In the USA...
Gun lobby takes aim at Biden’s guns task force
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 11, 2013 7:24 EST
The top US firearms lobby emerged from talks with Vice President Joe Biden on curbing violence saying he cared more about stamping out gun rights than protecting school kids.
Biden on Thursday met a representative of the National Rifle Association (NRA) along with other gun rights groups as part of a policy review that he pledged will deliver its recommendations to President Barack Obama by Tuesday.
After also meeting hunting associations, victim support groups and mental health and law enforcement professionals, Biden insisted he had made no final decisions on policy responses to the Newtown school massacre and other mass shootings.
But he hinted that the White House was looking at universal background checks for gun purchasers and to limit the availability of high-capacity ammunition clips, either through new laws or executive orders by Obama.
In a sign of the tough environment facing gun control advocates, the powerful NRA issued a blunt statement after the talks, which came on a day when a student was shot and injured in an incident at a California high school.
“We attended today’s White House meeting to discuss how to keep our children safe and were prepared to have a meaningful conversation about school safety, mental health issues, the marketing of violence to our kids and the collapse of federal prosecutions of violent criminals,” the NRA said.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the statement added. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution enshrines the right to bear arms.
The NRA complained: “this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners — honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans.
“We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen,” the statement said.
The NRA has called for armed guards at all US schools and has said it will oppose efforts by Obama’s Democratic allies to reintroduce a ban on rapid-firing assault weapons used in several recent shootings.
The White House gave few details of the meeting, other than the fact that it lasted 95 minutes, and officials would not comment on the NRA statement.
Biden’s office did release an official picture showing a grim looking vice president in intense conversation with an unidentified interlocutor.
Obama gave Biden until late January to come up with policy ideas after attending a moving vigil for the 20 children and six adults killed by a gunman spraying bullets from an assault rifle in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14.
“I committed to him that I would have these recommendations to him by Tuesday,” Biden said.
“The public wants us to act.”
Biden, involved in law enforcement issues for years as a senator, said he had been impressed by calls from all stakeholders in the gun debate for more comprehensive background checks to be required for gun owners.
He also said there was a growing movement in Congress, even from pro-gun lawmakers, for restrictions on high-capacity magazines that can fire off multiple rounds at defenseless victims in a matter of seconds.
The vice president also met hunting lobby groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever as his review drew to a close.
Later, while Biden met gun groups, Attorney General Eric Holder was holding talks with retailers who sell guns, including officials from giant chains Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Biden and other top administration officials have also met mental health advocates in a bid to work out how to make it more difficult for disturbed people to get firearms.
He was also meeting officials from the video gaming and entertainment industry, amid concerns that violent content could also play a role in inspiring massacres like the recent outrages in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado.
A new and alarming incident in California meanwhile added fresh impetus to the guns debate in Washington, after a high school student shot and critically injured a classmate, before being taken into custody.
Police said the incident could have been worse as, after the first shots were fired, a teacher and a campus supervisor talked to the assailant, who was armed with a shotgun, allowing members of a 28-member class to escape to safety.
January 10, 2013
Hagel’s Confirmation Proceedings Will Be Short on Old Senate Allies
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JEFF ZELENY
WASHINGTON — For a man who spent 12 years in the Senate, Chuck Hagel will find himself with few close allies when the Armed Services Committee takes up his nomination to be secretary of defense this month.
His three closest friends from his years as a Republican senator from Nebraska, 1997 to 2009, are either no longer members or in no position to help. One is the vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Another, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, limped out of the Capitol this month after being defeated for re-election in a Republican primary.
The third, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, faces his own proceedings to be secretary of state.
Of the senators who will ultimately sit in judgment, 42 never served a day with Mr. Hagel. The ones who remain include powerful Republicans who clashed repeatedly with him over what was the singular issue of the time: the American invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath.
And in Washington, apostasy from within a party can leave far deeper scars than the routine clashes between the parties.
“The debate over the Iraq war was bitterly contentious,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and, like Mr. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. “He made friendships with Democrats and Republicans, but some of them were certainly damaged by the Iraq war debate.”
Even in the current political environment, a president’s nominee with a Senate pedigree is supposed to have an inside track to confirmation. Mr. Kerry’s confirmation is thought to be a bipartisan certainty, and his views on Iraq were no less vocal than Mr. Hagel’s.
But Mr. Hagel was no ordinary senator serving at an ordinary time. His outspoken, brusque style endeared him to television talk show bookers, but he was not known as a legislator or a deal maker. An intense focus on foreign policy placed him in the heart of a bipartisan foursome on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that included Messrs. Biden and Lugar, who alternated as the panel’s chairman and ranking minority member, and Mr. Kerry.
But the same traits alienated the more hawkish leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including a natural Republican ally, John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero, as well as Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican — both of whom have come out critical of his nomination.
“My biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further,” Mr. McCain told CNN on Tuesday.
Mr. Hagel spoke to Mr. McCain by telephone on Monday, and the two had what one aide described as a cordial conversation. They are set to have a face-to-face meeting later. Mr. McCain still considers Mr. Hagel a friend, a McCain aide said, “but they have drifted apart on a lot of issues.”
Republican opponents say their positions are not rooted in the personal.
“It’s not a matter of personalities,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “Chuck Hagel is an honorable man.”
But supporters and some detractors say Mr. Hagel’s style and interactions cannot help coloring his nomination’s reception in a Senate more deeply political than the one he left four years ago.
“This is a person in public life prepared to offer his honest objections, to give his opinions,” Mr. Lugar said, “and to do so without looking over his shoulder at potential political contributions or the people who might run a primary campaign against him, which is the overwhelming sentiment of so many today in the Senate.”
Hearings are likely to convene at the end of this month or in early February, and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who served on the Foreign Relations Committee with Mr. Hagel for two years, said he and other senators would aggressively question him about his views on Iran and his commitment to Israel.
“I would be very surprised if anyone who served with him asks questions about his character,” Mr. Cardin said. “The fact that I know him, the fact that I’ve worked with him reinforces his qualifications and independence.”
Ultimately, his confirmation could hinge on two men, Mr. Biden, whose advocacy will be fierce, especially with Democrats now controlling 55 Senate seats, and Mr. McCain, whom the administration still sees as winnable.
The bond between Mr. Hagel and Mr. Biden was sealed in a sport utility vehicle in December 2002, according to an Obama administration official. The two men drove from Turkey to Irbil, Iraq, an eight-hour trek to assess the Kurdish leadership ahead of the coming American invasion. Once there, they spent hours at a feast with Kurdish leaders, then stayed up all night working on joint speeches after receiving unexpected invitations to address the Kurdish parliament the next day.
In the summer of 2002, Mr. Biden had convened two days of hearings on the lead-up to the war and its possible aftermath. The three senators — he, Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hagel — sat through the entire proceedings, said Andy Fisher, a longtime Republican aide on the Foreign Relations Committee.
As the invasion approached, the three tried fruitlessly to draft an alternative use-of-force resolution that would slow the move to war by creating additional diplomatic steps for the Bush administration. In June 2003, they became the first senators to visit American-occupied Iraq.
Over that time, Mr. Hagel was becoming increasingly blunt in his criticism of the Republican administration. As far back as August 2002, seven months before the invasion, he said, “I can think of no historical case where the United States succeeded in an enterprise of such gravity and complexity as regime change in Iraq without the support of a regional and international coalition — not just for military operations against Iraq, should that day come, but for the day after, when the interests and intrigues of outside powers could undermine the fragility of an Iraqi government in transition.”
By September 2004, Mr. Hagel was openly blasting the Bush administration’s Iraq recovery efforts as “beyond pitiful.”
Mr. McCain, who was once close with Mr. Hagel, saw their relationship sour over Iraq and then when Mr. Hagel defended Mr. Obama during his 2008 presidential race against Mr. McCain.
But Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a supporter of Mr. Hagel’s confirmation who is on the Armed Services Committee, said this week that Mr. Hagel’s voice in the Iraq debate was “prophetic.”
Mr. Reed said that in the end, the nominee’s life story, his Vietnam War experience and the support he will marshal from veterans groups and current service members would carry him to the Pentagon.
“He will be confirmed,” Mr. Reed said.
January 10, 2013
In Transition, Hagel Gets Up to Speed on Iran
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON - Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, is perceived to have an Iran problem. And this week he has started to deal with it.
Over the course of a dozen years as a senator from Nebraska, Mr. Hagel voted against unilateral economic sanctions against Iran, and had warned, sensibly to many in the Obama administration, that “you cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can’t get out.'’
His role in the Obama administration’s strategy of coercive diplomacy with Iran, however, will be to convince Tehran that there is no getting out of the corner — no chance they can seal off the Strait of Hormuz or threaten Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Officials made it clear on Thursday that Mr. Hagel was sounding more hawkish on Iran after four days of meetings at the Pentagon, which were intended to bring him up to speed. Whether that shift is based in a change of view, an effort to get in sync with administration policy or an intention to pre-empt questions in the Senate was not certain.
But one senior administration official familiar with the transition effort said that Mr. Hagel “believes that his public record – found in his statements and his writings – has been mischaracterized.’’
“Senator Hagel believes in engagement, but he is not soft on Iran,” the official added, after Mr. Hagel had met with the current defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, who has had his own challenges staying on the administration’s message on Iran.
In a transition office inside the Pentagon, where he can receive classified briefings, Mr. Hagel has also met with the deputy secretary, Ashton B. Carter, a former Harvard professor who officials say has indicated he is willing to remain in place, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, along with several other senior military officers and civilian policy officials. None of these officials are strangers to Mr. Hagel; in Mr. Obama’s first term, he served on Mr. Panetta’s Defense Policy Board and was co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Like other nominees, Mr. Hagel is not speaking in public pending his confirmation hearing. But officials said Mr. Hagel has also been using the days since his nomination to telephone Congressional leaders of both parties in advance of the hearing, expected shortly after Mr. Obama’s inaugration. The officials said Iran has been a topic of some of those conversations.
“I’ve known Chuck Hagel for a long time,” Mr. Panetta said during a Pentagon news conference on Thursday. “I think a lot of the criticisms that are being made right now are unfair.” He said, “In these confirmation battles, there are a lot of charges that’ll be out there. There’ll be a lot of criticism that are out there. But ultimately, the truth prevails. And I think the truth in this case will mean that he’ll be confirmed.”
The confirmation battle is likely to focus as well on Mr. Hagel’s comments on Israel – where he has at times questioned whether the Israeli government is acting in the country’s own long-term self-interest.
On Iran, before his nomination, Mr. Hagel often sounded like Mr. Obama in 2008 and early 2009, when the administration argued for “engagement'’ with a country that the United States had barely communicated with in three decades.
“The United States should open a new strategic direction in U.S.-Iran relations by seeking direct, comprehensive and unconditional talks with the government of Iran, including opening a U.S. Interest Section in Tehran,'’ he said at the Brookings Institution in 2008, in a speech that gave Mr. Obama’s own statements some Republican cover. “We must avoid backing ourselves into a military conflict with Iran. That need not happen, but it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.'’
Mr. Obama still talks of engagement, but he has focused more on pressure. The economic sanctions now in place against Iran are far tougher than any during the Bush administration, and they include the kind of unilateral sanctions – barring banks and companies that do business with Iran from also doing business in the United States – that Mr. Hagel once opposed. There is covert pressure, most notably the cyber campaign against the country, code-named Olympic Games,’ that went on for years.
In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Hagel will almost certainly use the much-worn phrase that “all options are on the table,'’ a line he included in an op-ed in The Washington Post in September. That is a way of conveying a willingness to use military force.
But he has also written that Iran needs to be presented with a grand bargain to solve the nuclear standoff. “Let them think about the substantial carrots of improved relations, not just the sticks, and there may be a deal to be had,'’ he wrote in a 2008 book, as he was preparing to leave the Senate.
Quietly, the administration is debating how many of those carrots to put on the table. But to make them work, Mr. Hagel may be given the job of convincing the Iranians that despite his familiar views that a military strike could prove disastrous, he is willing to conduct one if diplomacy fails.
January 10, 2013
Back From the Fiscal Abyss, California Balances Its Budget
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
SACRAMENTO — California has been Exhibit A for the fiscal upheaval that has rocked states throughout the recession. Year after year, California officials reported bigger and bigger deficits and sought to respond with spending cuts that left the state reeling.
So it was something of a moment when a jaunty Gov. Jerry Brown strode before cameras here on Thursday to present his budget for 2013-14.
“The deficit is gone,” Mr. Brown proclaimed, standing in front of an array of that-was-then and this-is-now charts that illustrated what he said were dramatic changes in California’s fortunes.
“For the next four years we are talking about a balanced budget,” he said. “We are talking about living within our means. This is new. This is a breakthrough.”
Mr. Brown was not just talking about a balanced budget. He projected that the state would begin posting surpluses starting next year, leading to a projected surplus of $21.5 million by 2014, a dramatic turnaround from the deficit of $26 billion — billion, not million — he faced when he was elected in 2010.
The governor said California’s finances were strong enough that he wanted to put aside a $1 billion reserve fund to guard against future downturns, and included in the budget sharp increases in aid to public schools and the state university system, both targets of big spending cutbacks.
The change in fortunes reflected cuts that were imposed over the past two years, a temporary tax surcharge approved by voters in November that expires in seven years, and a general improvement in the state’s economy.
Mr. Brown’s balanced budget projection was more optimistic than one put out by an independent legislative watchdog in November, and he pointed to a series of factors, including severe cuts in federal assistance, that could push California back into difficulty.
Yet it was the latest indication that the state appeared to be turning around. Even the less upbeat report by the watchdog group, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said the state was facing a deficit of just $1.9 billion, which seems almost pocket change after the $26 billion projected deficit the state once confronted.
Mr. Brown’s news was hailed on both sides of the political aisle. “This is a proposal that clearly shows California has turned the corner,” said John A. Pérez, a Democrat who is the State Assembly’s speaker.
Connie Conway, the Assembly’s Republican leader, said it was “good news for taxpayers that the state has made progress in getting our financial house in order.”
“But we haven’t fully solved our budget problems just yet,” she said.
The budgetary distress has meant that, for years, the Legislature has battled over what to cut or, in some cases, what kind of maneuvers might be appropriate to avoid cuts. Good news or not, the announcement means that more, albeit different, kinds of battles were in the offing, lawmakers and Mr. Brown said.
Democrats now control two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate, and some of them have talked about restoring at least some of the social service cuts, like dental care for the poor, that were imposed to bring the state to this point, Mr. Brown said he understood the impulse to repair broken social services, but he warned against returning to a boom-and-bust pattern of spending during the good years, only to later struggle through debt.
“We have to live within the means we have; otherwise we get to that situation where you get red ink and you go back to cuts,” he said. “I want to avoid the booms and the bust, the borrow and the spend, where we make the promise and then we take back.”
Mr. Brown, who has always presented himself as something of a moderate in his party, suggested that in the months ahead, he would be an enforcer.
“It’s very hard to say no,” Mr. Brown said. “And that basically is going to be my job.”
On that point, Mr. Brown found an unlikely ally in Ms. Conway. “Now is not the time to enact massive spending increases that will reverse the progress we’ve made in reducing the deficit,” she said.
On another contentious front, while Mr. Brown proposed a significant increase in school spending — $2.6 billion — he said he wanted a financing formula that would direct more money to poor students. Lawmakers said that could set off a fight between wealthier and poorer districts.
Mr. Brown, in presenting his budget, suggested that the turnaround should be a rebuke to “a couple of characters” who have “written off California as a failed state,” a reference to conservative commentators who have, for a year, questioned the state’s economic policies and its very future.
Now, Mr. Brown said, he wanted the nation to look to California, and to his example. He promised a combination of “fiscal discipline and imaginative investment” to complete the state’s restoration.
“I would like to do something that would make California a leader and an example of what America has to do,” he said.
January 10, 2013
Monks in California Breathe Life Into a Monastery From Spain
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
VINA, Calif. — The rebirth of a medieval Cistercian monastery building here on a patch of rural Northern California land was, of course, improbable. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, brought the dismantled Santa Maria de Óvila monastery from Spain but failed to restore it. The City of San Francisco, after some fitful starts at bringing the monastery back to life, left its stones languishing for decades in Golden Gate Park. The Great Depression, World War II and lethargy got in the way.
But an aging and shrinking order of Cistercian monks have accomplished what great men and cities could not: the reconstruction of Santa Maria de Óvila’s most architecturally significant building, a 12th-century Gothic chapter house. The monks ascribed the successful restoration to their faith, though years of tenacious fund-raising, as well as a recent alliance with a local beer brewer, also helped.
“The meaning that this holds for us, and the link to hope, is that it may take generations,” the Rev. Paul Mark Schwan, the abbot of the New Clairvaux monastery, said of the restoration. “What appears dead, or almost dead, rises again.”
With the major work complete, the chapter house was opened to the public last year.
“We got into possession of the stones, and they’ve come home — a long ways from Spain, but back on Cistercian land with Cistercian monks returning it to sacred space,” Father Schwan said on a recent chilly afternoon, standing just inside one of the arched entrances, his voice resonating off the limestone walls and vaulted ceilings. “I look at this, and it’s remarkable we’ve come this far, that this is actually all put back together.”
With two-thirds of the original stones and modern earthquake-resistant reinforcements, Óvila’s chapter house now sits, perhaps incongruously, in an open field near the abbey’s modest church and vineyards, a couple of hours north of Sacramento.
It was in 1167 that King Alfonso VIII of Castile founded Santa Maria de Óvila in the province of Guadalajara, an area that he had reconquered from the Moors and that he hoped to populate with Christian settlers. For centuries, the monastery thrived as a home to Cistercian monks, a Roman Catholic order that hewed to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict and its emphasis on self-sufficiency, manual labor and prayer.
The monastery declined, however, and by the time it was shuttered by the Spanish government in 1835, there were only four monks left. The monastery fell into disrepair — the chapter house was being used as a manure pit — and was forgotten until it caught the eye of Hearst’s art dealer, Arthur Byne, in 1930.
Hearst, the larger-than-life newspaper publisher who inspired “Citizen Kane,” had already built Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast, complete with the facade of an ancient Roman temple he had bought in Italy for his estate’s Neptune Pool. But Hearst was looking to build something even bigger near Mount Shasta, in the forest about 120 miles north of Vina, where his mother’s summer home, called Wyntoon, had recently burned down.
Hearst wanted to build an eight-story medieval castle facing the McCloud River, and parts of the Spanish monastery would fit right in. According to American Heritage magazine, Spanish farmers and laborers from surrounding villages were hired to dismantle and haul the monastery’s most important buildings. A rail track was laid, and roads and a bridge were built to transport the massive stones. Eventually, 11 ships containing much of the monastery arrived in San Francisco.
But Hearst, whose fortune was dented during the Depression, ultimately abandoned the project and gave the monastery to San Francisco. The city’s plans to use it as part of a museum of medieval art in Golden Gate Park went nowhere. The crates containing the stones caught fire in the park a couple of times, and the stones were left to the elements.
In 1979, an art historian, Margaret Burke, participated in San Francisco’s last attempt to restore the monastery. For four years, Ms. Burke inspected the stones to determine what could be saved.
“I found that the chapter house was the only building that would be feasible to rebuild,” Ms. Burke recalled.
The city, though, could not raise the money for the project.
Over the decades, the monks here had watched the situation with growing despair. A chapter house serves as the heart of an abbey, the place where monks gather daily for readings and meetings. What’s more, Cistercian architecture, in its simplicity and austerity, was a reflection of the order’s faith.
“Our architecture was considered part of our prayer, and it still is,” Father Schwan said. “It’s not just the matter of a building. It expresses that vision of what we desire to strive for in our relationship with God.”
After years of lobbying, the monks in 1994 persuaded San Francisco to give them the stones on the condition that they begin the restoration work within a decade.
It was not easy. Like other Cistercian abbeys in developed nations, this one was losing members. When Father Schwan, now 56, entered the monastery here in 1980, there were 35 to 37 monks. Now there are 22, with half of them 80 or older.
“When I entered, there were two people buried in the cemetery,” he said. “We’ve got 16 or 17 in the cemetery today. I’ve actually helped bury every one of those monks, except one.”
Workers broke ground on the reconstruction in 2004, and the monks eventually raised $7 million for the project. A couple of years ago, the monks also teamed up with Sierra Nevada Brewing, in nearby Chico, to produce a series of premium Trappist-style beers called Ovila. To cut down on costs, the monks chose to buy limestone from Texas instead of Europe to supplement the original stones.
Though the monks are working to raise an additional $2 million to put the finishing touches on the restoration, they are already able to use the chapter house the way their Spanish predecessors did.
That was not the fate of the other 12th-century Cistercian monastery that Hearst, ever the voracious collector, had dismantled and shipped from Spain in 1925. That monastery, St. Bernard de Clairvaux, ended up gathering dust in a warehouse in Brooklyn because of Hearst’s declining fortune. After Hearst died in 1951, St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s stones changed hands a couple of times before ending up in North Miami Beach, where the reassembled monastery buildings now serve as an Episcopal parish and tourist attraction.
January 11, 2013
For India Rape Victim’s Family, Many Layers of Loss
By HEATHER TIMMONS and HARI KUMAR
MEDAWARA KALAN, India — The village of Medawara Kalan lies down a one-lane dirt track, past mustard fields, thatched-roof huts and piles of neatly stacked cow dung patties, dried to use for fuel.
Thirty years ago, Badri Nath Singh left this village for the capital city of Delhi, some 600 miles away, one of millions from the vast Indian countryside to migrate to the fast-growing cities.
Last month, Mr. Singh and his family returned, bearing the ashes of his only daughter.
His daughter, 23, who died after being gang raped and attacked with a metal rod on a moving bus in New Delhi on Dec. 16, has become a symbol of all that is wrong with how India treats its women and girls. But until December, she had been an example of something very different: of how far ambition, hard work and parental love can remove one generation from the rural poverty that is the lot of most of India’s 1.2 billion people.
“This episode has shattered my dreams,” Mr. Singh said in an interview this past week in the village in Uttar Pradesh State. He sat outdoors wrapped in blankets on a rope and wood cot, while an ever-shifting crowd of male relatives sat watchfully nearby, sometimes passing scalding cups of chai.
Mr. Singh, his wife and two teenage sons returned to Medawara Kalan, population 2,000, after his daughter’s death on Dec. 29, to perform 13 days of Hindu rituals that culminate in men shaving their heads and providing a meal for hundreds of people, meant to bring peace to the dead.
Little has changed in the village since Mr. Singh left, even as development spreads to the far corners of India. Electricity is scarce, farming is the only occupation, and the government school ends at fifth grade.
“At the village we could not fulfill our needs, so it was inevitable to move out,” Mr. Singh said about the decision to leave three decades ago. Although his daughter was born in New Delhi, she returned often to the village with the family, just as many urban Indians still maintain ties to a family village.
With his move to New Delhi, Mr. Singh was in the first wave of a slow shift that is transforming India from the agrarian land of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who said India “lives in its villages,” to a country of teeming megacities. In 1991, India had 23 cities with more than one million people. By 2011, it had more than 50.
Mr. Singh’s first salary in the city was about $4 a month, but he soon saved enough to have his wife, Asha, join him the city, and then to buy land and build a small home. While girls are not always prized in India, Mr. Singh and his wife lavished attention on their firstborn, a daughter, he recalled. “Whether it’s a girl or a boy, it’s God’s gift,” he said.
The daughter — whose name is being withheld because it is illegal to name a rape victim in India without permission from the victim or her next of kin — showed as a very young girl a love for school, her father remembered. “She used to cry if she couldn’t go to school,” he said.
She was often the best in her class, he said. The education of girls is often overlooked in India in favor of boys, but the Singhs did the opposite with their daughter. “We gave much more attention to the girl” than to the two sons who came after, he said.
“If my sons asked for money, maybe I would refuse, but if my daughter asked for money, I never refused,” he said, putting his arm around his son Gaurav, who stood protectively nearby. He even jokingly called her “beta,” Hindi for son.
Together, they discussed how she might advance further than even their most accomplished relative, a judge. She wished to become a doctor, but because money was tight, she chose physiotherapy and enrolled in a school in Dehra Dun, a major city in the north.
To pay for school, Mr. Singh sold most of the land he owned in Medawara Kalan, borrowed money from family members and worked double shifts, 16 hours a day, loading luggage at the Delhi airport.
The woman had planned to pay for her two younger brother’s education once she started her career. One boy hoped to be an engineer, the other an astronaut.
“My son really worked hard to see his daughter fulfill her dreams,” said Lalji Singh, the woman’s grandfather. “He never knew if it was day or night because he was working so hard.”
The woman’s mother has not been well since her death, the family said. During the interview she sat in a small, dark room, off a courtyard filled with small children and tiny, smoky fires. Cocooned in blankets, she raised her hands in the “namaste” gesture of greeting but said nothing.
On the night of the assault, the young woman, who was about to start an internship for her new career, went to see a movie with a male friend. It was then that the family’s urban dream collided with an ugly reality of life in an Indian megacity.
New Delhi’s public transportation system is woefully inadequate, so the two boarded a private bus, just as thousands in the city do every day. On board were a group of men, mostly working-class migrants, who the police said were drinking alcohol and on a “joy ride,” looking for someone to harass.
Trying to explain the reasons behind what happened next has dominated the national discussion in India.
The woman and her friend were attacked. During the assault, the friend was knocked unconscious. The woman bit one of the men on the hand. She was taken to the back of the bus and raped and a metal rod was shoved into her body up to her diaphragm, leaving her intestines so damaged they ultimately had to be removed, the family said doctors told them. For Mr. Singh, and many who grew up in India’s villages, the brutal episode points to nothing less than an overall decline in the country’s national character. He drew a parallel between the country’s move toward cities and individuals’ focus on earning more, and the events of that evening.
“As there is increase in money, there is within the people greed,” he said. Such a crime never happened in his village, he said.
Doctors who treated the woman told her family immediately that she was unlikely to live, Mr. Singh and his son Gaurav, a thin 17-year-old with a knit cap pulled low over his downcast eyes, recalled.
“The doctor said the very first day that she would not survive, but it was willpower that she did for so long,” Gaurav said, then sunk his chin into his chest and quietly shook with sobs.
Naresh Kumar Trehan, a surgeon and managing director of Medanta Medicity, a hospital near New Delhi, said he had never seen such brutality. “I have seen all sorts of violence, of all forms,” said Dr. Trehan, who treated the woman. “But this kind — I just couldn’t get my mind around it.”
On Dec. 29, the woman died in a Singapore hospital, where she had been flown for treatment. Her body was cremated, and the Hindu rituals related to her death conclude this weekend.
Despite what has happened, the Singh family will return to New Delhi, where Gaurav has his exam for engineering school this spring. “I have not lost hope,” the father said. “I will take my sons forward.”
A short distance from the Singh family home this past week, on the one large flat patch of ground near the village that is not being tilled for crops, about two dozen men shifted bricks and sand, wreathed in the fog while a backhoe rumbled.
It was the first sign of development the village has seen in decades, residents said. The playground of the village school was being transformed into a helipad for a visit on Friday from a top government official who paid his respects to the family.
Anjani Trivedi and Niharika Mandhana contributed reporting.
France launches air strikes on Mali
President François Hollande responds to advance south by Islamist rebels by sending armed forces to aid Malian troops
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent and Nick Hopkins
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013 19.37 GMT
French troops have begun military operations including air strikes in Mali to contain Islamist groups which are continuing to clash with the army in a fight for control of the desert north of the west African country.
François Hollande announced on Friday night that French armed forces had gone to the aid of Malian troops on the ground during the afternoon. The French president said Mali was facing a "terrorist aggression" of which "the whole world now knows its brutality and fanaticism".
The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said France's air force carried out an air strike in Mali on Friday as it supported government forces.
Al-Qaida-linked groups seized the northern two-thirds of Mali last April, a month after a military coup that followed the army's desertion of a military campaign against Tuareg and Islamist rebels. Western powers fear militants could use the vast desert in the former French colony as a launchpad for international attacks.
France said it was acting with the backing of west African states. It had responded to an appeal for military assistance from Mali's embattled interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, after Islamists seized the town of Konna in the centre of the country, about 375 miles north-east of the capital, Bamako, on Thursday.
On Friday night a defence ministry official said the Malian army had retaken control of Konna. "The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now," Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told Reuters, adding that the army was mopping up Islamist fighters in the surrounding area.
Hollande said recent UN security council resolutions provided the legal framework for him to respond to the request.
The very existence of the "friendly" state of Mali was under threat as well as the security of its population and that of 6,000 French expatriates, Hollande warned.
The military operation would last "as long as necessary", he said. The French parliament will debate the move on Monday.
Hollande added: "Terrorists must know that France will always be there when it's a question, not of its fundamental interests, but of the rights of the Malian population to live freely and in democracy."
Late last year, the 15 countries in west Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations. The UN security council authorised the intervention but imposed certain conditions. These include training for Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup.
Traoré used a live televised address on Friday night to announce a state of emergency for the next 10 days, and called on mining companies and non-governmental bodies to donate trucks to the military effort.
The announcement fuelled doubts about the capacity of Mali's army, which has been notoriously under-resourced for years. It received a boost in recent weeks, however, by the arrival of equipment that was impounded in nearby Guinea under the terms of an embargo imposed after last year's military coup.
Konna is less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north, said there were Islamists controlling Konna "but they are integrated into the population". "It is very difficult for the army to fight them," he said. "It is a very complicated situation."
Sources in Mopti reported panic there , with evacuations of women and children, as residents anticipated clashes between Malian and foreign troops and Islamists could reach the town.
Hamadoun cast doubt on reports that Douentza, one of the southernmost towns under Islamist control, had been recaptured by the Malian army this week. "There are some army personnel in Douentza in strategic positions, but the rebels are still very much in control of the town," he said.
The renewed fighting follows the disintegration of a ceasefire between one of the Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, and the government. It has sparked panic in Mopti and other towns south of the de facto border between government and Islamist control, and prompted concerns in the international community that the Islamist groups – which operate a drug trafficking and kidnap economy in northern Mali and other Sahelian countries – could capture more ground.
The security council condemned the capture of Konna and called on UN member states to provide assistance to Mali "in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organisations and associated groups."
A regional military intervention approved by the UN had not been expected to start before September. Hollande's announcement marked a radical departure from recent agreements that limited the role of French and other international forces to providing Mali's army with training and logistical support.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and other countries in the Sahel region, has hundreds of troops stationed across west and central Africa. This month it declined to provide military intervention in another former colony, the Central African Republic, whose government is also under threat from rebel groups.
The European Union said it would speed up measures to send 200 trainers to improve the effectiveness of the Malian army. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday that recent rebel advances underlined the need for "enhanced and accelerated international engagement" to help restore state authority throughout Mali.
"The European Union … will accelerate preparations for the deployment of a military mission to Mali to provide training and advice to the Malian forces," Ashton said in a statement.
France advised its expats on Friday to leave. The British Foreign Office also advised all Britons to leave Mali by commercial flights as soon as possible.
In a revision of its travel advice because of this week's fighting, it warned against any travel to the country. It is thought fewer than 100 Britons are currently in Mali.
The UK has no troops in the country at the moment, but has committed itself to help the EU military training mission.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the UK supported the French intervention.
"UK supports [the] French decision to provide assistance to [the] Government of Mali in the face of [the] rebel advance," Hague said in a message on Twitter. A Foreign Office spokesman said Hague was offering "political support".
French troops arrive in Mali to stem rebel advance
François Hollande responds to Malian president's plea for help, as UN calls for swift deployment of international force
Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013 17.29 GMT
French troops have arrived in Mali amid a rapid escalation of international efforts to intervene in the country, where Islamist groups are continuing to clash with the army for control of the desert north.
The French president, François Hollande, announced on Friday night that French armed forces had come to the aid of Mali troops on the ground. He said the operation would last as long as necessary and the French parliament would sit to debate the move on Monday.
The French foreign office has advised ex-pats to leave Mali because of the security situation.
French media quoted Malian officials as saying European military were present on the ground, namely at Sévaré.
Colonel Abdrahmane Baby, a military operations adviser for the foreign affairs ministry, told Associated Press that French troops were in the country but gave no details about how many or what they were doing.
The announcement confirmed reports from residents in central Mali who said they had seen western military personnel arrive and that planes had landed there throughout the night.
Earlier, Hollande said France was "ready to stop the terrorists' advance if it continues". In a speech to the country's diplomatic corps, he said: "I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations security council resolution.
"[The rebels] have even tried to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali. France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that."
The tough-talking announcement by Hollande came after a plea for assistance from Mali's embattled president, Dioncounda Traoré, who has been under growing pressure in Mali to fight back against Islamist control of the north. The UN called for the swift deployment of an international force to Mali.
Al-Qaida-linked groups have controlled north Mali since the army deserted a campaign against Tuareg and Islamist rebels, followed by a military coup last March.
On Thursday rebels captured the town of Konna, less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. The situation in Konna is described as complicated, with army personnel still in the town but rebels now in control.
"There are Islamists controlling Konna, but they are integrated into the population, it is very difficult for the army to fight them," said Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north. "It is a very complicated situation."
Hamadoun cast doubt on reports that Douentza, one of the southernmost towns under Islamist control, had been recaptured by the Malian army this week. "There are some army personnel in Douentza in strategic positions, but the rebels are still very much in control of the town," he said.
The renewed fighting follows the disintegration of a ceasefire between one of the Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, and the government. It has sparked panic in Mopti and other towns south of the de facto border between government and Islamist control, and prompted concerns in the international community that the Islamist groups – who operate a drug trafficking and kidnap economy in northern Mali and other Sahelian countries – could capture more ground.
Hollande's announcement marked a radical departure from recent agreements that limited the role of French and other international forces to providing Mali's army with training and logistical support.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and other countries in the Sahel region, has hundreds of troops stationed across west and central Africa. This month it declined to provide a military intervention to another former colony, the Central African Republic, whose government is also under threat from rebel groups.
A UN security council resolution has been passed, paving the way for military intervention in Mali, but the UN's special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said in November there would be no deployment until September.
Central African Republic president and rebels to form coalition government
Unity government deal, agreed after days of intense talks, will allow François Bozizé to remain in office until 2016
Associated Press in Libreville
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013 16.47 GMT
The president of the Central African Republic and the rebels who sought to overthrow him have agreed to create a coalition government with the country's political opposition, a deal that will allow François Bozizé to remain in office until 2016, officials have said.
The announcement came after days of talks in Gabon, which were organised after an alliance of rebels groups swept through the north of the country and seized control of a dozen towns.
The agreement includes a provision that a prime minister will be appointed from the opposition, and legislative elections will be organised in a year, said Chad's foreign affairs minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
"The mandate of President Bozizé is a constitutional question. We cannot challenge the Central African Republic's constitution," said the Chadian president, Idriss Déby, who presided over the closing ceremony for the talks.
Bozizé seized power in 2003 after a rebellion and later went on to win elections in 2005 and 2011, though the US and others have described the votes as flawed.
The rebels, who began their onslaught on 10 December, had previously called for Bozizé to step down and dismissed his calls to form a coalition government. The raids, which stopped short of the capital, Bangui, posed the gravest threat to Bozizé's reign after nearly 10 years in power.
Japanese PM criticises China's response to protests over islands dispute
Demonstrations in China turned violent after Japan said it would buy the Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyu
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013 08.00 GMT
Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has sharply criticised China for allowing anti-Japanese protests over the Senkaku islands to turn violent.
Demonstrations were held in dozens of Chinese cities in the autumn after Japan's then prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, announced his government would buy the islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, from their private Japanese owners.
Abe, a nationalist who last month became prime minister for a second time, blamed the Chinese authorities for allowing the demonstrations to spiral out of control, and for damaging bilateral business ties.
"It was wrong for China, as a country responsible to the international community, to achieve a political goal by allowing damages to Japanese-affiliated companies and Japanese nationals that have made contributions to the Chinese economy," Abe said on Friday.
"This will not only undermine the bilateral relationship, but it will also negatively affect China's economy and society."
Noda had hoped the move would avert a more serious diplomatic fallout from the proposed purchase of the islands by Tokyo's then nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara.
Protesters attacked Japanese businesses, factories and shops, forcing companies to temporarily close their premises and instruct employees to take safety precautions.
The four-month standoff over the islands, located in the East China Sea, damaged trade ties between Asia's two biggest economies and prompted speculation that Japanese exporters would begin shifting investment to other parts of mainland Asia.
The riots, together with a Chinese consumer boycott of Japanese products, cost firms more than $100m, according to a Japanese government estimate. Toyota said its sales in China fell 4.9% last year, the first annual decline since 2001, while Nissan said its sales in the country had dropped 5.3%, the first decline since 2003.
Next week, Abe plans to visit Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand to strengthen ties as Japanese manufacturers boost investments in the region. His finance minister, Taro Aso, recently made a similar visit to Burma.
But the government's chief spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, played down suggestions that Japan was seeking to challenge Chinese influence in the region.
"These countries are engines for growth of the world economy," he told reporters. "I don't view respecting relations with the rest of Asia as a countermeasure against China."
Japan's new 20tn yen stimulus package, announced by Abe on Friday, includes a 100bn yen (US$1.1bn) rise in military spending from 4.6tn yen last year, the first increase in the defence budget for a decade.
Part of the extra cash is expected to go towards improving Japan's defence of the Senkakus following frequent sightings of Chinese surveillance vessels in and around Japanese territorial waters in the area. Beijing recently raised the stakes by sending aircraft into Japanese airspace near the disputed territories.
Countermeasures are expected to include the deployment of US-made surveillance drones near the Senkakus by around 2015.
In addition, Japan's coastguard will deploy several hundred officers, equipped with more than 10 patrol vessels, in waters around the Senkakus to deter Chinese incursions, Kyodo reported on Friday.
Earlier this week, Japan's defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, said the new defence budget increase would be used to address rising threats to its territory from "neighbouring countries".
Abe, who criticised Noda's "weak" response to Chinese provocations over the Senkakus, said his position on the dispute was "not negotiable", saying that Japan would "resolutely protect this water and territory".
A perfect storm of earthquake and poor governance could cripple Nepal
Unregulated development in earthquake-prone Kathmandu means a repeat of the 1934 quake would be catastrophic
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 12 January 2013 07.30 EST
What makes Nepal so special – its vast rivers, deep gorges and Himalayan mountain range capped by the world's tallest peak – also explains the country's extreme vulnerability to natural hazards. The Eurasian and Indian plates beneath Nepal are moving fast in geological terms (about 20mm a year), pushing the young Himalayan range ever higher and creating these extraordinary landscapes. The pressure building as these plates move is enormous. The last large earthquake in living memory to hit Kathmandu was in 1934, when a quake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale levelled most of the city, destroying more than 80,000 buildings and taking 8,500 lives. The geological history of the country tells the story of monster earthquakes over the last millennia.
Rapid urban growth, a flood of remittance money, high density settlement patterns and a booming, unregulated construction sector are all danger signs in an active fault zone. Combined with Nepal's chronic governance crisis, the valley has all the elements for the earthquake-equivalent of the perfect storm.
The estimated 200,000 citizens of a lightly populated Kathmandu valley in 1934 would not recognise their town today. Now with a population of 2.5 million, the city has expanded rapidly over the last two decades. Eight Unesco-listed heritage sites still stand in this congested and polluted city. Most buildings are three or four storeys, and some much higher. A building code to regulate construction standards in this earthquake-prone area exists on paper only, with just a fraction of construction meeting minimum standards. Driven partly by remittances that now make up more than a quarter of the country's economy, private schools have mushroomed, mostly in formerly private houses, barely adapted to the very different safety standards of a school. Most residential buildings are non-engineered structures, owner-built and slapped together in stages with another floor added whenever money permits. Concrete has replaced wood.
The level of building failure in the event of a repeat of the 1934 earthquake will be catastrophic. The valley has only 12 fire engines, mostly vintage models and mostly out-of-service. The soil under most of the city is vulnerable to liquefaction – a nightmare scenario where the shockwave from the earthquake liquefies parts of the sandy, former lake-bed and parts of the city will simply drop. This will be a disaster of epic proportions. And unlike Port au Prince, landlocked Nepal is 400 miles from the nearest coast and its roads are likely to be blocked for weeks by landslides. It's a planner's nightmare.
After five years working on this in Nepal, I have come to recognise that addressing Nepal's vulnerability to natural hazards is first a governance problem, and only second, about funding and expertise. Multi-party democracy that was introduced in 1990 has brought a highly unstable political system with annual changes of government, and few incentives for leaders to embark on long-term and potentially unpopular measures – like land use planning or enforcing building codes – in anticipation of an event that may not happen on their watch. Since Nepal's peace accords were signed in 2006, the political class has been drawn into peace negotiations and power sharing rather than less glamorous tasks like school building regulation. Local elections have not been held in more than a decade, leaving cities without mayors. Towns are run instead by bureaucrats accountable only to their immediate boss. No one is visiting the fire stations and kicking the tires. No one's job is on the line if the emergency services fail to show up. Underpaid, transient civil servants are responsible for certifying that new building projects are "to code", but they would have to get out from behind their desks to see that the designs they have certified on paper do not remotely match the actual construction.
The international community has woken up to this clear and present danger. In 2009, the UN, the Red Cross Movement, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank first came together to form an international consortium. The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, as well as the European Commission have also signed up. Today, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium represents an unprecedented international alignment of actors – developmental and humanitarian, government and non-governmental – all working to a common plan with a shared sense of urgency and ambition. And the Nepali bureaucracy, for its part, is steadily getting more engaged and better organised.
But while the storm brews off Nepal's tectonic coastline, most of Nepal's political leaders remain focused exclusively on politics and power. If there is an issue crying out for some bipartisanship, surely this is it. Urgent though many other issues are, they will become footnotes in the history books when at some point in the future, Nepal's physical and political landscape will be transformed in just 40 seconds, likely taking with it many of today's and tomorrow's leaders and erasing years of hard-won development gains. The international community can make a big difference through initiatives like the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium. But the real game-changer will only come about when risk reduction measures align with governance reforms. And when "duty of care" enters the political lexicon of the country concerned.
Israel election: country prepares for next act in the great moving right show
Next week's elections are expected to confirm a long-term move away from the secular liberalism that once dominated Israeli politics among voters disillusioned by a failed peace process. Is this a permanent shift in the political landscape?
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Observer, Saturday 12 January 2013 13.05 GMT
Dalya Steinberger's journey across Israel's political landscape began more than 20 years ago when she cast a vote for Labour, one of almost a million people who helped propel Yitzhak Rabin to the leadership of the Jewish state. A year later, in 1993, Rabin signed the historic Oslo Accords, shaking hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the lawns of the White House. A little more than two years later, the prime minister died at the hands of a rightwing assassin who objected to theprospect of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
In the two decades since that vote, Steinberger's optimism and belief in an attainable and lasting peace with the Palestinians have evaporated. Her disillusion has led her steadily rightwards: in 2006 she voted for the centrist Kadima party; in 2009 for the rightwing Likud; and in a little over a week, she expects to vote for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, a party that flatly opposes a Palestinian state and advocates the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank.
"To vote for the left now would feel like committing suicide," says Steinberger, a civil servant who lives on the outskirts of Jerusalem. "We have to protect ourselves and our future and we have to be strong."
Steinberger's rightwards trajectory has not been performed in isolation. Many of her friends and associates have made similar shifts in their political views. As the general election of 22 January approaches, polls predict a clear majority for the Israeli right. According to pollster Rafi Smith, 41% of Israeli voters now define themselves on the right, up from 34% three years ago. The country, he says, "has become more hawkish over the past five to 10 years".
Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, whose momentum in opinion polls has shaken up the campaign, likens this to a rightwing nationalist uprising. With a nod to regional revolutions, he told a foreign policy debate at Jerusalem's Hebrew University: "A Jewish spring is sweeping Israel these days. What you are seeing with Habayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home] is a dormant desire to restore Jewish values to Israel being uncovered, exploding."
Danny Danon, another extreme rightwinger rising in the political firmament, in his case within the ruling Likud party, describes it is an "awakening". His elevation from 24th place on Likud's list of candidates to fifth "reflects the will of the people", he says.
It is not only politicians and analysts who say Israel's political centre of gravity is shifting to the right. "Something revolutionary is happening," says Nerya Avitan, a 21-year-old campaign volunteer for Jewish Home at an election rally in Rishon Lezion. "People are not ashamed to say the whole of Israel [including the West Bank] belongs to the Jews. The two-state solution is a beautiful idea, but in reality there's no way to get there. Bennett is telling us the truth, and bringing Jewish heritage back to politics. He's telling us to stop living in a movie."
The early scenes of that "movie" told an epic tale of early socialist-Zionists building a new democratic Jewish state. Its stars were the backbone of the kibbutz movement – secular and leftwing European Jews, many of whom gave up professional careers for manual and agricultural labour. These pioneers were committed to equality, inclusiveness and tolerance – at least, among fellow Jews – and some also believed it would be possible to coexist with the Arab population.
A strong nationalist strain was always present, says veteran peace activist and former MP Uri Avnery, who will be 90 this year. "But at the start, most Israelis were sincere in wanting a democratic state. The Zionist movement was idealistic, and it was unbearable to think that we were displacing another people. So it was simply denied."
"Israel was established on a foundation of communal solidarity, a socialist and secular paradigm," says Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament and chairman of Molad, a leftwing thinktank. "Now, in 2013, Israel is capitalist and religious. The change has been over a long period, and it's not just the paradigm that's changed but also the population. In 1948 Israel's Jewish population was 650,000. Each and every decade of Israel's history has added a different demographic layer, which has shifted Israel to a different place."
The "watershed" moment, says Burg, was the 1967 war, when Israel swiftly defeated its Arab neighbours. The resulting occupation and colonisation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza changed the course of Israeli politics. "The old socialist movement ended its historic rule and redemptive messianic religious Zionism took its place."
Avnery agrees on the significance of 1967. "It was a revolution as well as a military victory. The Labour movement was over in practice and a new elite of settlers, who would never dream of giving back the West Bank, took over.
"Now, if you ask an Israeli taxi driver, he will say, 'I want peace, but there's no chance of it in this or the next generation.' That is now the opinion of 90% of the public. And when people feel there's no chance of peace, the rightwing is more creditable than the left. Today the competition is between the rightwing, the extreme rightwing and the fascist rightwing. They have a solid majority."
The twin factors of demographic change and the failure of the "peace process" aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside a democratic Israel over the last 20 years underlie the rightward shift, say analysts.
Among Israel's 7.9 million people, only 14-15% now describe themselves as secular Jews, whereas about 50% identify themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox, according to Smith's polling figures. As a proportion of the population, the ultra-Orthodox are growing rapidly as a result of their large families. Jerusalem has become a bastion for those communities.
The vast majority of such traditional and religious Israeli Jews are on the political right – 79% of the ultra-Orthodox, compared with only 17% of secular Israelis. "The religious are clearly to the right – that's how they define themselves," says Smith. "The demography does not look good for the centre-left. Secular people are becoming a small minority."
The second significant demographic factor is the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who now make up nearly 15% of the electorate. In the last election, around half voted for former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, now in a rightwing electoral alliance with Likud, the party led by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Many are instinctively on the political right after enduring years of repression in the former Soviet bloc. Their politics combined with their numbers have helped tip Israel's political balance, leading former US president Bill Clinton to describe Israel's Russian-speaking community in 2010 as "an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians".
On the political front, the moribund peace process is the main factor behind changes in public opinion, say many analysts. The Oslo Accords created a surge of optimism dashed by a wave of violence during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was followed by Hamas rule, rocket fire and two conflicts. Regional upheavals in the last two years have added to Israel's sense of insecurity.
There is a siege mentality, says Smith. "People believe the missiles are coming. So, as a whole, society is becoming very hawkish."
Carlo Strenger, a psychologist and commentator, says: "The bottom line is that Israelis have become so mistrustful of the prospects of peace that they are moving to the right because quite simply they are scared. And they prefer parties that they feel will safeguard their security. Most have not moved to the right in a deep ideological sense. The truth is that, for most Israelis, security is the primordial and primary issue."
Some analysts dispute the premise that Israeli public opinion has moved to the right, pointing to polls predicting that more than a third of parliamentary seats will go to centrist or left-of-centre parties. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says the notion of a fundamental rightwards shift is "completely wrong". "In the current election campaign, we see a small shift to the right, but this is minor compared to the convergence on the centre."
But with the Israeli political spectrum moving rightwards, the centre is much further to the right than in most western democracies. "The right has become the far right," wrote commentator David Horovitz on the Times of Israel website last week. "On the Israeli right in 2013, Binyamin Netanyahu, rhetorically at least, is a discordant relative moderate."
There is little doubt that Netanyahu will still be prime minister after the election. A series of opinion polls on Friday predicted that the Likud-Beiteinu alliance would win between 33 and 38 seats in the 120-seat parliament, way ahead of Labour, the next biggest party, which is forecast to get between 16 and 18 seats. Bennett's Jewish Home is expected to come third, with 13 or 14.
But Netanyahu's parliamentary group will be markedly more rightwing after 22 January. Several relatively moderate voices in Likud will not be members of the next parliament, replaced with hardliners such as Danon – whose top priority is "loyalty to the land of Israel" and who says "it is a fatal mistake to try to appease Europe or America" – and Moshe Feiglin, a radical national-religious settler.
Among Jewish Home's MPs are likely to be two hardline settlers from Hebron, a Palestinian city fraught with tension because of the extremist Jewish settlement at its heart. And, while the settler presence in the parliament grows, the next Knesset is likely to be the first without a single member from a kibbutz.
Meanwhile, Labour, led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, has abandoned its traditional platform of seeking a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues. The "alternative voice" is silent, wrote Horovitz. "The party of… Yitzhak Rabin, the one-time party of government, has offered no leadership in these elections on shaping our relations with the Palestinians."
That ground appears to have been ceded to the right. The compromises necessary for peace seem even less likely in the next government than the present one. Many liberal Israelis and foreign diplomats fear that the chances of a two- state solution will finally be snuffed out.
Amos Oz, a celebrated author and a supporter of the leftist Meretz party, expected to win about five seats, warned last week that without a two-state solution Israel was heading towards apartheid. The rightwing, he told a meeting, "believes that Jews can rule over an Arab majority for a long time". The inevitable collapse of an apartheid state would mean the end of the Jewish state.
But for Dalya Steinberger, the opposite is true: the move to the right is essential for Israel's survival, she says. "This is our country. We are here to stay. We can't afford to be soft or generous, or do what the world wants us to do. There is only one Jewish homeland and we cannot risk losing it."
January 11, 2013
Palestinians Set Up Tents Where Israel Plans Homes
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Adopting a tactic more commonly employed by Jewish settlers who establish wildcat outposts in the West Bank, scores of Palestinian activists erected tents on Friday in a hotly contested piece of Israeli-occupied West Bank territory known as E1, and they said they intended to stay put.
The Palestinians claim E1, just east of Jerusalem, as part of a future state. The protest comes six weeks after Israel announced that it was moving forward with plans for thousands of settlement homes in E1, stirring international outrage.
The Israeli military authorities arrived Friday and handed the protesters notices warning them that they were illegally trespassing and that they had to leave, according to a police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld. Mr. Rosenfeld said he expected movement “at some point,” with the protesters either leaving voluntarily or by force.
But the protesters said that they had anticipated such action by Israeli security forces and that their lawyers had already gone to the Israeli Supreme Court to argue for a delay in any evacuation until the state details the grounds for such a move. Protest leaders said the court had given the state six days to respond.
About 200 activists began pitching tents on a hill in the barren, stony territory on Friday morning, and issued a statement announcing the establishment of a village named Bab al-Shams (Arabic for “Gate of the Sun”), after the title of a novel by a Lebanese writer, Elias Khoury, that portrays Palestinian yearnings through a metaphorical story of love for the land.
Israeli plans to build in E1 have been vehemently opposed for years by international players, including the United States, who say construction there would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, harming the prospects of a viable contiguous Palestinian state in that territory. Israel announced its intention as a countermeasure after the United Nations General Assembly voted in November to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of a nonmember observer state.
Israel wants to create contiguity between East Jerusalem, which it has annexed, and the large urban settlement of Maale Adumim that lies beyond E1, and says that the future of the West Bank has to be settled in negotiations. In the meantime, critics say, Israel continues to establish facts on the ground.
“We are here as a response to the settlers and to the Israeli policy of settlement expansion,” said Muhammad Khatib, a veteran member of the grass-roots Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and a resident of Bilin. That West Bank village became a symbol of Palestinian defiance after it held weekly protests and won a ruling in the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007 forcing Israel to reroute its West Bank barrier so as to take in less of the village’s agricultural land.
“Now I am one of the people of Bab al-Shams,” said Mr. Khatib, speaking by telephone from the protest site. “We want to stay here forever.”
Mr. Khatib said that the police were stopping people and supplies from entering the site, but that the campers had come prepared. He added that if the Israeli security forces came to evict the protesters, “we will resist in our nonviolent way.”
Israel says that most of the E1 area is Israeli land. Protest leaders said they had set up their encampment on a parcel of land owned by a Palestinian family from A-Tur, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. They added that the landowners had given their full permission for the encampment and had joined the activists at the site.
About 25 tents were set up Friday, including one serving as a clinic and one for the “village administration,” according to Abir Kopty, a spokeswoman for the coordination committee, who also spoke by phone from the encampment.
“We call this a village, not an outpost,” Ms. Kopty said, “because there is a huge difference between Palestinians living on their own land and settlers building illegally on our occupied land.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said in a statement: “This initiative is a highly creative and legitimate nonviolent tool to protect our land from Israeli colonial plans. We have the right to live anywhere in our state, and we call upon the international community to support such initiatives.”
Pakistan's politicians smell plot to derail polls in cleric's march plans
Parties fear that Tahir-ul-Qadri's million man march to protest against corruption could threaten first peaceful transfer of power
Jon Boone in Islamabad
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013
A Muslim cleric's plan to stage a "million man march" against political corruption in Pakistan's capital city next week has triggered consternation among political parties who fear a plot to derail the country's first ever democratic transfer of power in upcoming elections.
Tahir-ul-Qadri, the religious leader who dramatically returned to Pakistan last month after years of living in Canada, has said he will turn Islamabad into "Tahrir Square" – the area in Cairo that became the epicentre of Egypt's revolution last year.
"This is not a matter of coming for one day and then dispersing," he told the Guardian. "We will sit there until our demands are fulfilled so that the election will be guaranteed to be fair, honest and free of all corrupt practices."
Qadri, a religious moderate and an expert on Islamic law who once sat in the Pakistani parliament, has been compared by some to the Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare. His organisation Minhaj-ul-Quran has deep roots in Pakistan, with a network of hundreds of schools.
He said his demands for reform would bring about "true democracy". They include the appointment of a caretaker government that is not appointed by Pakistan's current crop of politicians, and the disqualification of any parliamentary candidates who have broken the law or not paid their taxes.
He said otherwise there would be "massive pre-poll rigging" and the same powerful political parties and families would be re-elected, returning a governing class that has "totally failed to deliver".
He insisted that all his demands could be achieved without needing to delay the elections, due to be called after the government completes its term in just two months.
But established politicians are not convinced. They fear the presence of hundreds of thousands of protesters in the capital could create an excuse either for a military takeover or, more likely, the establishment of a technocratic caretaker government largely appointed by the army that could remain in place far longer than the 90 days that the constitution allows.
Ayaz Amir, an MP and newspaper columnist said his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif (the PML-N), had the most reason to fear Qadri.
"They really believe that victory is theirs in the next election and they see Qadri as a manoeuvre, put up by the establishment, to derail the process and the election outcome. It's all very vague in their minds, but the paranoia is there."
Political uncertainty is rising in any event, with militant groups using the past few weeks to dramatically escalate their bloody attacks.
Thursdaywas one of the most violent days in months, when more than 120 people were killed by three bomb attacks in two different parts of the country. More than 90 people died in the city of Quetta alone when an extremist Sunni terror group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi used two suicide bombers to attack a crowded snooker club.
While Qadri has talked of potentially millions of people joining him on his march on Islamabad, even conservative estimates have put the likely figure at hundreds of thousands, which would put severe strain on even the capital's grand avenues and test the organisational powers of Qadri's movement.
The government, led by the Pakistan People's party (PPP), has spent days hatching increasingly ingenious ways to try to scupper the cleric's plans.
Earlier, senior officials tried to encourage Qadri to hold his rally in sprawling parkland far away from the centre of Islamabad. Meanwhile, roads leading to symbolic areas, such as parliament and the embassy quarter, have been sealed off by shipping containers.
More recently, the government has significantly toughened its stance. The interior minister, Rehman Malik, appeared at a press conference brandishing intelligence reports showing militant plans to attack the procession and rally. The Pakistani Taliban has denied that it intends to try to disrupt the march.
Malik also warned marchers of the lesser threats posed by the unusually cold weather that has hit Pakistan this winter and the threat of being bitten by snakes.
In addition, he announced a ban on rallies in the commercial district of the city and claimed the march would be blocked from entering Islamabad unless organisers obtained a "no objection certificate" – which only the government can provide.
"We will not succumb to any illegal demand from Qadri and we want to tell him elections will be held on time, the path of progress would continue," he said.
The PPP, which has been heavily criticised for incompetence and corruption, regards the completion of a full five years in office as a historic achievement. If elections go ahead as planned, it will be the first time in Pakistan's 65-year history that one democratically elected administration has handed over to another without interruption by military rule.
Addressing a televised press conference on Thursday, Qadri said he was "not afraid of bombs and bullets" and that he would sign a will before he departed from Lahore on Sunday.
"The march will take place at any cost," he said. "The government has lost all the right to rule."
But the government's most effective weapon has been behind the scenes dealing with its key coalition ally, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Altaf Hussain, the London-based head of the MQM, created consternation within the PPP when he announced that his party would join the march.
Many commentators argued that it was ludicrous for part of the governing coalition to join a protest against government corruption, although Hussain continued to escalate his rhetoric, even threatening to launch a "political drone strike", which many interpreted as a plan to quit the government.
In the end, a two-hour speech delivered by Hussain by telephone from London on Thursday produced no "drone strike". On Friday the party announced that it would not attend the march after all, citing security threats.
The withdrawal of support by the MQM means all of the country's major parties, including the PML-N faction and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, have closed ranks against Qadri.
Obama hints at accelerated pullout after talks with Karzai on Afghan future
Presidents hammer out post-2014 details and open door for small number of troops to stay on to assist in advisory role
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013
Barack Obama and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai came close to sealing a deal at the White House on Friday that would keep a small US force in the country after the pullout of most international forces at the end of 2014.
Obama also hinted that that pullout may be accelerated, citing a speedier than predicted handover to Afghanistan security forces this spring.
"That doesn't mean that coalition forces, including US forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops," Obama said. "It does mean, though, that Afghans will have taken the lead, and our presence, the nature of our work, will be different. We will be in a training, assisting, advising role."
There are 66,000 US troops and 33,000 Nato and other international forces left in Afghanistan.
An early return of troops, with only a vestige of the force left behind in 2014, would be popular in the US where there is little enthusiasm – or, in some cases, even interest – in the war.
Visits by Karzai to Washington in the past have been fractious, and Obama looked tired on Friday after hours of negotiation. But both men made sufficient concessions to pave the way for a bilateral security agreement to keep US troops in Afghanistan post-2014. No agreement was reached on the precise number, with estimates ranging from between 3,000 to 9,000.
A deal with Afghanistan would contrast with Iraq, where Obama was criticised for failing to secure a deal to retain a military presence in the country after formal withdrawal. Republicans, in particular, saw this as scant reward for US involvement in Iraq.
The sticking point for the US, which pulled the last of its forces from Iraq in December 2011, was the refusal of the Iraqi government to guarantee immunity from prosecution for American forces stationed in the country – and this issue cropped up again with Karzai.
As part of the negotiations, Karzai managed to wring from Obama a series of concessions, including a faster timetable for withdrawal of international forces from Afghan villages, their presence being a frequent source of tension. He also secured the transfer of Afghan detainees held by international forces to Afghanistan government control.
Karzai, in a fairly emollient mood compared with some previously testy visits to Washington, told the White House press conference: "With those issues resolved, I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for US troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised, Afghan law will not be compromised."
Obama, at the press conference, was anxious to emphasise that US involvement in Afghanistan was winding down.
"Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission – training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.By the end of next year – 2014 – the transition will be complete. This war will come to a responsible end," Obama said.
Asked if the war had been worth it, Obama opted for a few minutes of reflection. "Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal.
"Did we achieve our central goal, and have we been able to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that goal. We are in the process of achieving that goal."
Karzai has been resistant in the past to entering into negotiations with the Taliban, a course advocated by Washington. But Karzai gave ground at the White House, confirming on Friday the long-awaited opening of a Taliban office in Doha to facilitate negotiations.
Obama views the role the US role after 2014 as minimal, the job of small force left behind as simply to advise, train and assist Afghanistan forces in battling al-Qaida and affiliated groups. "It is a very limited mission. It is not one that would require the same kind of footprint obviously that we have had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan."
He confirmed his main concern was to secure immunity for US troops post-2014. "President Karzai's primary concern … is making sure Afghan sovereignty is respected. If we have a follow-on force of any sort past 2014, it has to be at the invitation of the Afghan government and they have to feel comfortable with it.
"I will say, and have said to President Karzai, that we have arrangements like this with countries all around the world, and nowhere do we have any security agreements with a country without immunity agreements for our troops."
Obama added: "It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women operating there are somehow subject to the jurisdiction of another country."
Karzai, in response, signalled he would comply. "The bilateral security agreement is in the interest of both countries. We understand the issue of immunity is of very specific importance for the United States, as was for us the issues of sovereignty and detentions and the continued presence of international forces in Afghan villages and the very conduct of the war itself," he said, adding these had all been satisfactorily resolved.
One of the issues that has caused the US and other international governments engaged in Afghanistan the most angst is the high level of corruption. Asked at the press conference, Karzai remained vague, acknowledging that there is corruption in Afghanistan and that the government was involved. Progress had been made in combating it, Karzai said, but he was not satisfed.
Asked about a promise to protect women's rights, Obama was unequivocal. "The Afghan constitution protects the rights of Afghan women. And the United States strongly believes that Afghanistan cannot succeed unless it gives opportunity to its women. We believe that about every country in the world.
"And so we will continue to voice very strongly support for the Afghan constitution, its protection of minorities, its protection of women. And we think that a failure to provide that protection not only will make reconciliation impossible to achieve, but also would make Afghanistan's long-term development impossible to achieve."
Karzai restricted his response to: "Indeed. Indeed."
Syrian rebels take control of key Assad airbase
Fighters captured the Taftanaz base after months of laying siege as part of rebel strategy to choke off regime's airpower
Martin Chulov in Aleppo province, Luke Harding and Matthew Weaver
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013
Rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad scored a significant victory on Friday when they took control of one of Syria's most important northern airbases, seizing tanks, helicopters and large amounts of ammunition.
Fighters had laid siege to the Taftanaz base near the town of Idlib for months. After seizing several buildings on Wednesday they stormed the sprawling complex on Friday morning. "As of now, the rebels are in full control of the airbase," Idlib-based activist Mohammad Kanaan said.
A video from the scene shows jubilant rebels ripping down a large poster of Assad at the entrance gate. Others wave from the upper story of a barracks. Trucks carry off boxes of ammunition. The bodies of four government soldiers lay sprawled in a muddy pit.
In another video captured Sunni government soldiers claim their Alawite officers fled the base early on Friday, abandoning them. Government forces appear to have removed most of the 60 helicopters stationed at Taftanaz – leaving around 20 that were apparently non-functional.
In recent months the rebels have systematically targeted airbases across the country in an attempt to choke off the government's key military advantage: air power. Taftanaz has been used to launch repeated helicopter strikes against opposition strongholds in nearby Aleppo, Syria's divided northern city, and elsewhere.
Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamist groups spearheaded the Taftanaz attack, punching through when previous attempts had failed. The US claims Jabhat al-Nusra is allied to al-Qaida. The organisation does not deny its al-Qaida links, but is trying to eschew its bloody past in Iraq by engaging in community outreach programmes and avoiding sectarian rhetoric.
The development will alarm western countries, who are increasingly concerned after almost two years of fighting at the rise of Islamist militias in Syria.
Ultimately the seizure may do little to halt airstrikes by government jets, many of which come from bases further south. But it will undoubtedly embolden the rebels, who are still besieging other bases, and whose command structure is improving. The regime responded by launching punitive air strikes on Taftanaz, which lies near the highway between Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said this was the first major military airbase to fall into rebel hands. Kanaan, the Idlib activist, said the rebels seized helicopters, but added that most if not all were already damaged from the fighting. "The regime bombed them to keep the rebels from using them," he said.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said Taftanaz's capture would help the rebels as they try to secure a continuous area in the north. But he played down the broader military significance, pointing out it had taken the rebels many months to take the base. "This is a tactical gain rather than a strategic gain," Sayigh said.
Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab league envoy to Syria, met Russian and US diplomats on Friday in an attempt to find seeking a political solution to the conflict. There was little prospect of a breakthrough. The Syrian government recently accused Brahimi of "flagrant bias" after he suggested that a peace deal would probably only be possible if Assad agreed to step down from power.
As part of the meeting Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov held talks with the US deputy secretary of state William Burns, Washington's top diplomat. Russia has been Syria's most influential ally since the uprising began, providing Assad with diplomatic and military support. But in recent months the Kremlin has concluded that Assad, sooner or later, is finished.
The UN refugee agency said on Friday that it is concerned about the severe winter conditions faced by some 612,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. There has been no let up in the flow of thousands of people a day across the borders, it said, as the region experiences snow and shivering temperatures. At least one million Syrians have been internally displaced, with many in dismal conditions.
"Many of those arriving have been barefoot, with their clothing soaked, and covered in mud and snow," agency spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva, referring to new refugee arrivals in Jordan.
George Osborne warns Britain could pull out of EU
Chancellor offers strongest signal yet about leaving union, after German admonition about 'blackmailing' other members
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 January 2013 16.56 GMT
George Osborne has delivered the strongest warning to date that Britain might be forced to leave the European Union unless a fresh settlement is negotiated by its 27 leaders.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, published after an ally of Angela Merkel criticised the UK for seeking to "blackmail" its partners, Osborne called for change to ensure Britain remains a member of the EU.
His intervention came as the leader of Tory MEPs warned that strident Euroscepticism was in danger of giving the impression of Britain "snarling like a pitbull across the Channel".
In his interview with Die Welt, Osborne said: "I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU. But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change."
The Treasury confirmed that the translation of the interview, which was published in German, was accurate. But a source played down the significance of the chancellor's comments.
"This is consistent with what we have said," a Treasury source said. "We want to remain in the EU but the EU needs to change, and indeed is changing."
The remarks by Osborne were consistent with the approach David Cameron will set out in his long-awaited speech on Europe later this month. The prime minister will say that the current terms of British membership are unacceptable and they must be renegotiated. He is expected to say that a "new settlement", in which powers would be repatriated, should be put to British voters in a referendum.
But the intervention by the chancellor is the clearest signal to date by a minister that Britain may find it has no choice but to leave if acceptable new terms cannot be renegotiated. His remarks follow the warning last month in the Guardian by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, Britain's former permanent representative to the EU, that the Tory strategy "could lead to our leaving by accident".
The chancellor's interview was published as the leader of Tory MEPs warned of the dangers in the leadership's strategy. Richard Ashworth told a seminar organised by the Business for New Europe group and the European parliament: "We're raising the tempo so that expectations are becoming too great." He warned that Britain was making itself "pretty unattractive and difficult to work with".
Osborne's remarks came a day after the chair of Germany's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum, warned that Britain should not seek to blackmail its EU partners. Krichbaum, a Merkel ally in the CDU party, said: "You cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states. That will not help Britain. It needs a Europe that is stable. It needs markets that are functioning."
01/11/2013 06:39 PM
Westerwelle Warning: German Foreign Minister Urges Britain to Stay in EU
By Severin Weiland
European politicians are nervously awaiting a speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron that they hope will clarify his stance on the country's position in the European Union. Germany's foreign minister is already warning against efforts by the euroskeptic wing of his party to make an exit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is under mounting pressure these days -- at least when it comes to Europe. Given the choice, the euroskeptic wing of his Conservative Party would prefer to bolt the European Union. Later this month, Cameron is expected to hold a major speech about Britain's position in Europe, one that could provide insight into where his conservative-liberal coalition government will steer London in the future and the price it will charge for Britain to remain a part of the EU.
The increasingly shrill tone of the domestic debate over the EU is being viewed by politicians in Berlin with concern. "With a view to the current debate over Great Britain's role in the EU, I would say: Germany desires a Great Britain that will remain a constructive and active partner in the EU," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Friday.
With his comments, Westerwelle sought to address growing demands from some political camps in Britain demanding that the country leave the 27-nation bloc. "As has been the case so far, the European house will also have different levels of integration, but we would like a deeper and better EU of 27, with Great Britain," the foreign minister said.
On Monday, Michael Link, a minister of state in the German Foreign Ministry, and British Europe Minister David Lidington are scheduled to meet in Berlin as part of the third annual German-British consultation between deputy ministers from the two countries who deal with EU issues.
In a BBC interview, Cameron recently ensured that Great Britain wants to remain a full member of the EU. But if his government is to provide its support for the deeper integration of the euro zone, of which Britain is not a member, then he also wants a few demands fulfilled in exchange. Among other things, he wants to see the European Working Time Directive, which codifies vacation rights and limits working hours, eliminated. He also wants to curb access of EU migrants to the British social system.
Most recently, Cameron rejected the European fiscal pact that had been championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has since been implemented. The pact went into effect in January and stipulates that signatories implement so-called debt brake balanced-budget legislation by the end of the year and to accept automatic sanctions if they violate those deficit rules. The only EU member states that have not signed on to the fiscal pact are Britain and the Czech Republic.
Washington Also Expresses Concern
A potential secession from the EU has long been a classic element of the domestic political debate in Britain. Cameron himself has offered his most vociferous critics in his party a referendum on the country's EU membership, most recently last October. Such a vote, he said at the time, would be the best way to reach a new agreement with the EU.
The right wing of the Conservative Party has been particularly tenacious in their demands for a referendum. Additional pressure has been heaped on the prime minister by the success of the right-wing United Kingdom Independent Party, which is currently the third-strongest party in public opinion polls.
Cameron, who would like to see his country remain in the EU club, is in a difficult spot. Whereas a significant chunk of his party is opposed to Brussels, wary of EU bureaucracy and afraid that Britain is losing its national sovereignty, the country's economic success depends on its close ties with Europe. Indeed, leading members of the British business community this week warned Cameron in an ad in the Financial Times against attempting to renegotiate the country's membership terms. Such a plan could damage business relations, they said.
The US also views with concern the anti-EU course currently being charted in London. US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon warned London this week against seceding from the EU. "We have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has a growing voice in the world -- and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union," he said. "That is in the American interest."
Just how important Europe -- and particularly Germany -- is to the British economy was made clear recently by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne during a visit to Berlin. "More than half of all British exports go to the EU," Osborne said in an interview with the German daily Die Welt. "We sell more to North Rhine-Westphalia than we do to India. British companies employ 200,000 people in Germany with 400,000 Britons working for German companies in Great Britain."
Following a lunch with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, he said he very much hopes that his country will remain in the EU. "But for us to stay in the European Union, the EU must change."
Heseltine: Cameron's EU strategy is an unnecessary gamble
PM's adviser on economic growth warns that government's indecision could stop firms from investing in Britain and cost jobs
Conal Urquhart and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 12 January 2013 10.39 GMT
The prime minister's uncertainty over Britain's relationship with Europe is a dangerous gamble that could cost the country jobs, Lord Heseltine has warned.
Heseltine, an adviser to David Cameron on economic growth, warned him not to take a "punt" by agreeing to hold a referendum on Britain's future in the European Union.
Cameron will make a long awaited speech on the European Union later this month, when he is expected to call for a renegotiation of Britain's membership of the EU and possibly a referendum on Britain's new terms.
The prime minister's strategy derives from the expectation that Germany wants to review the Lisbon treaty. Such a review would allow all other member states to renegotiate parts of the treaty. However, the Guardian reported on Saturday that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has decided not to seek any revisions.
Lord Heseltine told the Financial Times that it was foolish to discuss a referendum on the prospect of negotiations that have yet to happen.
"Mrs Thatcher said 'Never go into a room unless you know how to get out of it,'" he said, "To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn't begun, on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that's unknown, where Britain's appeal as an inward investment market would be the centre of the debate, seems to me like an unnecessary gamble."
This week, the United States intervened in Britain's European debate to warn that it considered the UK's membership of the EU as strategically important. Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs said the US wanted Britain to remain a strong voice in Europe.
Lord Heseltine said the government's indecision could stop companies from investing in Britain. "If I was responsible for inward investment into any of our European colleagues, it would give me the best argument I could dream of," he said. "Why put your factory [in Britain] when you don't know – and they can't tell you – the terms upon which you will trade with us in future?"
Douglas Alexander, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, said the chorus of criticism of the prime minister's approach to Europe was growing."At a time when the priority should be jobs and growth, the prime minister sadly seems willing to put vital UK investment at risk for the sake of trying to keep his party united," he said.
"Starting the year by edging Britain towards exit simply undermines confidence and prospects for growth. British business and even the prime minister's own adviser recognise this – when will he?"
Cameron's EU strategy falters as Merkel backtracks on treaty renegotiation
German chancellor's move comes less than two weeks before prime minister's landmark speech on European Union
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 11 January 2013 19.45 GMT
David Cameron's entire European strategy has been thrown into doubt less than two weeks before his landmark speech on the European Union as Germany backs away from initiating negotiations that would give Britain a chance to claw back some powers from the EU.
Amid growing German rhetoric against British Eurosceptics – including a warning that they are seeking to "blow up" the EU's single market – diplomatic sources said Angela Merkel was abandoning plans to call for a major revision of EU treaties.
The chancellor's move will come as a blow to the prime minister, who is expected to say in his long-awaited EU speech, due to be delivered in the Netherlands on 22 January, that he would use a major treaty revision to renegotiate the terms of British membership.
In common with every member state, Britain would have a veto in the negotiations which Cameron would use to create a new settlement. He would then put this to the British people in a referendum if he won the general election in 2015.
It is understood that Merkel, the only EU leader who has been calling for a revision of the Lisbon treaty to underpin new governance arrangements for the eurozone, has given up on the idea of a major treaty revision for the moment.
The German chancellor is said to have decided it is fruitless to push for a treaty revision in the face of strong opposition from France and elsewhere. Instead she has decided to try to stabilise the eurozone by setting up what are described as "work streams" in three areas. These cover banking union, the subject of the last EU summit where Cameron won guarantees for Britain; greater fiscal co-ordination among eurozone members; and labour market reform across the EU.
But Britain made it clear on Friday that it still expects an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of its membership when George Osborne warned that the UK might be forced to leave the EU if the existing settlement is left unchanged.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, which took place on Tuesday before a Merkel ally criticised the UK for seeking to "blackmail" its partners, Osborne said: "I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU. But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change."
The Treasury confirmed that the translation of the interview was accurate, though a source played down the significance of the chancellor's comments. "This is consistent with what we have said," the source said. "We want to remain in the EU but the EU needs to change, and indeed is changing."
But Germany is showing growing irritation with Britain. Georg Boomgaarden, the German ambassador to London, dismissed the Eurosceptics' belief that Britain faces a choice between "pick-and-choose or out".
The ambassador told the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland: "This is really a choice between out and out … If you pick and choose you blow up the single market."
Boomgaarden's intervention follows the warning by the chairman of the Bundestag's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum, that Britain should not seek to blackmail its EU partners.
Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs, spoke out against a referendum on Wednesday as he said that Washington wanted Britain to remain a "strong voice" in the EU.
The leader of the Conservative MEPs warned that strident Euroscepticism was in danger of giving the impression of Britain "snarling like a pitbull across the Channel". Richard Ashworth told a seminar organised by the Business for New Europe group and the European parliament: "We're raising the tempo so that expectations are becoming too great." He warned that Britain was making itself "pretty unattractive and difficult to work with".
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "This week British business, then the Americans and then the Germans, joined a growing chorus of concern about the real risk of David Cameron pushing Britain towards exit from Europe. This is not a prime minister in control of the agenda, or even of his party. It is weakness and not principle that is now driving David Cameron's thinking, yet sadly he seems intent on putting the unity of his party over the best interests of the country.
"Labour are clear that any decision on a referendum should be based on changes in Europe, not movements in the polls. We believe Britain's interests are best served by focusing on reform in Europe, not exit from Europe."
British officials are familiar with Merkel's thinking on a treaty revision. They believe that after the European Central Bank's success governor Mario Draghi in stabilising the euro, Merkel sees less urgency in formalising arrangements for a fiscal union.
But they believe the basic idea that eurozone governance arrangements will need greater democratic accountability underpinned in an EU treaty will eventually come to the fore again. "Europe is dealing with an existential crisis," one British source said.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, showed Liberal Democrat unease about the prime minister's plans which he described as a "massive disruption". He said: "I have to say that this whole issue of raising again in a fundamental way British membership and the terms of membership is a massive disruption and deeply unhelpful in my job. I have to spend my time talking to business people, British and international, trying to have the confidence to invest here and create employment and the recent uncertainly is just deeply uncomfortable for the country. I think the warning shot across the bows yesterday from the United States was actually quite helpful as well as very timely."
Czech Republic: Who will be next in the Prague Castle?
11 January 2013
Later this month, the Czechs will elect their first president by universal suffrage. In a country with a long history of strong leaders, the role has often taken on more importance than was codified in the constitution, running the risk of weakening the state, says Respekt.
By way of introduction, let’s set a little test. Which politicians do you remember from the era of the First Republic? Or even the dark period of communism, and the beginning of the 1990s as well? The names that almost always pop up first are Masaryk, Beneš, Gottwald, Husák and Havel. In other words, presidents, and this despite the fact that the Czechoslovak and later the Czech system is not a presidential system (although the Communists made a bit of a mess of that).
Over the last hundred years, the head of state played a much greater historical role than fell to them under the constitution. That’s something that those who believe the presidential election is merely a sideline ought to reflect on.
The first half of the 20th Century is particularly instructive. Czechoslovakia wanted to be the Republic of Masaryk [president from 1918-1935] and Beneš [1935-1948], but ultimately little of that was left standing. Both men were exceptional in many ways, but their image created a picture of a state that was glossier than the reality.
Levers of Communist Party power
This also prevented the much needed building of working institutions that would survive their founders. Without Masaryk, the Republic was suddenly shrunk to half of what it was, as if it had lost its rudder. Edvard Beneš took it over at a time when he was unable to exert much influence over the future of the country.
The second half of the 20th Century gets interesting after the start of the 1990s. Communist presidents were not representatives of the public, but were the levers of Communist Party power. Worth noting, however, was that, for Klement Gottwald [1948-1953], becoming president was more important than becoming prime minister. Gottwald grasped very well that the head of state would be revered, even idolised, by the people.
After 1989, we again came very close to a semi-presidential system. The popularity and power of Václav Havel [1989-2003] was so huge that initially its influence penetrated every sphere. Fortunately, though, the situation was quickly balanced. When Havel attempted to assert greater influence at the expense of Parliament in the early 1990s, he was thoroughly and rightly rebuffed. Luckily for Václav Havel, he had Václav Klaus [2003-2013]. Klaus was a politician of whom he had little understanding and with whom he had to struggle for influence.
Returning to earth
Havel, however reluctantly, soon accepted that he had lost because in the Czech government it is the cabinet that governs, not the president. Havel then withdrew behind well marked-off boundaries. From the perspective of building a constitutional tradition, however, that was a good thing. More importantly, though, was that Havel tried to bring the office of the president down to earth.
He was the first Czech head of state who wanted to break with the monarchist tradition. The best proof of that is the monumental documentary film Citizen Havel, in which he allowed its creators to capture moments of weakness and vanity, which people generally do not admit even to themselves, let alone to the public.
The disadvantage to his successor, Václav Klaus, was that, unlike Havel, Klaus had no such strong opponent, and no one tried very hard to confine Klaus within the boundaries laid down by the Constitution. He was the one to decide who would go and who would stay in government. He vetoed one law after another, attacked the independence of the judiciary, had a huge influence on Czech foreign policy, and took steps to encourage some governments to fall.
So, according to our history, the choice of the next president will determine if we are going to look for a man who will feel that he is above the system or be part of it. History has taught us that we should seek a person who will respect the separation of powers, will know his position in the constitutional system, and will not encourage the people to think that he will be a saviour or sacred autocrat of the political scene.
However, Miloš Zeman [current front-runner in the polls and former prime minister] meets none of those criteria. Under his government [during the years 1998-2002], systemic corruption was greater than it is today. Zeman sought to restrict democratic competition, and was blocked by the Constitutional Court. Offending Germans, Austrians and Slovaks with his carefree arrogance, our relations with our neighbours reached their lowest point.
Thanks to Zeman, the Czechs were slapped with the label of most difficult and least reliable partner by our NATO allies, and the European Union noted in its evaluation reports that practices in the Czech Republic were incompatible with democracy.
The first direct presidential election is fielding many interesting candidates. Too many, in a way. Of those who have put themselves forward, two candidates – Zuzana Roithová and Karel Schwarzenberg – meet the criteria outlined above.
Every voter has a different preference, but it would surely be a shame not to take advantage of this unique opportunity to nudge Czech politics in a better direction.
Election campaign: The Schwarzenberg phenomenon
Noting that the foreign minister has received a massive outpouring of support in the last days of the campaign, Lidové noviny asks if Karel Schwarzenberg might not turn out to be the “dark horse” that nobody considered the favourite but who wins the race in the end. Schwarzenberg, the paper adds, is –
the only one of the nine candidates who is already familiar with Prague Castle, where he served as Chancellor under former President Vaclav Havel after the 1989 revolution. He has been the only one able to bring any excitement to the campaign and get the whole crowd gathered in a square in Prague [at a meeting] to break out in applause.
Schwarzenberg has the backing of most Czech newspapers and influential media personalities. “He has the ability to defend the interests of the Czech Republic with clarity and dignity,” explains economist Jan Švejnar, who has withdrawn from the presidential race. “For Czechs, he offers a wonderful personal story bound up with Czechoslovakia and with the Czech Republic.”
While Karel Schwarzenberg's appeal is strongest in Prague, the front-runner is still Miloš Zeman, notes Lidové noviny. As for the former Prime Minister Jan Fischer, who was criticised at the end of the campaign for carrying his Communist Party card right up until 1989, he seems to be losing steam and is no longer assured of making it through to the second round.
Portugal: Government heads for end of the line
10 January 2013
José Filipe Pinto
In requesting that the constitutional court re-examine the state budget for 2013, president Cavaco Silva runs the risk of plunging his country into a political crisis, warns a researcher and political analyst. As a result, the Portuguese people may be called on to take responsibility for the remedy chosen to cure the country’s economic ills.
In accordance with the law, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva had three options, each of which had different implications, when responding to the state budget presented to him by the government.
In choosing a median solution, which consisted of approving the budget, while, at the same time, requesting that it be retrospectively examined by the constitutional court, the president was probably unaware that his decision, which he considered to be a judgement worthy of Solomon, effectively amounted to announcing “Terminus, everybody off” for Pedro Passos Coelho’s government, even if it did not derail it immediately.
If the constitutional court invalidates the three articles singled out by the president, the executive will have to find another means to collect the sum of $1.7bn (€1.3bn) which these measures were supposed to generate. Without this revenue, the government runs the risk of being unable to complete its programme, which is also an indispensable condition for the financing of the country stipulated in the memorandum signed with the troika FMI-BCE-UE.
If the programme is not completed, there will be no release of the tranches of cash that Portugal so desperately craves – for proof, look no further than the dark circles under the finance minister’s eyes.
Where to find the money?
And this is the crux of the problem! When you consider the unbearable weight of the tax burden already weighing on the population, and when you take into account that the measures adopted to combat the black economy (which are wholly justified in my opinion) will not yield immediate results, or, what would have been better still, retroactive results, you have to ask: where can the government hope to find such a sum?
Sadly, the answer to this question will likely be one that Passos Coelho, who fought so hard to gain power, will have no desire to hear: the train will grind to halt, and the government will find no other means to bring in revenue.
In this situation, Pedro will have virtually no option but to retun home to [his wife] Laura – the price that has to be paid for the familiarity of his Christmas message on Facebook – once he has presented his resignation to Cavaco Silva, leaving him to sort out the problem.
The solution could be for the president to demonstrate a greater commitment (for example by nominating a government, as [Portugal’s first post-dictatorship] president Ramalho Eanes did in his time), or by calling for early general elections, which would force the people, regardless of whether they like it or not, to take responsibility for the austerity cure.
Having said that, there is no guarantee that the electorate, if called on prematurely to vote, will grant a majority to a single party, and given that governmental instability is not necessarily compatible with the handover of the tranches that the state needs to fulfill its obligations, Pedro Passos Coelho will certainly not be the only victim of this crisis. Late in the day and in the wake of harsh criticism of his silence, Cavaco Silva, has finally decided to speak his mind in a speech that was rich in ambiguity. As for the opposition, already beguiled by the vision of a path to power, it has put its own interest ahead of the interests of the nation.
End of Portuguese political model?
With all eyes fixed on this Greek tragedy, the country understands that there is more at stake than the political condemnation of the current government, what we are seeing is the end of the Portuguese political model, or the end of our way of doing politics in Portugal.
The persistent presence in the corridors of power of a restricted political class that has no vision of the national interest – and the penury of voices that are gifted with incantatory force – has allowed the right to take control of politics.
Portugal will not thank those responsible for what they have done!
Debate: IMF proposals could be against the constitution
"IMF pour more fuel on to the constitutional fire," writes Público a day after Jornal de Negócios reported details of an 80 page document sent to the Portuguese government by the IMF, in which the Fund suggests a list of permanent cuts in wages, pensions and redundancies in the public sector.
These recommended measures have the potential to spark even more constitutional debate in the country, notes the newspaper, which spoke to two constitutional experts. Both considered the following reforms “likely to be unconstitutional”: The permanent cut of 15 per cent of all pensions, the payment of the 13th and 14th month salaries being linked to GDP growth, the increase of the retirement age from 65 to 66, the new calculation formula for future and current pensioners and permanent salary cuts to civil servants.
In its editorial Público writes that –
The IMF document takes two contradictory approaches. On one hand, it suggests that interest groups are responsible for the fact that state spending has created inequality and also shows how state inefficiency punishes the citizen. But, on the other hand, the bulk of the IMF proposals are redundancies and wage cuts in the public sector or cuts in pensions. And then, the debate goes back to a point where we have been before: What are we really talking about when we speak of state "excess"? The conversation is serious and unavoidable.
January 11, 2013
Unions Back Revisions of Labor Law in France
By LIZ ALDERMAN
PARIS — French labor unions and business leaders struck a deal on Friday to overhaul swaths of France’s notoriously rigid labor market, moving to tame some of the most confounding rules in the 3,200-page labor code as the country tries to increase its competitiveness and curb unemployment.
The changes would include giving employers more flexibility to reduce working hours in times of economic distress without incurring union strikes. High levels of compensation that courts can award to laid-off workers would be trimmed. The five-year period that former employees now have to contest layoffs would be reduced, a shift that Medef, France’s employers’ union, said would “reduce the fear of hiring” by businesses.
President François Hollande has said the changes are needed to burnish France’s international allure as a place to do business, and the accord capped weeks of sparring among the five top labor unions and Medef.
The labor measures would help address what Louis Gallois, Mr. Hollande’s investment commissioner, has called a “two-speed” labor market in France. Under that system, employees on long-term contracts enjoy extensive, costly job protections and benefits, while temporary workers, whose ranks have surged to a third of the French labor force, have minimal job security and relatively few benefits.
In November, the government introduced a tax credit for companies, potentially worth a total of 20 billion euros ($26 billion), aimed at easing high employment costs. In exchange, business negotiators agreed on Friday, as a concession to unions, to pay higher taxes for short-term work contracts. Two hard-line unions, the Confédération générale du travail and the Force Ouvrière, rejected the offer as insufficient and refused to sign the deal, which was nonetheless binding because France’s three other main labor unions backed it. A formal agreement will be signed next week.
The tax would help expand government coffers meant to support the unemployed while also nudging employers toward favoring long-term contracts. Employers would also pay somewhat higher contributions for private health insurance.
The deal “will change life for businesses in France,” Laurence Parisot, the president of Medef, said in a statement. “This marks the advent of a culture of compromise after decades of a philosophy of social antagonism.”
The negotiations were clouded recently by a series of public episodes, including a government threat to nationalize an ArcelorMittal plant in France to preserve jobs. There was also the decision in the last week by the French actor Gérard Depardieu to take Russian citizenship to escape a proposed 75 percent marginal tax rate on incomes of more than 1 million euros ($1.3 million).
Whether any of the changes will come fast enough to fix France’s problems is an open question. Some economists say that France could become the next sick nation of Europe if it does not improve the environment for investment and hiring.
“Given the gap we still have between the level of labor market regulation in France and in countries like the United States, Britain and Ireland, it is very clear that when observers look at the outcome, they will say it’s a step in the right direction, but not enough,” said Dominique Barbet, the European economist for BNP Paribas in Paris.
“But we also need to keep in mind that in France, if you want to make reforms, you have to go through small steps first,” he said. “You can’t try to change the system overnight. That usually results in mass protests in the streets.”
Mr. Hollande’s government is expected to sign off on the deal. He has said it will help him keep a promise of reducing unemployment, now at a 13-year high of 10.7 percent, by the end of the year. Youth unemployment is about 25 percent. By contrast, unemployment in Germany, which last decade made deeper cuts to labor costs and regulations than France is doing, is at 6.9 percent and joblessness among the young is around 8 percent.
Mr. Hollande sought the accord after Mr. Gallois issued a stark assessment of the French economy in November, saying the country needed a “competitiveness shock” that would require politicians to curb the “cult of regulation” that Mr. Gallois said was choking business.
Under current labor rules, many entrepreneurs in France hesitate to hire large numbers of workers. Some employers even resort to operating several companies with no more than 49 employees each instead of running larger ones that employ hundreds. That is because after the 50th employee is hired, a stack of new regulations come into play, including long firing procedures even for underperforming employees and requirements for numerous union representatives.
Temporary contracts fall on the other end of the scale: they are often lower paid and offer far fewer protections, something that has alarmed French labor unions. More than 80 percent of new contracts issued in France are short term, a trend that has grown steadily as employers turn to them to escape the costly rules protecting permanent workers.
Mr. Gallois’s report said that unless France relaxed its labor rules, the country would continue on an industrial decline that destroyed more than 750,000 jobs in a decade and helped shrink France’s share of exports to the European Union to 9.3 percent from 12.7 percent. The report also called for cuts to business taxes used to pay for government and France’s costly social safety net.
While it will take time for any changes to take effect, France has already taken steps that could help it skirt the worst in coming years. A fiscal consolidation begun in 2010 is continuing, in which tax increases and spending cuts are being applied to bring the overall budget deficit down to 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, from an estimated 4.5 percent in 2012.
“What’s most important is that France get an economic recovery,” said Mr. Barbet, of BNP Paribas. “If we don’t have that, people won’t hire no matter what the new labor rules are.”