Saturday, February 28, 2009

How to annoy someone from Central or Eastern Europe

Stefan Wagstyl


February 27

Seen from London and other places that might still be called the commanding heights of global finance, the countries of eastern Europe look much of a muchness. With the big exception of Russia, the rest tend to merge when viewed by crisis-weary traders glued to their screens. Sell one, sell all has been the motto. And down they all have gone – the Polish zloty, the Romanian leu and the benighted Ukrainian hryvnia.

Journalists too, including this one, often put everything together under one headline. “Turmoil over eastern Europe”, “Eastern Europe fears trigger rush for safety”, and so on. With little space and time what else can be done?

All this irritates friends in Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest. They cannot understand why, if they take the trouble to distinguish Spain from Portugal and Belgium from the Netherlands, west Europeans struggle to separate Czechs from Slovaks and Ukrainians from Russians (though the last one can be tricky since there are Ukrainians who think they are Russians).

In the crisis this matters. Countries doing better than their neighbours – Poland, for example – hate to be lumped with those that are not, such as debt-laden Hungary. So they plead for differentiation from bankers (and journalists). But they cannot go too far in emphasising the distinctions for fear of criticising their neighbours’ policies – and finance officials are normally too polite to do that.

So, it was a bit surprising to hear Jacek Rostowski, the very polite Polish finance minister, last week comparing his nation’s finances with Hungary’s. Explaining why he was not relaxing the budgetary purse strings, he told parliament: “There is some danger that going in the direction of increasing the deficit, we would end up like Hungary.” To make sure dozy backbenchers got the message, he said: “We are looking for a Polish answer to a Polish problem.”

Mojmir Hampl, deputy governor of the Czech central bank, struck a similar note this week. Writing in the FT, he said: “Some countries east of the Danube are suffering under the burden of huge franc-, dollar- or euro-denominated debts, accumulated either by the government or by the private sector, or both.”

Even if they are being rude about the neighbours, they are right to say important distinctions are lost. In financial terms, the region divides into three categories. First come Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia (readers unfamiliar with the territory should note that the last two are not the same, even though one regional financial institution once mixed them up, illustrating a report on Slovakia with a map of Slovenia, or perhaps it was the other way around.) These four states insist they have their external and fiscal positions under control and believe they can contain emerging difficulties in banking. No way are they going to the International Monetary Fund.

Next come countries with potential difficulties financing their external deficits, including Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania. One or more may have to go to the IMF. Finally, there are Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine with problems so urgent they are already on IMF support.

All except Ukraine are inside the European Union, which is of considerable help, even when some rich western EU members have been unenthusiastic about a whip-round for eastern Europe. Slovakia and Slovenia are also in the eurozone. The rest would like to join them but may have to wait until the storm blows over, when, for some, it might be too late.

More is at stake than weathering the crisis. These countries have never liked being lumped together as eastern Europe. The phrase is geographically inaccurate as Europe’s cartographic centre lies in Poland, Lithuania or Belarus (depending on whom you ask). Central Europe suits the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians quite well. But it cannot be stretched to include Ukraine or Bulgaria.

Historically, the region is divided by fault lines – between Slav and non-Slav peoples, between western Christendom and Orthodoxy, and between the region’s former empires – Russia, Germany, Turkey and Austria-Hungary.

In fact the only time the region was united was under communism, when the distinction between unfree eastern Europe and free western Europe was painfully real. After the fall of communism, countries are becoming diverse as the common socialist experience fades. Joining the EU has not blurred these distinctions any more than it has made Frenchmen out of Germans. Quite the opposite, the liberty to rediscover the past and build an independent future has increased the variety of life.

Even casual visitors, except perhaps the participants of British stag parties, cannot fail to appreciate each country’s special characteristics: the easy charm of Prague, the grandeur of Budapest, or the half-French half-Oriental corners of Bucharest. In remote places, each nation’s uniqueness is even more apparent – in the painted monasteries of northern Transylvania, the old mosque in Pecs, in Hungary, and the wooden churches of the Carpathian mountains in Poland. Hungry tourists cannot eat in an “East European” restaurant because there aren’t any. They must choose between Hungarian (or Romanian, Polish etc) and the ubiquitous Italian. Nor can they wash down their food with “East European” beer or “East European” wine.

In fact, among the few benefits of the “Crisis in Eastern Europe” is that currency swings have made these pleasures cheaper now for most west Europeans. Except, of course, for the British, but that is another story.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Haitians Look for Shift in Immigration Policy

MIAMI — Vialine Jean Paul has noticed a change when she drops her 7-year-old daughter off at school each morning in recent weeks. Her daughter, Angela, is not sure that her mother will be back to pick her up.

“She tells me, ‘Mommy, good luck,’ ” Mrs. Jean Paul said, choking back tears. “She asks me, ‘Mommy, if you go to Haiti, what will happen to me?’ ”

Though Angela does not know it, the hopes of tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants and their relatives have become fixed on her mother’s fate. Mrs. Jean Paul is one of more than 30,000 Haitian citizens who have been ordered deported from the United States. Her case could be an early test of whether the Obama administration will break with the strict immigration enforcement policies of the Bush administration.

After an estimated 1,000 people were killed in mudslides in Haiti last year, the government asked the United States to grant temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants — relief that was extended when Honduras and El Salvador were hit by similar disasters. The designation is intended for countries in such dire trouble that receiving deportees would undermine their stability.

Deportations of Haitians were temporarily suspended last September, while the Bush administration considered the request. In December, the request was denied and the deportations resumed.

Lawyers say hundreds of people were detained, pushing detention centers across Florida beyond capacity. Hundreds of other immigrants were forced to wear electronic monitoring devices.

Advocates for immigrants said the arrests and deportations have taken a toll on Haitian communities, tearing immigrants — whose only crime was entering the United States illegally — from their American spouses and children and condemning them to lives of poverty and violence in a country devastated by political instability and natural disaster.

“They told us they were going after criminal aliens,” said her lawyer, Cheryl Little, referring to the immigration policies of the Bush administration. “Would we be any safer if Vialine were deported? I think not. We are devoting a lot of resources going after the wrong people.”

Mrs. Jean Paul, 35, had not set foot in Haiti since she fled 17 years ago, in the turmoil after a military coup. During her time in this country, she had married an American citizen and devoted herself to taking care of Angela, who suffers from an undiagnosed illness that causes severe headaches and vomiting.

On Feb. 10, the date she was ordered to report for deportation after exhausting efforts to remain in the United States, she was on her way to an immigration office to turn herself in. Then her cellphone rang, and an immigration officer told her that her deportation had been delayed.

Aides to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was reviewing the matter of Haitian deportations.

Meanwhile, the Haitian government has refused to issue travel documents to deportees, and the United States authorities said they were worried that confusion in Haiti over American policy was causing a surge in the numbers of Haitians trying to flee their country.

The Coast Guard intercepted 624 Haitians at sea in January, compared with none in November. Another 214 were intercepted on an overloaded freighter last weekend.

A decision on Ms. Jean Paul’s case is expected March 9.

Saintenese Mentor said her husband, Brice, might not have that long. A former aide at an adult education center and the father of two children born in the United States, he was detained six months ago, Mrs. Mentor said.

Mr. Mentor’s lawyers said the authorities had told them his deportation was imminent.

Mrs. Mentor said her 2-year-old son wakes up crying for his father every night, while her 3-year-old daughter has refused to learn to count or tie her shoes until he comes home.

In the meantime, she said, without her husband’s income, her family is close to losing everything. Their home is in foreclosure, she said, and their bills are months overdue.

“I’m waiting to see what God is going to do,” she said. “I’m only human. I can’t do anymore.”

A State Department official, who asked not to be named because temporary protected status is a Homeland Security matter, said the United States was aware of the hardship caused in Haiti by last year’s storms. He noted that the United States responded with humanitarian assistance, including medical services provided aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge.

But, he said, the United States determined that a strong international presence in Haiti, led by some 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers, gave that country sufficient support to accommodate deportees.

“This is a controversial position,” the official said, acknowledging a flood of letters from Haitian advocates and members of Congress, along with newspaper editorials calling on President Obama to stop the deportations. “But we believed Haiti had the structures on the ground that it needed to solve its problems.”

Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Ray Joseph, disagreed with that assessment. Haiti’s existence has largely been defined by chaos. But the storms, he said, deepened the crisis, fueling runaway inflation and food shortages. He said tens of thousands of storm victims have been left without proper shelter, and the country is plagued by violent crime.

“Haiti had a very, very bad year in 2008,” Mr. Joseph said. “Why send these people back, when we have no place to put them?”

Louiness Petit-Frere exists on the charity of friends, according to his wife and relatives. He was detained six months ago when he and his wife, an American citizen went to request legal status for him. He was deported in January.

“He has no family there,” said his wife, Sherly Desir Petit-Frere, who recently returned from visiting him. “He has no water, no electricity, no work. It’s hell for him.”

Mr. Petit-Frere’s brother, Sgt. Nikenson Pierre Louis, just returned from two combat tours in Iraq.

“All the hard work and fighting I did to defend this country, I feel like none of that mattered,” Sergeant Pierre Louis. “My brother was no criminal. He never got into trouble. And still they threw him back into a shark pool.”

New Bangladesh mass grave found

BBC on-line
February 28

A second mass grave has been found in Bangladesh at the scene of a mutiny by border guards this week which left at least 100 people dead.

The army made the discovery in the border guards' compound in the capital, Dhaka, as they continued the search for dozens of missing officers.

They had found the first grave, thought to hold the bodies of 58 officers killed by the mutineers, on Friday.

The government says there will be no amnesty for the perpetrators.

"We have found another mass grave. This one is in a garden. It's in a corner and well-hidden," fire service operations chief Sheikh Mohammad Shahjalal told AFP news agency.

"We have just started digging and have removed two dead bodies but we are sure there are more. We are not sure how many," he said.

The remains of 70 officers are still unaccounted for.

Lt Gen MA Mubin, the army's second-in-command, said the killers would be punished.

"The BDR [Bangladesh Rifles] troops who took part in these barbaric and grisly acts cannot be pardoned and will not be pardoned," he said in a televised address, AFP reported.

"They will be given exemplary and quick punishment by a special tribunal. The martyrs will be buried with state honours."

Late on Friday, the head of Bangladesh's armed forces pledged support for the government, despite reports of discontent among the military about the way the government had handled the mutiny.

Gen Moin U Ahmed spoke after talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.

Some officers have said the government should have quelled the mutiny by elements of the BDR by force, not talks, arguing this might have saved the lives of some of their colleagues.

Under arrest

They also said they were angry that the government had initially offered the mutineers an amnesty.

However, the government later declared that the men responsible for the deaths would be punished.

"No-one has the right to kill anyone," Sheikh Hasina was later reported as saying.

At least 200 suspected mutineers have been arrested. They were held while trying to escape dressed in civilian clothes from the barracks.

The mutiny was reportedly triggered by a spontaneous row over pay and conditions, although some officials say the revolt may have been planned.

Three days of official mourning began on Friday and will end at midnight on Sunday.

Talks between Iran, Iraq under way

February 27

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (L) and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) listen to the national anthems of their countries during a welcoming ceremony for Talabani before their meeting in Tehran, Iran on February 27, 2009. (UPI Photo/Hossein Fatemi/Fars News Agency) ..
Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (L) and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) listen to the national anthems of their countries during a welcoming ceremony for Talabani before their meeting in Tehran, Iran on February 27, 2009. (UPI Photo/Hossein Fatemi/Fars News Agency) ..

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani began diplomatic talks Friday in Tehran.

The Fars News Agency reported Talabani is being accompanied on his three-day visit to Iran by other top Iraqi government officials including officials from the commerce, power and housing ministry.

Meanwhile, the Iranian half of the diplomatic talks will include Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Energy Minister Parviz Fattah, Minister of Housing and Urban Development Mohammad Saeedikia and Minister of Industries and Mines Ali-Akbar Mehrabian.

Mottaki was on hand Thursday to greet Talabani and his fellow diplomats as they arrived in Iran, the Fars News Agency said.

The news agency said in addition to talks with the Iranian diplomatic group, Talabani is expected to meet with officials like Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi while in Iran.

Pentagon lifts media ban on photos of war dead

Julian E. Barnes
LA Times
February 27, 2009

Reporting from Washington -- The Pentagon has decided to rescind a long-standing prohibition against press coverage of returning war dead, allowing families to say whether news organizations may photograph the arrivals, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday.

The remains of all U.S. service members killed overseas are flown to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base. But photographic images have been prohibited since 1991. The administration of President George W. Bush rigorously enforced the ban, preventing pictures of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan from appearing in news coverage.

  • Photos of military coffins permitted
The new policy will leave it up to the families of slain service members to decide whether to allow the media to photograph the arrival of the remains in Dover.

"My conclusion was, we should not presume to make the decision for the families. We should actually let them make it," Gates said.

The question of media access has deeply divided the military as well as veterans and family groups.

Some favored keeping the ban, and others wanted to give families the option of allowing the media in, said Joyce Raezer, the executive director of the National Military Family Assn.

"We are hoping whatever comes out of this new policy accommodates a variety of wishes," she said.

Gates has assigned a group of Pentagon officials to work out details. Concerns include: what to do if a flight is carrying remains of several service members and families are divided over access, or what services will be provided for families who want to be present for the return.

Many Pentagon officials have worried that opening up Dover will result in pressure on families to go to the base to meet the arriving flights. If they do, Raezer said, the military needs to be prepared with chaplains, counselors and lodging.

"If they are going to open it up to families, do they have the capability of assisting those families?" she said. "There are lots of unanswered questions."

One organization, Military Families United, said a survey of military families found that 84% opposed changing the policy.

"We are pretty disappointed in the president's decision to overturn the ban," said John Ellsworth, the group's president, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. "This is a complete disregard for the will of America's military families and their need for privacy during this solemn moment."

Ellsworth said he would not have wanted to choose whether to leave his grieving family and go to Dover to receive the body of his son, Justin.

"I don't believe my family would have been best served for me to go to Dover," he said. "But I would have felt torn if I had to make the decision."

Gates said he had been opposed to the media ban and first considered dropping it a year ago. At that time, he asked officials to review the prohibition. Those reviewing the policy recommended keeping it unchanged, and Gates decided to accept the recommendation. The Bush White House was not involved in that review, he said.

But the day after President Obama said this month that he wanted to revisit the issue, Gates launched a new, wider review.

"I talked directly with the senior leadership of the services and solicited their views," Gates said. "I'll be perfectly honest about it. There was a division in the building."

Gates said everyone in the military -- on both sides of the issue -- was motivated by trying to help the families of fallen service members.

"People were all trying to do what was right by the families," Gates said. "It just seemed to me that we ought to let the families make that decision."

Israel's Livni-Netanyahu talks end without deal

Rami Amichai


February 27

Israeli right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Tzipi Livni met on Friday but failed to agree on forming a coalition government and left it unclear whether negotiations between their parties would continue.

After meeting for over an hour in Tel Aviv, each came out and blamed the other for lacking the will to compromise and form a broad-based, national unity government. Livni indicated her disappointment with Netanyahu's sceptical approach to peace talks with the Palestinians, which she has led since 2007.

However, neither ruled out further coalition negotiations.

Though outgoing Foreign Minister Livni's Kadima party won a February 10 parliamentary election by one seat from Netanyahu's Likud, neither controls even a quarter of the 120-seat Knesset. The president nominated the latter to try to form a government, on the basis that the new parliament has a right-wing majority.

Netanyahu still has over a month to form a government and has made clear that, while he can do so with right-wing parties, he would prefer a broader administration with the centrists.

Livni said Friday's meeting, held a week after Netanyahu was nominated for the premiership, ended without agreement on matters her party found "fundamental." Among these, Livni has stressed her desire to negotiate for a Palestinian state, something Netanyahu has said is less of a priority for Likud.

Livni said, "A two-state solution is not simply a hollow slogan -- it is the only way in which Israel can remain a democratic, Jewish state and it is the only way in which it can enlist an international coalition that will allow it to act and to confront the Iranian threat and terrorism."

Netanyahu said he was prepared to make major concessions to Livni. "It is clear to all of us that a unity government will force compromises from both sides," he said. "I would have been prepared to go a very long way towards unity."

Netanyahu said he told Livni he intended to continue peace talks with the Palestinians, but did not specify his approach. He has said in the past he will focus on bolstering the economy of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and is keen to set limits on the powers of any Palestinian state before it is established.

2011- the final countdown for American troops in Iraq?

US President Barack Obama annouced in a speech at Camp Lejeune that troops levels in Iraq wilkl be brought down to 50,00 by August 2010 and all forces will be removed by the end of 2011. For some of his fellow Democrats, it is not enough.

See also:


Q+A: Questions about Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan

Here are some key questions surrounding President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq over the next 18 months, which he announced on Friday at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.


There are currently 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama said between 35,000 and 50,000 would remain after August 31, 2010. That means between 92,000 and 107,000 U.S. troops will withdraw over the next 18 months.


The withdrawal is likely to begin slowly because commanders in Iraq want a large force to remain in place for national elections due this December. It would then accelerate in 2010.


The troops will focus on training and supporting Iraqi forces, protecting U.S. diplomats and other civilians, and conducting counter-terrorism operations, officials say.

Although the administration says these forces will not have a "combat mission," a substantial portion will be combat capable. And their tasks, particularly counter-terrorism, raise the prospect they will be involved in some combat.


All U.S. forces have to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 under a security pact agreed between Baghdad and Washington late last year. Obama said he intends to respect that deadline.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, suggested the United States should be prepared to maintain a "modest" military presence to assist Iraqi forces beyond 2011 if asked to do so by Iraq's government.


Not immediately, because the withdrawal is likely to be slow at first and, in the meantime, more U.S. forces will start deploying to Afghanistan. Over time, however, the withdrawal should substantially cut the number of U.S. troops deployed.


Not right away because the costs of removing troops and equipment from Iraq will be substantial. But the Obama administration sees troop cuts in Iraq as one way to reduce the federal deficit and should reap savings over time.

Obama this week estimated he would need $130 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1. The war costs for this fiscal year are estimated at $141.4 billion. But exact comparisons are difficult because Obama has pledged to include more war costs in the Pentagon's regular budget.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Human rights, the good and the wrong records

The 2008 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

Facebook Diplomacy

Washington wants to use the Web 2.0 to win hearts and minds. Trouble is, the tyrants got there first.

Evgeny Morozov
Mar 2, 2009 Issue

Barack Obama came to the White House on a wave of Internet support, so it makes sense that he plans to use the same vehicle as a tool of diplomacy. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said as much earlier this month. "There is no doubt in my mind that we've barely scratched the surface as to what we can use to communicate with people around the world," she said at a Feb. 4 meeting in Washington, D.C. "We are, in my view, wasting time, wasting money, wasting opportunities, because we are not prepared to communicate effectively with what is out there in the business world and the private world."

Clinton is right to be enthusiastic about Web 2.0 tools. They offer the promise of promoting democracy in countries that currently give the United States big geopolitical headaches—particularly Iran, China and Russia. But it's not going to be easy. Tehran, Beijing and Moscow already have a presence on the Internet and in recent months have stepped up their campaigns to manipulate public opinion at home.

The kind of outreach that Clinton is emphasizing can have a significant payoff. At the height of the war in Gaza, Israel's Immigrant Absorption Ministry waged a campaign to recruit an "army of bloggers" made up of polyglot Israelis who could counter anti-Israel sentiment on English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French sites. According to reports in Haaretz, after having registered with the ministry, the volunteers were directed to sites that authorities found "problematic." Volunteers could even sign up for automated alerts urging collective action in reaction to specific articles and polls.

If the U.S. government takes a similar path, it's only logical to assume that the nations it targets will take steps to counter the intervention. American leaders may think that the millions of Russians, Chinese and Iranians who have been heading online in recent years are seeking Western points of view, but their governments are by now well practiced at turning this tendency to their advantage.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that his administration is not going to censor the Internet, but that may be because it has found something more effective: spinning it. The Kremlin uses a private firm, New Media Stars, founded by Konstantyn Rykov, a 29-year-old Duma deputy. Rykov's new media empire includes online news sites, a site for supporters of Vladimir Putin (—"For Putin!"), online games and an Internet TV channel with a pro-Kremlin bent. Navigating these mazes of propaganda and trying to plant effective pro-American messages would be difficult even for a Web-savvy State Department.

In China, both national and local authorities have begun to encourage loose networks of ordinary Netizens to promote government ideology by identifying and countering dissenting opinions on the Web. The practice is so widespread that government-supported commentators are referred to as the "50 cent party" (for the tiny payments some of them receive for their work). Hong Kong's Apple Daily puts the membership of the 50 cent party at 280,000. Under particular pressure are popular Internet portals and news Web sites. According to David Bandurski, a media researcher at the University of Hong Kong, the most important of them are also required to hire their own in-house commentators to counter antigovernment comments that citizens append to articles.

Iran's clerics have also climbed the cyber-learning curve. When the Internet began to catch on earlier this decade, religious teachers tried to supervise the online activities of their young students and promote the use of the Internet mainly for religious study. As access became widespread, this method became untenable. More recently, Iranian cyberspace has begun to mirror the complexity of contemporary Iranian politics, with different factions—religious, paramilitary and secular—competing for influence. To keep up, government and religious institutions have employed armies of bloggers to push their points of view. (The most recent chapter in these information wars is a decision by one of the units of the infamous Iranian Revolutionary Guards to launch 10,000 blogs to counter both secular and competing Shia voices.) The result is a cacophony of warring religious factions. John Kelly, an expert in the Iranian blogosphere at Harvard's Berkman Center, has found that in the last year, the proportion of religious sites among the top 5,000 most-linked Iranian blogs has grown from 16 percent to 31 percent.

What does this mean to the future of Diplomacy 2.0? That so many governments manipulate the Internet to their advantage—all the while still practicing old-fashioned tactics like throwing bloggers in jail—suggests that those who hoped to use cyberspace to promote democracy and American ideals on the cheap may be in for a tough fight. If anything, the Internet may make their jobs harder.

See also:

Ha'aretz - The Army of blogging, word for word

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Obama's address (as prepared) to the joint session of the Congress, Tuesday, February 24.

Two interesting aspects I would like to mention:

One is the promise that:

"by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world"

by encouraging permanent education.

Another one is the soon announcement of

"a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war"

Monday, February 23, 2009

Int'l court to decide on Darfur warrant

Judges at the International Criminal Court said Monday they will announce next week whether they will order the arrest of Sudan's president on charges including genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Prosecutors at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal asked last July for a warrant, accusing Omar al-Bashir of masterminding a campaign of murder, torture and rape by government troops and Arab militias in the Darfur region.

The president would be the first sitting head of state ordered arrested by the court.

But even if the judges issue a warrant on any or all of the 10 charges in their ruling March 4, it remains unlikely al-Bashir will be sent to the court's headquarters in The Hague any time soon. Sudan does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and refuses to hand over suspects.

It is unusual for judges to announce when they plan to publicize such a decision — but they have never previously tackled such a high-profile case since the court started work in 2002.

In a written statement, the three judges on the panel said they announced the date because they were "deeply concerned" at rumors about their decision.

Arab and African nations have lobbied for the court to drop or postpone the case against al-Bashir as his government and rebels seek a peace deal that would end fighting in the vast desert region of Darfur.

The war there began in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against the government complaining of discrimination and neglect. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes.

Sudan's intelligence chief Salah Abdallah has warned the country could revert to hard-line Islamic rule if al-Bashir is indicted.

"Our message to those who stand behind the ICC is that we were Islamic fundamentalists but have become moderate and civilized and this continues to be our conviction," Abdallah said in comments carried Saturday by Sudanese newspapers. "If they press us to return to our past position, we will no doubt return. And if they want us to return into hard-liners anew, that is a simple thing to do. And we are capable of doing it."

The court has launched cases in Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic and Sudan but has only four suspects in its custody, all of them Congolese militia leaders. The first trial started last month, with Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga pleading innocent to charges of recruiting and using child soldiers.

Iraq invites France back to build nuclear plant

Electricity Minister Karim Wahid on Sunday invited France to help Iraq build a nuclear power plant, three decades after Paris constructed a reactor near Baghdad that was bombed by Israeli warplanes.

"We have had very good relationships with French companies," the minister told AFP in an interview.

"I am willing to enter into contacts with the French nuclear agency and to start to build a nuclear power plant, because the future is nuclear," he said. "This is my perspective."

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq sealed a 1976 deal with France to build the Osirak nuclear reactor, where construction started in 1979.

But in June 1981, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel sent warplanes to bomb the unfinished reactor south of the Iraqi capital, charging that Saddam's aim was to build nuclear weapons.

Then French premier Jacques Chirac cultivated a special relationship with Iraq during the 1970s. As French president two decades later, he opposed the US-led invasion which toppled Saddam over alleged weapons of mass destruction.

"France has not shown up yet (in post-Saddam Iraq). They will come hopefully," said Wahid, adding that France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Baghdad on February 10, had "been a good friend to Iraq."

"My coming here is to tell French companies: the time has come, come and invest," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the first ever visit to Iraq by a French president.

Sarkozy said a large French business delegation would follow him to Baghdad by the end of the summer. Defence, energy and water were all key sectors for cooperation with Iraq, he said.

"We are ready to listen to the requests of the Iraqis."

Wahid also invited French companies to invest. "We have many projects to be announced for investments," he said, singling out "power generation investment called IPP," or independent power producers.

Sweeping away the Saddam era, the government last year sold and transported its uranium concentrate -- or "yellow cake," which is partially processed uranium ore -- to Cameco of Canada.

"We no longer need this material accumulated by the former regime," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told AFP.

Oil-rich Iraq, which has the world's third largest known reserves but whose budget has been hit by the slump in world prices, still has to clean up the last radioactive waste at the former plant.

Internal Divisions and the Chinese Stimulus Plan

February 23

Graphic for Geopolitical Intelligence Report

Due in large part to fears of dire consequences if nothing were done to tackle the economic crisis, China rushed through a 4 trillion yuan (US$586 billion) economic stimulus package in November 2008. The plan cobbled together existing and new initiatives focused on massive infrastructure development projects (designed, among other things, to soak up surplus steel, cement and labor capacity), tax cuts, green energy programs, and rural development.

Ever since the package was passed in November, Beijing has recited the mantra of the need to shift China’s economy from its heavy dependence on exports to one more driven by domestic consumption. But now that the sense of immediate crisis has passed, the stimulus policies are being rethought — and in an unusual development for China, they are being vigorously debated in the Chinese media.

Debating the Stimulus Package

In a country where media restrictions are tightening and private commentary on government officials and actions in blogs and online forums is being curtailed, it is quite remarkable that major Chinese newspaper editorials are taking the lead in questioning aspects of the stimulus package.

The question of stimulating rural consumption versus focusing the stimulus on the more economically active coastal regions has been the subject of particularly fierce debate. Some editorials have argued that encouraging rural consumption at a time of higher unemployment is building a bigger problem for the future. This argument maintains that rural laborers — particularly migrant workers — earn only a small amount of money, and that while having them spend their meager savings now might keep gross domestic product up in the short term, it will drain the laborers’ reserves and create a bigger social problem down the road. Others argue that the migrant and rural populations are underdeveloped and incapable of sustained spending, and that pumping stimulus yuan into the countryside is a misallocation of mo ney that could be better spent supporting the urban middle class, in theory creating jobs through increased middle-class consumption of services.

The lack of restrictions on these types of discussions suggests that the debate is occurring with government approval, in a reflection of debates within the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the government itself. Despite debate in the Chinese press, Beijing continues to present a unified public face on the handling of the economic crisis, regardless of internal factional debates. Maintaining Party control remains the primary goal of Party officials; even if they disagree over policies, they recognize the importance of showing that the Party remains in charge.

But, as the dueling editorial pages reveal, the Party is not unified in its assessment of the economic crisis or the recovery program. The show of unity masks a power struggle raging between competing interests within the Party. In many ways, this is not a new struggle; there are always officials jockeying for power for themselves and for their protégés. But the depth of the economic crisis in China and the rising fears of social unrest — not only from the migrant laborers, but also from militants or separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang and from “hostile forces” like the Falun Gong, pro-Democracy advocates and foreign intelligence services — have added urgency to long-standing debates over economic and social policies.

In China, decision-making falls to the president and the premier, currently Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao respectively. They do not wield the power of past leaders like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, however, and instead are much more reliant on balancing competing interests than on dictating policy.

Party and Government Factions

Hu and Wen face numerous factions among the Chinese elite. Many officials are considered parts of several different factional affiliations based on age, background, education or family heritage. Boiled down, the struggle over the stimulus plan pits two competing views of the core of the Chinese economy. One sees economic strength and social stability centered on China’s massive rural population, while another sees China’s strength and future in the coastal urban areas, in manufacturing and global trade.

Two key figures in the Standing Committee of the Politburo (the center of political power in China), Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, highlight this struggle. These two are considered the core of the fifth-generation leadership, and have been tapped to succeed Hu and Wen as China’s next leaders. They also represent radically different backgrounds.

Li is a protege of Hu and rose from the China Youth League, where Hu has built a strong support base. Li represents a newer generation of Chinese leaders, educated in economics and trained in less-developed provinces. (Li held key positions in Henan and Liaoning provinces.) Xi, on the other hand, is a “princeling.” The son of a former vice premier, he trained as an engineer and served primarily in the coastal export-oriented areas, including Hebei, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai.

In a way, Li and Xi represent different proposals for China’s economic recovery and future. Li is a stronger supporter of the recentralization of economic control sought by Hu, a weakening of the regional economic power bases, and a focus on consolidating Chinese industry in a centrally planned manner while spending government money on rural development and urbanization of China’s interior. Xi represents the view followed by former President Jiang Zemin and descended from the policies of Deng. Under that view, economic activity and growth should be encouraged and largely freed from central direction, and if the coastal provinces grow first and faster, that is just fine; eventually the money, technology and employment will move inland.

Inland vs. the Coast

In many ways, these two views reflect long-standing economic arguments in China — namely, the constant struggle to balance the coastal trade-based economy and the interior agriculture-dominated economy. The former is smaller but wealthier, with stronger ties abroad — and therefore more political power to lobby for preferential treatment. The latter is much larger, but more isolated from the international community — and in Chinese history, frequently the source of instability and revolt in times of stress. These tensions have contributed to the decline of dynasties in centuries past, opening the space for foreign interference in Chinese internal politics. China’s leaders are well aware of the constant stresses between rural and coastal China, but maintaining a balance has been an ongoing struggle.

Throughout Chinese history, there is a repeating pattern of dynastic rise and decline. Dynasties start strong and powerful, usually through conquest. They then consolidate power and exert strong control from the center. But due to the sheer size of China’s territory and population, maintaining central control requires the steady expansion of a bureaucracy that spreads from the center through the various administrative divisions down to the local villages. Over time, the bureaucracy itself begins to usurp power, as its serves as the collector of taxes, distributor of government funds and local arbiter of policy and rights. And as the bureaucracy grows stronger, the center weakens.

Regional differences in population, tax base and economic models start to fragment the bureaucracy, leading to economic (and at times military) fiefdoms. This triggers a strong response from the center as it tries to regain control. Following a period of instability, which often involves foreign interference and/or intervention, a new center is formed, once again exerting strong centralized authority.

This cycle played out in the mid-1600s, as the Ming Dynasty fell into decline and the Manchus (who took on the moniker Qing) swept in to create a new centralized authority. It played out again as the Qing Dynasty declined in the latter half of the 1800s and ultimately was replaced — after an extended period of instability — by the CPC in 1949, ushering in another period of strong centralized control. Once again, a more powerful regional bureaucracy is testing that centralized control.

The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s led to a three-decade decline of central authority, as economic decision-making and power devolved to the regional and local leadership and the export-oriented coastal provinces became the center of economic activity and power in China. Attempts by the central government to regain some authority over the direction of coastal authorities were repeatedly ignored (or worse), but so long as there was growth in China and relative social stability, this was tolerated.

With Hu’s rise to power, however, there was a new push from the center to rein in the worst of excesses by the coastal leaders and business interests and refocus attention on China’s rural population, which was growing increasingly disenfranchised due to the widening urban-rural economic gap. In 2007 and early 2008, Hu finally gained traction with his economic policies. The Chinese government subsequently sought to slow an overheating economy while focusing on the consolidation of industry and the establishment of “superministries” at the center to coordinate economic activity. It also intended to put inland rural interests on par with — if not above — coastal urban interests. When the superministries were formed in 2008, however, it became apparent that Hu was not omnipotent. Resistance to his plans was abundantly evident, illustrating the power of the entrenched bureaucratic interests.

Economic Crisis and the Stimulus Plan

The economic program of recentralization and the attempt to slow the overheating economy came to a screeching halt in July 2008, as skyrocketing commodity prices fueled inflation and strained government budgets. The first victim was China’s yuan policy. The steady, relatively predictable appreciation of the yuan came to a stop. Its value stagnated, and there is now pressure for a slight depreciation to encourage exports. But as Beijing began shaping its economic stimulus package, it became clear that the program would be a mix of policies, representing differing factions seeking to secure their own interests in the recovery plan.

The emerging program, then, revealed conflicting interests and policies. Money and incentives were offered to feed the low-skill export industry (located primarily in the southeastern coastal provinces) as well as to encourage a shift in production from the coast to the interior. A drive was initiated to reduce redundancies, particularly in heavy industries, and at the same time funding was increased to keep those often-bloated industrial sectors afloat. Overall, the stimulus represents a collection of competing initiatives, reflecting the differences among the factions. Entrenched princelings simply want to keep money moving and employment levels up in anticipation of a resurgence in global consumption and the revitalization of the export-based economic growth path. Meanwhile, the rural faction seeks to accelerate economic restructuring, reduce dependence on the export-oriented coastal provinces, and move economic activity and attention to the vastly underdeveloped interior.

Higher unemployment among the rural labor force is “proving” each faction’s case. To the princelings, it shows the importance of the export sector in maintaining social stability and economic growth. To the rural faction, it emphasizes the dangers of overreliance on a thin coastal strip of cheap, low-skill labor and a widening wealth gap.

Fighting it Out in the Media

With conflicting paths now running in tandem, competing Party officials are seeking traction and support for their programs without showing division within the core Party apparatus by turning to a traditional method: the media and editorials. During the Cultural Revolution, which itself was a violent debate about the fundamental economic policies of the People’s Republic of China, the Party core appeared united, despite major divisions. The debate played out not in the halls of the National People’s Congress or in press statements, but instead in big-character posters plastered around Beijing and other cities, promoting competing policies and criticizing others.

In modern China, big posters are a thing of the past, replaced by newspaper editorials. While the Party center appears united in this time of economic crisis, the divisions are seen more acutely in the competing editorials published in state and local newspapers and on influential blogs and Web discussion forums. It is here that the depth of competition and debate so well hidden among the members of the Politburo can be seen, and it is here that it becomes clear the Chinese are no more united in their policy approach than the leaders of more democratic countries, where policy debates are more public.

The current political crisis has certainly not reached the levels of the Cultural Revolution, and China no longer has a Mao — or even a Deng — to serve as a single pole around which to wage factional struggles. The current leadership is much more attuned to the need to cooperate and compromise — and even Mao’s methods would often include opportunities for “wayward” officials to come around and cooperate with Mao’s plans. But a recognition of the need to cooperate, and an agreement that the first priority is maintenance of the Party as the sole core of Chinese power (followed closely by the need to maintain social stability to ensure the primary goal), doesn’t guarantee that things can’t get out of control.

The sudden halt to various economic initiatives in July 2008 showed just how critical the emerging crisis was. If commodity prices had not started slacking off a month later, the political crisis in Beijing might have gotten much more intense. Despite competition, the various factions want the Party to remain in power as the sole authority, but their disagreements on how to do this become much clearer during a crisis. Currently, it is the question of China’s migrant labor force and the potential for social unrest that is both keeping the Party center united and causing the most confrontation over the best-path policies to be pur sued. If the economic stimulus package fails to do its job, or if external factors leave China lagging and social problems rising, the internal party fighting could once again grow intense.

At present, there is a sense among China’s leaders that this crisis is manageable. If their attitude once again shifts to abject fear, the question may be less about how to compromise on economic strategy than how to stop a competing faction from bringing ruin to Party and country through ill-thought-out policies. Compromise is acceptable when it means the survival of the Party, but if one faction views the actions of another as fundamentally detrimental to the authority and strength of the Party, then a more active and decisive struggle becomes the ideal choice. After all, it is better to remove a gangrenous limb than to allow the infection to spread and kill the whole organism.

That crisis is not now upon China’s leaders, but things nearly reached that level last summer. There were numerous rumors from Beijing that Wen, who is responsible for China’s economic policies, was going to be sacked — an extreme move given his popularity with the common Chinese. This was staved off or delayed by the fortuitous timing of the rest of the global economic contraction, which brought commodity prices down. For now, China’s leaders will continue issuing competing and occasionally contradictory policies, and just as vigorously debating them through the nation’s editorials. The government is struggling with resolving the current economic crisis, as well as with the fundamental question of just what a new Chinese economy will look like. And that question goes deeper than money: It goes to the very role of the CPC in China’s system.

Eastern member states to hold own mini-summit

Leigh Phillips

EU Observer

February 23

The European Union's eastern members are to hold their own separate mini-summit ahead of an emergency summit of all EU premiers and presidents in order to co-ordinate their approach to the crisis.

Poland called the meeting in response to the larger, wealthier nations retreating into protectionist positions, particularly regarding their car sectors. It will take place in Brussels on 1 March on the morning of the wider summit to build a common front in defence of the single market.

Poland has called for a mini-summit of eastern European states. (Photo: EUobserver)

"We want to send a clear message that we support the European Union's position in favour of defending the common market and that we are against protectionism," Poland's Europe minister, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, told Poland's PAP new agency.

France, Italy and Spain have in recent weeks each announced packages of billions of euros in public funds for their domestic auto industries.

The European Commission, normally quick to jump on such measures as market distortions, has said relatively little, although it is currently investigating Paris' €6 billion support measures for Renault and Peugeot-Citroen. Similar packages of public monies to support car companies in Italy and Spain are also under scrutiny.

The scrum of eastern nations will also consider the region's tottering banks, which have not been supplied with the re-capitalisation or loan guarantees that their western counterparts have been, as their governments have not been able to afford such moves.

Exacerbating the crunch in the east, the western parent banks of subsidiaries in the region have substantially reduced the credit available.

Western European banks have a financial engagement of some €1.1 trillion in the region, with Austria's financial institutions particularly exposed, being owed €220 billion - equivalent to around three quarters of the country's GDP.

Over the last fortnight, Vienna has been calling for a co-ordinated EU-level bail-out of the east out of fear its loans may not be able to be paid back.

Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Belgium are also among western Europe's big lenders to the east.

However, outside Hungary and the Polish Chamber of Commerce, Austria's request has fallen on deaf ears, and Germany, likely to get stuck with much of the tab for such action, has publicly said it is opposed to an eastern bail-out.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Sunday, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek hinted at a growing rift between the west and the east.

"Central and Eastern European countries [have] concerns about certain discrimination regarding for instance their access to financing by means of the European Central Bank," he said.

"There is certain fear that Europe - the old EU members and eurozone countries - may create a situation that will somehow secondarily affect Central and Eastern Europe," he continued, according to AFP.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is also to attend the eastern nations' mini-summit.

Separately, on Friday, the World Bank warned western EU member states not to deploy domestic counter-crisis measures that would hurt the economies of their neighbours to the east.

See also:

IHT - EU leaders turn to IMF amid financial crisis

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Middle East peace: various chances

Avigdor Lieberman had its own blog hosted by Jerusalem Post, between February and December 2007. He don't have too many posts, but excepting his last post, about "Gush Etzion celebration", another one is to be taken into account, about Israel need to be part of EU and NATO, point of view expressed as well in a Ha'aretz opinion back in 2007.

In what concerns the relation between politics and religion, it is likely to enter in conflict with the Sepharadim, religious establishment, without being a proper supported of easing the weight of the religious decision in the public life. We have to keep in mind he and his parties were supported by the immigrants from the former Soviet Union space and it is not very clear how it will use this support for building a long-lasting political capital. As minister, Lieberman encouraged the Russian Jews all over the world to immigrate in Israel. Up to 48% of the recent immigrants in Israel are coming from Russia and former Soviet Union space and their degree of integration and acceptance in the Israeli society is extremely problematic.

In various public statements, Lieberman touched upon problematic issues of Israeli society. He advocates that all Israeli citizens, including anti-Zionist Haredim - in addition to Israeli Arabs - take loyalty tests and recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Those who refuse would be stripped of their citizenship, but could remain in Israel as permanent residents.

Another question is related to his position towards the substance of the peace process in the Middle East. In a recent book, former US ambassador to Israel, Martin S. Indyk, revealed that once, Lieberman hold secret talks on territorial concessions to the Palestinian Authority with one of Yasser Arafat's key advisers. "The facts quoted in the book are not true", commented Irene Etinger, Avigdor Lieberman's spokeswoman. He quit Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition in January 2008 in protest at new, U.S.-sponsored talks with the Palestinians.

In his 2004 book, My Truth, he is drawing his kind of vision (:202-203):

"Also overall security responsibility should be placed in the end on Egypt"
"Jordan such an arrangement should give support...including the
issuing of passports and taking of overall and comprehensive security
responsibility for what transpires in Judea and Samaria"
"Thus for practical purposes this arrangement will be, almost certainly, a
kind of two confederations - in one case with the Jordanians, and in the
other case with Egypt."

In politics, changing often the basic perspectives it is not something outrageously abnormal. The flexibility could be an example of realism, by answering properly to a permanently changing situation. What cards Lieberman will play and with whom it is very important because, in relation with this the whole map of the Middle East will need to be reconsidered. The last visit of an US delegation in Syria, the Washington call for an urgent solution at the Iran Nuclear Problem, the France and Germany initiatives in the region are sending a clear message in the region: no more wars and confrontation, let's play peaceful - zero-sum, at least - games.

Image Problem in Afghanistan for the US troops involvement

Part of this anti-American attitude was nurtured as well by the huge anti-war campaigners in US - in the electoral frame - and all across the world. They are rarely asked, those doves, how they could be the next steps for building a normal and democratic Afghanistan. They never talk about this, their future plans being rather vague, if not ubuesques.

Cyber-war in Malaysia

About how the Internet - where many of the ethical laws could not be applied - could be used as a defamatory political tool. You don't have nothing to do against, and no ways to fight in justice against a hostname.

Why Republicans Don't Get the Internet

by Meghan McCain, the daughter of the Republican Presidential candidate. Indeed, the Republican voice on the web wasn't heard at all. The grass-root of the party was rather reluctant to such new techniques and the initiatives created by and for youngsters, weren't merchandized. Meghan McCain's blog - - or the Conservative Punk - - could be a good starting platform. Now, the Republicans started little by little to adopt e-politics techniques. But, first of all they need to reorganize the whole political basis, in order to get support from the younger electorate. Otherwise, they will simply try to copy the successful campaign of Obama and they will get nothing more than a copy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Live from Swat Valley

An exclusive report from Sunday Times.

Talks in Damascus about future cooperation with Washington

A possible wind of change in the US-Syria relations.

Top US diplomat in China - mixed reactions

Hillary arrived in China, an occasion for the communist regime to flex its muscles against the dissidents. The rights issue was avoided in the public statemets, the agenda focusing mostly on economic aspects of the bilateral cooperation.

US Multi-Media Campaign, On the Run

Spreading the word about the economic crisis and recovery, a new initiative of the Obama brand.

Friday, February 20, 2009

EU's Klaus Slams Move to Centralize Oversight

Marc Champion, Brussels,

Nathalie Boschat and Gabriele Parussini, Paris

The Wall Street Journal

February 20

President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency, assailed the organization Thursday as undemocratic and said it should halt any further centralization of powers.

The global financial crisis and this week's acute turmoil in Eastern Europe have prompted calls across Europe and around the world for charting the opposite course, with many leaders -- and economists -- prescribing more centralized authority to help nations weather the crisis. However, the notion of establishing central oversight bodies also has run into resistance.

[Vaclav Klaus ] European Pressphoto Agency

Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, before his address on Thursday to a formal session of the European Parliament in Brussels.

In the financial sector, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said Thursday that while tighter supervision of European cross-border banks is advisable, it should come not from the European Central Bank but through coordination among national supervisors.

ECB governors have repeatedly said that the zone's central bank would be prepared to take on greater responsibility in cross-border supervision.

In an interview Thursday, Ms. Lagarde said, "One of the options [to increase oversight on European banks] would be to entrust ... the ECB with this task. The problem is that the ECB doesn't have the authority on the whole of the EU."

"In particular," Ms. Lagarde added, "there would be a large chunk of the EU, namely the U.K., a large financial center, which would fall outside the remit of this institution."

ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet and Vice President Lucas Papademos said earlier in the year that the bank is mulling increasing its supervisory role to police the continent's largest banks.

Instead, the French finance minister said coordination between national regulators involved in the oversight of cross-border banking groups should be increased, with the supervisor from the bank's home country taking a leading role. At the same time, the lead supervisor should take into account the interests of the host country's watchdog, she said.

Mr. Klaus, a proponent of free-market economics, has long been hostile to the EU as an institution and has declined to fly the European flag over his office during the Czech Republic's six-month term as president of the 27-nation bloc. He denied that he is against the EU nations, but said fewer decisions should be made in Brussels.

In an address before the European parliament in Brussels, Mr. Klaus said he wasn't yet ready to say whether he would sign the so-called Lisbon Treaty. The pact would give the EU its first permanent president, boost the parliament's role, and make it easier to set common rules.

Mr. Klaus's speech came just a day after the lower house of the Czech parliament voted to ratify the agreement.

Proponents of the treaty say it would help redress a widely recognized lack of democratic accountability in the EU.

"The proposals to change the current state of affairs -- included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not-very-different Lisbon Treaty -- would make this defect even worse," Mr. Klaus said.

The Lisbon Treaty was vetoed last year by voters in Ireland -- the only nation to hold a referendum on the document. The pact still needs to be approved by the Czech Senate and signed by Mr. Klaus to be ratified.

The remaining 25 EU nations have approved the pact, which requires ratification by all members of the bloc. Ireland plans a repeat referendum by the end of October. In a poll released Sunday by the Irish Times, 51% of respondents said they would vote for a new version of the treaty, with 33% against. The balance were undecided.

See also:

The Full Speech of Vaclav Klaus

Vaclav Klaus - Profile

Netanyahu wins backing in Israeli PM contest

Later Update, February 20: He is the new prime-minister of Israel,
after Peres failed to persuade Livni to join the coalition.

Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis


February 19

Benjamin Netanyahu's chances of becoming Israel's prime minister again were boosted on Thursday by the conditional backing of an ultra-nationalist politician who emerged as a kingmaker in a close election.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, recommended to Peres that he choose Netanyahu to form a government, if the right-wing Likud chief pursued a broad coalition. Netanyahu has said he would do so.

President Shimon Peres plans to ask Netanyahu and rival Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party on Friday to join forces to form a unity government, a presidential official said.

Livni and Netanyahu both laid claim to the premiership after Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament to Likud's 27 in an inconclusive February 10 election that deepened uncertainty about peace moves with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu renewed calls on Livni and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak to join a coalition under his leadership. Livni rejected his call, saying her party will sit in the opposition. Labor has said it will do the same.

"I don't intend to be a fig leaf for a government that has no path and is dysfunctional. I don't intend to change my path or to betray the voters for a job in the government," Livni said before meeting a visiting U.S. congressional delegation.

Peres wrapped up consultations with party leaders and would meet Netanyahu and Livni separately on Friday.

Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. During his term he handed over part of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinians.

With Lieberman's support, Netanyahu has the backing of some 65 legislators, enough for a narrow, governing majority of right-wing and Jewish religious parties.


Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who has been at odds with religious parties and is reviled by Israel's Arab community, made unity the theme of his remarks to Peres.

"We recommend Benjamin Netanyahu, only in the framework of a broad government," Lieberman told reporters.

"We want a government of the three biggest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu," he said, without disclosing what he would do if a unity government proved impossible to achieve.

A Yisrael Beiteinu official said Lieberman sought a broad coalition out of concern that creation of a narrow, rightist government could lead to friction with the Obama administration, which has pledged to pursue Palestinian statehood.

Kadima has said it would be willing to relinquish parts of the occupied West Bank in exchange for peace, a position that would put it in conflict with Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which won 15 seats in last week's ballot, has angered Israel's Arab citizens by proposing a law under which Israelis would have to pledge allegiance to the Jewish state as a condition for voting or holding office.

The party also wants to trade land inside Israel in which many of the country's 1.5 million Arabs live for Jewish West Bank settlements in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

Under Israeli law, the legislator designated by Peres to try to form a government has 42 days to complete the task. Traditionally, after an election, past presidents have picked the leader of the party that won the most votes, but there is no legal obligation to do so.

In fact, it is a chance that, in fact Shimon Peres could influence, by his symbolic capital, the current trend. And an interesting piece of article in yesterday's electronic edition of Ha'aretz.

Reuters - As for February 19, the main political options of an incoming coalition