pre-summit blustering leaves him with little wiggle room, and he could emerge as the debate's biggest loser.
When the 27 European Union heads of state and government arrive in Brussels on Thursday evening for the budget summit, all eyes will be on David Cameron. The British prime minister is in a pugnacious mood, and has said he is prepared to veto the European Commission's budgetary proposal for the years 2014 to 2020 if he doesn't get his way.
Cameron is set to arrive ahead of most of his European counterparts for talks with European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso in an attempt to outline a possible compromise. It promises to be a difficult task.
Every seven years, the EU must come together to fashion a spending plan, and each time it becomes a bitter battle over national interests. For the approaching seven-year period, the Commission has proposed raising EU spending to €1.091 trillion. And the EU's executive body has the support of the European Parliament as well as the 17 countries who are net recipients -- a group made up primarily of Southern and Eastern European countries who receive more from the EU budget than they pay in.
Net payers, on the other hand -- a group including Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Britain, among others -- feel that it is politically intolerable to transfer even more money to Brussels at a time when austerity is the top priority for capitals across the EU. They would like to see the budget limited to 1 percent of the EU's economic output, or €960 billion. Cameron, however, would like to go even further. He has demanded that the budget be frozen at the 2011 level and is willing to allow only a minimal adjustment to account for inflation. It is a demand that would require slashing €200 billion from the Commission proposal.
Resistance from European Parliament
Several compromise proposals have already been made in an attempt to break the deadlock, but all have thus far been rejected. Most recently, Van Rompuy suggested a budget of €1.010 trillion, a proposal that triggered well-practiced reflex responses. Great Britain demanded further cuts to both agricultural subsidies and the EU administration. France and Italy, for their part, insisted that the so-called British rebate -- an agreement stemming from 1984 whereby a portion of the UK's contribution to the EU budget is paid back due to its limited use of agricultural subsidies -- be further reduced.
On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that progress may have been made towards a potential deal with London. Cameron, according to the report, may be prepared to accept a spending cap of €940 billion for the years 2014 to 2020. "Our feeling is that Mr. Cameron got what he wanted," one unnamed EU official told the paper.
But does that really mean that the deadlock has been broken? European Parliament President Martin Schulz, of Germany's center-left Social Democrats, issued a timely warning against lazy compromises. "Not every compromise is a good compromise," he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. In comments on Thursday morning to German radio station Deutschlandfunk, he sounded even more pessimistic. "I believe that it will be very difficult to find a compromise," he said. The European Parliament must approve the budget proposal agreed to by EU leaders.
A primary reason for the challenges facing the budgetary summit on Thursday is the fact that in recent weeks Cameron has managed to maneuver himself into a corner. By threatening to apply his veto in Brussels, he has raised expectations at home that will be politically difficult to disappoint. Domestic pressure on the prime minister is significant.
Ice Cream for Fat Boys
Indeed, several lawmakers from Cameron's own conservatives recently joined Labour parliamentarians in demanding that the prime minister push through significant cuts to the EU budget. And this week, Cameron's greatest nemesis, London Mayor Boris Johnson, joined the fray. "It is time for David Cameron to put on that pineapple-coulored wig and powder blue suit, whirl his handbag round his head and bring it crashing to the table with the words no, non, nein, neen, nee, ne, ei and ochi, until they get the message," he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column, in reference to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Raising the EU budget, he wrote, "is like handing an ice cream to the fattest boy in class, while the rest of the kids are on starvation diets."
During question time in the British parliament on Wednesday, Cameron was then forced to pledge that he would defend the British rebate at all costs.
Given such pressures, it is difficult to see how Cameron will be able to make meaningful concessions to his EU counterparts. He is in a lose-lose position: Either he agrees to a compromise in Brussels, which would generate significant problems for him back home. Or he vetoes the budget, which would lead to the summit's failure and result in a further isolation of Great Britain within the EU.
Yet even as many in the UK would no doubt welcome a veto, doing so would also expose Cameron to accusations that he sold British taxpayers short. Should EU leaders be unable to agree on a budget for the seven-year period in question, the EU budget would automatically rise each year in accordance with inflation. In the end, that could be more expensive for Great Britain than joining other net payers in Brussels to force through an acceptable compromise. "If David Cameron blocks a deal, he will look foolish and will stand to gain little," writes Iain Begg of the London School of Economics in a recent post on his blog.
As such, there remains a sliver of hope that Cameron will display some degree of pragmatism in Brussels. Following a Wednesday briefing, British newspapers were reporting that Downing Street was striking a slightly more conciliatory tone. Van Rompuy's proposal, it seems, might just be a solid basis for further talks.
France Refuses to Relent
German Chancellor Angela Merkel would welcome any indications that Britain was willing to budge. Her primary interest is completing the budget negotiations as quickly as possible so she can refocus her attention on the more important task of reforming the euro zone. To make that happen, she is even willing to accommodate requests from recipient countries for a slight budget increase.
But the size of the budget isn't the only sticking point. There is also disagreement over how the money is to be spent. Currently, some 40 percent of the budget is spent on agricultural subsidies, a further third for the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund, which focus on helping the EU's poorer regions, and 6 percent for EU administration. The rest is divided among smaller items such as EU foreign policy, security policy and immigration.
Net contributors such and Germany and Britain have demanded a "modern budget," meaning that cuts be primarily made to agricultural subsidies. Indeed, Van Rompuy's compromise proposal calls for slashing such payouts by €25 billion. That, however, has triggered furious protest in France, which is the largest recipient of agricultural support. Eastern European countries, for their part, are radically opposed to any cuts to the Structural Funds.
Despite the headbutting, Van Rompuy still believes that a solution can be found. Should it become necessary, the summit will simply be extended, he said. He has already made preparations for its continuation into the weekend.
11/21/2012 05:57 PM
Europe's Cosmic Agreement: European Space Agency Takes a Step into the Future
The European Space Agency has a new budget and member states have also set aside a bitter debate over the future of the Ariane rocket, the program's commercial workhorse. All sides are happy -- and Russia may even benefit from the deal.
Just one week ago, Europe's space exploration efforts took a significant hit. With several countries in the European Union facing the need to scale back spending in the face of the euro crisis, gathering funding for a proposed landing on the south pole of the moon had proven difficult. And last Friday, with Great Britain, Spain and Italy declining to commit, Germany also backed out. The so-called "Lunar Lander" project came to an end.
On Tuesday night in Naples, however, the European Space Agency (ESA) received a boost. Following difficult minister-level negotiations at the ESA summit, an agreement was reached on the agency's future, guaranteeing both a further development of the Ariane rocket as well as ongoing European involvement in the International Space Station (ISS). As part of that involvement, ESA is to cooperate with NASA on the construction of the Orion capsule to transport both people and goods to and from the ISS.
The step forward had by no means been assured in the run-up to the meeting. European budgets are overstretched as it is and many worried that the Continent's space program would suffer. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, however, representatives from the 20 ESA member states passed a budget of €10 billion ($12.8 billion) for the next three years, on par with the budget passed four years ago. ESA General Director Jean-Jacques Dordain called the agreement a "great success."
In addition to finances, however, the meeting focused on ironing out differences between competing German and French visions for the future of the Ariane rocket, ESA's reliable workhorse for propelling satellites and other cargo into space.
Germany had wanted to continue focusing on a stronger new version of the existing Ariane 5, known as the Ariane 5 ME ("Midlife Evolution"), as had been agreed to in 2008. The upgraded rocket has the advantage of being able to carry a 20 percent larger payload into orbit. The French, meanwhile, preferred concentrating on the next generation Ariane 6. While the new rocket could have a smaller payload capacity, it is hoped that it will be more competitive in the growing commercial market and will not require the €120 million in annual subsidies necessary to support the Ariane 5.
In the end, both countries got what they wanted. The development of the Ariane 5 ME will continue, good news for the Bochum-based aerospace company Astrium, which manufactures stages for the rocket. And the Ariane 6 project will also move forward, though further research must be conducted before production can begin. The hope is for a maiden journey in 2021 or 2022, according to French Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso. Much of the research and development for that project is to take place in France.
The Berlin-Paris compromise on the Ariane also cleared the way for European involvement in NASA's Orion project. The US space agency had expressed interest in cooperation due to its wish to incorporate elements of the unmanned European cargo vehicle ATV, but France had been skeptical and the funding for the added project had been murky.
To Mars with Russia
On Tuesday night, however, France withdrew its opposition. Furthermore, Britain's previously announced intention to increase its ESA funding by 30 percent over the next five years -- including €20 million for the Orion project -- helped shore up the financing. Britain will now provide some €300 million a year to the ESA, far below the German total contribution of €2.7 billion over the last four years, but a welcome increase over previous funding rounds.
The Naples summit also had one final success to celebrate. Back in February, NASA had backed out of a joint mission, known as ExoMars, to send a vehicle to collect samples from the atmosphere of Mars in 2016 and a surface exploratory vehicle onto the planet in 2018. Begun in 2005, some €400 million had already been invested in the mission. Now, ESA has a new partner. On Wednesday, it was reported that Russia is to join forces with the Europeans.
Life on Mars? Maybe not. NASA downplays findings
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 22, 2012 6:00 EST
NASA downplayed Wednesday talk of a major discovery by its Martian rover after remarks by the mission chief raised hopes it may have unearthed evidence life once existed on the Red Planet.
Excitement is building over soon-to-be-released results from NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is three months into a two-year mission to determine if Mars has ever been capable of supporting microbial life.
Its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments have been sending back information as it hunts for compounds such as methane, as well as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, that would mean life could once have existed there.
In an interview with US broadcaster National Public Radio, aired Tuesday, lead mission investigator John Grotzinger hinted at something major but said there would be no announcement for several weeks.
“We’re getting data from SAM,” he said. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”
A spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the project, appeared to pour cold water Wednesday on the hopes of space enthusiasts looking forward to an earth-shattering discovery.
“John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.
“The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” Webster said.
Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures but they hope to use it to analyze soil and rocks for signs the building blocks of life are present and may have supported life in the past.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover — which landed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet on August 6 — also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years.
US President Barack Obama has vowed to send humans to the planet by 2030.