Dutch granny prostitutes celebrate red-light life
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 6, 2012 7:12 EST
In a busy passage in Amsterdam’s red light district a crowd is gathering as fans jostle to have their picture taken with the city’s most famous great-grannies: Twins Louise and Martine Fokkens, the Dutch capital’s oldest prostitutes.
Decked out in matching red leather jackets and boots, red jeans and crocheted red berets, with Stars and Stripes scarves draped around their necks, the Fokkens cut a jaunty pair as they saunter down alleys with red-framed windows where semi-nude ‘working women’ put their bodies on display to lure customers.
Locals young and old line up for a chat, while gawking tourists look on in bemused confusion.
“Look it’s the ‘ouwe hoeren’ (Dutch for old whores),” Koen Booij, 19, shouts affectionately before running up to Martine who hands him an autographed postcard advertising the sisters’ latest tell-all book about Amsterdam’s seedy-side, where the Fokkens have been working as prostitutes for the last half-a-century.
Since the early 1960s, first Louise and later Martine have been plying their trade around the infamous “Wallen” (Dutch for ‘canal banks’), the world’s best-known red light area.
Today there are an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 active sex-workers in Amsterdam — but only a fraction do business from behind the around 370 “frames” in the area, according to the city.
Now 70, the sisters shot to fame last year when a documentary — aptly titled “Ouwehoeren” and translated as “Meet the Fokkens” about their lives, played to critical acclaim at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival.
The film was such a success that it was screened again at this year’s festival last week.
Two tell-all books — one has already been translated into English, French and other languages — about the sisters’ lives behind the red curtain followed.
A regular slot on a late-night sex-and-drugs talk show on Dutch television since October has cemented the twins’ celebrity sex-worker status.
Their second book, “Ouwehoeren op reis” (Old Whores on a Journey) has just been released. Publisher Bertram en De Leeuw told AFP that 70,000 copies of the two books have already been sold in the Netherlands, propelling them into the Dutch best-seller list.
The Fokkens sisters — both great-grandmothers several times over — say they have seen it all: in the city where prostitutes have been selling their bodies to visiting sailors and other thrill-seekers since the 15th century, very little can still shock them.
“From fathers bringing their sons for a ‘first-time experience’ to those with a more kinky streak, you get all sorts, ” Martine told AFP, sitting on the bed at the back of her “window” on the Oude Nieuwstraat, a small alleyway that lights up in neon red as soon as the sun goes down.
“We have slept with more men than you can count,” cuts in Louise, sharing a look with her sister before they both burst into laughter: “We had some great fun with the men.”
Two years ago, Louise finally hung up her stilletto boots because of arthritis — “You can’t get into those sex positions”, she says, while Martine still works once or twice a week, including Sundays, specialising in soft-core bondage for the older gentleman.
In early October, the sisters became a regular feature on a sex-and drugs talk show called “Spuiten en Slikken” (Shoot and Swallow) as agony aunts dealing with uncomfortable questions about sex.
“I saw them on TV. I think they are fantastic,” adoring fan Booij told AFP as he patiently waited to have his photo taken. “They answer the questions our parents can’t.”
“They’re the real deal,” said Jeanine, 20, a student at the University of Amsterdam who declined to give her second name, as she asked an AFP reporter to take her picture with the sisters on her mobile phone.
“They tell guys how to treat women properly,” she added.
The sisters themselves seem surprised to have so many fans, but their words on love and relationships ring true — born of their own years of experience.
Despite their jolly demeanour and portrayal in the media as two eccentric Dutch aunts who just happens to be in the sex industry, their own story of personal hardship and abuse is never far below the surface.
“We had no money. My husband told me I had to go and work ‘just for two years’,” Louise said, her face hardening slightly as she remembers. “I didn’t know what kind of work he meant. Now it’s 50 years later.”
“In the beginning it was really tough. You shut your brain down. In later years, it got better,” she added.
Rampant violence and exploitation prompted the twins to set up the first trade union for sex-workers in the area called the “Little Red Light.”
Asked whether they regretted anything about their lives, both sisters shook their heads: “We regret nothing except the fact that the red light district is changing.”
“There is no code of honour any more, passed from one generation of working girls to the next,” Louise said with a look of disgust.
“Today’s girls wear almost no clothes. They deal and do drugs. It’s about crime and money. No self-respecting prostitute does drugs,” she said.
“In the olden days the girls used to look after each other. No more. The human feeling has left the red light district,” she said.
In the USA...
December 5, 2012
South Dakota: Tribes Raise Money for Sacred Land
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Indian tribes that consider a high mountain prairie in the Black Hills of South Dakota to be sacred have raised enough money to purchase the land so that it can be preserved for religious ceremonies, the tribes announced. Three Sioux tribes — the Rosebud and Crow Creek in South Dakota and the Shakopee Mdewakanton in Minnesota — made contributions toward the $9 million cost of the 1.942-acre parcel, which is known as Pe’ Sla. The Sioux believe that Pe’ Sla was the scene of an ancient fight in which evil was vanquished.
American’s number one medical fear: Losing health care access
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 19:18 EST
Access to healthcare and its cost remain Americans’ top medical concerns, two years after President Barack Obama’s reforms were passed, a poll said Wednesday.
Forty-two percent of those questioned in the Gallup poll said access or cost were the biggest problems the country faces in terms of health care.
Obama’s reforms, which were upheld this year by the Supreme Court, oblige people to have health insurance. But the reform will not take full effect until 2014, which might help explain the lingering worries, Gallup said.
Access was the most urgent public health problem for 23 percent of those questioned, while cost was problem number one for 19 percent.
Not far behind was obesity, which 16 percent of those polled cited as the most urgent public health problem. Back in 1999, only one percent said the same.
The more acute jitters over obesity go hand in hand with a rise in the demographic, which has doubled between 1980 and 2008.
In fourth place, was cancer, health concern number one for 13 percent of Americans.
In 2001, bio-terrorism held the top slot as the number one public health worry, while from 1987 to 1999 it was AIDS.
This year’s poll was conducted from November 15-18 among 1,015 adults and had a margin of error of four percentage points.
December 5, 2012
Interest Groups Push to Fill Margins of Health Coverage
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
The chiropractors were out in force, lobbying for months to get their services included in every state’s package of essential health benefits that will be guaranteed under the new health care law.
“We’ve been in constant contact with our state chapters, just telling them, ‘Look, you’ve got to get in the room,’ ” said John Falardeau, senior vice president of government relations at the American Chiropractic Association.
The acupuncturists were modest by comparison, ultimately focusing on a few states, like California, where they had the best odds of being included.
“Our profession really didn’t have a million dollars to spend on a lobbyist,” said Jeannie Kang, the immediate past president of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Instead, they mobilized 20,000 acupuncturists and their patients in a letter-writing campaign.
Both efforts seem to have shown results. Most of the roughly two dozen states that have chosen their essential benefits — services that insurance will have to cover under the law — have decided to include chiropractic care in their package. Four states — California, Maryland, New Mexico and Washington — included acupuncture for treating pain, nausea and other ailments. It is also likely to be an essential benefit in Alaska and Nevada, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“To me, six is huge,” said Ms. Kang, an acupuncturist in Los Angeles, who helped coordinate the lobbying effort.
The main goal of the health care law has always been to guarantee medical coverage to nearly all Americans, but as states finalize their benefits packages, it is becoming clear that what is received will depend partly on location.
According to proposals that the states have submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services, insurance plans will have to cover weight-loss surgery in New York and California, for example, but not in Minnesota or Connecticut. Infertility treatment will be a required benefit in New Hampshire, but not in Arizona.
Over all, the law requires that essential health benefits cover 10 broad categories, including emergency services, maternity and newborn care, hospitalization, preventive care and prescription drugs. But there is room for variation in those categories. Whether insurance will pay for hearing aids, foot care, speech therapy and various medications will vary significantly by state.
The Obama administration originally planned to impose a single set of essential benefits nationwide, so groups like Ms. Kang’s lobbied federal officials at first. But last year, amid accusations that the health care law was too rigid, it decided to allow each state to choose its own guaranteed benefits within the 10 broad categories.
The law stipulates that starting in January 2014, the essential benefits will have to be covered by insurance plans offered in individual and small-group markets. These are the plans that people will shop for to comply with the law’s mandate that almost everyone have health coverage or pay a penalty. They will be available through health insurance exchanges, online markets where the uninsured can shop for coverage, often with federal subsidies to help pay for it.
The essential benefits will not be guaranteed to people who get coverage through large employers, but such plans already tend to be relatively generous. In comparison, many plans currently sold on the individual market do not cover maternity care, for example, or mental health services.
For the most part, states are defining their essential benefits as those provided by the largest health plan in their small-group insurance market. In Washington State, for example, that plan covers 12 acupuncture visits and 10 chiropractic visits per year. It does not cover in vitro fertilization, weight-loss programs or routine foot care for anyone except diabetics.
“Everybody really was conscious of the cost impact that the plan was going to have,” said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the state’s insurance commissioner. “That’s something we’re working very hard at keeping an eye on and making sure we’re not adding benefits unnecessarily.”
Alan Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, said that while the essential benefit packages vary at the margins, they are similar over all. Every state’s package will cover visits to primary care doctors and specialists, for example, and diagnostic tests like X-rays and blood work.
“To people who care about particular diseases or conditions or provider groups, these don’t feel like the margins,” Mr. Weil said. “But at the end of the day, the core benefits are very standardized, and the differences are at the periphery.”
Some states have declined to choose an essential benefits package, saying that the law does not give them enough latitude. In those states, the default will be the largest plan available in their small-group insurance market, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Dave Heineman, Republican of Nebraska, chose an insurance plan with a high deductible as his state’s benchmark, reasoning that such lower-cost plans were popular in the state. But the Obama administration recently informed him that the plan did not meet the requirements of the law, he said.
“The point we were trying to make is that the minimum coverage should not be above what people need,” Mr. Heineman said. “The overriding concern is that the cost will be too great.”
Other states delayed choosing a benchmark plan on the grounds that the Obama administration had not provided enough guidance. Last month, the administration published a proposed rule that sought to answer outstanding questions.
The rule makes clear, for example, that insurers can substitute one covered service for another as long as they are in the same broad category and “substantially equal.” It clarifies that pediatric services, one of the 10 required categories, must be provided to everyone 18 and under.
States can still change or choose a benchmark plan, but they are running out of time. They generally have until Dec. 26, when the comment period for the proposed rule will end. So far, 23 states and the District of Columbia have chosen plans, according to Avalere Health, a consulting company.
Interest groups that did not succeed in getting a particular service covered may have another chance to do so. States will most likely be able to change their benchmark plans after 2015. So groups like the Obesity Action Coalition will keep making their case.
“There’s going to be a great deal more effort on this issue,” said Chris Gallagher, a policy consultant for the coalition. “At a minimum, if plans are going to try to exclude obesity treatment services, there must be some kind of exception for medically necessary treatment. It’s a serious medical condition that affects one in three Americans.”
Likewise, Ms. Kang’s group will keep presenting state decision makers with patient testimonials and research studies on the benefits of acupuncture. Its next targets are New York and Florida, which have more licensed acupuncturists than any state except California.
The chiropractors, meanwhile, are focused on California, where the essential benefits package that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in September does not include chiropractic services. Mr. Falardeau said the American Chiropractic Association was still hoping for a change.
“We’re ready, if we have to, to go to war on it,” he said.
Pentagon braces for cuts as fiscal cliff looms
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 19:19 EST
The US Defense Department has started planning for sweeping budget cuts if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to agree to a deal to avoid a looming fiscal cliff, officials said Wednesday.
The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed the Pentagon this week to begin preparations for defense spending reductions of up to 10 percent as the clock ticks on a January deadline that will trigger steep automatic budget cuts and tax hikes.
“We think that it is prudent at this stage to begin at least some limited internal planning,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
“We’ve been consulting with OMB and been instructed to pursue internal planning on sequestration (the automatic spending cuts). We are at the very start of this process. We don’t have all the details firmed up.”
Little said the Pentagon believed the cuts would be “devastating to our national defense” but suggested some painful moves would not have to be carried out immediately after the January deadline.
For months the Pentagon had insisted it was not planning for the worst as it had not been instructed to do so by the White House budget office.
If Obama and Republican lawmakers cannot clinch an agreement, tax cuts enacted under former president George W. Bush will expire on January 1, at the same time as huge automatic spending cuts come into force, likely throwing the economy into recession.
The Pentagon would have to absorb half the automatic cuts, amounting to $500 billion over 10 years, including $52.3 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.
The Obama administration has proposed a defense budget of $525 billion, along with an additional $89 billion for the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon was already scaling back projected defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade.
Little said the fiscal crisis would jeopardize a new US military strategy launched in January of this year that envisages a shift towards the Asia-Pacific region, with investments in special forces, cyber security and unmanned drone aircraft.
“It puts — at least temporarily — the strategy in jeopardy,” he said.
Lawmakers drafted the drastic budget cutting mechanism, known as sequestration, to force both political parties to reach a compromise.
The automatic cuts would apply to all military spending except for salaries of troops.
Otherwise, the Pentagon had limited breathing room to manage the reductions, and would have to look at how the cuts would affect the department’s work force of three million, including reservists and civilian employees, according to Little.
“It is across the board but even with relatively drastic reductions in a short period of time, we can make decisions inside particular lines of the budget to define priorities,” he said.
“We don’t have full flexibility but we have some space for decision-making.”
The automatic cuts would be phased in over months and not carried out immediately in January, he added.
“If sequestration would take place, we have this month and then we have, I think, a few months in 2013 as well.”
December 5, 2012
Obama Appeals to Business for Support on Tax Plan
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — After a campaign that drove a deep wedge between them, President Obama is now trying to rebuild relations with the business community in hopes of enlisting it in his showdown with Republicans in Congress over the looming fiscal crisis.
Through phone calls, White House invitations and old-fashioned political flattery, Mr. Obama has dispensed with some of the populist language of the campaign trail to appeal to corporate America’s palpable desire for certainty. In groups and one by one, the president is making a case to business leaders that siding with him will put the nation back on a firm fiscal footing and unleash the economy.
“What’s holding us back right now, ironically, is a lot of stuff that’s going on in this town,” Mr. Obama told the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate leaders, on Wednesday. “And I know that many of you have come down here to try to see, is there a way that we can break through the logjam and go ahead and get things done? And I’m here to tell you that nobody wants to get this done more than me.”
White House officials have been encouraged by what they describe as a more positive reaction than expected. Many chief executives who met with Mr. Obama privately at the White House last week told him they would go along with his proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy. And several have come out publicly for the plan as long as there is also an effort to tame the growth of entitlement spending.
Frederick W. Smith, the chief executive of FedEx and a supporter of Mitt Romney’s, said it was “a lot of mythology” that “you’ll kill jobs” by raising tax rates on the wealthy. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, called Mr. Obama’s deficit reduction plans “very credible” and said that he “wouldn’t preclude” higher tax rates on higher income. Randall Stephenson, the chief executive of AT&T and another Romney supporter, called for “a compromise involving an increase in both tax rates” and “significant steps to reform entitlements and rein in federal spending.”
The White House hopes such statements help crack Republican solidarity.
“There are a lot of people in there who support the Republican Congress, who were ‘super PAC’ donors to Mitt Romney, yet they want a solution here,” David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser, said after the Business Roundtable visit. “A lot of them have special influence in the Republican Party, and if they’re telling Republican leaders and members that they have to compromise, that’s going to have a real effect.”
Still, plenty of business leaders oppose Mr. Obama’s plans, and Republicans countered Wednesday by releasing comments from small-business owners saying that higher tax rates would stifle their firms. And even those who have signaled support for Mr. Obama’s stance on taxes are also pressing Democrats to rein in spending.
During a closed question session after Mr. Obama’s speech Wednesday, Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, emphasized that entitlement overhaul was necessary to address long-term deficits, along with tax increases and other spending cuts, according to a chief executive in the room.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, pointed out that while taxes were lower compared to the economy as a whole than they had been, spending was well above the historical norm. Robert A. McDonald, chief executive of Procter & Gamble, asked about a comprehensive corporate tax overhaul.
Some conservatives are as distrustful of corporate America as they are of big government.
“Large corporations are seekers of welfare as much as anybody,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, an antitax group. “When he has all these guys to the White House, it’s not surprising that they agree with the president. They helped create the current system, and they have a vested interest in a sense in making it worse.”
Mr. Obama’s argument to business leaders focuses on stability, saying that even if they oppose his plans, they should want the fiscal crisis resolved for the sake of the economy. He also is promising them that he will consider a broader overhaul of the tax code next year that could even lower corporate tax rates in exchange for eliminating special breaks.
During his speech to the Business Roundtable, Mr. Obama warned that Republicans might again use a vote on raising the debt ceiling as leverage in the fiscal fight, much like last year.
“That is a bad strategy for America, it’s a bad strategy for your businesses and it is not a game that I will play,” Mr. Obama said. “Everybody here is concerned about uncertainty. There’s no uncertainty like the prospect that the United States of America, the largest economy that holds the world’s reserve currency, potentially defaults on its debts.”
The administration brought home the possibility that a painful series of automatic tax increases and spending cuts will go into effect with the new year if no agreement is reached. The White House Office of Management and Budget asked agencies this week for information about how they would institute the deep spending cuts if there were no deal.
Republicans called on Mr. Obama to dispense with the public campaign and begin serious negotiations. Speaker John A. Boehner did not give an inch Wednesday on his opposition to raising tax rates or insistence that any deficit-reduction plan emphasize spending cuts.
But he sounded exasperated as he insisted that he had moved toward the president’s position by agreeing to $800 billion in higher tax revenue over 10 years by curtailing tax breaks. “The revenues we’re putting on the table will come from guess who? The rich,” he said, his voice rising. “There are ways to limit deductions, close loopholes and have the same people pay more of their money to the federal government without raising tax rates.”
Republicans argued that Mr. Obama’s plan was antibusiness, citing a study showing that it would cost 700,000 jobs. “Raising rates will hurt the very people that we’re expecting to help create jobs in our country,” Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Obama’s outreach to business leaders began shortly after an election in which he effectively ran against corporate America and corporate America poured hundreds of millions of dollars into defeating him.
The president has held two meetings with chief executives at the White House and a third with small-business owners and called others individually. He has stopped by meetings his aides have had with executives, and he gave his first television interview since his re-election to the business-oriented Bloomberg Television this week.
“We’re making sure they understand where the president’s coming from,” Mr. Plouffe said, “and that we strongly believe it’s in the economy’s and country’s interest to get a deal.”
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Washington, and Nelson D. Schwartz from New York.
December 5, 2012
Young Immigrants Want ‘Dream Warrior’ Army
By JULIA PRESTON
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The movement of young immigrants in the country without legal papers, who call themselves Dreamers, is held together by more than a commitment to push Congress for a pathway to citizenship.
More than 600 leaders of United We Dream, the largest national network of those young people, came together for their congress here last weekend to celebrate and reinforce a common culture, based on their experience living with hidden identities and with a low-grade but constant fear of deportation.
Their goal, they said, is to build an army of Dream warriors. They had Dream warrior T-shirts, Dream warrior chants and the prayer of the “four Tezkatlipokas,” an amalgam of wisdom drawn from gods of the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, the birth country of many of the young people. The sometimes exuberant, sometimes tearful, consistently cathartic three-day gathering was framed by rituals defining what it means to be one of those warriors.
“If you could not go to your abuelita’s funeral, stand up and tell me you are a Dream warrior!” Daniel Rodriguez, 26, a leader of the movement from Arizona, said from the stage in the big hall in the convention center in Kansas City.
“I am a Dream warrior!” shouted many of the young people, rising to their feet, recalling that they had missed visiting a grandmother before she died in the country where they were born. Without legal documents, they cannot return if they leave the United States.
Many of the young people proclaimed they were warriors because they had to turn down publicly financed college scholarships, which required legal residency and “a social” — Social Security numbers they did not have.
The Dream Act, from which they take their name, was first introduced in Congress in 2001. Since then, the young activists have had setbacks, including the failure of the bill in a vote in the Senate in late 2010. It would open a path to citizenship for young immigrants here illegally who came to the United States as children.
But this year they saw gains. President Obama granted them temporary reprieves from deportation and work permits, although no legal immigration status. California passed laws expanding their access to college. In November, Maryland adopted a ballot measure allowing them to pay in-state resident tuition for college.
Mr. Obama has pledged to start a debate early next year on a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration laws, including the Dream Act. To judge from the display they put on here, young immigrants will come to that fight with distinctive resolve and esprit de corps.
Not all their talk was of hardship. As the playful host of a mock television news show called Dream-Span, Mr. Rodriguez cited a list of the most exciting new opportunities young people now savor after they receive their deportation deferrals.
“Hanging your rosary again in your rearview mirror” and listening to Mexican ranchera music with the windows down, Mr. Rodriguez said, to delighted applause. Many of the young people come from Catholic families, and they drive even though they cannot obtain driver’s licenses, but they are careful not to do anything that might attract the traffic police.
Speakers who took the stage invariably began by narrating a “story of self” about their lives. The tales showed that the movement had attracted people beyond the high school honor students in caps and gowns who have been its public face up to now.
An outspoken contingent was Latino and Asian young people who are gay, the “undocu-queers,” as they call themselves proudly. Many had been through two moments when they revealed their identities to friends and to the public.
“Coming out as undocumented wasn’t as hard as coming out being queer,” said Hafid Dumet, who said he had to summon courage to discuss his sexuality in front of the gathering.
In smaller group sessions, young people confessed that they had come to the network to get away from the lure of violent street gangs or from domestic abuse. Giovanna Hurtado, 22, a Mexican-born immigrant who lives in North Carolina, recounted how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be violent. Four months after they were married, she said, “he tackled me and knocked me out.”
Ms. Hurtado said her husband had spurned her, calling her “a worthless illegal.” But after becoming active in a Dreamer organization, Ms. Hurtado said, she left the marriage.
Advocacy campaigns in California and other states gave many of the young people immersion training in legislative politics. But they will also come to the debate in Washington with their own zeal. “My favorite thing about us is that we’re crazy believers,” said Renata Teodoro, an immigrant born in Brazil. “This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. This is about our lives, and we’re not going to be put on hold.”
December 5, 2012
In Louisiana, Growing Rice to Trade on Some Creatures That Eat It
By DAVE THIER
GUEYDAN, La. — Donald Benoit’s rice fields are pristine enough for a picture postcard. Long, straight rows of bright green grain protrude from crystal clear water, with not a weed in sight. But one thing looks out of place.
Between every row is a long line of traps with bright orange tops that poke out of the water every few feet. They are there because Mr. Benoit is not really using these fields to grow rice. His primary crop is the crayfish (called crawfish around here) teeming in the shallow water. The rice is just there to feed them.
Mr. Benoit, 63, has lived his whole life in Gueydan, (pronounced GAY-don), about three hours west of New Orleans. His father farmed rice and his grandfather shipped it, but like many other South Louisiana farmers, Mr. Benoit is finding that it pays to look at a rice field and see a crayfish pond.
“When I was growing up, nobody would ever have thought of having crawfish ponds, much less making a living crawfishing,” he said. “Now everybody raises them. I plant rice right now, but I plant rice to raise crawfish in.”
Louisiana is the nation’s largest producer by far, typically accounting for 90 percent of the total. From 2006 through 2011, total annual shipments of Louisiana crayfish have more than doubled, to $195.8 million, according to the Louisiana State University agricultural center.
Rice has been a mainstay of Louisiana agriculture since the 18th century. It is one of the few crops the wet, silty soil in a place like Gueydan can support. For years, crayfish was a wild product, harvested mostly in the Atchafalaya Basin between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In the 1970s and ’80s, farmers realized that they could make extra money by managing the crayfish that already lived in their flooded rice fields.
Mr. Benoit was one of the first to start fully managing fields for crayfish, the small lobster-like crustaceans that live in fresh water.
“We were fishing native crawfish before, and we moved into the rice fields in the early ’80s,” he said. “At the time, people were getting more of a demand for crawfish, and I had a processor buying everything I could produce. So we started working more acres, and the industry just got bigger.”
As the crayfish market expanded, rice farmers saw their industry decline in ways similar to that of the grain business elsewhere in the country. The high cost of farming, along with the vicissitudes of international commodities markets, forced all but the biggest operations out of business. In recent years, fuel costs have made running large combines more expensive than ever.
Mark Shirley has been a county agent for 28 years. During that time, he has seen rice production change sharply.
“Here in Vermilion Parish, we’re seeing the numbers of rice farmers go down, and the ones that are still around are just getting bigger,” he said. “It’s an economy-of-scale type thing. Fifty years ago, someone could make a living off of 400 acres of rice. Now, you need 4,000 acres. You have to be very efficient on a big scale.”
Crayfish production remains blessedly simple. In its most basic form, it is not much more than owning a pond and putting traps in it. While a large operation like Donald Benoit’s requires a good deal of attention, a small business can turn a profit with just a boat, a few traps and some bait.
“You make more money on the back end than the front end,” said Stephen Tessier, a 30-year veteran of the rice and crayfish industries. “If it wouldn’t be for the crawfish, there’s a lot of farmers that wouldn’t even be planting rice.”
Most crayfish are sold live, and their short shelf life insulates domestic producers from some of the import competition that has plagued shrimpers and gulf fishermen in the area. People tend to buy them in 40-pound sacks for large gatherings, so consumption is pegged to big outdoor parties — Mardi Gras and Easter are mainstays, as is any given weekend in the early spring through the summer. Farmers struggle to meet demand when the New Orleans Saints make the National Football League playoffs.
The day-to-day fluctuation in demand can be a headache for full-time producers.
“Sales at the beginning of the week is, I’d say, half of what they are on the weekend,” said Donald Benoit’s son, Don, who also runs a crayfish farm, dock and retail operation. “You never have enough crawfish toward the weekend, but a lot of the time, beginning of the week you have too much.”
Don Benoit is planning to build a processing plant to move into products like boiled crayfish and packs of frozen tail meat in an effort to extend his crayfish’s shelf life and expand his market. Others are content with the industry as it is. Crayfish is one of the few ways people can still make money off small-scale aquaculture.
“That’s probably the only occupation I still see some 60-, 70-year-olds still in business,” said the elder Benoit. “Old ladies and men, they run their traps, run their ponds, make them 40 or 50 bucks and they’re happy with it.”
12/07/2012 01:03 PM
'Limits to Growth' Author Dennis Meadows: 'Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself'
In 1972, environmental guru Dennis Meadows predicted in his seminal study "The Limits to Growth" that the world was heading toward an economic collapse. Forty years on, he tells SPIEGEL ONLINE that nothing he has seen since has made him change his mind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published "The Limits to Growth" together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?
Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Several central forecasts you made in the book have come true, the exponential growth of the world's population, for example, and widespread environmental destruction. Your prediction regarding economic growth, namely that it would ultimately cease and the global economy would collapse, has not yet come to pass.
Meadows: The fact that the collapse hasn't occurred so far doesn't mean it won't take place in the future. There is no doubt that the world is changing, and we will have to go along with it. There are two ways to do that: One is, you see the necessity of change ahead of time and you make the change, and the second is that you don't and are finally forced to do it anyway. Let's say that you're driving a car inside a factory building. There are two ways to stop: Either you put on the brakes or you keep going and hit the wall. But stop you will, because the building is finite. And the same holds true for Earth's resources.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds convincing, but is it really true? Will not private companies react to dwindling resources with innovation in an effort to maintain profitability?
Meadows: The really big changes don't come from inside of established industries. Who made the iPhone? Not Nokia, not Motorola, nor any of the other established mobile phone producers. It came from Apple, totally outside the industry. There are many other examples of this kind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about in areas that are under state control or regulation?
Meadows: That's even worse. Our history with fishing shows that we are destroying the oceans' ecosystems, for example. And we're using our atmosphere as a free industrial waste dump. Nobody has an incentive to protect them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is not the desire for humanity's survival enough of a motivation?
Meadows: You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don't have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same. Global Problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There's no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you not underestimating people and the reaction when our backs are to the wall? Australian businessman and environmentalist Paul Gilding, for example, argues in his book "The Great Disruption" that while a crisis is coming, humanity will mobilize to fight it as seen during times of war.
Meadows: He is right. But will it succeed? It could, if the delays were very short. But unfortunately, they are not. In climate change, for example, the delays are very long. Even if we were to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero today, warming would still continue for centuries. The same is true for soil, which we are destroying globally. Recovery can take centuries.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Surely technological innovation has served to reduce the impact of some long-term problems. Since your book appeared four decades ago, for example, modern medicine has increased life expectancy and reduced infant mortality rates. New technologies have dramatically increased harvests and computers and the Internet have brought the world closer together and improved access to education.
Meadows: Technology doesn't invent itself. These achievements were the results of decades of hard work, and someone has to pay for these programs. One big source of money is the military. Another is corporations, and they are not motivated to solve global problems, they're motivated to make money. The drug companies in the United States spend more money on hair-loss prevention than on preventing HIV infections. Why? Because rich people go bald and poor people get HIV.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But imagine the profits that would accrue to the inventor of a new, clean and limitless source of energy.
Meadows: I hope you're not talking about fusion, because that's bullshit. I think we will discover a major new energy source. But afterwards, it would take decades for it to make an impact. Even if there was no resistance, even if there were no environmental impacts and even if it wouldn't make a lot of people bankrupt -- still it would take a long time. So if someone tells you that technology is going to save us just like that, he does not know how technology is developed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about resources. Past forecasts predicted that there would be hardly any oil left by 2012, but there still seems to be plenty available. Recent estimates even show that the US might soon produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.
Meadows: That may very well be. But the oil reserves we are talking about are scarce and very expensive to exploit. And they, too, will be depleted one day. And then we have a problem. Here's an example: I have a neighbor, she's rich. Her electric bill is, let's say, 1 percent of her income. Then comes Hurricane Sandy, and suddenly she had no electricity in her house. Does her quality of life go down by 1 percent? No! Her food is spoiled; she can't turn on her lights; she can't work anymore. It's a disaster for her. Take a look around. The chair you sit on, the glass windows, the lights -- everything is here for one single reason: We enjoy cheap energy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's assume that you are right and that the collapse will arrive in this century. What will it look like?
Meadows: It will look different in different places. Some countries are already collapsing, and some people won't even notice. There are almost a billion people who are starving to death these days, and people here basically aren't noticing. And there is the issue of speed: The difference between a decline and a collapse is speed. The rich can buy their way out of a lot of things. The end of fossil energy, for example, will be gradual. But climate change will come to the industrial countries no matter what. And the geological record clearly shows that the global temperature doesn't increase in a linear way. It jumps. If that happens, a collapse will occur. But it would be nothing new, of course. Societies rise and fall. They have been doing so for 300,000 years.
Interview conducted by Markus Becker
12/07/2012 10:09 AM
Rising Sea Levels and Less Rain: Better Science to Hone Climate Change Warnings
By Olaf Stampf
The next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts won't be released until late 2013. But insiders say that thanks to faster computers and better models, the report will offer more precise predictions and adjust anticipated changes in sea levels and precipitation.
The world's climate forecasting specialists will soon be releasing much-anticipated new predictions concerning a number of extremely weighty questions: How warm will the climate really get? Will sea levels continue to rise? Where will it rain more, and where less?
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) won't announce its latest round of forecasts until the end of next year, but confidential draft versions are already circulating within scientific circles.
The field of climate research has advanced since the IPCC's last assessment report, released in 2007, as computers have grown faster and models more complex. In fact, these developments make what insiders say the IPCC's message will be all the more astonishing: The new forecasts, they say, will be more or less the same as the old ones, just more precise.
The scientists' simulations show that if humans continue to emit the same amount of greenhouse gases into the air, the average global temperature will rise by an additional 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The Earth has already grown warmer by about 1 degree Celsius over the last 100 years, making a total change of 3 degrees Celsius. In Germany, that amounts to the difference in climate between the northern city of Hamburg and Freiburg in the south of the country.
The IPCC is also expected to adjust the projected rise in sea levels slightly upward. The last assessment report predicted a fairly conservative range of 18 to 59 centimeters (7 to 23 inches). In retrospect, most oceanographers and glaciologists find that estimate too low and say it fails to adequately take into account data suggesting that mountain glaciers and Greenland's continental ice will melt more quickly than initially predicted. The new IPCC report is expected to predict that coastal waters may rise almost a meter (3.3 feet) higher than they are today -- although that level won't be reached for 100 years.
The IPCC's predictions concerning precipitation, on the other hand, may be more conservative than in the previous assessment. Computer models certainly show a clear trend: In places where it already rains a great deal, it will rain even more; and where it is currently dry, it will grow even drier. That's the theory, at least. The only problem is that, so far, these forecasts have not matched reality.
According to the models, subtropical regions, in particular, are expected to grow drier, with new arid zones appearing in the southern United States, South Africa and Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain. Real measurement data from the last 60 years, though, show no such trend toward aridity. Those regions do experience frequent dry periods, but not more often than they have in the past. One possible explanation is that the slight global warming that has occurred so far is not yet enough to cause observable changes in precipitation.
Wind is another area where the IPCC is expected to retract previous warnings. There has been widespread concern that increased global warming could bring about more serious storms, but current long-range forecasts don't suggest such a trend. In fact, the number of hurricanes each year is expected to drop, although peak winds in tropical storms may increase somewhat.
The forecasts for moderate latitudes are even more unambiguous. In regions outside the tropics -- Central Europe, for example -- storms will become neither more frequent nor more serious.
World’s oldest trees dying due to climate change: study
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 6, 2012 22:21 EST
Scientists Friday warned of an alarming increase in the death rates of the largest living organisms on the planet, the giant, old trees that harbour and sustain countless birds and wildlife.
Research by universities in Australia and the United States, published in Science, said ecosystems worldwide were in danger of losing forever their largest and oldest trees unless there were policy changes to better protect them.
“It’s a worldwide problem and appears to be happening in most types of forest,” said David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University, the lead author of a study into the problem.
“Just as large-bodied animals such as elephants, tigers, and cetaceans have declined drastically in many parts of the world, a growing body of evidence suggests that large old trees could be equally imperilled.”
Lindenmayer, along with colleagues from the James Cook University in Australia and Washington University in America, undertook their study after examining Swedish forestry records going back to the 1860s.
They found alarming losses of big trees, ranging from 100 to 300 years old, at all latitudes in Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, South America, Latin America and Australia.
The trees at risk included mountain ash in Australia, pine trees in America, California redwoods, and baobabs in Tanzania.
The study showed that trees were not only dying en masse in forest fires, but were also perishing at 10 times the normal rate in non-fire years.
The study said it appeared to be down to a combination of rapid climate change causing drought and high temperatures, as well as rampant logging and agricultural land clearing.
“It is a very, very disturbing trend,” said Bill Laurance of James Cook University.
“We are talking about the loss of the biggest living organisms on the planet, of the largest flowering plants on the planet, of organisms that play a key role in regulating and enriching our world.”
Large old trees play critical ecological roles, providing nesting or sheltering cavities for up to 30 percent of all birds and animals in some ecosystems.
They also store huge amounts of carbon, recycle soil nutrients, create rich patches for other life to thrive in, and influence the flow of water within landscapes.
“Big trees supply abundant food for numerous animals in the form of fruits, flowers, foliage and nectar,” said Laurance.
“Their hollows offer nests and shelter for birds and animals… and their loss could mean extinction for such creatures.”
The scientists said policies and management practices must be put in place that intentionally grow such trees and reduce their mortality rates.
“Targeted research is urgently needed to better understand the key threats to their existence and to devise strategies to counter them,” they added.
“Without such initiatives, these iconic organisms and the many species dependent on them could be greatly diminished or lost altogether.”
NOAA: Arctic lost record amounts of snow and ice last year
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Thursday, December 6, 2012 8:48 EST
Findings from US science agency Noaa suggest widespread and irreversible changes because of a warming climate
The Arctic lost more snow and sea ice between October 2011 and August 2012 than any year other on record, a premier US science agency reported on Wednesday, delivering the fullest picture to date of a region in the throes of rapid, system-wide change.
The Arctic lost record snow cover and sea ice last year – even though air temperatures were not unusually high.
By the end of August, several weeks before the end of the summer melt season, Arctic sea ice had retreated to its smallest extent since satellite records began in 1979.
In Greenland, virtually the entire ice sheet – 97% – sustained some degree of thawing during a period of a few days in July, including on some of the highest peaks.
Meanwhile, blooms of algae sprouted beneath the permanent sea ice in the middle of the Arctic ocean, feeding off the sunlight filtering through melt pools.
The report cites a massive bloom of phytoplankton beneath the Chukchi sea ice stretching for more than 60 miles, as well as algae blooms near melt holes in the central Arctic.
On land, shrubs are spreading across the lower Arctic because of a longer growing season, but other tundra plant types – such as moss and lichen – are declining. The change in vegetation is also creating favourable conditions for wildfires, the report said.
In northern Europe, the Arctic fox is heading towards extinction because of the advance of the red fox.
The findings, prepared by a team of 140 scientists overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), suggest widespread changes in the Arctic, because of a warming climate. The changes are unlikely to be reversible.
“What we have is a body of evidence that the Arctic is changing in significant ways and throughout the system,” Martin Jeffries, a co-editor of the 2012 report and an Arctic science advisor to the Office of Naval Research, said. “It is system-wide and these changes feed on each other.”
It is also unlikely the Arctic will recover in the near future, he said. Those changes, in the form of retreating summer sea ice and snow cover, in turn make the region even more vulnerable, exposing more of it to the sun’s rays, Jeffries warned.
“As the sea ice and snow cover retreat, we’re losing bright, highly reflective surfaces, and increasing the area of darker surfaces – both land and ocean – exposed to sunlight. This increases the capacity to store heat within the Arctic system, which enables more melting –a self-reinforcing cycle.”
The report, an annual exercise by Noaa since 2006, was presented at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
It further consolidates the growing body of evidence that climate change has exacted significant effects on the Arctic. Some of those changes are already altering political calculations – with Russia, Canada and America trying to stake their claims to the vast oil and mineral potential of an Arctic that could be entirely free of summer sea-ice within a matter of years.
The gloomiest scientists say that summer sea ice could be entirely gone within the decade, other predictions stretch to mid-century for an “ice-diminished” Arctic.
“What it seems now is that even if we have a modest increase in greenhouse gases that that gets amplified in the Arctic,” said James Overland, a Noaa oceanographer. “We are going to continue to see an increase in all of these changes at least for the next few decades.”
Jason Box, a polar researcher at Ohio State University who oversaw the Greenland portion of the report, told the meeting the widespread melting last summer could signal a climate tipping point.
“In 2012 Greenland crossed a threshold where for the first time we saw complete surface melting at the highest elevations in what we used to call the dry snow zone,” he told reporters at the AGU. “As Greenland crosses the threshold and starts really melting in the upper elevations it really won’t recover from that unless the climate cools significantly for an extended period of time which doesn’t seem very likely.”
© Guardian News and Media 2012
December 6, 2012
U.S. Shifting Its Warning on Syria’s Chemical Arms
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary.
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said at an Aug. 20 news conference. He added: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences.
It is a veiled threat that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta repeated Thursday: “The president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.”
The White House says the president has not changed his position at all — it is all in the definition of the word “moving.”
Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Thursday that “ ‘moving around’ means proliferation,” as in allowing extremist groups like Hezbollah, which has training camps near the weapons sites, to obtain the material.
Such shifts are nothing new in global standoffs; the Israelis have moved their lines more than a half-dozen times in recent years when talking about how close they would allow Iran to get toward the capacity to build a nuclear weapon before taking action.
But for Mr. Obama, the change in wording reflects the difficult politics and logistics of acting pre-emptively against Mr. Assad. No American president has talked more about the need to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, and to lock down existing stockpiles. And no president has insisted more publicly that this is a time for the United States to exit wars in the Middle East, not enter new ones.
“We’re kind of boxed in,” an administration official said this week as intelligence agencies in the United States and its allies were trying to figure out the worrisome activity at one or two of the three dozen sites where Syria’s chemical weapons are stockpiled. “There’s an issue of presidential credibility here,” the official said. “But our options are quite limited.”
The chief limitation, American and Israeli officials say, is that chemical weapons sites cannot be safely bombed. “That could create the exact situation we are trying to avoid,” said one senior American military official, who like several others interviewed would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Making things worse, many of the storage sites are near the border with Jordan, raising the possibility that any plume of chemicals created by an attack could drift over the territory of an American ally. Putting troops on the ground has never been a serious option, American officials say.
But the Israelis clearly take the concept of pre-emptive strikes seriously. They conducted one against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and another, against a North Korean-built reactor in the Syrian desert, in September 2007.
“I don’t think we’d act again unless we thought Hezbollah might get their hands on these weapons,” said one senior Israeli official. “But we’ve proven that we are willing to do it, and probably more willing than the Americans.”
When Mr. Obama warned against moving chemical weapons, administration officials said he did not mean shifting the weapons from one site to another, which has happened several times, but preparing them for use.
But in recent days, that is exactly what intelligence agencies fear has happened. American officials have detected that Syrian troops have mixed small amounts of precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, at one or two storage sites — though there is no indication that Mr. Assad, whose troops are under fierce assault from rebel forces, is ready to order the use of his arsenal.
Mr. Panetta said Thursday that the administration was “very concerned, very concerned” that as the opposition fighters close in on Damascus, the Syrian capital, the Assad government might actually use a chemical weapon. Over the past four decades, Syria has amassed one of the largest undeclared stockpiles of chemicals in the world, including huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide, according to unclassified reports by the C.I.A.
December 6, 2012
Wider Chaos Feared as Syrian Rebels Clash With Kurds
By TIM ARANGO
CEYLANPINAR, Turkey — In plain view of the patrons at an outdoor cafe here in this border town, the convoy of gun trucks waving the flag of the Syrian rebels whizzed through the Syrian village of Ras al-Ain. They had not come to fight their primary enemy, the soldiers of Bashar al-Assad’s government. They had rushed in to battle the ethnic Kurds.
The confrontation spoke not only to the violence that has enveloped Syria, but also to what awaits if the government falls. The fear — already materializing in these hills — is that Syria’s ethnic groups will take up arms against one another in a bloody, post-Assad contest for power.
The Kurdish militias in northern Syria had hoped to stay out of the civil war raging in Syria. They were focused on preparing to secure an autonomous enclave for themselves within Syria should the rebels succeed in toppling the government. But slowly, inexorably, they have been dragged into the fighting and now have one goal in mind, their autonomy, which also means the Balkanization of the state.
“We want to have a Kurdish nation,” said Divly Fadal Ali, 18, who fled the fighting and was recently staying in a local community center here for Kurdish refugees. “We want our own schools, our own hospitals. We want the government to admit our existence. We want recognition of our Kurdish identity.”
These skirmishes between Kurds and Arabs take on a darker meaning for Syria as the rebels appear each day to gain momentum and the government appears less and less able to restore control. The rebels have taken over military bases, laid siege to Damascus and forced the airport to close.
But the rebels are largely Sunni Arabs, and the most effective among them are extremists aligned with Al Qaeda, a prospect that worries not only the West, but the Christians, Shiites, Druze — and Kurds — of Syria.
The fighting in Ras al-Ain, which came after a fierce battle between rebel and government forces last month, demonstrated the complexity of a bloody civil war that has already claimed more than 40,000 lives. Like the sectarian battles in Iraq after the American invasion, the recent violence between Arabs and Kurds in Syria indicates the further unraveling of a society whose mix of sects, identities and traditions were held together by the yoke of a dictator.
Analysts fear this combustible environment could presage a bloody ethnic and sectarian conflict that will resonate far beyond Syria’s borders, especially if it involves the Kurds. There is concern that Iraq’s Kurds, who are already training Syrian Kurds to fight, may jump into the Syria fight to protect their ethnic brethren. That could also pull in Turkey, which fears that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria would become a haven for Kurdish militants to carry out cross-border attacks in the Kurdish areas in southeastern Turkey.
“The fear that an Arab-Kurdish confrontation has been ignited might lead the Kurds to ask for additional security forces to protect their lands,” said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, who is helping to prepare a report on the Syrian Kurds.
She said that the Syrian Kurdish fighters being trained in northern Iraq were on standby and could be sent to Syria, which would escalate the situation.
Before the uprising in Syria, the Kurds in Ras al-Ain lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors, they say. But the war has shredded those bonds just as surely as the revolutions in the region have prompted the Kurds to dream of an independent nation uniting the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and put their own stamp on the great contest for power under way in the Middle East.
“Our time has come after so much suffering and persecution,” said Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraq’s regional Kurdish government. “The 20th century was cruel to the Kurds. Our rights, identity and culture were brutally suppressed.”
Amid the fog of war here, there are recriminations. The rebels say the Kurds are cooperating with the government, a common perception among Arabs in Syria. This is partly because the government has withdrawn from Kurdish areas to concentrate on fighting rebel forces, and partly because the Assad government granted new rights like citizenship to the Kurds after the uprising began and issued them official identification cards, which they had long been denied.
At the same time, a powerful Syrian Kurdish militia, the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., is an offshoot of the Kurdish militant group in Turkey known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or P.K.K., which has fought an insurgency within Turkey for nearly 30 years. As Turkey has supported the rebels within Syria, the perception has arisen that Mr. Assad’s government and the P.Y.D., which is viewed suspiciously by other Kurdish factions, have coordinated to face a common enemy in Turkey.
The Kurds say the rebel fighters that came to Ras al-Ain, some of whom they say belonged to an extremist Islamist group, burned and looted their village, inciting a sense among Kurds that if they did not fight now they could be left out of the spoils of power and autonomy in a post-Assad Syria.
A rebel fighter inside the village, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed, said that some Kurdish militants were fighting on the side of the government, but that rebels had no plans to penetrate deeper into Kurdish territory. “The regime is hoping and working hard to spark an Arab-Kurdish conflict,” he said, a black radio in his hand and a sniper rifle slung from his shoulder. “We should save our efforts to fight the Assad forces, not our Kurdish brothers.”
A Kurdish fighter worried that the fighting was just the beginning of a long struggle that would outlast the Assad government. “I am sure that Arabs and Kurds will fight each other for years and years after the Assad regime is finished,” said the fighter, Abu Zaradashit.
Lying in a hospital bed here, a rebel fighter named Haqer Hammed said he was shot in the leg after being ambushed by a group of Kurdish fighters. “The Kurds want their own small nation,” he said. “Arabs don’t mind if they have their own nation, but since they are working hand-in-hand with the regime, there will be fighting.”
Ceylanpinar, a town of wheat and pistachio farmers and cattle breeders, like its sister village across the border, has a sizable Kurdish population, and the clashes have also heightened tensions here because local Kurds regard the Turkish government’s support of the Syrian rebels as a threat. “Of course we are concerned,” said Ismail Arslan, the mayor. Mr. Arslan, a Kurd, said, “There is clear support by the Turkish government for the Arabs, the Free Syrian Army.”
As the mayor spoke recently, a rumor was spreading through town that fighting would resume across the border in a couple of hours. The mayor’s assistant received a call from a source who told him that a cease-fire for funerals would soon expire, and that the fighting would start again at precisely 3:30 p.m.
Sure enough, before a clutch of curious townspeople who had gathered at the cafe to watch, the gun trucks appeared at the appointed hour and the fight resumed. Under dimming skies, the playful shrieks of schoolchildren on one side of the border competed to be heard above the din of explosions and gunfire on the other.
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Ceylanpinar, and an employee of The New York Times from Ras al-Ain, Syria.
December 7, 2012
Rebels Declare Damascus Airport a ‘Fair Target,’ Reports Say
By ANNE BARNARD and ALAN COWELL
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As fighting raged in the Damascus suburbs and gunfire could be heard from the city center, rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad were reported on Friday to have declared the capital’s main airport a “fair target,” warning travelers that they used it at their peril.
In recent days the airport has been caught up in fighting for the capital’s suburbs and has been closed to civilian flights for days at a time.
A spokesman for an insurgent military group attacking the airport south of Damascus, Nabil al-Amir, said rebels “who have been putting the airport under siege decided yesterday that the airport is a fair target,” Reuters reported.
“The airport is now full of armored vehicles and soldiers,” Mr. Amir said. “Civilians who approach it now do so at their own risk.” News reports also suggested that government forces were seeking to bring in reinforcements for a counterattack designed to reverse rebel gains on the fringes of the city.
The rebel threat seemed to deepen the uncertainties of the military campaign for Damascus where visiting reporters say that the sound of government artillery fire pounding outlying suburbs is clearly audible from the city center — once a haven of tranquillity even as the uprising against Mr. Assad evolved from peaceful protest in March 2011 to civil war.
News reports Friday, quoting activists, said government forces backed by tanks were heading toward two southwestern suburbs, covering their attempt to advance with rocket and mortar fire.
Overnight, sounds of gunfire were heard in central Damascus near a major road, Baghdad Street.
On the southern edge of the city, in Tadamon, where anti-government sentiment is strong and clashes have taken place all week, rebel fighters took control of a checkpoint, the Local Coordinating Committees, an anti-government activist network, reported.
In the central city of Homs, a car bomb exploded just before noon near a mosque in the wealthy residential area of Inshaat, neighboring the restive Baba Amr neighborhood, and many people were reported injured, residents and activists said.
There was no immediate claims of responsibility, but a demonstration denouncing the government broke out shortly afterward.
“I woke to the explosion,” a 35-year-old resident said, speaking in return for anonymity. “When I went down I saw a car on fire. The guys started a demonstration and we started chanting. Ten minutes later the security started shooting at us, so we ran away. Now I’m sure we should be armed next time.”
The Local Coordinating Committees also reported an explosion in Hama that it blamed on pro-government militias.
On Thursday, a car bomb exploded in the southern Zahraa district of Damascus, killing one person and damaging the headquarters of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent relief organization, state news media reported.
The official SANA news agency blamed terrorists, its usual designation for opponents of President Assad.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent plays a crucial role in distributing food to displaced Syrians and works with the United Nations World Food Program, which announced Tuesday that its efforts were being disrupted by attacks on delivery vehicles.
Another car bomb on Thursday shook the Damascus neighborhood of Mezze 86 for the second time in less than three weeks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. The neighborhood, on the southwestern edge of the city, is home to many Alawites from the Syrian coast, including military family members. The observatory said there was heavy damage in the area but no casualties.
Fighting continued throughout the Damascus suburbs, where government forces attacked rebel-held neighborhoods with artillery fire, and battles raged along the road to the airport as security forces continued a counteroffensive against opposition forces that in recent weeks have tried to encircle Damascus and cut off the airport road.
Residents on Thursday said central Damascus was locked down and that its people were afraid, with traffic jams and checkpoints making it difficult to move about the city, and the sounds of explosions throughout the day and night.
North of Damascus, rebels continued to fight government forces around two key bases: Wadi al-Deif, at a critical crossroads on the road between Damascus and Aleppo, and the Managh military airport in the northern province of Idlib, where a standoff has continued for months between government forces and rebel fighters who have cut off road access to the base.
In Lebanon, Reuters reported, two men were killed by snipers in the northern port of Tripoli on Thursday during sectarian clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides in Syria’s civil war. They were the latest fatalities in three days of clashes that have killed eight people and wounded 58.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from London. Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.
December 6, 2012
U.N. Envoy Is Seeking a Deal to Oust Assad From Syria
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ELLEN BARRY
DUBLIN — With the support of the United States, the United Nations special envoy on Syria is mounting a diplomatic push for a brokered agreement that would lead to the ouster of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and the installation of a transitional government.
The envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, convened an unusual three-way meeting on Thursday night at a Dublin hotel with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.
After the 40-minute meeting, Mr. Brahimi said his goal was to “put together a peace process” that would build on discussions that the United States and Russia had in June but which quickly collapsed.
Mr. Brahimi and senior American and Russian officials plan to meet again in several days to see if they can agree on specifics of a negotiating approach that might end the 20-month conflict, which has killed more than 40,000 Syrians.
With Mr. Assad’s fortunes looking bleaker and persistent worries that the Syrian leader is considering using his chemical arsenal, the hope on the American side was that the Russians might throw their weight behind Mr. Brahimi’s effort.
“Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways,” Mrs. Clinton said before the meeting, alluding to reports on chemical weapons developments. “The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus appears to be increasing.”
The United States is in a race to prevent the military developments in Syria from outpacing the nascent arrangements for a political transition. But daunting questions remain, including the possibility that the Russian position has not fundamentally shifted and the absence of any indication that Assad government loyalists and the Syrian opposition are interested in negotiating a transitional arrangement with each other.
“The longer Syrian violence continues, the more extremists benefit,” the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said in remarks at a Washington event organized by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nongovernment group.
The goal of the United States is to cobble together an answer to the “day after” questions. That is, who would govern Syria if Mr. Assad were finally deposed? And how can the international community reduce the risk of a downward spiraling sectarian and ethnic bloodletting that might spill over Syria’s border and enable radical Islamists to emerge as a potent political force?
Each of the several elements to the American strategy is challenging in its own right, and they require synchronization in the weeks ahead.
The United States is trying to shape and broaden the Syrian opposition so that it can play a major role in a political transition should Mr. Assad be driven from power. Mrs. Clinton has hinted that the United States will recognize the Syrian opposition as the legitimate political representative of the Syrian people at a meeting next week in Marrakesh, Morocco — assuming that the opposition continues to flesh out its organization and political structure.
Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have already formally recognized the group.
Recognition by the United States would be more than symbolic. The hope is that the group becomes a mechanism for channeling aid inside Syria and governing territory that it liberates from the Assad government.
“For the first time, there is a national opposition leadership,” Mr. Ford asserted in his appearance on Thursday. “Finally, people on the inside are working with those on the outside.”
The United States is also moving to designate the Nusra Front as an international terrorist organization, a move that has pros and cons since the group is made up of some of the most experienced fighters against the Assad government. But the United States wants to isolate the group politically from the rest of the opposition during a transition, because the front is seen by experts as affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Lastly, the Obama administration is trying to get the Russians on board to revive last June’s Geneva discussions with them and the United Nations that collapsed. The United States had thought those talks would lead to Mr. Assad’s relinquishing power and a United Nations Security Council resolution threatening economic sanctions and, in theory, military action under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, but the Russians later interpreted the talks differently.
Forging a common American and Russian position, American officials believe, would leave Iran as the only major international supporter of the Assad government and encourage government loyalists to abandon Mr. Assad.
The focus of Thursday night’s talks, which took place on the margins of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was, Mr. Brahimi said, how “to put together a peace process that will be based on Geneva.”
“We haven’t taken any sensational decisions,” he added. After the talks ended, Mr. Lavrov caught a flight to Moscow, presumably to brief President Vladimir V. Putin and plan Moscow’s next moves. Russia has cast its support for Mr. Assad as a principled stand against Western-led interventions in the region. But Russian officials now appear to be thinking more seriously about a transition.
A lawmaker with the dominant party, United Russia, told visiting British legislators on Thursday that although Russia wants to see the Assad government rule effectively, “time shows that this task is beyond its strength.”
Russia is also eager to protect its strategic interests in Syria, fading traces of the Soviet Union’s strong foothold in the Middle East. In talks with opposition figures, officials have raised the issue of its modest naval facility at the port of Tartus, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union. It is almost certainly eager to continue its defense contracts with Damascus because their loss would hurt important players in the defense industry who have already been battered by the Arab uprisings.
Because Russia has few lines of communication with the rebel groups now in the forefront of fighting in Syria, as discussions of a transitional arrangement begin, it hopes to increase the role of the domestic opposition groups it has strong ties with, analysts here said.
And on Monday came the first official statement about helping Russian citizens leave Syria — a nearly impossible task, since tens of thousands of Russian women have married into Syrian families and are scattered with their children throughout the country.
Michael R. Gordon reported from Dublin, and Ellen Barry from Moscow.
UN urges Palestinians to stay out of Syria conflict
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 7, 2012 7:20 EST
The half a million Palestinian refugees living in Syria should keep out of the country’s conflict and their neutrality be respected, UN Relief and Works Agency chief Filippo Grandi told AFP.
“The Palestinians should remain neutral and everybody should respect that. Nobody should put them into the crisis,” Grandi said in an exclusive interview on Thursday, shortly after his arrival in Beirut from a visit to Damascus.
“The majority does not want to fight. They know it is going to be even worse,” the UNRWA commissioner general added. “Every day, Palestinians are killed in Syria.”
He met in Damascus on Wednesday and Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, deputy minister Faysal Muqdad, the ambassador of key Damascus ally Russia, and the representative of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
In the meetings, Grandi raised the prospect of Palestinian refugees becoming involved in the conflict.
“The government guaranteed they are not encouraging armed groups,” Grandi said.
“We are very concerned about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command,” an armed group in Syria that supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, he said.
The PFLP-GC is especially strong in the Yarmouk camp of Damascus that is home to some 150,000 refugees. Alongside other south Damascus districts, Yarmouk has been hit by shelling and clashes between anti-Assad rebels and the army.
Grandi visited Yarmouk during his visit to Damascus.
“I visited a class of girls in ninth grade. We couldn’t hear each other because of the shelling, but they were attending lessons,” the UNRWA chief said.
“What was the most striking in Yarmouk is that there is hardly ever any moment when you don’t hear mortars,” said Grandi, although “there is no targeting of Palestinian camps as such.”
“In Yarmouk, you have three main streets, two are closed to traffic, because the shelling is very close.”
Fleeing violence in neighbouring Tadamun and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad districts, “600 displaced, mostly Syrians, are living in a school in Yarmouk,” he added.
Across Syria, “90,000 families (around 450,000 persons) have requested special assistance,” Grandi said.
“It means that about 80 percent of Palestinians in Syria need help. They were 60,000 last month.”
Emphasising the lack of food, medicines, security and heating fuel as winter sets in, Grandi said: “The crisis is very deep. The humanitarian crisis is already here and needs are escalating.”
As the crisis in Syria worsens, Grandi said the “Palestinians should not be forgotten in the next UN appeal” for funds.
“The international community has been unable to make a decision all together,” he said. “If they can’t solve the crisis in Syria politically, they should give funds.”
After the United Nations announced its decision to withdraw non-essential staff from Syria, Grandi said: “We can and we must stay.”
UNRWA’s mission too has suffered from the 21-month conflict in Syria. Aid convoys have been seized by armed groups, “as we have seen in Somalia or Afghanistan,” while five UNRWA staff members have been killed, he added.
“People are worried about the next phase,” said Grandi, who said that the worst fear for Palestinians was being kidnapped for ransom.
“People fear a lawless Syria where hundreds of opposition groups are operating on their own, and where law and order collapse and violent anarchy prevails.”
Some 520,000 Palestinian refugees live in Syria, according to UNRWA, among them 400,000 in Damascus and its province. UNRWA provides education for 66,000 refugee children and 70 percent of schools are still running.
« Last Edit: Dec 07, 2012, 06:52 AM by Rad »
Originally published Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 3:41 AM
Egypt's president offers nothing to defuse crisis.
By MAGGIE MICHAEL and AYA BATRAWY
HASSAN AMMAR / AP
An angry Mohammed Morsi refused Thursday to call off a referendum on a disputed constitution that has sparked Egypt's worst political crisis in two years, drawing chants of "topple the regime!" from protesters who waved their shoes in contempt.
The Egyptian president's uncompromising stand came a night after thousands of his supporters and opponents fought pitched battles outside his Cairo palace, leaving at least six dead and 700 injured.
Speaking in a nationally televised address, Morsi accused some in the opposition of serving remnants of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime and vowed he would never tolerate anyone working for the overthrow of his "legitimate" government.
That brought shouts of "the people want to topple the regime!" from the crowd of 30,000 Morsi opponents - the same chant used in the protests that brought down Mubarak.
Morsi also invited the opposition to a "comprehensive and productive" dialogue starting Saturday at his presidential palace, but gave no sign that he might offer any meaningful concessions.
The opposition has already refused to engage Morsi unless he first rescinds decrees giving him nearly unrestricted powers and shelves the draft constitution hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies in a marathon session last week.
Morsi said the referendum on the disputed charter would go ahead as scheduled on Dec. 15. He also refused to rescind the Nov. 22 decrees.
Reading from prepared notes, Morsi frequently broke off to improvise. He wore a black tie in mourning for the six people killed in Wednesday's clashes.
From Washington, President Barack Obama called Morsi to express "deep concern" about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt, according to a White House statement.
The statement Thursday night said that Obama told Morsi that he and other political leaders in Egypt must make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable. Obama welcomed Morsi's call for a dialogue with opposition leaders in Egypt but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions. The United States also has urged opposition leaders to join in talks without preconditions.
Earlier Thursday, Morsi's troubles grew when another of his advisers quit to protest his handling of the crisis, raising to seven the number of those in his 17-person inner circle who have abandoned him. The only Christian in a group of four presidential assistants has also quit.
Violence persisted into the night, with a group of protesters attacking the Cairo headquarters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, ransacking the ground floor. Another group of protesters attacked the Brotherhood's offices in the Cairo district of Maadi. Outside the president's house in his hometown of Zagazig, 50 miles north of Cairo, police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters, security officials said.
During his speech, Morsi repeated earlier assertions that a conspiracy against the state was behind his move to assume near unrestricted powers, but he did not reveal any details of the plot.
"It is my duty ... to protect institutions of the nation," he said. "I will always fulfill this role, no matter how much pressure or what the situation."
Opposition protesters jeered and raised their shoes in contempt.
"We have two simple demands: Cancel the decrees and change the draft constitution. Other than that he can just go away," shouted one protester, Osama El-Sayyed.
"I have no hope in this man" shouted another as thousands chanted "Erhal! Erhal!" - "Leave! Leave!" in Arabic.
Later, a photograph of Morsi giving his speech was circulated on social networking sites alongside one of Mubarak addressing the nation during the 18-day uprising that toppled his 29-year rule in February 2011. Both wore black ties and dark suits.
The opposition issued a statement rejecting Morsi's offer of a dialogue, and spokesman Hussein Abdel-Ghani dismissed Morsi's address.
"Tonight, he proved that he is not a president for all Egyptians, but merely the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidency," Abdel-Ghani said on state television.
Earlier Thursday, the Egyptian army and elite Republican Guard sealed off the presidential palace with tanks and barbed wire, following the worst night of violence of the two-week crisis.
Responding to a call to "protect" the presidential palace, thousands of Brotherhood members and other Islamists descended on the area Wednesday, beating and chasing away some 300 opposition protesters who had been staging a peaceful sit-in there. Hours of street battles followed.
"We raise Egypt's flag but they raise the Brotherhood flag. This is the difference," Cairo protester Magdi Farag said as he held the tri-colored national flag stained with blood from his friend's injury in the clashes.
Egypt opposition refuses dialogue with Morsi
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 7, 2012 7:33 EST
Egypt’s opposition coalition rejected on Friday a dialogue proposed by President Mohamed Morsi to defuse bloody protests over sweeping powers he assumed to speed through a new constitution.
The National Salvation Front said it had decided “to refuse to take part in a dialogue proposed by the president for tomorrow, Saturday.”
« Last Edit: Dec 07, 2012, 06:54 AM by Rad »
December 7, 2012
Hamas Leader Makes First Visit to Gaza
By STEVEN ERLANGER
RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Khaled Meshal, whom the Israelis attempted to assassinate in Jordan in 1997, arrived for his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday as head of the political bureau of Hamas, which has established a ministate here.
For Mr. Meshal, 56, it was a triumphant visit, and Hamas soldiers, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with Cairo.
It was his first visit to the Gaza Strip. He fled the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had never returned to Palestinian territory.
His visit was to celebrate the 25th anniversary on Saturday of the founding of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has also risen to power in neighboring, vital Egypt and has been a key to the Arab “awakening” that has shaken old alliances throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Meshal also will celebrate what Hamas considers a victory over Israel in the recent conflict here, eight days of fighting featuring Israeli airstrikes and shelling and Hamas rocket launches against Israel. The Israeli government considers that it sharply reduced Hamas’ military capacity, destroying storehouses of rockets and weapons and killing the operational commander of the Hamas forces, Ahmed al-Jaabari, at the outset of the fighting.
Still, Hamas negotiated a cease-fire with Israel through the agency of the Egyptians, and for the movement it may represent an important step toward becoming a more recognized international player and representative of at least a portion of the Palestinian people.
Mr. Meshal was expected to visit the house of the assassinated Hamas spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the house of Mr. Jaabari and the house of the Dalu family, which lost 10 members from an Israeli airstrike in the November fighting.
The Fatah movement controls the West Bank, which Israel still occupies, and the rivalry between the two groups is the defining principle of Palestinian politics, despite continuing efforts by Egypt to bring about a reconciliation. The uprising in Syria drove Mr. Meshal and the Hamas political bureau out of its offices in Damascus to resettle in Egypt, pulling Hamas farther from Shiite Iran, which continues to help sponsor it, and closer to its Sunni Muslim roots. That has also made Hamas potentially more attractive to both Egypt and Israel as a negotiating partner, however indirect, in trying to preserve stability in the region.
But Hamas, which considers itself a fighting force in contrast to Fatah, which has engaged in direct negotiations with Israel, is proud of its accomplishments in Gaza, even as it has put a more repressive and Islamist stamp on society here.
Decorating the stage where the anniversary celebration will be held is a mock-up of a large rocket, called the M-75, that Hamas claims it has built on its own and can reach almost 50 miles, close to Tel Aviv. The M stands for a dead founder of Hamas, Ibrahim Maqadma, killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2003.
In fact the Hamas anniversary is Dec. 14, but they moved it forward a week to honor the first intifada against Israel.
December 6, 2012
Visit to West Bank by King Gives Palestinians a Lift
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — King Abdullah II of Jordan on Thursday became the first head of state to visit the West Bank since last week’s vote by the United Nations General Assembly upgraded the status of the Palestinians to nonmember observer state. It was a gesture of support that also underlined the importance of the vote to Jordan, analysts said.
The visit also bolstered the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, a day before Khaled Meshal, the leader in exile of the authority’s rival, Hamas, was scheduled to make a visit to Gaza, where Hamas holds sway.
The visit came barely two weeks after a cease-fire stopped intense fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that enhanced the militant Islamic group’s image among many Palestinians, and three weeks after Jordan was rocked by violent protests over gas price increases. The king’s arrival by helicopter in Ramallah also signaled an effort to maintain some stability in a region in turmoil.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, who accompanied the king, told reporters that the king had come because he wanted to be “the first one to congratulate President Abbas and the Palestinian people for their strategic decision at the United Nations,” according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
Jordan, a country of six million people, with a sizable portion of Palestinian origin, is an important ally of the United States and maintains a peace treaty with Israel. The United States and Israel strongly opposed the Palestinian bid at the United Nations, and they voted against it.
But for Jordan, with its sensitivity to the occasional talk in Israel of Jordan as an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, the General Assembly vote laid down an important marker by endorsing a future independent Palestinian state. Jordan controlled the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, when Israel seized it during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Jordan’s hold over the West Bank was never recognized by most of the world, and in 1988 it ceded any claim to the area.
“The Palestinian success at the United Nations is also a Jordanian success,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent research institute in East Jerusalem. “It is very important for Jordan to have an independent, sovereign Palestine separate from Jordan and Israel.”
Mr. Abbas often meets with the Jordanian monarch in Amman, the Jordanian capital, but visits by the king to the Israeli-occupied West Bank are much rarer. His last visit, just over a year ago, came as Mr. Abbas was about to enter into power-sharing talks with Mr. Meshal to try to end the five-year schism dividing the Palestinians. So far, steps toward reconciliation have remained elusive.
So has an Israeli-Palestinian agreement for a two-state solution. Jordan tried to facilitate a resumption of long-stalled peace negotiations, but talks it held in January ended without results.
In recent days, Israel’s government has come under criticism from European countries after it announced approval for 3,000 more housing units in contested areas of East Jerusalem and around the West Bank. It also said it would resume planning and zoning work in a particularly contentious area east of Jerusalem known as E1.
The plans were meant as a countermeasure to what the Israelis described as a unilateral Palestinian move at the United Nations, which they said violated their previous signed agreements. World leaders denounced the new settlement plans, and critics warned that any future building in E1 could harm the prospects of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
Mr. Judeh, the Jordanian foreign minister, strongly criticized the Israeli plans, particularly those relating to E1.
“The settlement policy is not only rejected from our side as Arabs and Palestinians, but also by the whole world,” he said, according to The Associated Press.
Last month’s protests in Jordan were the most aggressive in the kingdom in the two years since popular revolutions erupted around the region. Outside Amman, protesters broke a taboo and shouted slogans against the king. Jordan has also been contending with an influx of Syrian refugees, further straining the country’s finances and stability.
12/06/2012 05:47 PM
German-Israeli Relations: Merkel and Netanyahu Seek to Play Down Differences
By Severin Weiland
Despite recent differences between Germany and Israel over settlement construction plans on the West Bank, Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu pledged friendship on Thursday in Berlin. They have, said the chancellor, agreed to disagree.
Outside, Berlin has been covered with a thin layer of fresh snow, the first of the winter. Inside, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are smiling into the cameras, eager to show unity after recent days of divergence. The two are well aware that the two countries are bound together in a special and complicated relationship. German history is always a companion when the two meet.
This time was no exception.
Following the meeting at the Chancellery, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle joined his Israeli guest for a visit to a memorial at the Grunewald commuter train stop in Berlin. During the Third Reich, Jews were loaded onto trains at the site for their final journey to the death camps in the east.
Given that horrific history, Merkel told Netanyahu that she is fully aware "what a pleasure it is that we can cooperate today." She praised the two countries' collaboration when it comes to education and research, and extolled Israel as being the only democracy in the Middle East. The message was clear: The German-Israeli relationship is so solid that occasional differences of opinion are not a threat. And on Thursday in Berlin, the pair made little effort to hide those differences.
On Wednesday evening, prior to Thursday's high-level meetings between Israeli and German cabinet members, Netanyahu joined Merkel for dinner in the Chancellery. The two talked about bilateral cooperation, but also about the current situation in the Middle East, including in Egypt, and the danger of chemical weapons in Syria. They also talked, of course, about the plans recently announced by Netanyahu's government to build 3,000 new housing units for settlers near Jerusalem.
Brief and to the Point
The construction plans, intended as a punishment of the Palestinians for their successful application to the United Nations last week for non-member observer status, involve area E-1 between East Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, and would essentially cut the West Bank in two. And it is an issue that has long been a point of contention in Merkel's relationship with Netanyahu. In September 2011, Merkel even became irate in a telephone conversation with the Israeli prime minister during a discussion of West Bank settlements. The differences have not disappeared in the meantime.
"On the settlement question, we have agreed to disagree," said Merkel on Thursday. Netanyahu struck a similar tone: "One should be able to voice different opinions among friends." In contrast to the emotion he showed during the German-Israeli government consultations a year and a half ago, Netanyahu was much more relaxed as he took questions from the media this time around. Then, he held a stern lecture on settlements as he stood at Merkel's side. This time, he was brief and to the point.
The E-1 area, he noted, was hardly new. Previous Israeli governments under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert were also aware that the narrow corridor would become a key part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, something, he said, that the Palestinians were aware of as well. Still, he refused to give ground, though he did offer direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
Despite their recent differences, Merkel left no room for doubt in Berlin that she supports the right for the Jewish state to exist. She again repeated her statement that the security of Israel is a "part of Germany's raison d'état."
Triggered by Hamas
She said it has been "unfortunately" necessary to make this clear again, after the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. The chancellor emphasized that the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, which saw an eight day skirmish between Israel and the Palestinians, was triggered by Hamas rockets.
Security was at its highest level for Netanyahu and his traveling delegation, who met with their German counterparts in the cabinet's chamber. A large area surrounding the chancellery in Berlin was blocked off, and police officers stood over nearby ventilation ducts from the underground train as snow fell Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
On Wednesday evening, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle hosted a reception for the Israeli delegation at the Villa Borsig in northwestern Berlin. Some celebrities were among those invited, including Israeli soccer star Ben Sahar, who plays for the Berlin team Hertha BSC. Berlin has attracted Israelis for a long time. They come as athletes, scientists, and artists, and tens of thousands visit each year as tourists.
In three years, Germany and Israel will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. The peace process in the Middle East remains a constant theme even as the situation in the Middle East seems to have become more challenging than ever in recent months. The Europeans, Netanyahu says, believe the settlements issue is the root cause of the conflict. But, he argues, it is not purely a territorial issue, which is evident in the most recent attacks from the Gaza Strip, where Israel doesn't keep troops.
'Differences of Opinion'
Israel, Netanyahu says, needs partners among the Palestinians who are not against the existence of Israel. "I haven't given up yet, that's what I tell Mr. Abbas," he says.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, recently celebrated his success at the United Nations, as a large majority of the UN General Assembly essentially recognized a state of Palestine by granting the Authority non-member observer status. Netanyahu had hoped Germany would vote no on the measure, and even before his visit to Berlin he voiced his disappointment over Germany's abstention on the vote. Merkel said she had "taken note of it."
There had even been speculation in the Israeli media over whether or not Germany might even join in possible sanctions against Israel. The press conference at the Chancellery showed how deep the feeling of insecurity was. Merkel was asked by an Israeli journalist if Germany would take "further measures" against Israel. Clearly irritated, Merkel said after a brief pause: "I am not someone who threatens." This week's consultations, she said, focused on solutions to problems and on the question as to whether the construction of settlements would be a "helpful step, or not a helpful step."
The foundations of German-Israeli relations are "untouchable" Merkel affirmed, adding "and they withstand differences of opinion."
December 6, 2012
Congo Peace Talks Set to Open in Uganda
By JOSH KRON
KAMPALA, Uganda — Congolese rebels and government officials prepared on Thursday for direct peace talks in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, their first face-to-face encounter since the rebels relinquished Goma, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s principal cities, after capturing it last month.
“Since May, we asked Kabila to come to the table,” said Amani Kabasha, a spokesman for the March 23 rebels, or M23, at the rebel-held border post of Rumangabo. Mr. Kabasha said his delegation was awaiting vehicles sent by the Ugandan government to carry them to Kampala. “He didn’t agree, he used force, arms, fighting. But now, because he was defeated, he agrees,” Mr. Kabasha said, referring to President Joseph Kabila.
An uneasy rhythm of commerce and calm returned to Goma this week as Congolese government soldiers again patrolled the streets and the port and airport reopened, allowing a fresh influx of people and cargo, as well as much-needed humanitarian aid for more than 100,000 people displaced by the recent fighting.
“It’s as good as it has been for the last two and a half weeks,” Tariq Riebl, a humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam in Goma, said Thursday. But the situation remained “very dynamic, very fluid,” he said.
In the strategic area of Masisi, to the northwest of Goma, fighting has continued to flare between government troops and numerous militias. Masisi has long been a hotbed of militia groups and ethnic tensions, and humanitarian relief workers said they were increasingly worried about the situation.
Furthermore, neither side has said it has any real faith in the upcoming talks, which delegates said would likely begin Friday, or possibly late Thursday.
“It’s not a negotiation,” said a Congolese government spokesman, Lambert Mende. “We will receive a grievance from M23 and help the president compare with what was decided in 2009,” when the peace agreement for which the rebels are named was signed on March 23.
“We are not very optimistic, because we know that M23 is a very small part of the problem; we need the problem to be solved regionally, and internationally,” Mr. Mende said.
The governments of Uganda and Rwanda have denied accusations by a United Nations panel of covertly supporting the M23 rebels, including in the rebels’ capture of Goma. Both countries have been accused of supporting other Congolese rebels groups in the past.
Many of the rebels’ demands, which the government has dismissed, would benefit Rwanda and Uganda, which are two main transit points for commercial exports from eastern Congo.
“We want more than decentralization, we want federalism,” said Mr. Kabasha, although the specific demands had not yet been finalized. “The eastern parts of Congo’s interests are in eastern Africa. Decentralization means that the leader is near the population.”
In recent days there have been reports of lootings and rape, summary executions and recruitment of children, the United Nations office for humanitarian affairs has said. In Goma, there have also been reports of targeted killings.
December 6, 2012
North Korea Gets Ready for Launching
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — The name of the satellite that North Korea will attempt to put into orbit as early as next week helps explain why the country’s impoverished regime wanted its own satellite project. Kwangmyongsong, or Shining Star, was also a title for Kim Jong-il — the late father of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and the man whose legacy of nuclear and missile programs his son must consolidate to justify his own hereditary rule.
North Korea’s state news media make it clear that the country’s rocket and nuclear programs have become integral to its self-image as a small, poor but militarily powerful country, which bigger nations must placate with economic concessions, and to its ruling party’s claim to political legitimacy. Thus, analysts say, North Korea will push ahead with its plan to launch the satellite despite international warnings of more sanctions.
By Thursday, all three stages of an Unha-3 rocket had been assembled at a launching pad, waiting for fueling, according to South Korean officials. North Korea said the countdown could come as early as Monday.
The timing is urgent for North Korea and tricky for regional powers.
Dec. 17 is the first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, an occasion his son’s government must mark with something it hopes will remind its people of the late leader’s greatness and the success of his son’s leadership. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the founder of the dynasty, as well as the year North Korea was to have become a “strong and prosperous nation.” Mr. Kim is running out of time to provide some evidence of that achievement.
And “what better time to paint Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing into a corner with a flare-up that demands crisis-management diplomacy than during leadership transition?” asked Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, referring to elections and leadership changes unfolding in countries with the most at stake in the region.
“For Pyongyang, the perennial problem child in Northeast Asia, it pays to provoke,” Mr. Lee said, noting the North’s longstanding strategy of using military threats to grab the region’s attention and extract concessions.
This will be the second attempt by North Korea to send a satellite named after its late leader into orbit by year’s end. A rocket carrying a Kwangmyongsong satellite exploded in April shortly after takeoff. The mishap embarrassed Mr. Kim before the foreign journalists his government had invited to witness the launching. It also scuttled U.S. aid shipments and invited the comment from the country’s rival, South Korea, that the estimated $900 million Pyongyang had spent in developing and launching the rocket would have been better used to buy food for its hungry people. Mr. Kim hardly needs another embarrassment.
If successful, however, the rocket launching will bolster the claim North Korea made in October that it has missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Washington has said that the North Korean rocket is essentially a long-range missile minus a warhead, and therefore banned under U.N. resolutions. How close North Korea has come to mastering the technology necessary to deliver a nuclear payload by intercontinental ballistic missile is open to question.
The planned rocket launching comes amid signs that North Korea and Iran, Washington’s two leading proliferation concerns, have been strengthening their ties, including an agreement on scientific and technological cooperation signed in September. Iran said in 2009 that it had succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit with its Safir rocket. The Japanese and South Korean news media reported this week that Iranian specialists were in North Korea to help fix whatever caused the April launch failure.
“It’s time to formally consider the North Korean and Iranian missile development programs as an integrated one: A missile test in Iran helps North Korea, and a missile test in North Korea helps Iran in terms of sharing of test results and improved components,” said John S. Park, a nuclear security researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that Chinese companies have served as intermediaries helping procure and transport components for the two nations.
The North Korean rocket presents one of the first foreign policy tests for Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader. So far, Beijing appears to be following its standard playbook, not obsessing, publicly at least, over North Korea’s missile threats while encouraging the gradual economic reforms that it hopes will bring progress on denuclearization. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on “all sides” to remain “calm and restrained.”
Washington has condemned North Korea’s “highly provocative act.” But the administration of President Barack Obama, who will begin his second term in January, will probably need months to coordinate policy with the new leaderships its allies are in the midst of selecting. Japan is to hold parliamentary elections Dec. 16, and South Korea will elect a president Dec. 19.
“The North Koreans’ timing with various capitals in leadership transition will likely result in a less effective coordinated response,” Mr. Park said. “The end result will be statements of condemnation and another round of ‘tough’ sanctions, which are largely placebos in light of expanding North Korean state trading company activities inside of the Chinese national economy.”
Whether North Korea’s rocket launching succeeds or fails, and no matter who wins the South Korean election, Washington will have to work with a leader in Seoul whose approach to North Korea will differ from that of the departing President Lee Myung-bak. Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama had moved in lockstep in their “strategic patience,” which essentially meant isolating and penalizing North Korea for its provocations and hoping that China would restrain its junior ally or even that Pyongyang might implode, a possibility that some policy makers in Seoul and Washington considered after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008.
Now, both of the leading presidential contenders in South Korea consider that policy a failure.
Moon Jae-in, the main opposition candidate, calls it a disaster. One of his main campaign promises is to restore the 2007 deal that called for major investments in the North but that was suspended under Mr. Lee. He has lambasted the president’s foreign policy as being “lopsided” toward Washington and has said pressure on Pyongyang has only “worsened” the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“Candidate Moon’s plan is to swiftly restore and improve upon” the policy of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who championed the “sunshine policy” of cooperation with the North, said Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor and the architect of Mr. Moon’s vision of creating a “South-North Korean economic alliance” that would not only bring about change in the North but also rejuvenate the South’s slowing economy.
Park Geun-hye, the conservative governing party candidate, agrees with Mr. Lee that substantial economic investment in North Korea must be conditional on progress in denuclearization. But she too would prefer to “delink humanitarian aid from politics” and have a dialogue with North Korea without conditions, unlike Mr. Lee’s government, which has insisted that North Korea apologize for actions like the 2010 shelling of a South Korean island and has withheld any major aid shipments.
“In a way, candidate Park’s North Korea policy is more liberal than conservative,” said Choi Dae-seok, a North Korea adviser for Ms. Park. Mr. Choi said that, although the sunshine policy failed to bring about meaningful change in the North, it was “foolish” of the Lee Myung-bak government to “summarily reject all the previous government’s policies” on North Korea.
One question analysts are debating now is whether North Korea will stop at a rocket launching of a kind that South Koreans tend to watch with relative aloofness. A long-range North Korean missile is a bigger concern in Japan and the United States than in South Korea.
“That alone will not suffice in jolting the South Korean electorate to vote for the candidate of peace” or the candidate the North favors, Mr. Moon, said Mr. Lee, the Tufts University scholar, noting that North Korean provocations have not always helped conservative candidates in the South.
December 6, 2012
Hong Kong’s Leader Seeks to Ease Concerns About Mainland China’s Influence
By KEITH BRADSHER
HONG KONG — Seeking to address a local backlash against mainland Chinese control, the chief executive of Hong Kong called Thursday for closer relations with the mainland but also emphasized his willingness to impose limits on mainland visitors and investors.
From Internet postings depicting mainlanders as locusts despoiling Hong Kong to the waving of British colonial flags at street demonstrations, resentment of mainland influence swelled this year. It reached a peak in late summer, when tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets repeatedly to protest plans to introduce a patriotic education program extolling the Chinese Communist Party.
The hostility of many Hong Kong residents toward Beijing has put the territory’s leaders in an awkward position, as they are largely selected by Beijing and coordinate policies closely.
Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive since July 1, has been the subject of particular skepticism from many residents because he has a long history of close association with mainland officials. He pursued a highly successful and lucrative career as a real estate surveyor before entering politics.
But Mr. Leung has also taken a series of measures in recent months to limit the mainland presence in Hong Kong. He withdrew the patriotic education plan. He has used baggage restrictions on municipal trains to discourage mainland traders from emptying shelves in low-tax Hong Kong and carting the goods back across the border to the mainland.
Mr. Leung has imposed a ban on mainland mothers from scheduling births at Hong Kong hospitals starting on Jan. 1. And his administration has just imposed taxes of up to 20 percent on purchases of homes in Hong Kong by anyone who is not a permanent resident, an effort to address worries about housing affordability. Mainland investors had been accounting for at least a fifth of the city’s overall real estate transactions and a much higher proportion of high-end purchases.
Michael DeGolyer, a political analyst at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that these measures were starting to allay local worries about mainland domination. “It has lessened in terms of the concern of its just overwhelming Hong Kong,” he said.
In a rare speech specifically addressing relations with Beijing, Mr. Leung said Thursday that he hoped to improve relations by emphasizing better communications between Hong Kong and the mainland. “It is without doubt our most important bilateral relationship, and one we must treat with the utmost respect,” Mr. Leung said.
Mr. Leung sought to assuage concerns that close contact with the mainland would hurt the territory’s ability to maintain the separate economic and judicial system that it preserved after Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997. “This does not mean surrendering our autonomy, it means making the most of our high degree of autonomy defined in the Basic Law,” the territory’s mini-Constitution, he said in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
Hong Kong has no sales tax and virtually no import duties, while China has duties of 20 percent or more on many imports plus a value-added tax of 17 percent. The combined tax rate of about 40 percent — China even collects taxes on taxes — has prompted large numbers of mainland visitors to go on shopping trips to Hong Kong. Many Hong Kong residents complain that they receive poor service in stores if they speak their own dialect instead of the Mandarin Chinese widely spoken on the mainland.
Another concern has been a surge of mainland women who come to Hong Kong to give birth, to avoid China’s one-child policy and also obtain free education, nearly free medical care and Hong Kong passports for their offspring. Nearly 150 countries and territories offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry to Hong Kong passport holders, while mainland China makes it difficult to obtain a passport and many countries require visas for mainland Chinese citizens, fearing that large-scale immigration would otherwise ensue.
Mainland mothers accounted for 46 percent of the births in Hong Kong last year.
Mr. Leung’s ban on the scheduling of deliveries by mainland mothers at Hong Kong hospitals as of January has raised fears that mainland mothers may show up anyway just as they are starting to give birth, when they cannot be safely turned away. Referring to the adjacent mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, and drawing an unusual comparison to gun control, Mr. Leung sought to allay these fears by saying, that “If we could and we did effectively stop, for example, guns from coming over the border from Shenzhen, we could stop pregnant ladies.”
December 7, 2012
Bombs Found in Northern Ireland on Eve of Clinton Visit
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ALAN COWELL
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here on Friday for a brief visit heralded by the police discovery of two bombs that, while unconnected with her diplomacy, underscored the continued power of sectarian passions 15 years after a formal peace accord brokered in part by her husband.
Four men were arrested late on Thursday after a homemade explosive device was found in the city of Londonderry, police officials said. The bomb was found in a car rammed by officers investigating the activities of splinter groups who have broken away from the mainstream Republican movement to oppose British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
The explosive device was described by the police as “viable.” Army experts defused the bomb after nearby homes were evacuated.
The police also reported on Friday that a letter bomb had been discovered in another part of Northern Ireland after a man was observed acting suspiciously near a mailbox.
Officers did not specify the name or address on the letter, but described the bomb as “a viable device capable of causing death or serious injury.”
The tensions are not related to Mrs. Clinton’s visit, analysts and officials said, but offer a sobering backdrop to what has been depicted as a celebratory visit recalling President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic triumphs in promoting the Northern Ireland peace in the 1990s along with the leaders of Britain and Ireland.
Both the former president and Mrs. Clinton command broad popularity in Northern Ireland, a factor that weighs with Irish-American voters in American politics.
Mrs. Clinton arrived in Belfast from Dublin and planned to leave later for Washington. It was her second visit as secretary of state since 2009.
The causes of the current spike in tensions in Northern Ireland are diverse.
Reporters in Northern Ireland say dissident republicans seeking a unified Ireland are opposed to the designation of Londonderry as a United Kingdom City of Culture in 2013.
The name of the city is contentious, with the predominantly Roman Catholic majority referring to it as Derry, its name before British authorities changed its name to Londonderry centuries ago.
Last month, a prison officer, David Black, was shot dead in Northern Ireland and a republican splinter group said it carried out the killing to protest conditions at a jail where guards carry out strip searches on detained republican dissidents.
The discovery of the devices on Thursday came after days of protests by unionist groups, which support continued ties with Britain, against a decision to restrict the number of days when the British Union Jack flag is flown over Belfast City Hall.
Those protests have spread to other parts of Northern Ireland, illustrating the enduring and emotive pull of sectarian passions years despite the 1998 Good Friday agreement that cemented peace after 30 years of conflict, known as The Troubles, in which more than 3,500 people were killed.
Mrs. Clinton is to address political leaders and visit a new center devoted to the Titanic, the doomed ocean liner built in Belfast and launched in 1911 before it sank on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg in 1912.
Michael R. Gordon reported from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Alan Cowell from London.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 7, 2012,
India’s Upper House of Parliament Supports F.D.I.
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
A motion to ban foreign direct investment in India’s retail sector was voted down in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, of Parliament on Friday. Members voted 123 to 109 against the motion, with 1 abstention. The motion was voted down in the lower house of Parliament on Wednesday.
A proposal by the governing United Progressive Alliance to allow foreign multi-brand retailers into India this September has been hotly contested, and the two Parliament votes as seen as a show of support for the government. The issue has been a matter of contention in Indian political circles for some years now, pitting those in favor of increasing foreign investment against those who say they are concerned with the impact on rural farmers and small shopkeepers.
Russia upset after U.S. vows to punish human rights violators
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 6, 2012 16:28 EST
The US Congress drew a furious response from the Kremlin on Thursday by passing legislation that targeted human rights abusers in the prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Voting 92-4, the US Senate approved establishing permanent normal trade relations with Russia, ending Cold War-era restrictions, but also requiring sanctions against anyone connected to Magnitsky’s death.
Moscow immediately called the action “a theater of the absurd” and vowed to retaliate, turning what would have been a boost in trade relations between the two powers into another source of friction.
The legislation, which also grants the same trade status to Moldova, now goes to the White House for the signature of President Barack Obama, who praised bipartisan work on the bill and said he would sign it.
Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said the Magnitsky measure will “punish human rights violators in Russia today” and send a “very powerful message” to leaders in Moscow.
“With passage of the Magnitsky act, we are saying to people in Russia who are striving to secure their fundamental freedoms: we have not and we will not forget you,” Lieberman said.
“We will stand in solidarity with the millions in Russia who have a single goal, which is a democratic Russia that respects the rule of law and fundamental freedoms and that is free of corruption.”
The new legislation would compel the US government to freeze the assets of anyone tied to Magnitsky’s 2009 death and deny them entry to the United States.
The lawyer was arrested after alleging that Russian officials had systematically orchestrated a massive theft through fraudulent tax refunds from the state.
The Russian foreign ministry warned that the US law “will have a very negative influence on the future of our bilateral education,” and said Moscow would be “forced to retaliate.”
Even before the Senate vote, Russian officials had made clear they would regard sanctions against Russian officials as a “hostile and unilateral measure.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week described the move as a “mistake.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought “clarification” from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting Thursday in Dublin, Ireland, according to a US official.
The repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment was meant to reflect the changes in the world with Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization.
Obama noted how US businesses stood to gain by Washington granting normalized trade status to its former Cold War rival.
“The legislation will ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage of the WTO rules and market access commitments that the United States worked so hard to negotiate,” he said in a statement.
“We are also one step closer to realizing job-creating export opportunities and leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers, ranchers and service providers.”
US officials offered similar praise, including US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, who predicted that US exports will now surge to one of the world’s largest economies.
Some experts estimate that American exports to Russia will double once the restrictions are lifted.
But several lawmakers focused more on the need to prod Russia to improve its rights record.
“This culture of impunity in Russia has been growing worse and worse,” said Republican Senator John McCain during debate on the measure.
Afterward McCain said the bill was “sending a signal to (President) Vladimir Putin and the Russian kleptocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated without us responding in some appropriate fashion.”
With the White House having opposed turning the trade bill into a referendum on Russia’s human rights record amid already-strained ties, Obama offered tepid support for the rights element of the legislation.
“My administration will continue to work with Congress and our partners to support those seeking a free and democratic future for Russia and promote the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world,” he said.
Under Jackson-Vanik, the president has been required to certify to Congress every year that Russia meets human rights standards when it comes to permitting Jewish emigration.
Long a thorn in relations, the law came into question when Russia joined the WTO in August. This put Jackson-Vanik in conflict with WTO mandates that any advantage granted by one member must be extended to all.
Romania: Voting for prosperity or politics?
6 December 2012
Evenimentul zilei Bucharest
In the wake of a year long political crisis prompted by the dispute between President Traian Băsescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Romanians are about to go to the polls to elect both houses of the country’s parliament on December 9. Given the current context, it is difficult to see how there can be a real debate about the state of society.
I would argue that the stakes in this election were neatly summarised by Prime Minister Victor Ponta [of the centre-left Social Liberal Union], when he let slip, during a campaign visit to a remote corner of Romania, that if we had been told that we would have the DNA [National Anti-corruption Directorate] and the ANI [National Integrity Agency], and not just money in our pockets, we would probably have thought twice about joining the EU.
It reminds me of a woman who had given birth to a Down’s syndrome baby, whom I saw interviewed on a Belgian TV news programme. She said that if she had known, she would have terminated the pregnancy, because "the health of the child is the first priority."
Setting aside the absurdity of the situation, I believe that in political terms the Prime Minister is quite right. The EU was very good for Romania and Romanians even before accession. However, people have become accustomed to the benefits of being in the EU, which they take for granted to the point where they do not even notice them any more. They are only aware of the knocks they have received.
If you take a close look at the two themes, which, in the course of this flaccid and doctored campaign, we have been told are uppermost in the in the minds of voters. In 2012, monthly household incomes, calculated in lei [the national currency], were 73 per cent higher than they were in 2006, the last year of strong economic growth, before accession and the crisis. In other words, Romanians are much better off than they were. But does anyone pay any attention to that?
Voters do not reason in terms of facts, and ask themselves how they would be living if we had not joined the EU, nor do they make long-term objective calculations. No, when the common man votes, he is focused on subjective expectations, and a utopian view of the 2006-2007 period, when it seemed that everything – salaries, land prices, jobs – was going to increase by 30 per cent, per year indefinitely.
This subjective deprivation is what shapes electoral behaviour, and not only in Romania. There is no point in asking people to read the European Commission’s excellent analyses of the "costs of non-accession", or advising them to make a field trip to Moldova.
The other question that people, at least in theory, are concerned about is corruption: the way "they" steal from us, whoever “they” might be.
As it stands, it appears that there will be no reward for those who after 2005-2006, and for the first time in the 150-year history of modern Romania, made it possible for high ranking civil servants to be charged and sentenced for corruption. This groundbreaking initiative came about because of pressure from the EU, and it would be reasonable to expect people to count this as a "benefit".
The battle against corruption was never going to be a walkover, which brings us to one of the critical issues in this election: there are many people who are threatened by the prospect of a reinforcement of the rule of law backed by Europe, and they are not about to loosen their grip on the country without a fight.
They are in the majority in the political class, even if they are divided between more moderate and more radical factions.
In recent months, Ponta, who has a foot in both camps, has given the impression that that he has very little control over this situation. In his bid to tell all sides what they want to hear, he has amused the gallery with some remarkable verbal contortions.
For politicians, the election will decide whether they will be once again beyond the reach of the law. However, this issue will not be the main focus for the people, who will inevitably be influenced by the wave of anti-Băsescu [President Traian Băsescu of the Democratic Liberal Party] sentiment that emerged two years ago.
After all, the president was the one who [in response to a demand from the IMF] cut their wages and their pensions. This wave will abate with time, but not in the near term. And collateral damage to the idea of Europe also appears to be one of its consequences.
Forecast: Way ahead almost clear for USL
Even before the December 9 vote, the die has been cast, remarks România liberă. The daily points out that in the Social-Liberal Union Union led by outgoing Prime Minister Victor Ponta –
… are already distributing posts in the future government, preparing plans on how to deal with the President [Traian Băsescu], and making lists of future MEPs. All of the arguments indicating a victory for the Social-Liberal Union (USL) with a score of more than 50 per cent are very tedious, like the overall election campaign. The outcome of the vote can only be changed by the USL, which is doing everything it can to do just that.
The arrogance criticised by the daily could encourage voters to abstain or prove the polls wrong by giving their support to the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which has the backing of Traian Băsescu. This is one of the reasons why Jurnalul Național, which supports Victor Ponta, has called on citizens to turn out in force –
What do we have to do? We have to overcome apathy and lethargy. We have to vote, that is all we can do. Vote as though it was for the last time. Call your friends and relatives to tell them that this is their last opportunity to stand up to the occupation, because Romania is being occupied. Vote as as if you were trying to stop the end of the world. Think of your vote as vital first aid, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for our moribund democracy, while there is still time.