Northern Ireland violence continues despite peace talks
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 6, 2013 19:44 EST
Violence flared for the fourth night running in Northern Ireland on Sunday, hours after politicians and Church leaders held talks in a bid to quell a row over the flying of the British flag.
After three nights of rioting and attacks on police, Northern Ireland’s chief police officer Matt Baggott said 52 officers had been injured, but he warned his force would deal firmly with the violence for as long as it was necessary.
“You may be assured there will be sufficient resources in the event of more disorder for however long is necessary,” said Baggott, the PSNI chief constable.
But as darkness fell on Sunday, a mob gathered and hurled steel barriers, bricks, fireworks and bottles at officers patrolling Castlereagh Street in the east of the city.
Unrest was was also reported on Mountpottinger Road and Beersbridge Road.
Police used water cannon and fired baton rounds in Belfast on Saturday as they confronted more than 100 loyalist protesters who were throwing fireworks and bricks.
Officers reported coming under gunfire. A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
The discussions aimed at ending the violence took place at a Belfast church, but Robin Newton, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest.
“We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don’t know,” he admitted.
The rioting on Saturday followed a largely peaceful demonstration by more than 1,000 people outside Belfast city hall against the city council’s decision last month to limit the days it flies the British flag, or Union flag, each year.
The ruling on December 3 was viewed by pro-British loyalist groups as a concession too far to republicans who want Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland.
Protesters immediately took to the streets and there have been on-off demonstrations in Belfast ever since.
So far, 70 people have been arrested in connection with the sporadic rioting and 47 people have been charged with criminal offences.
Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents the interests of police officers, said the firing of shots at police proved that paramilitaries had infiltrated the protests.
“What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have now turned their guns on the police,” he said.
“There is no doubt that it has been exploited by the paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force, and it is very clear that there are members of the UVF, leading members of the UVF, who are exploiting this and are organising and orchestrating this violence against police officers,” he said.
The flag vote has raised tensions in the province, which was torn apart by three decades of sectarian violence until peace accords in 1998 led to the creation of a power-sharing government between Protestants and Catholics.
Trends for 2013 In Europa
4 January 2013
Transition or decision? After 2012, the year in which the euro was supposed to collapse, it is tempting to predict what 2013 has in store for Europe’s citizens, even if it means running the risk of being wrong. Here is a quick review of some of the main trends that will have a long-term impact on political and daily life in the European Union.
The event of the year will be the general election in Germany, which will most likely be held on September 22. Angela Merkel, who continues to enjoy record approval ratings, has a good chance of being re-elected for a third term as chancellor. She would therefore maintain the European austerity policy which is popular with her voters.
However, at the same time, she would also need stability, which could favour a policy of European Central Bank intervention in the debt crisis. Although unpopular with the Berlin government and the Bundesbank, previous interventions have shown that such a policy can calm the markets and grant a respite to Germany’s most important and vulnerable partners, ie: Italy, Spain and France.
And speaking of Italy, there will be a lot at stake in the elections due to be held there on February 24 and 25. Will “technocrat” Mario Monti be able to continue governing the country without being elected but with support from a coalition of centrist parties? Italy can be a testing ground for two questions that will be important for all Europe: Will an austerity policy that is in line with the expectations of financial markets and international partners be sufficient to put the country back on track? Can a technocratic government succeed in reconciling the economic and democratic needs of a society?
In the meantime, the British — and many other Europeans — will continue to question their place in the EU. In spite of the persistent demands from the eurosceptic wing of of his party, UK Prime Minister David Cameron will likely avoid taking on the historic responsibility of calling into question his country’s membership of the European Union. However, this issue will certainly weigh on negotiations for the 2014-2020 European budget, as it will on the management of the crisis, and in turn on the institutional future of the EU.
It will be even more awkward for Cameron to cut ties with the continent now that the United Kingdom is preparing for a referendum on the future of Scotland in 2014. And Britain is not alone in facing the spectre of secession that has also been awakened in Belgium, where Flemish nationalists will be preparing for federal elections in 2014, and in Spain, where Catalan politicians will be attempting to create the most favourable conditions for the organisation of a referendum on the independence of the region, also slated for 2014.
Catalan aspirations, which could challenge the manner in which the region participates in the financing of the federal state, will likely add to Spain’s vulnerability. With unemployment at almost 25 per cent and a much weakened banking sector, the country will continue to be the weak link in Europe and a focal point for the economic and social ills that have beset the continent, putting to one side the extreme situation in Greece.
Above and beyond the political trends, the social context and the living conditions of Europe’s 500 million citizens will have to be closely monitored throughout the year. Regardless of the decisions taken in Brussels and Frankfurt, and positive movement in stock market and macro-economic charts, the future of the EU will be shaped in the factories, offices, hospitals and streets of a continent that is increasingly populated by victims of the crisis.
January 6, 2013
Test for New Leaders as Chinese Paper Takes On Censors
By IAN JOHNSON
BEIJING — Turmoil at one of China’s leading newspapers is posing an early challenge to the measured political program of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, pitting a pent-up popular demand for change against the Communist Party’s desire to maintain a firm grip.
The unrest at the influential newspaper Southern Weekend began last week when censors appeared to have toned down the paper’s New Year’s letter to readers — traditionally a call for progress in the new year. That caused journalists and their supporters — including students at nearby Sun Yat-sen University — to issue open letters expressing their outrage.
“Our yielding and our silence has not brought a return of our freedom,” the students said in their petition on Sunday, according to a translation by Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. “Quite the opposite, it has brought the untempered intrusion and infiltration of rights by power.”
By Sunday night, the protests had transformed into a real-time melee in the blogosphere — a remarkable development in a country where protests of all kinds are tightly controlled and the media largely know the boundaries of permissible debate.
In this case, the newspaper’s economics and environmental news staffs appeared to declare that they were on strike, while editors loyal to the government shut down or took control of the paper’s official microblogs. One widely distributed staff declaration with 90 signatures said the publication’s microblogs were no longer authentic.
“I don’t know whether it will be a full strike, but I do know the joint statement about the confiscation of the Weibo account has widespread support,” said one former editor, referring to a microblogging site and speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The turmoil at the Guangzhou-based newspaper resonates especially strongly among politically aware Chinese because Mr. Xi chose southern China for a tour after taking power in November. He made a pilgrimage to nearby Shenzhen, where the father of China’s economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping, kick-started them two decades ago.
Indeed, Mr. Xi seems to be casting himself in the mold of Deng, who was known for bold economic reforms but who also brooked no opposition to the rule of the Communist Party.
The latest indication was a speech Mr. Xi made that also was published in newspapers on Sunday. Speaking to senior leaders, Mr. Xi repeatedly invoked Deng, especially on the need to adhere to “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a phrase often used to mean a combination of pragmatic policies and one-party rule. He also praised the pre-reform era, in what appeared to be an effort to appeal to harder-line Communists.
But part of the reason for the clamor for reforms are hopes that Mr. Xi himself has raised. So far he has won praise by calling for China’s constitutional protections to be put in effect, ordering officials to cut pomp and setting in motion an anticorruption campaign.
These actions seem to have prompted the calls for even bolder reforms.
Beyond the unrest at Southern Weekend, editors of the edgy historical journal Yanhuang Chunqiu published a cover article last week arguing that the existing Constitution offered a basis for political reform and that the party’s failure to abide by it was a central cause of political instability. On Friday, the magazine’s Web site was shut down, with officials claiming that it had failed to update its registration.
A message posted by the journal about the shutdown was forwarded 31,000 times, provoking many scathing criticisms of the government. The chief editor, Wu Si, said the journal’s staff had filed the paperwork and could be back online in 10 days.
Optimists say they hope the measures against the two publications were the result of recalcitrant officials appointed by the departing team of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, whose decade in power was marked by an overriding desire for stability. Many members of Mr. Xi’s team will not take office until the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March, and it could take years for Mr. Xi to put allies into important positions of power.
“If Xi does not remove people and promote some officials, his new policies — if he has any — will be sunk by the old people,” said a senior editor at a top party newspaper who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicacy of the subject. “The conflicts between the old and the new have just emerged.”
Chinese politics since Deng’s time have been defined by similar tensions between liberalization and reaction. But Mr. Xi also confronts millions of increasingly outspoken Internet users whose outpourings can confound even China’s heavy censorship.
Zhan Jiang, a professor of media at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the public anger showed how expectations had risen. “Currently in China people are unusually sensitive to developments like this, and so the reaction has been quite intense,” Mr. Zhan said.
Some are less sure that the atmosphere is more open, saying the media shutdowns have occurred because Mr. Xi has avoided taking a clear position.
“There are still no clear rules on the media, and so officials stick to using their habitual ways to control the media,” said Li Datong, a prominent Chinese newspaper editor fired for his views. “There won’t be any change until Xi Jinping enunciates any ideas about major change.”
Other commentators doubt this will happen. They note that in previous jobs Mr. Xi upheld the status quo and that now that he has reached the pinnacle of his career he is unlikely to support systemic reform.
“This is a traditional viewpoint: if you change the emperor you’ll have a change of policy and maybe some new, hopeful things,” said the exiled Chinese political commentator Zhang Ping, who goes by the pen name Chang Ping. “But I don’t think this is likely, because you still have an emperor.”
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong.
Barack Obama readies for host of reforms on Washington return
Immigration and gun control at top of agenda as US president looks to make a mark with second term
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 6 January 2013 14.24 GMT
Barack Obama has returned to Washington intent on pushing through a host of reforms in his second term, with a focus on immigration and gun control.
The president will set out his plans when he delivers his inaugural speech on 21 January, although his momentum could be stymied by another economic showdown as early as late February.
The biggest obstacle facing Obama is the Republican caucus in the House being at war with itself, divided between moderates and Tea Party sympathisers, and this has a knock-on effect in terms of working with Democrats in Congress and the White House.
Before leaving Washington to resume his interrupted holiday in Hawaii, Obama warned that time-consuming battles with Congress would prevent the US securing the kind of legislation it needs.
"We can settle this debate, or at the very least, not allow it to be so all-consuming all the time that it stops us from meeting a host of other challenges that we face – creating jobs, boosting incomes, fixing our infrastructure, fixing our immigration system, protecting our planet from the harmful effects of climate change, boosting domestic energy production, protecting our kids from the horrors of gun violence," he said.
He begins his second term with the economy in much better shape than when he took office in January 2009, with US involvement in the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down.
But political analysts caution that second terms often begin with high expectations, with presidents re-energised by winning an election, but end in disappointment. Bill Clinton's second term was dominated by the Monica Lewinsky affair and George W Bush quickly became a lame duck after Hurricane Katrina.
Norman Ornstein, a widely respected analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, cautioned that second terms were usually less productive than first terms. Ornstein identified potential problems as "the continuing hold on the GOP [Grand Old Party] by the radical right, and the continuing dysfunction in our politics", and also the high expectations among the Democratic base.
Ornstein, author of one of the best-received political books of the year, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, quickly qualified this gloomy assessment to add: "But that is not a surefire prediction that Obama will have a mediocre second term. The election produced a new momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, which would be a major advance. There is, obviously, a new dynamic on gun control."
Obama appears emboldened by his election victory, his confidence apparent around the White House and in his dealings with Republicans in Congress.
The broad outlines of his second term are already taking shape. When he initially jotted down his list of aims, gun control was not on it. Now it is a central issue, with proposed legislation planned for early this year – opening the way for confrontation with the gun lobby as well as members of Congress, predominantly the Republican party.
The start of the new Congress on 3 January was accompanied by a blizzard of proposed gun laws from Democrats, which include bans on automatic and semi-automatic weapons, a ban on large-capacity magazines (restricting the number of bullets to around half-a-dozen or so), and plugging loopholes that allow sales at gun shows without background checks.
Republicans are coming round to the prospect of immigration reform, having been punished by Latino voters. A path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants may be a step too far for many Republicans but they could put into legislation the Dream Act, building on Obama's executive order legalising the position of young Latinos brought to the US illegally by their parents.
Other priorities for a second term on the domestic front include steering the economy towards full recovery and consolidating healthcare reforms introduced in the first term but not due to start until 2014.
On the foreign front, the biggest challenge remains Iran and the prospect of direct talks between the US and Iran, as reported in the New York Times before the election and denied at the time by the White House, seem in the offing. There is Syria, Israel-Palestine and winding down the war in Afghanistan. Also outstanding is his failure to fulfil pledge to close Guantánamo. He will also face pressure to reduce the number of drone strikes.
If he manages to secure some foreign policy successes – adding to first-term achievements that include healthcare reform, ending the use of torture, recognition of gay service personnel in the military, and ending the war in Iraq – he could be well on his way to going down in history as one of the better Democratic presidents, up there with LBJ and Bill Clinton.
Tom Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of many books on the presidency and Congress, including co-authoring It's Even Worse Than It Looks, predicts Obama has a "decent chance" of achieving something on gun violence and immigration.
"He will also return to climate change, although I doubt we will see landmark legislation on its own. Legislatively, he may try for some carbon tax in the context of tax reform, but mainly he will continue to use the administrative and regulatory process to make headway," Mann said.
"His highest priority in the second term will be completing the economic and financial recovery from 2008-9 and addressing the structural problems associated with joblessness and inequality."
There is lots of speculation about Obama's new cabinet. Senator John Kerry has already been named as the replacement for Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Speculation continues over who will be the new defence secretary. Former senator Chuck Hagel is the most talked about but he is attracting a lot of criticism as being not supportive enough of Israel.
The big vacancy left is secretary of the treasury. Bloomberg News has suggested the chief executive officer of American Express, Kenneth Chenault, though it added that White House chief of staff Jack Lew is also a contender. Chenault said he does not want it, so Lew is the present favourite.
January 6, 2013
Hundreds in Peru Balk at Relocation From Site of Mine
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
MOROCOCHA, Peru — High among barren peaks, a Chinese mining company has built the Levittown of the Andes. Long rows of identical attached houses face each other across wide, straight streets, one-third of them still waiting for people to walk through their varnished pine doors and make homes under their slanted red roofs.
The company, Chinalco, which is owned by the Chinese government, built the new town to relocate more than 5,000 people living in nearby Morococha, a century-old mining village. The company plans to demolish Morococha to make way for an enormous open-pit copper mine.
Chinalco has moved close to 700 families since September. But several hundred residents have resisted, staging marches and other protests even as their neighbors load their belongings into moving trucks for the trip to the new town, which has not been named yet; it may ultimately be called Nueva Morococha.
The two towns are only six miles apart — a 15-minute drive — and are at similarly lofty altitudes. Morococha is at about 14,760 feet, and the new settlement is just 650 feet lower, at a spot now called Carhuacoto. But for many, the move is like traveling between two worlds.
Morococha is old, decaying, squalid: a broken window into raw poverty and neglect. It looks as if it had been swept carelessly against the side of an ugly yellow mountain that is full of copper ore, with no regard for where cracked houses and crooked streets came to rest.
Most of the houses have mud walls and leaky, rusting corrugated metal roofs. Residents get water from taps in the streets; in the dry season the taps work only a few hours a day. Many of the townspeople use crude communal latrines.
The new town is all straight lines, fresh paint and smooth paving. There are new schools, churches, a clinic and playgrounds. Each house has running water, supplied by a just-built purification plant. There are showers (though no water heaters), and there are toilets that flush into a new sewage treatment system. Trash is carted away to a new sanitary landfill.
During the day, when most residents are away at work, it is strangely silent and sterile, with the artificial feel of a movie set. Crews of workers in safety orange coveralls and hard hats sweep the otherwise empty streets.
“You can get lost,” said Virginia Vallodolid, 45, one of the street sweepers, who moved in several weeks ago and earns $3 a day from Chinalco. It is the first steady job she has ever had. She has a house with a toilet for the first time in her life. She turns on the tap and the water comes out clear, not yellow, as she said it often did in Morococha.
“I don’t miss anything,” Ms. Vallodolid said, reflecting on the 15 years she lived in Morococha. “I lived uncomfortably there.”
But back in Morococha, the resisters, many of them property owners, are holding out, refusing to move or sell their homes.
In an act of defiance, Marcial Salomé, the mayor of Morococha, has gone on a minor building spree, putting up better public toilets and places for people to wash their clothes.
Mr. Salomé said that he and other residents are not opposed to moving the town, but that they want Chinalco to do more in exchange. They want the company to guarantee jobs in the new mine for residents. And they want the company to pay the people of Morococha $300 million for destroying their town.
Mr. Salomé also voiced a key complaint of many who have moved, who say the new houses, with as little as 430 square feet of space, are simply too small. Mr. Salomé pointed to another foreign mining company, Xstrata Copper, which is planning a similar relocation of a town in Peru’s south and has promised to build houses several times as large.
“We want what’s fair,” Mr. Salomé said.
Sonia Ancieta is one of the staunchest holdouts. Her great-grandparents moved to Morococha perhaps 100 years ago. The cemetery is full of her ancestors. She has a large house that she measures at more than 2,000 square feet, including several rental rooms and a store on what used to be a busy street.
Chinalco has offered to compensate business owners for lost income and to pay owners for their houses, but Ms. Ancieta said that what the company is offering is not nearly enough to compensate for her property and her memories.
“For me this represents a great loss,” Ms. Ancieta said. “I was born here. I will lose my identity and many more things because once we leave here we will never return.”
Mining is the single biggest sector of Peru’s economy, accounting for 15 percent of production. Encouraging greater investment in mining is central to President Ollanta Humala’s efforts to improve economic conditions for the more than a quarter of the population that lives in poverty.
But deep poverty persists in Morococha despite the riches that generations of miners have dug from the earth. And then there is the vast no man’s land in front of the town: a former tailings pond that is considered poisoned ground, protected by a fence topped with barbed wire.
The new mine and processing facility, which will strip down the yellow mountain looming behind the town, are expected to produce an average of 248,000 tons of copper a year for 36 years. At today’s prices, that output would be worth more than $1.7 billion a year in revenue.
Ezio Buselli, Chinalco’s vice president of environmental and corporate affairs, would not say how much the company spent to build the new town, but he said the total exceeded the $50 million it had pledged for the project.
He said the new town had the first sewage treatment plant and the first sanitary landfill in the area.
“We are giving the families spectacular treatment,” Mr. Buselli said.
Families have moved into about two-thirds of the 1,050 houses, he said. He dismissed the holdouts in Morococha as a small group trying to squeeze more money from the company.
“Most people want to get a little more,” Mr. Buselli said.
Visitors to the new town might never know that Chinalco is owned by the Chinese government. No Chinese workers or managers are in evidence. Mr. Buselli said that was intentional. The one other well-known Chinese venture in mining in Peru, an iron mine in the southeastern part of the country operated by Shougang Corporation, is notorious for labor conflicts and environmental problems.
“We have to go a little farther because we come with this reputation that has been very bad in Peru,” Mr. Buselli said.
On a recent morning in Morococha, while a moving van packed up a family’s possessions, a small knot of policemen in riot gear stood casually by in case protesters showed up to block the truck’s departure, as had happened before. None did.
In the immaculate new town, Patricia Cóndor, 34, a dentist, and her husband, Miguel Ángel Cayetano, 32, a pharmacist, were settling into their new home with their two small children. One room was full of boxes of pharmaceuticals; another held a dentist’s chair.
“The kids are happy,” Ms. Cóndor said. “For them, it’s another world.”
The couple decided to leave Morococha only after sales in their pharmacy plummeted because so many of their neighbors had left. “A week or two ago, there wasn’t much movement,” Ms. Cóndor said. “But this week you see people moving, deciding with more certainty, betting on change.”
Andrea Zarate contributed reporting.
‘World’s greatest living explorer’ sets off for world’s first Antarctic winter crossing
By Roxanne Cooper
Monday, January 7, 2013 6:45 EST
Adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said his bid for the world’s first Antarctic winter crossing, with no option of rescue, would be a trip into the unknown despite his multiple record expeditions.
Known as the world’s greatest living explorer, Fiennes will depart Monday for the coldest place on Earth.
The intrepid adventurer, 68, is the oldest person to have climbed Mount Everest and has crossed both polar ice caps. In 1992-93, he crossed the Antarctic unsupported.
The six-member team will leave Cape Town on Monday in a bid to become the first to traverse Antarctica, a distance of more than 2,000 miles (nearly 4,000 kilometres), in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, which begins in mid-March.
So far the furthest winter journey in Antarctica was in the early 20th century, covering only 60 miles.
“We’ve been doing expeditions for a total of 40 years. We’ve broken a great number of world records. In Antarctica we’ve got two huge records, one in 1979 and one in 1992, but they are all in summer,” Fiennes told AFP.
“So we aren’t any more expert than anybody else at winter travel. There is no past history of winter travel in Antarctica apart from the 60-mile journey. So we are into the unknown.”
The Antarctic has the Earth’s lowest recorded temperature of nearly minus 90 degrees Celsius (-130 degree Fahrenheit), and levels of around minus 70 are expected during the six-month crossing, which will be mostly in darkness.
The expedition will sail from Cape Town on Monday and dock in the Antarctic later this month, where a six-member team will prepare to leave in March with no option of rescue once on the ice, unlike in other expeditions.
“This is the first time once we’ve gone out, all the aeroplanes, all the ships from Antarctica disappear for eight months, and we’re on our own and then you’re in a situation where you would die,” Fiennes said.
“That is why we have to try and take with us a whole year of supplies and a doctor and everything else like that, which makes it the biggest, heaviest expedition that we’ve ever been involved with rather than just man against the elements.”
The group will be led by two skiers carrying crevasse-detecting ground-penetrating radars and followed by two tractors pulling sledge-mounted, converted containers with the rest of the team, equipment, fuel and food.
“Anybody who leaves the vehicle and it goes out on skis has to accept the fact that if things go wrong, they will die like people did 100 years ago,” Fiennes said on the eve of departure.
The team, which will be carrying out scientific research and wants to raise $10 million (nearly eight million euros) for the Seeing Is Believing blindness charity, have tested their clothing and equipment to minus 58 Celsius (minus 72 Fahrenheit) in Britain and minus 45 in Sweden.
Fiennes said that he and fellow explorers have never used hand-warming equipment on polar expeditions, but that: “This time we’re using every device known to mankind to warm up our bodies, and we’ve got new breathing apparatuses.”
Co-leader Anton Bowring, who will be aboard the expedition ship after the ice team leave, described the venture as “one of the last, great polar challenges”.
“The pundits, the clever people who know about Antarctica, are looking at this and thinking you know it might just be a bit crazy. So we will see,” he said.
“I think we’ve worked at it for five years, we reckon we’ve just about covered all the possible problems.”
The six-member ice team will travel with a crew and training cadets on the ice-strengthened SA Agulhas, a retired South African polar research vessel which is now a training vessel.
The group will set out from Crown Bay south of South Africa, crossing the polar plateau at an average height of 10,000 feet above sea level, aiming to cover 22 miles a day to reach McMurdo Sound, south of New Zealand.
In the USA...
White House squares up for fight with NRA over sweeping gun reforms
Biden taskforce will aim to strengthen federal monitoring of gun sales, close loopholes and ban semi-automatic weapons
Ed Pilkington in New York
The Guardian, Sunday 6 January 2013 16.17 GMT
The Obama administration is reportedly preparing to confront the might of the National Rifle Association and its gun-supporting allies in Congress with a sweeping package of proposals for tighter firearms controls that would go beyond previous attempts to combat gun violence.
An article in the Washington Post claimed on Sunday that a White House taskforce led by the vice president, Joe Biden, is looking at a range of proposals that would beef up federal monitoring and checks on all gun sales, seek to improve systems to prevent mentally-ill people acquiring weapons and introduce new penalties for carrying guns near schools. The taskforce, which was set up in the wake of the 14 December Newtown school shooting, in which 20 children and six school staff were killed, is expected to present its proposals to President Obama later this month.
So far the post-Newtown debate has focused on a revival of the 1994 federal ban on military-style assault rifles that was steered through Congress by Biden and other leading Democrats. In order to push the ban through Congress, a 10-year time limit was added to the crime bill. It lapsed in 2004.
The Biden taskforce is known to be considering a proposal to reintroduce the ban, that would prevent new sales of a range of AR-15 semi-automatic weapons as well as impose an upper ceiling of 10 rounds per magazine in an attempt to reduce the ability of shooters to inflict enormous carnage in a short burst of violence. The shooting spree carried out by Adam Lanza at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown involved a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and lasted for less than 10 minutes.
But the Washington Post suggests that the taskforce is also minded to go considerably further than a revision of the assault weapons ban. In particular, Biden is taking a hard look at two of the most egregious weaknesses in the current system of gun controls in the US.
The first is the patchy system of background checks on buyers of guns. At present, anyone purchasing a gun from an authorised dealer has to go through a federal background check. However, if you buy a weapon from a private seller, operating on the internet or through gun shows, there is no such safeguard. The Biden taskforce is reported to be considering a move to close the private-seller loophole – a long-standing demand of gun control advocacy groups.
The second anomaly is the parlous state of national tracking systems to record and monitor the movement and use of weapons, in an attempt to prevent them falling into the hands of criminals and mentally ill people. A database operated by the FBI is notoriously patchy – while some states, such as New York, have contributed more than 100,000 names into the records, 19 states have offered fewer than 100 and Rhode Island has submitted none.
The gaps in the database make a mockery of the idea of national safeguards against the misuse of firearms. According to the New York Times, since 2005 more than 22,000 weapons have been bought by people who were later deemed to have been disqualified because of previous criminal behaviour or mental illness.
A proposal being reviewed by the Biden taskforce, the Washington Post says, would be to introduce a new modernized and comprehensive database to track the movement of guns under the auspices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The White House is evidently aware that it is likely to face fierce opposition from the NRA, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country, to any measures that it might introduce. So far the only idea offered by the NRA towards the debate has been the call from its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, for armed guards to be placed in all schools.
Obama has signaled that he intends to move swiftly to introduce new controls, in the hope of riding on the wave of revulsion created by the Newtown shooting, before the nationwide sense of outrage dissipates. Last week he told the television programme Meet the Press: "I'd like to get it done in the first year. This is not something that I will be putting off. And, yes, it's going to be hard."
The Washington Post indicated that the White House is examining how it could use the president's executive powers to push through reforms – thus allowing the administration to bypass a potentially bruising battle with Congress. A majority of Republican members of Congress, as well as a substantial minority of Democrats, are closely aligned with the NRA.
The administration is also hoping to dilute the influence of the NRA by creating a wide alliance of support for reforms, particularly among traditional supporters of gun rights. Biden has already convened a high-level meeting of law enforcement leaders – in a clear bid to enlist their backing – including police chiefs and sheriffs' associations. He is in close contact with the team of gun control experts assembled by Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, who is a leading advocate of reform.
The administration is also focusing on retail outlets such as Wal-Mart as potential allies. The idea is to appeal to such retailers for support in closing the private-seller loophole on the grounds that it would financially benefit their businesses by redirecting trade in guns through them.
Obama keen on Chuck Hagel nomination despite opposition
Senator Lindsey Graham says 'incredibly controversial choice' will be an 'in-your-face nomination to all supportive of Israel'
Matt Williams in New York
guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 January 2013 07.50 GMT
President Barack Obama could announce former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as his pick for defense secretary as early as Monday, despite senior GOP figures raising questions over the seemingly imminent nomination.
Numerous media outlets cited unnamed White House and congressional aides as confirming that the former Nebraska senator would be named as the replacement for Leon Panetta, with a White House statement expected in the coming days. This would set up a confrontation with Hagel's detractors in the Senate, many from his own party, who believe that he has only been lukewarm towards the US's traditional ally in the Middle East, Israel. One senior Republican said on Sunday that it would be an "in-your-face" nomination by the president.
Hagel has also been criticised for comments he has made over the effectiveness of sanctions in dissuading Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme.
The appointment of Hagel would give Obama credibility regarding his expressed desire for a bipartisan cabinet. Many Republicans, however, are bracing for battle. On Sunday's round of political talk shows, senior GOP figures went on the offensive.
"It is an incredibly controversial choice," the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told CNN's State of the Union. "This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel." Hagel has been critical of the influence of pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington on US foreign policy.
The Senate's top Republican, the minority leader Mitch McConnell, was more reserved in his comments. Speaking on ABC's This Week, McConnell said Hagel "has certainly been outspoken" on foreign policy matters in the past. He added that if the nomination was made, he would want to see if the former Nebraska senator's views "make sense for that particular job".
The likely confirmation battle in the Senate comes after the Obama administration backed down from a similar fight over Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations who had been Obama's first pick to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Rice withdrew under a barrage of criticism from Republicans, regarding remarks she made in the aftermath of the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi in September that killed the ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. The White House could face an equally tough battle over Hagel.
"The administration has a lot of work to do on Hagel. He is in a weaker position now than Rice ever was because Rice would have rallied Democrats behind her," a Senate Democratic aide told Reuters. But Obama has already pressed the case.
"I've served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valour in Vietnam," the president told NBC's Meet the Press last week.
Torture in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ film is fictional, says ex-CIA agent
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 6, 2013 15:10 EST
Bloody interrogations like those depicted in Hollywood’s take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden “Zero Dark Thirty” never really happened, according to the former CIA official who ran such programs.
“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007,” Jose Rodriguez wrote in a Washington Post article headlined: “Sorry Hollywood. What we did wasn’t torture.”
The former CIA official was weighing in on the controversy over the depiction of US intelligence practices in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which hits most US theaters on January 11.
Directed by Academy Award-winning Kathryn Bigelow, the movie tells the story of the decade-long search for Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, climaxing in the dramatic, deadly raid in May 2011 on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Already generating major Oscar buzz, “Zero Dark Thirty” begins with a scene showing the torture of detainees, who eventually provide critical information for locating bin Laden.
But Rodriguez said the torture scenes were pure fiction.
“Nobody was hung from ceilings. The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA ‘black sites,’” he said, highlighting careful monitoring of the interrogations.
“To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington,” Rodriguez said.
“Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded.”
But even the last technique, a form of simulated drowning and a subject of major controversy, was not as extreme as the on-screen version and was never used after 2003, Rodriguez said.
“Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used” on men on medical gurneys, he explained.
Rodriguez defended the use of secret detainment centers around the world, so-called “black sites,” saying they allowed agents “to repeatedly go back to the detainees to check leads, ask follow-up questions and clarify information.”
A number of top lawmakers, as well as the acting head of the CIA, Michael Morrell, have come out to say the film has exaggerated the importance of information obtained by harsh interrogations.
Three powerful US senators have called on the CIA to provide details on its cooperation with the film’s director, to look into whether Bigelow could have been “misled” by information the agency gave her.
In a letter dated December 19, the senators — John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin — asked Morell to supply them with all documents and information provided to the filmmakers.
January 6, 2013
McConnell Takes Taxes Off the Table in New Talks
By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, made clear on Sunday that he would oppose any effort by the Obama administration to raise more tax revenue and that he remained focused on finding ways to cut spending as the government grapples with its debt.
“The tax issue is finished,” Mr. McConnell said on the ABC News program “This Week.” “Over. Completed. That’s behind us.”
Mr. McConnell’s interviews on three Sunday morning programs came just days after he and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. helped broker a resolution to the latest fiscal crisis and as Washington braced for a series of confrontations over debt and spending.
Mr. McConnell’s stance on taxes countered calls from Democrats, and even some House Republicans, to revamp the tax code to close some provisions and raise new revenue. But Mr. McConnell did say he would favor changes if they were “revenue neutral,” meaning that lower rates would be paid for by limiting deductions and closing loopholes.
Mr. McConnell’s focus on the need for spending cuts was relentless in his interviews on ABC, NBC and CBS. He was equally insistent that President Obama must take the lead on fiscal plans.
His remarks stood in contrast to comments from the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who said on the CNN program “State of the Union” that there was plenty of room to increase revenue by examining “deductions, credits, special treatments under the tax code.”
Mr. McConnell’s position also contrasted with remarks on Saturday by Mr. Obama, who said in his weekly address that he remained open to both spending cuts and further tax increases. The fiscal agreement last week made tax cuts permanent for most households and put off big spending cuts.
Mr. Obama, who was speaking from Hawaii before returning to Washington on Sunday, emphasized his own line in the sand. Now that the government has reached its statutory borrowing limit, Mr. Obama said, Congress had no choice but to raise it to avoid a damaging default. He said the matter was not up for negotiation.
“If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic,” Mr. Obama said. “Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again.”
Mr. McConnell repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he supported Republican senators who have suggested that a default — and even a brief shutdown of the government — might be necessary to secure deep spending cuts.
“My answer is hopefully we don’t need to get to that point,” he said on ABC. “The president surely must know we’re spending way too much. So why don’t we do something about reducing spending?”
Mr. McConnell also suggested that other Obama administration priorities, including a new push for gun restrictions after the Connecticut school shooting, might have to wait.
Mr. McConnell was asked about reports that Mr. Biden, whom Mr. Obama charged with developing proposals to address gun violence, had confidently predicted the passage of gun-control legislation this month.
Mr. McConnell seemed to cast cold water on that notion.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt,” he said. “That’s going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues, I think, will have the kind of priority that spending and debt will have.”
January 7, 2013
12 States Get Failing Grades on Public School Policies From Advocacy Group
By MOTOKO RICH
In just a few short years, state legislatures and education agencies across the country have sought to transform American public education by passing a series of laws and policies overhauling teacher tenure, introducing the use of standardized test scores in performance evaluations and expanding charter schools.
Such policies are among those pushed by StudentsFirst, the advocacy group led by Michelle A. Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington. Ms. Rhee has generated debate in education circles for aggressive pursuit of her agenda and the financing of political candidates who support it.
In a report issued Monday, StudentsFirst ranks states based on how closely they follow the group’s platform, looking at policies related not only to tenure and evaluations but also to pensions and the governance of school districts. The group uses the classic academic grading system, awarding states A to F ratings.
With no states receiving an A, two states receiving B-minuses and 12 states branded with an F, StudentsFirst would seem to be building a reputation as a harsh grader.
Ms. Rhee said that the relatively weak showing reflected how recently statehouses had begun to address issues like tenure and performance evaluations. “We didn’t say in any way that we want to show people how bad it is,” she said in a telephone interview. “We wanted to show the progress that is being made, but in places where progress is slower to come, be very clear with leaders of that state what they could do to push the agenda forward and create a better environment in which educators, parents and kids can operate.”
The two highest-ranking states, Florida and Louisiana, received B-minus ratings. The states that were given F’s included Alabama, California, Iowa and New Hampshire. New Jersey and New York received D grades, and Connecticut a D-plus. The ratings, which focused purely on state laws and policies, did not take into account student test scores.
Some of the policies covered by the report card have been adopted by very few states. Only eight states, for example, require districts to base teacher pay on performance rather than on experience or the attainment of a master’s degree. StudentsFirst also recommends that districts make individual teacher evaluations available to parents and require that districts inform parents when their child is placed in the classroom of a teacher rated “ineffective.”
“What we strive to do through our policy agenda is put in place things that are very common-sense policies and take it down to the level of the regular Joe on the street,” Ms. Rhee said. “Do you believe that in a time of layoffs, quality should be looked at instead of straight seniority, or do you agree that if your child is being assigned to an ineffective teacher you should know about it?”
States that have adopted policies aligned with the StudentsFirst platform have in some cases met with public opposition. In Idaho, the Legislature passed a package in 2010 that eliminated tenure, introduced performance pay for teachers and based their evaluations on student test scores. Voters overturned the measures in a referendum in November. (The state received a D-minus grade from StudentsFirst.)
State officials who had seen their ratings reacted differently, with some viewing the StudentsFirst report as a kind of blueprint, others seeing it as an à la carte menu, and some spurning it outright.
Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, called the state’s F rating a “badge of honor.”
“This is an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing,” Mr. Zeiger said of StudentsFirst. “I would have been surprised if we had got anything else.”
StudentsFirst gave California the low rating despite the fact that it has a so-called parent trigger law that the advocacy group favors. Such laws allow parents at underperforming schools to vote to change the leadership or faculty.
California was also denied a waiver last week by the federal Department of Education to the No Child Left Behind Law, in large part because the state has not passed a law requiring that districts use standardized test scores in evaluating teachers.
Although StudentsFirst’s report card does not explicitly state that standardized tests be used in teacher evaluations, the group says that “objective” measures of “student academic growth” must be a primary component.
“This group has focused on an extremely narrow, unproven method that they think will improve teaching,” Mr. Zeiger said. “And we just flat-out disagree with them.”
Officials from other states that received higher ratings have embraced evaluations that use student test scores as an important measure. Tony Bennett, the departing superintendent of schools in Indiana (StudentsFirst grade: C-plus), was voted out in the November election after introducing A-to-F ratings for schools as well as vouchers for students to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools. He said he strongly supported using test scores to measure student learning and teacher performance.
But as he prepares to take over as Florida’s education commissioner next week, Dr. Bennett said that he and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, had discussed the public’s concerns about the state’s teacher evaluation law, including how much student test scores should figure into such ratings. “I believe evaluations should be multifaceted,” Dr. Bennett said. “I don’t believe it’s all one thing.”
In Louisiana, John White, the state superintendent, said that the state’s relatively high grade on the StudentsFirst report was an “indication of the boldness and the courage that our governor and our legislators and our people have shown in supporting policies that don’t accept the status quo.”
He added that Louisiana was focused on policy priorities, including reforming graduation requirements, strengthening prekindergarten programs and improving how teachers are trained and credentialed — measures not covered by StudentsFirst.
January 6, 2013
Plan to End Methadone Use at Albuquerque Jail Prompts Alarm
By DAN FROSCH
ALBUQUERQUE — It has been almost four decades since Betty Jo Lopez started using heroin.
Her face gray and wizened well beyond her 59 years, Ms. Lopez would almost certainly still be addicted, if not for the fact that she is locked away in jail, not to mention the cup of pinkish liquid she downs every morning.
“It’s the only thing that allows me to live a normal life,” Ms. Lopez said of the concoction, which contains methadone, a drug used to treat opiate dependence. “These nurses that give it to me, they’re like my guardian angels.”
For the last six years, the Metropolitan Detention Center, New Mexico’s largest jail, has been administering methadone to inmates with drug addictions, one of a small number of jails and prisons around the country that do so.
At this vast complex, sprawled out among the mesas west of downtown Albuquerque, any inmate who was enrolled at a methadone clinic just before being arrested can get the drug behind bars. Pregnant inmates addicted to heroin are also eligible.
Here in New Mexico, which has long been plagued by one of the nation’s worst heroin scourges, there is no shortage of participants — hundreds each year — who have gone through the program.
In November, however, the jail’s warden, Ramon Rustin, said he wanted to stop treating inmates with methadone. Mr. Rustin said the program, which had been costing Bernalillo County about $10,000 a month, was too expensive.
Moreover, Mr. Rustin, a former warden of the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania and a 32-year veteran of corrections work, said he did not believe that the program truly worked.
Of the hundred or so inmates receiving daily methadone doses, he said, there was little evidence of a reduction in recidivism, one of the program’s main selling points.
“My concern is that the courts and other authorities think that jail has become a treatment program, that it has become the community provider,” he said. “But jail is not the answer. Methadone programs belong in the community, not here.”
Mr. Rustin’s public stance has angered many in Albuquerque, where drug addiction has been passed down through generations in impoverished pockets of the city, as it has elsewhere across New Mexico.
Recovery advocates and community members argue that cutting people off from methadone is too dangerous, akin to taking insulin from a diabetic.
The New Mexico office of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes an overhaul to drug policy, has implored Mr. Rustin to reconsider his stance, saying in a letter that he did not have the medical expertise to make such a decision.
Last month, the Bernalillo County Commission ordered Mr. Rustin to extend the program, which also relies on about $200,000 in state financing annually, for two months until its results could be studied further.
“Addiction needs to be treated like any other health issue,” said Maggie Hart Stebbins, a county commissioner who supports the program.
“If we can treat addiction at the jail to the point where they stay clean and don’t reoffend, that saves us the cost of reincarcerating that person,” she said.
Hard data, though, is difficult to come by — hence the county’s coming review.
Darren Webb, the director of Recovery Services of New Mexico, a private contractor that runs the methadone program, said inmates were tracked after their release to ensure that they remained enrolled at outside methadone clinics.
While the outcome was never certain, Mr. Webb said, he maintained that providing methadone to inmates would give them a better chance of staying out of jail once they were released. “When they get out, they won’t be committing the same crimes they would if they were using,” he said. “They are functioning adults.”
In a study published in 2009 in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers found that male inmates in Baltimore who were treated with methadone were far more likely to continue their treatment in the community than inmates who received only counseling.
Those who received methadone behind bars were also more likely to be free of opioids and cocaine than those who received only counseling or started methadone treatment after their release.
The study, led by Timothy W. Kinlock of the Friends Research Institute, did not find a noticeable difference in criminal activity, after inmates were released, between those who received methadone treatment behind bars and those did not.
Supporters of methadone treatment in jails also point to the Key Extended Entry Program at Rikers Island, the New York City jail, started in 1987.
In that program, about 5,000 inmates a year are given the drug to maintain treatment they were getting on the outside. Another 15,000 are given a 6- to 12-day regimen of methadone so they can detoxify before being released or transferred to facilities that do not use methadone.
“We think it is an absolutely normal part of our care,” said Dr. Homer Venters, assistant commissioner for correctional health care at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which finances the program.
Still, most jails and prisons do not treat inmates with methadone, according to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which promotes better medical care in prisons and supports the treatment.
Some wardens are resistant to introducing another narcotic that could be exploited by inmates, said Scott Chavez, the group’s vice president. And there remains a feeling among correctional institutions that it is wiser for prisoners to complete a total detoxification.
But Dr. Chavez maintained that methadone treatment helped create a more stable inmate population.
“The danger in not managing a situation with addicted inmates is that it makes it much harder to deal with individuals who will basically do anything in the jail to get their hands on drugs,” he said.
Mr. Rustin said his guards were accustomed to handling inmates in the throes of withdrawal. The Albuquerque facility, he said, had the most addicts of the three jails he has helped oversee.
He also said that the jail’s medical staff had assured him that incoming inmates who were taken off methadone would be safe, however awful their withdrawal. If the program were discontinued, pregnant inmates addicted to opiates would still be allowed methadone for the safety of the unborn children, Mr. Rustin said.
In the meantime, he said cost would continue to be an issue. Officials said the county’s share of operating the program will now rise to nearly $40,000 a month because the number of inmates being treated more than doubled during the last several years.
On a recent day, a group of female inmates at the jail, all of them recovering heroin addicts, talked about the benefits of methadone, and the deep fear they had of withdrawal if it were taken away.
“My body isn’t dying anymore,” said Evangelina Honahnie, 31. “It makes me feel human.”
Apophis – a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid – flies by Earth on Wednesday
By Stuart Clark The Guardian
Monday, January 7, 2013 7:24 EST
Asteroid Apophis arrives this week for a close pass of Earth. This isn’t the end of the world but a new beginning for research into potentially hazardous asteroids
Apophis hit the headlines in December 2004. Six months after its discovery, astronomers had accrued enough images to calculate a reasonable orbit for the 300-metre chunk of space rock. What they saw was shocking.
There was a roughly 1 in 300 chance of the asteroid hitting Earth during April 2029. Nasa issued a press release spurring astronomers around the world to take more observations in order to refine the orbit. Far from dropping, however, the chances of an impact on (you’ve guessed it) Friday 13 April 2029 actually rose.
By Christmas Day 2004, the chance of the 2029 impact was 1 in 45 and things were looking serious. Then, on 27 December astronomers had a stroke of luck.
Looking back through previous images, they found one from March on which the asteroid had been captured but had gone unnoticed. This significantly improved the orbital calculation and the chances of the 2029 impact dropped to essentially zero. However, the small chance of an impact in 2036 opened up and remains open today.
While there is no cause for alarm, similarly there is no room for complacency either. Apophis remains on the list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids compiled by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.
Although most asteroids are found in the belt of space between Mars and Jupiter, not all of them reside there. Apophis belongs to a group known as the Aten family. These do not belong to the asteroid belt and spend most of their time inside the orbit of the Earth, placing them between our planet and the sun.
That makes them particularly dangerous because they spend the majority of their orbit close to the sun, whose overwhelming glare obscures them to telescopes on Earth – rather like a second world war fighter ace approaching out of the sun.
Having crossed outside Earth’s orbit, Apophis will appear briefly in the night-time sky. Wednesday 9 January will afford astronomers the rare opportunity to bring a battery of telescopes to bear: from optical telescopes to radio telescopes to the European Space Agency’s Infrared Space Observatory Herschel. Two of the biggest unknowns that remain to be established are the asteroid’s mass and the way it is spinning. Both of these affect the asteroid’s orbit and without them, precise calculations cannot be made.
Another unknown is the way sunlight affects the asteroid’s orbit, either through heating the asteroid or the pressure of sunlight itself. Russia has announced tentative plans to land a tracking beacon on Apophis sometime after 2020, so that its orbit can be much more precisely followed from Earth.
Wednesday’s pass is only really close by astronomical standards, taking place at around 14.5 million kilometres above Earth’s surface. The moon’s orbit is 385,000 km. The 2029 close pass is another matter entirely, however.
On Friday 13 April 2029, Apophis will slip past the Earth just 30,000km above our heads – less that one-tenth the distance of the moon and closer even than the communication satellites that encircle the Earth at 36,000km. It will appear as a moderate bright moving object, visible from the mid-Atlantic. Depending upon its composition, astronomers could watch the Earth’s gravity pull the asteroid out of shape, offering an unprecedented insight into its composition.
So, although Apophis poses no immediate danger, we are almost certain to hear a lot more about it over the coming years and decades. Apart from all the science we can learn, its orbit’s proximity to Earth’s makes it a potential target for future robotic and even manned missions.
Stuart Clark is the author of Voyager: 101 Wonders Between Earth and the Edge of the Cosmos (Atlantic).
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Kepler satellite: astronomers may have discovered 461 new planets
Nasa's Kepler satellite reveals several of the suspected planets are in their star's habitable zone where life might exist
Alok Jha and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 January 2013 12.55 GMT
Astronomers have found possible evidence for 461 new planets outside our solar system, using measurements from Nasa's planet-hunting satellite, Kepler.
The data has also been used by scientists to predict that the Milky Way could contain up to 17bn Earth-sized planets orbiting stars.
Several of the new planet candidates are in their star's habitable zone, the region around a planetary system where liquid water and, possibly, life might exist.
The discovery, announced this week at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Long Beach, California, pushes the number of potential exoplanets to 2,740, orbiting 2,036 stars.
Kepler identifies planets by regularly measuring the brightness of more than 150,000 stars. As planets transit in front of their stars, interrupting Kepler's line of sight, the satellite detects a drop in brightness. At least three transits have to be recorded to confirm the potential existence of a planet. The latest findings were based on observations carried out by Kepler between May 2009 and March 2010.
"The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits – orbital periods similar to Earth's," said Steve Howell, a Kepler mission scientist at Nasa's Ames research centre in California. "It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when."
Independent measurements from other telescopes will be needed to confirm whether they really are planets.
Also at the AAS meeting, Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics presented analysis using Kepler data suggesting that about 17% of stars in the Milky Way have an Earth-sized planet orbiting them at a distance closer than Mercury is to our Sun.
Our galaxy has about 100bn stars, so Fressin's research suggests it could contain 17bn Earth-sized exoplanets. His research is due to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.
Fressin obtained his number by assessing how many of the signals detected by Kepler in its first 16 months of operation were real, and how many planets it might have missed, based on the limitations in its transit method.
"There is a list of astrophysical configurations that can mimic planet signals, but altogether they can only account for one-tenth of the huge number of Kepler candidates," Fressin said. "All the other signals are bona-fide planets."
He extrapolated the ongoing results of the Kepler survey and, combined with other measurement techniques for finding planets, showed that virtually all Sun-like stars probably have planets orbiting them.
About 17% of stars have a planet 0.8-1.25 times the size of Earth, in an orbit of 85 days or fewer, Fressin predicted, and approximately 25% of stars have a planet 1.25-2 times the size of Earth in an orbit of 150 days or fewer. The same fraction of stars have gaseous giant planets, smaller versions of Neptune, about 2-4 times the size of Earth, in orbits up to 250 days long.
NASA’s Kepler suggests 17 billion Earth-sized planets in Milky Way
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 0:09 EST
The Milky Way contains at least 17 billion planets the size of Earth, and likely many more, according to a study that raises the chances of discovering a sister planet to ours.
Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler spacecraft found that about 17 percent of stars in our galaxy have a planet about the size of Earth in a close orbit.
The Milky Way is known to host about 100 billion stars, meaning that about one of every six has an Earth-sized planet around it.
The finding does not mean that all those planets beyond our solar system, or exoplanets, could be habitable, though it increases the chances of finding planets similar to Earth.
In order to host life, and allow water to flow in liquid form, a planet must be at a distance from its star that allows surface temperatures to be neither too hot nor too cold.
The Kepler craft detected possible exoplanets when they passed in front of their star, creating a mini-eclipse that dims the star slightly.
During the first 16 months of the survey, Kepler identified about 2,400 candidates.
Francois Fressin, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and his colleagues used the results to determine which signals were true and to list the exoplanets by size.
They found that 17 percent of stars have a planet 0.8 to 1.25 times the size of Earth in an orbit of 85 days or less.
About a fourth of stars have a super Earth (1.25 to twice the size of Earth) in an orbit of 150 days or less, with a same fraction having a mini Neptune (two to four times Earth) in orbits up to 250 days long.
Larger planets are a much rarer occurrence. Only about three percent of stars have a large Neptune (four to six times Earth) and only five percent have a gas giant (six to 22 times Earth) in an orbit of 400 days or less.
The researchers presented the analysis at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California, on Monday.
Separately, NASA’s Kepler mission announced it had discovered 461 new possible planets.
Four of them are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit their sun’s “habitable zone”, where liquid water might exist on the planet’s surface and thus make life possible.
The findings, based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, showed the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate steadily rising.
New climate change projections surpass previous estimates and threaten 187 million
By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, January 7, 2013 14:58 EST
A new study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change estimates that at its worst, sea level rise attributed to the melting of Earth’s polar ice caps and glaciers may displace up to 187 million people within the next 100 years.
An assessment of expert opinion published Sunday finds that most leading climate scientists are divided on how rapidly the planet’s glaciers and ice caps will deteriorate, leading to a wide divergence of opinion on how much that melting will contribute to sea levels between present day and 2100.
After charting detailed responses from 26 leading experts, researchers came back with a median estimate of projected sea level rise at just 29 centimeters. The worst estimate is 84 centimeters.
The results are significantly worse than the last projection (PDF) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, which suggested that at best the world would see 18 centimeters of sea level rise, and at worst 59 centimeters.
While neither measurement sounds like much taken out of context, the potential for destruction becomes clear when visualized using tools like Climate Central’s Surging Seas map, which simulates how far inland water would travel if sea levels rise according to recent scientific predictions.
If the worst-case-scenario from Nature Climate Change‘s latest study were to become reality, a significant portion of Hoboken, New Jersey would become an island, while most of New York harbor would be completely flooded. Much of New Orleans would be underwater as well, along with parts of Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles. Houston would be similarly devastated, as would the geography of south Florida — just to name a few.
That’s just in the United States. Around the world, damages from once-in-a-century storms causing historic flooding every few years or less would devastate poorer societies, causing mass migrations away from coastal areas. That raises the potential for conflicts over resources, something the U.S. Director of national intelligence has warned is highly likely in the next century.
Scientists writing in Nature Climate Change warned that there was a 1 in 20 chance of the worst-case-scenario coming true, but that chance increases along with the rate of melting. If it does, roughly 187 million people world wide will likely be forced from their homes due to flooding: a catastrophic scenario, to say the least.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 7, 2013, 7:47 am
Indian Judge Bans Reporting on Trial of 5 Men in Gang Rape Case
By NIHARIKA MANDHANA and ANJANI TRIVEDI
NEW DELHI - A judge on Monday banned reporting on the New Delhi trial of a gang rape case that has attracted worldwide attention, responding to a chaotic courtroom crammed with members of the news media and a large number of female lawyers who said no one should represent the accused.
"The courtroom is jam-packed with a lot of disturbance from different nooks and corners," said the judge, Metropolitan Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal, in New Delhi's Saket district. "It has become completely impossible to carry out proceedings in this manner."
Calling the case an "unprecedented situation," the magistrate invoked an occasionally used statute, Section 327 of India's Code of Criminal Procedure, which makes it illegal for anyone unconnected to a case to be in the courtroom during trial and makes it "unlawful for any person to print or publish any matter in relation to any such proceedings, except with the previous permission of the court."
The statute makes it illegal for the news media to report on what happens in the courtroom, even if they receive that information from someone who was present. Generally in such situations, the court will issue an official statement at the end of each day.
The chaos in the courtroom came before five of the six accused in the Dec. 16 gang rape case appeared in court on Monday.
The case, and the punishment the men may receive, is being closely watched by lawyers, activists and citizens across India and beyond as a test of the government's commitment to deliver justice to victims of sexual assault and violence. Gang rapes have become common in India, and some surveys suggest the country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence.
The authorities have charged the men with murder, rape and other crimes that could bring the death penalty to the five adults, news services reported. The sixth, who is 17 years old, is expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years in a reform facility.
On Sunday, two of the defendants offered to become informers against the others, presumably in exchange for leniency, according to reporters present at the hearing. The chief prosecutor, Rajiv Mohan, declined to comment.
After the courtroom was cleared on Monday, the five men were brought in from a cell in the court complex, surrounded by police officers. They emerged from the court with their faces hidden behind woolen caps.
The case has stirred strong emotions in India's legal community. The 13,000-member Saket Bar Association, which represents lawyers in the district where the trial is being held, has vowed not to represent the defendants because of the nature of the crime. The suspects are accused of beating and raping a 23-year-old physiotherapy student repeatedly with an iron rod. She died of her injuries two weeks later.
"It is a heinous crime," said Rajpal Kasana, president of the bar association. "There was a good response from the members, and they will not represent."
But he also said that "somebody has to represent them," and that if the defendants do not retain private lawyers, the court will appoint them counsel recruited from Legal Aid.
Dozens of female lawyers appeared in the court on Monday, many of them vocally objecting to the defendants' right to any representation. Some scuffled with lawyers who volunteered to represent them.
The volunteers included Manohar Lal Sharma, who practices in the Supreme Court and has filed numerous public interest lawsuits against top public figures.
"I am only concerned with the judicial system," Mr. Sharma said. "They should get a free and fair trial."
Lawyers who had gathered outside the courthouse on Monday afternoon said they planned to try to overturn the judge's ban on reporting the proceedings.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 8, 2013, 1:08 am
Lawyers Fight Delhi Gang Rape Case Gag Order
By NIHARIKA MANDHANA
A Delhi court's ban on reporting the court proceedings against five men accused in a recent gang rape case should be overturned, in order to help ensure that an attack like this does not occur again, lawyers challenging the ban said Monday.
It is not just the accused who are under scrutiny, said Dharmendra Kumar Mishra, a lawyer who is challenging the order. The entire "system" is being judged, he said, including the police who first responded to the crime and the doctors who treated a 23-year old woman who died in late December, of injuries sustained during the rape.
"In this case there was a systemic failure," Mr. Mishra said. "The trial should be fair and transparent so that all the facts come out."
On Monday, a magistrate in the Saket court declared the trial proceedings "in camera," which means that only those directly involved in the case could be in the courtroom. The magistrate also placed a ban on the printing and publishing of details about the proceedings of the case without permission, effectively stopping journalists, who have followed this case with intense scrutiny, from reporting anything except prepared statements from the court house.
The ban was in response to overcrowding and chaos in the courtroom on Monday. Tens of lawyers, many of them female, had gathered in the court to oppose a handful of lawyers who were offering to represent the accused. Calling the accused men "beasts," many lawyers argued that those who commit crimes with brutality don't deserve to be represented, especially by private lawyers. Scuffles broke out between the two groups, adding to the commotion.
"It is a case virtually of a crowd occupying every inch of space in the court room even to the extent of standing next to the sitting space allotted to the reader and stenographer," magistrate Namrita Aggarwal said. "It has become completely impossible for the court proceedings to proceed in this case."
Mr. Mishra filed a "revision petition" before a district judge challenging the order on Monday afternoon. If successful, lawyers said, future proceedings, at least in the pre trial stage, will be open.
Specific court proceedings related to rape are typically kept private in India, including when the victim appears in court to give her testimony, or when sensitive evidence is being produced. In this case, the victim, who died from multiple organ failure two weeks after the incident, will not appear in court. Using a proxy name, opponents of the ban said, would protect her identity.
The public prosecutor, Rajeev Mohan, told the court that there was also an apprehension about the safety of the accused in court, because of the large gathering. At least 25 police, many of them female and from reserve forces, were present in court.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 31, 2012, 3:45 am
Portrait Emerges of Victim in New Delhi Gang Rape
By NIHARIKA MANDHANA
She was studious, ambitious and about to be married.
Her parents had sold off land and scrimped on food to pay for her and her brothers' education. She came to India's capital to pursue dreams of being a doctor, from a tiny farming village that regularly suffered drought and floods.
Details about the life of the 23-year-old New Delhi gang rape victim, who died on Saturday, began to trickle out over the weekend, as relatives and neighbors spoke publicly for the first time since the woman was raped by several men in a moving bus, assaulted with an iron rod and dumped on the side of a highway.
For nearly two weeks, as she battled for life, first at a hospital in New Delhi and then in Singapore, hundreds of Indians poured onto the streets in angry protests praying for her demanding justice. On Sunday, as the victim was cremated in a private ceremony in New Delhi, a picture emerged of her life, her family and her dreams. Her name has not been disclosed.
From a Hindu family of modest means, the victim, who was studying physiotherapy, was a "brilliant" and "hard working" student who had doggedly pursued a medical education. "She had made up her mind very early that she wanted to become a doctor," The Hindu newspaper quoted Lalji Singh, who said he was the victim's uncle.
The victim's parents had moved to New Delhi from a small town called Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, among hundreds of Indians who migrate to large Indian cities in search of a better future for their children. Her father worked as a loader with a private airline at New Delhi's international airport, according to The Hindustan Times.
He had invested heavily in his children's education, even selling his ancestral property, "so that their aspirations could be fulfilled," Mr. Singh was quoted as saying. Her father always encouraged her to shine in life, and, unlike many traditional families who save first for their daughter's marriage, he spared no expense for her education, the Times of India said.
Her father's sacrifices sparked in the victim a determination to succeed at an early age. As a teenager, she reportedly gave lessons to younger children to supplement the household income. A role model for those in her neighborhood, her parents hoped her two younger siblings would emulate her. She was determined to start earning so she could repay her father, Indian media reported.
On Sunday evening, reports suggested that the victim was preparing for her marriage in February. "They had made all the wedding preparations and had planned a wedding party in Delhi," Agence France-Presse quoted Meena Rai, who said she had accompanied the victim on shopping trips.
She told her family she had battled her attackers, her brother told India Today. "While she was admitted in hospital, she told me that she fought back as hard as she could. She was defending herself by beating and biting them."
The victim last spoke to her family on Wednesday, her brother said. "She asked me if I had taken my dinner. I answered yes. She then told me that I should sleep. She said, 'aap so jao, main bhi ab soungi' (you go to sleep, I will also sleep)," he said. "Then she embraced my hand and slept as a tear dropped from the corner of her eye. Those were her last words to me. Thereafter, she never gained consciousness and didn't talk to any of us."
Nepal jails mob for burning suspected ‘witch’ alive
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 7:58 EST
A court in Nepal has jailed members of a mob who burned alive a 40-year-old woman after accusing her of casting black magic spells in a remote southern village, an official said Tuesday.
Mother-of-two Dhengani Devi Mahato died when she was severely beaten, doused in kerosene and set alight in February last year after the village shaman (traditional spiritual healer) accused her of practising witchcraft.
“Eight men including a shaman have been convicted of murder. The district court has sentenced each of them for 20 years,” Din Bandhu Baral, an officer at Chitwan district court, told AFP. The verdicts were handed down on Monday.
“I think this will serve as an apt precedent at a time when protests are being organised across the country demanding stern action against the perpetrators of violence against women.”
Baghauda village, inhabited by ethnic Tharus and other indigenous tribespeople, is a 90-minute drive from the nearest town of Bharatpur.
Hundreds of lower-caste women suffer abuse at the hands of “witch hunters” every year in Nepal, where superstition and caste-based discrimination remain rife and where most communities still operate on strict patriarchal lines.
Human rights campaigners say the perpetrators of such crimes are rarely brought to justice.
In the capital Kathmandu, hundreds have been protesting since the end of December over the alleged rape and robbery of a maid by government officials and other cases of violence against women.
Women’s groups reject Indonesian motorcycle straddle ban
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 7:32 EST
Rights groups urged the Indonesian government to block a proposed law banning women from sitting astride motorcycles in deeply Islamic Aceh province, where the position is deemed “improper”.
The mayor of Lhokseumawe city in Aceh, where sharia law is enforced, circulated a letter Monday explaining the obligation for women to sit side-saddle was “to avoid immoral acts”.
“Adult women who are riding on the back of a motorbike… cannot straddle unless in an emergency,” mayor Suaidi Yahya’s letter read, adding that the ban included women straddling female drivers.
The official explained last week that women sitting astride motorcycles would “provoke the male driver” and that it would be against Islamic law.
The letter also proposed banning men and women from hugging and holding hands while on vehicles, and banning tight or scanty clothing in public.
The move comes after leaders from Aceh, the country’s only province ruled by strict sharia law, drafted a series of new bills including banning women from wearing tight trousers, stoning adulterers and flogging homosexuals.
Local women’s rights activists have rejected the proposed ban “because it completely ignores the safety principles for driving,” said Roslina Rasyid from Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice legal aid in Lhokseumawe.
“Sitting astride guarantees better safety, and I’m sure most people can only side-saddle for 15 minutes. What if the person is overweight and causes an imbalance? It could cause an accident,” she added.
National Commission on Violence Against Women activist Andy Yentriyani said the policy was “part of discriminative policies on women in this country in the name of religion and morality”.
But the central government said it could not review the straddling ban because it was not yet formalised as a bylaw and did not include punishments.
Local media reported the interior minister saying he would review the bylaw if it passed.
But the ministry’s regional autonomy director-general Djohermansyah Djohan, who would oversee any revision, said: “We’ll just leave it to people of Aceh to decide whether to accept it or not.”
January 7, 2013
Hints of Syrian Chemical Push Set Off Global Effort to Stop It
By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria’s increasingly desperate president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.
The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
But concern remains that Mr. Assad could now use the weapons produced that week at any moment. American and European officials say that while a crisis was averted in that week from late November to early December, they are by no means resting easy.
“I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war,” one senior defense official said last week. “What Assad understood, and whether that understanding changes if he gets cornered in the next few months, that’s anyone’s guess.”
While chemical weapons are technically considered a “weapon of mass destruction” — along with biological and nuclear weapons — in fact they are hard to use and hard to deliver. Whether an attack is effective can depend on the winds and the terrain. Sometimes attacks are hard to detect, even after the fact. Syrian forces could employ them in a village or a neighborhood, some officials say, and it would take time for the outside world to know.
But the scare a month ago has renewed debate about whether the West should help the Syrian opposition destroy Mr. Assad’s air force, which he would need to deliver those 500-pound bombs.
The chemical munitions are still in storage areas that are near or on Syrian air bases, ready for deployment on short notice, officials said.
The Obama administration and other governments have said little in public about the chemical weapons movements, in part because of concern about compromising sources of intelligence about the activities of Mr. Assad’s forces. This account is based on interviews with more than half a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the intelligence matters involved.
The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, warned in a confidential assessment last month that the weapons could now be deployed four to six hours after orders were issued, and that Mr. Assad had a special adviser at his side who oversaw control of the weapons, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported. Some American and other allied officials, however, said in interviews that the sarin-laden bombs could be loaded on planes and airborne in less than two hours.
“Let’s just say right now, it would be a relatively easy thing to load this quickly onto aircraft,” said one Western diplomat.
How the United States and Israel, along with Arab states, would respond remains a mystery. American and allied officials have talked vaguely of having developed “contingency plans” in case they decided to intervene in an effort to neutralize the chemical weapons, a task that the Pentagon estimates would require upward of 75,000 troops. But there have been no evident signs of preparations for any such effort.
The United States military has quietly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there, among other things, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was reported to have traveled to Jordan in recent weeks, and the Israeli news media have said the topic of discussion was how to deal with Syrian weapons if it appeared that they could be transferred to Lebanon, where Hezbollah could lob them over the border to Israel. But the plans, to the extent they exist, remain secret.
American, Israeli and other allied officials remained fixed on this potential crisis, especially as the opposition appears to have gained more momentum, seizing several Syrian military bases and the weapons stored there, and have been closing in on Damascus, the Syrian capital.
In response, Syria has reached deeper into its conventional arsenal, including firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebel positions near Aleppo. Over the past week a new concern emerged: Syrian forces began shooting new, accurate short-range missiles, believed to have been manufactured in Iran. None had chemical warheads. But their use showed that the Syrian military was now deploying a more accurate weapon than the notoriously inaccurate Scud missiles they have used in previous attacks.
As the fighting has escalated, American and other allied officials have said that government troops have moved some of the chemical stockpiles to safer locations, a consolidation that, if it continues, could actually help Western forces should they have to enter Syria to seize control of the munitions or destroy them.
Syria’s chemical weapons are under the control of a secretive Syrian air force organization called Unit 450, a highly vetted outfit that is deemed one of the most loyal to the Assad government given the importance of the weapons in its custody.
American officials said that some of the back-channel messages in recent weeks were directed at the commanders of this unit, warning them — as Mr. Obama warned Mr. Assad on Dec. 3 — that they would be held personally responsible if the government used its chemical weapons.
Asked about these communications and whether they have been successful, an American intelligence official said only, “The topic is extremely sensitive, and public discussion, even on background, will be problematic.”
Allied officials say whatever safeguards the Syrian government have taken, there remains great concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting the government or the militant group Hezbollah, which has established small training camps near some of the storage sites.
“Militants who got their hands on such munitions would find it difficult to deploy them effectively without the associated aircraft, artillery or rocket launcher systems,” said Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism and insurgency specialist at IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. “That said, Hezbollah would probably be able to deploy them effectively against Israel with a bit of help.”
January 7, 2013
For Netanyahu, Being Favored to Win Carries Its Own Risks
By JODI RUDOREN
TEL AVIV — Can a candidate ever be too far in the lead for his own good?
As Israel’s election campaign begins in earnest on Tuesday with a two-week blitz of television ads, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling a problem that, at first glance, may seem enviable: Everyone seems sure that he will win.
In Israel’s multiparty, coalition system of government, that presumption has led many of Mr. Netanyahu’s traditional supporters to flirt with smaller parties that cater to special interests.
A whopping 81 percent of survey respondents expect him to serve another term, according to a poll conducted by Dialog and published last month in the newspaper Haaretz. Yet surveys ever since have shown that support is slipping for the joint list of candidates Mr. Netanyahu heads, from its current 42 of Parliament’s 120 seats to as few as 32.
“That’s the danger of being a front-runner: When everyone assumes he’s going to win, they feel like they have the luxury of voting their real ideology,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “Ironically, what he’s trying to do is prove that the left really could win. If he can somehow undermine that certainty that he’s going to win, then of course he has a realistic chance of bringing some votes back.”
Political analysts and some people inside the campaign say that this challenge has been compounded by a lackluster campaign, infighting and a series of strategic errors that include criticizing other conservatives. Although Mr. Netanyahu is still the favorite to form the next government, experts predict he could end up with a relatively slim majority in Parliament rather than a broad unity coalition that would give him freer rein to set policy and define his legacy.
“Somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic” is how Sam Lehman-Wilzig, deputy director of the school of communication at Bar-Ilan University, described the incumbent’s campaign so far. “There’s no ‘there’ there. It’s a pure emotional ‘we don’t want the left in power’ and ‘trust me’ and ‘I have experience and that’s why you should vote for me.’ I don’t think that’s going to enthuse a lot of people.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s allies and campaign aides acknowledge that the last month has been rocky, but they said the next two weeks would be what matters. “The only poll that we are looking at is the election results on Jan. 22,” said one senior official, promising a “much more focused messages in the homestretch.”
Critics say the first major mistake was the decision to merge Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. That, combined with a Likud primary that ousted several popular moderates, alienated some centrist voters, the analysts said. Then, as right-wingers flocked to Naftali Bennett, the charismatic young leader of the new Jewish Home party, Mr. Netanyahu attacked him as well as the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, a longtime political partner. Both attacks seem to have backfired.
Some analysts and people inside Likud-Beiteinu complain that the prime minister has been too quiet and reactive, and that his recent push on Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank put the Palestinian conflict at the center of the campaign, forcing the Iranian nuclear threat, on which he is stronger, into the background.
In most of these cases, “you can see the fingerprints of Finkelstein,” said Gabriel Weimann, a professor at the University of Haifa who specializes in political communication, referring to the American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. “Finkelstein is running the campaign. People in his own party were criticizing Netanyahu for following Finkelstein when he is sitting in the States and doesn’t know what’s happening here.”
Mr. Finkelstein, a Republican strategist from Westchester County, N.Y., who has run many hard-edged conservative campaigns in the United States and Israel, including Mr. Netanyahu’s for his first term as prime minister in 1996, declined through campaign aides to be interviewed. He was summoned to Jerusalem last week as the campaign was flailing, and several analysts and insiders say they can already see the beginning of a shift in strategy.
For one, the attacks on Mr. Bennett have ceased. And the prime minister seems to be lightening up: he made a big show of wearing jeans to a young professionals’ campaign event here Sunday night, and he was warm and personable in an interview broadcast Monday night, sitting in his childhood home as he recalled playing ball and roasting potatoes with his brothers.
Perhaps most important, the prime minister is newly focused on opponents to the left. Over the weekend, three leaders of center-left parties talked about joining together to create what they called a “blocking coalition” to prevent Mr. Netanyahu from forming the next government. If this effort by the three forms into a credible threat, it could scare back into the fold those conservative voters so confident in the prime minister’s re-election that they wanted to send a message by choosing a smaller party.
“The main focus will be, of course, that we can face a coalition of those three parties the day after,” Silvan Shalom, a senior Likud minister, said Monday of the campaign’s new message. Acknowledging the stumbles so far, Mr. Shalom said, “We have to push harder; we have to work harder; we have to explain.”
Israeli campaigns are a sprint, and analysts caution that there could be major movement before the Jan. 22 balloting, particularly once the television commercials are unveiled starting Tuesday. Already, Mr. Netanyahu’s face is ubiquitous on billboards and overpasses here in Tel Aviv, alongside the campaign’s slogan, “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel.”
The prime minister, who has barely hit the campaign trail, made a brief appearance at a dance club Sunday night, spending several minutes reaching out from the stage to touch a few hands, with bodyguards close on three sides. He spoke for less time, asking where his young sons were in the crowd and then joking, “You are all my sons.”
“Who wants to keep protecting Israel?” he asked. “There is only one choice.”
Hundreds of people in their 20s and 30s, mostly men, filled the dance floor, though few danced despite the pulsing music, instead staring at smartphones or waving fluorescent light sticks. “A vote for a small party weakens Israel,” read the campaign fliers distributed at the party. “I will not waste my vote.”
The front-runner’s problem was on clear display in several interviews at the rally. Richard Binstock, 33, an immigrant from London who works in the high-tech field, said of Mr. Netanyahu, “He stands for Israel and he defends Israel and I respect that.” Then he said he planned to vote for Mr. Bennett.
Samuel Scott, 32, who works in marketing and voted for Mr. Netanyahu in 2009, expressed a similar attitude. “I do admire Bibi personally, and I am a member of the Likud,” Mr. Scott said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “They just may not get my vote in this election. I really despise their campaign tactics. I think it’s selfish to say a vote for any other party is a wasted vote.”
Naftali Bennett interview: 'There won't be a Palestinian state within Israel'
Leader of rightwing Jewish Home party, which looks set for a coalition role, wants 'more realistic approach' to insoluble conflict
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 January 2013 16.43 GMT
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "insoluble" and most Israelis "couldn't care less about it any more", according to Naftali Bennett, the surprise star of the election campaign, whose extreme rightwing nationalist and pro-settler Jewish Home is within sight of becoming the country's second biggest party.
In an interview with the Guardian, Bennett said he did not intend to waste the next four years "babbling about Israel and the Palestinians", and defended his plan to annex most of the West Bank in the face of international opposition, which was the "result of ignorance".
"There is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel," he said, referring to the area from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean. "It's just not going to happen. A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years."
Bennett acknowledged that Binyamin Netanyahu was almost certain to continue as prime minister following the election on 22 January, but added: "The big question is the question of power. If we get enough seats in the next Knesset [parliament], we'll become the biggest and most influential partner in Netanyahu's next government."
He declined to be drawn on which cabinet post he would seek as a key coalition partner, but said his primary concern was the economy. "If there is one thing I would want to achieve over the next four years, it is to break up the monopolies here and to break the stranglehold the big unions have on the Israeli economy. I think it's a sin that most Israelis can barely [afford to] live here."
Under Bennett's leadership, Jewish Home has experienced a spectacular rise in the polls since the start of the election campaign, causing panic and dismay within the main rightwing alliance, headed by Netanyahu, from which support has drained. A poll in the Jerusalem Post on Friday put Jewish Home at 16 seats in the 120-place parliament, while Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu was predicted to win 32 – down from 45 forecast at the start of the campaign. Another poll put Jewish Home equal to Labour, on 18 seats each.
Bennett said his priorities were "to restore values to Israeli politics", to lower the cost of living and to advocate a "more realistic" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. "If we hand over [the West Bank] to the Arabs, life here will be miserable and in constant conflict for the next 200 years," he said. "I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That's the equation."
Instead of a two-state solution, Bennett has proposed the unilateral annexation of Area C, the 60% of the West Bank that contains all Jewish settlements and is currently under Israeli military control. Palestinians living in Area C could either take Israeli citizenship or relocate to the Palestinian-governed 40% of the West Bank.
Bennett conceded that the international community would strongly oppose such a plan. "I don't accept it's illegal under international law, but I agree the world would not recognise [annexation]. The world hasn't recognised Jerusalem as our capital, or the Western Wall as part of Israel, so this would just be another area that the world doesn't recognise."
Mounting European criticism of Israeli government policies, especially settlement expansion, was of concern, but was misguided, he said. "It's a result of ignorance and lack of knowledge from our European friends. It's also the result of a confused policy from our own government, which sends mixed messages. You can agree or disagree with my views, but I'm very clear: a Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years and would ensure continuous strife. What we are facing is a determined Muslim entity that wants to destroy Israel."
Jewish Home is all but certain to be part of the next coalition government, tilting it significantly further to the right. Among those likely to become members of parliament under Israel's electoral system – in which voters back parties, not individuals – is Orit Struck, a radical activist from the hardline settlement in the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron.
"Orit lives side by side with Arabs in Hebron," said Bennett, in an unusual way of describing tension surrounding thesettlers' enclave in which Palestinian residents are banned from walking or driving along the main street. "Every party has a spectrum [of candidates] and I totally defend my list."
Bennett, 40, lives in Ra'anana, an affluent town north of Tel Aviv, with his secular wife, a former pastry chef, and their four children under the age of seven. After serving in the Israeli military's most elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, he built an anti-fraud software company, which was sold seven years ago for $145m (£90m).
Asked what he spent his money on, he said: "Buying books – big spending sprees, mostly biographies." He served as Netanyahu's chief of staff for four years until 2008.
Bennett generated huge controversy last month when he said he personally would refuse orders to evacuate settlements or outposts in the West Bank while on reserve army duty. "If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn't allow it," he told Israel's Channel 2. "But I wouldn't publicly call for disobeying orders."
He backtracked after a storm of criticism, although he told a rally on Sunday that all political parties should sign a pledge never to evict Jews from their homes.
His duty as a coalition partner would be to stop Netanyahu veering to the left, he said.
"The Israeli-Palestinian issue is something we can talk about for ever, but it's never going anywhere. I can waste the next four years babbling about Israel and the Palestinians, or the alternative is to say this is insoluble, so let's work out a modus vivendi with our neighbours the best we can. For too many years, Israel has been taken hostage by this conflict."
There are 34 parties competing for 120 seats in the Israeli parliament on 22 January. The main ones are:
• Likud-Beiteinu: the rightwing electoral alliance between prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. It is expected to win the largest number of seats in the parliament, and therefore form the next coalition government. Latest poll: 32 seats.
• Labour: the main centre-left party. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has sought to focus its campaign on socio-economic issues and has veered away from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian question. Latest poll: 17.
• Jewish Home: formerly the National Religious party, relaunched under Naftali Bennett. To the right of Likud-Beiteinu, it is pro-settler and opposed to a Palestinian state. Latest poll: 16.
• Hatnuah: a new centrist party formed by the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who has called for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume. Latest poll: 10.
• Shas: ultra-Orthodox religious party, fights hard for the economic and housing interests of its supporters. Latest poll: 10.
• Yesh Atid: centrist party formed by television personality Yair Lapid. Strongly secular. Latest poll: 10.
• Arab parties: three separate parties – Hadash, Balad and United Arab List – competing for the Israeli Arab vote. Latest poll: 11 in total.
• Kadima: Though it is the largest party in the current parliament with 28 seats, the centre-right party formed by ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon has plummeted. Latest poll: 2.