In mid-August, rumors and reports circulated that the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq may postpone its referendum on independence which is set for September 25. However after a week of talks and debate, including calls and pressure from abroad for the Kurds to consider the postponement, KRG President Masoud Barzani has held firm. “Postponing is not a possibility at all,” he was quoted telling a Saudi newspaper.

Kurdistan set its referendum date two months ago and there is now only a month to go until ballots are supposed to be cast. But an array of opposition to the vote has led to discussion in Erbil about what concessions or agreements might be necessary to put off the referendum.

On August 12, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Barzani and asked the Kurds to reconsider. Barzani’s office stated that “the people of Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future,” if they postponed the vote. On August 17, a Kurdish delegation in Baghdad met members of the Shia National Alliance.

Rudaw reported that the KRG could delay the referendum “if Baghdad, under the auspices of the international community promises to set another date for the referendum.”

In each case the Kurds demand that if they agree to postpone their right to a vote, the region receive something major in return. Kurdistan24 reported on Sunday that Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading political party in the KRG, said the Iraqi central government should “assist the Kurds in overcoming a financial crises,” among other issues. According to other reports, the discussions in Baghdad centered around other guarantees relating to the Kurdish region’s oil and who will rule over disputed areas in Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin.

Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University says the last weeks reveal tremendous pressure on Erbil. “These are all adding up to an image that the KRG is under heavy pressure to delay the referendum because there are rumors the US government is concerned that the referendum [taking place] before the Iraqi general elections will empower Iran’s role in Iraq.”

The Americans don’t want Haider Abadi weakened, especially as he has been a key ally with the US-led coalition against Islamic State. He replaced Nouri al-Maliki, who many blamed for allowing ISIS to conquer Mosul and part of the country in 2014. “As of now there is no decision to delay, the KEG High Election Committee is registering voters names and the budget has been allocated,” says Sagnic. He also says that Kurdish leaders in Erbil are “fed up” with promises from Baghdad and don’t have faith in carrying through its agreements.

The Kurds would want an ironclad guarantee from the US that if they postpone the election, they receive US support at a later date. They also want similar guarantees from Baghdad.

According to sources in Erbil, there’s a feeling that if now is not a good time for a referendum, when is? “If it’s not a good time to be independent, is it a good time to [continue being] a servant,” one Kurdish insider said.

However the KRG faces challenges not only from Baghdad and its friends in Washington, but also from its two neighbors, Turkey and Iran. Both countries have major investments in the Kurdish region. Although both have opposed the referendum and Ankara and Tehran recently held talks on cooperation, there is a feeling that economic interests may be more important than verbal opposition.

To allay regional fears, Barzani and the leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have stressed that the referendum is for a democratic and pluralistic Kurdistan. The region will be governed by federalism. All this is meant to assuage fears by minorities and smaller parties because the KRG has large numbers of Turkmen, Arabs and various religious minorities from Christian and Yazidi groups. For now September 25 is still the referendum date. Baghdad, riding a wave of power from its victory in Mosul over ISIS and its new battle in Tal Afar, doesn’t seem likely to bend on concessions that would lead to a change.


Trump Toughens Warning on North Korea, Despite Bipartisan Criticism

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Trump refused to back down on Thursday from his provocative threat to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangers the United States, despite bipartisan criticism — and he argued that perhaps he was not harsh enough.

“Frankly the people that were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he told reporters. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, many years. It’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

Mr. Trump spoke at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending much of the month on a working vacation. He was meeting on Thursday with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, and other aides even as tension with North Korea continued to crackle with nuclear-edged bombast. While his advisers have tried to modulate his original comment, made on Tuesday in response to North Korean threats, Mr. Trump suggested he had no reason to back off.

“We’re backed by 100 percent by our military,” he said. “And we’re backed by many other leaders.”

Asked what would be tougher than fire and fury, Mr. Trump said, “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”

But he declined to explicitly say he was considering a pre-emptive military strike.

“We don’t talk about that,” he said. “I never do.” He added, “But I can tell you that what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been getting away with is a tragedy. And it can’t be allowed.”

Mr. Trump’s war of words has reached a level that has alarmed allies in the region.

North Korea has reacted with threats of its own, warning that it might launch a missile strike toward the Pacific island of Guam, which is United States territory, as early as this month, and adding that it was capable of starting a nuclear war that might reach the continental United States. North Korea recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time and has been reported to be making progress toward equipping them with nuclear warheads.

For all the bellicose words, Mr. Trump said on Thursday that he was open to negotiations, as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson urged North Korea to engage in talks. But the president expressed skepticism that they would lead to a reasonable outcome, given the experiences of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, none of whom were able to resolve the issue through negotiations.

“Sure, we’ll always consider negotiations,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ve been negotiating now for 25 years. Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush, you look what happened with Obama. Obama, he didn’t even want to talk about it. But I talk. It’s about time. Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to do it.”

Mr. Trump’s comments defied critics at home and abroad who have said his choice of words was needlessly bombastic and potentially reckless. While his predecessors also took a firm stance on preventing North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal that could threaten the United States, they steered away from the sort of apocalyptic language evoking a possible nuclear war.

“These statements are irresponsible and dangerous, and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” more than 60 House Democrats said in a letter on Thursday addressed to Mr. Tillerson, asking him to restrain the president.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has visited North Korea three times as a private citizen, added his voice to the criticism.

“In addition to restraining the warlike rhetoric, our leaders need to encourage talks between North Korea and other countries, especially China and Russia,” he said in a statement. “The recent U.N. Security Council unanimous vote for new sanctions suggests that these countries could help. In all cases, a nuclear exchange must be avoided. All parties must assure North Koreans they we will forego any military action against them if North Korea remains peaceful.”

Mr. Trump has tried to convince China to do more to pressure North Korea to curb its weapons development, only to be disappointed that Beijing has not followed through as strongly as he would like. Many analysts have suggested that his fire-and-fury language was meant as a signal to China as much as North Korea, making the point that the Chinese need to step up to avoid a conflagration in its own region.

In his comments to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Trump again suggested he would make a bargain with China by backing down from his planned trade war if Beijing does more to resolve the North Korea impasse.

“I think China can do a lot more, yes, China can,” he said. “And I think China will do a lot more. Look, we have trade with China. We lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year on trade with China. They know how I feel. It’s not going to continue like that. But if China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade.”

UN chief: Syria probe must continue despite prosecutor’s resignation

UNITED NATIONS — UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday said a UN commission probing war crimes in Syria should continue its work, despite the resignation of prosecutor Carla Del Ponte from the panel.

Del Ponte quit in protest at the lack of followup action from the UN Security Council to a dozen reports it has produced on serious human rights abuses and war crimes during the six-year conflict.

Guterres regrets Del Ponte’s decision to resign, but stresses the “importance of accountability for crimes against civilians during the conflict,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

“He supports the continued work of the commission as an important and integral part of the accountability process,” he added.

Del Ponte had been working on the commission since September 2012.

The 70-year-old Swiss national has also worked to uncover war crimes in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.

This file photo taken on March 17, 2015, shows member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Carla del Ponte, attending a press conference in Geneva. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

Established by the UN Human Rights Council, the commission is tasked with reporting on serious rights violations and war crimes in Syria, where more than 330,000 people been killed since the start of the war in March 2011.

The commission has repeatedly urged the Security Council to ask the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into war crimes in Syria.

A bid by the council in 2014 to refer Syria to the ICC was blocked by China and Russia, Syria’s ally.

“I cannot remain on this commission that does absolutely nothing,” Del Ponte told the Swiss newspaper Blick, accusing members of the Security Council “of not wanting to establish justice.”

“At first, there was good and bad — the opposition on the side of good and the government in the bad role,” she said.

Today, “everyone in Syria is on the bad side. The (Bashar) Assad government has perpetrated horrible crimes against humanity and used chemical weapons. And the opposition is now made up of extremists and terrorists.”

She added that she had never seen such crimes committed elsewhere, not in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda.

Frustrated by the Security Council’s inaction on Syria, the UN General Assembly last year set up an international panel to help collect evidence to be used in future cases of war crimes prosecution.

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, a French judge who has tried international cases in Kosovo, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, is to begin work as the head of the new panel in Geneva on Tuesday.

Despite Trump’s Unpopularity, Democrats Face Long Road Back Into Power

The political forecasting industry has turned into a seesaw over the Democrats’ future.

Nate Silver says Trump’s base has maxed out, lifting blue hopes. The Cook Report’s congressional editor David Wasserman counters that the GOP has locks on states, the House and Senate, deflating the prognosis. The Washington Post says not so fast, citing polls finding that Democrats are not losing any ground by embracing the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing, offering progressives new hope.

The forecasters and their data are not contradicting each other. They have different points of departure, big picture frames, fine-print arguments and historic contexts. But what is clear is that Democrats are in a very deep ditch, and while there are some signs of hope, their pathway back into national power is anything but assured.

The good news is pegged to the politics of the moment. As Silver observes, “Trump’s problem is that there aren’t many voters who could plausibly be persuaded to join the Trump train, at least not on short notice.” And no wonder! Beyond being endlessly offensive to blue America, he and Congress’ Republicans don’t know how to lead, coordinate and execute. Hence 58 percent of the country disapproves.

“It’s not like Republicans have begun impeachment proceedings or Sean Hannity has abandoned Trump,” Silver concludes. “But in his time as president so far, Trump has found more ways to lose supporters than to gain them.”

Silver’s pragmatism suggests Democrats have an opening. Indeed they do. The latest national poll by Quinnipiac University found, “if the 2018 Congressional elections were held today, voters say 52 – 38 percent, including 48 – 37 percent among independent voters, they would like the Democrats to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Indeed, a majority also wanted a Democratic Senate. “Voters say 53 – 39 percent, including 49 – 40 percent among independent voters, they would like to see the Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate,” Quinnipiac reported, saying the public believes that Democrats can do a better job on health care, concerns raised by the working class, and equal numbers believe each party can do a better job on taxes.

What’s the problem, then? These figures might reflect the nation’s voters as a whole, but they do not reflect the blue-red breakdowns among voters in state and federal electoral districts across the country. How steep a climb it is to actually win power is not conveyed in the latest emails and fundraising blasts from blue political committees aimed at party loyalists—such as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (state races) or Democratic Governor’s Association (which just launched

How steep is the climb? Well, depending where you look—state legislative majorities, governors, control of the U.S. House and Senate—it sadly spans from bad to worse.

When it comes to statehouses, 32 of the 50 states have trifectas, where one party controls both state legislative chambers and the governor’s office. This is why it accurately feels like Americans live in two separate countries—because, politically, we do. Twenty-six of these monopoly states are red. (West Virginia’s governor left the Dems last week.) Six—Rhode Island, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and California—are blue.

These red-state legislators are the tribe who created the political maps in 2011 giving the GOP its lock on statehouses and the U.S. House for this decade, as well as launched the lawsuits challenging Obamacare, climate change, abortion rights, LGBT equality, etc. They are not going away. Instead, they define 2018’s and 2020’s political landscape.

Start with the governors, where West Virginia’s Jim Justice jumped ship last week.

“Democrats, who at the beginning of the Obama presidency held 28 governorships, have seen their ranks dwindle to just 15,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz after Justice flipped. “At some point over the past decade, according to the Republican Governors Association, there has been a Republican governor in 46 of the 50 states,” he said. “Eight years ago, Democrats held the upper hand, controlling 17 states to nine for the Republicans.” That loss of seats means no one vetoes bad right-wing bills.

When it comes to Congress, the task is more than daunting. Why? Because those extreme gerrymandered maps, created by GOP monopoly legislatures in 2011, erased competitive districts and gave the GOP roughly 20 seats more than fair-minded contests would have yielded. That’s according to new analyses—from the Associated Press(22 more seats) to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law (16-17 seats).

As redistricting expert David Daley recently told AlterNet about 2018, “I see a really tight map. Democrats need to take back 24 seats and my challenge to people who say the Democrats can take back the House is, name those districts. And you better name more than just 24 because you’re not going to win all of them. Where are the 60 districts that can be targeted, in order to have a fighting chance of taking back half of them?”

What people need to understand about redistricting is GOP mapmakers segregated each party’s reliable voters. As the Supreme Court’s spring 2017 ruling on North Carolina’s congressional gerrymander noted, that state’s Republicans routinely won House seats with 56 percent of the vote, compared to Democrats routinely getting about 70 percent. The GOP ‘cracked’ and ‘packed’ that state’s reliable voters to get this result.

For Democrats to get a numerical majority in gerrymandered districts, they typically need between 56-to-58 percent of their reliable voting base to turn out. The GOP’s starting line advantage is before other voter suppression tactics shave off an additional two-to-three percent from Democrats, such as enacting stricter ID laws to get a regular ballot.

This is the political reality that’s on the ground in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, which, were it not the case, would make the U.S. House blue.

This is where and how Democrats are stuck. Yes, it’s good news that Trump’s popularity keeps falling and 58 percent of the nation thinks ill of his performance. That’s because federal midterm elections tend to reflect the public’s feelings about the party in power, wrote David Cook of the The Cook Political Report.

“It’s fashionable these days to say that Democrats have to stand for something if they’re going to win a House majority and break even in the Senate,” he wrote. “Balderdash. I have never seen a party win a midterm [federal] election on the issues; midterms are always a referendum on the party in power.”

But Democrats face multiple layers of bad luck in Congress, as Cook’s colleague David Wasserman noted in another recent piece.

“Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points—a pretty good midterm by historical standards—they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats,” Wasserman wrote, citing the gerrymanders as setting the stage for the House races, and plain old bad luck for the Senate side of the story. (Senate races are statewide and thus not susceptible to gerrymanders.)

“Democrats have been cursed by a terrible Senate map in 2018: They must defend 25 of their 48 seats, while Republicans must defend just eight of their 52,” he wrote. The long-term prognosis for Democratic control of the Senate is also pretty bleak, he explained.

“In the last few decades, Democrats have expanded their advantages in California and New York—states with huge urban centers that combined to give Clinton a 6 million vote edge, more than twice her national margin,” Wasserman wrote. “But those two states elect only 4 percent of the Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans have made huge advances in small rural states—think ArkansasNorth and South DakotaIowaLouisianaMontana and West Virginia—that wield disproportionate power in the upper chamber compared to their populations.”

Where does this leave Democrats in mid-2017? Many in the national political press, from the Post’s Balz to NPR, are saying the Republicans “have never been so dominant—or vulnerable.”

That assessment is a bit fanciful. When you are this far down, there’s nowhere to go but up. Winning a few state legislative or congressional seats is not taking back majority power. Being a few points ahead of the GOP in recent national polls isn’t enough of an edge to overcome the GOP’s 10-point starting-line advantage conveyed by their gerrymanders and voter suppression tactics in what should otherwise be purple states.

The country’s political divisions are vast, deep, historic and daunting. In short, while Trump might be losing support and struggling to build a border wall, Democrats are struggling to tear down political wall and structural advantage created by GOP this decade.

“The United States has split into two political nations,” wrote Richard E. Cohen for the Cook Political Report’s upcoming new edition of its Almanac of American Politics. “In each of those distinct coalitions, the majority Republican or Democratic Party separately controls at least two-thirds of the presidential Electoral Votes, the seats in Congress, and the governorships. That leaves the balance of power with roughly 20 percent of the states and voters… [where] the nation’s political control is determined. For the foreseeable future, significant shifts in the overwhelming numbers on each side seem unlikely.”




Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

Despite 200 Israeli Nukes Aimed At Iran, US To Fund Israel Defense To Tune Of $700M

WASHINGTON, D.C.– In what can only be described as yet another massive giveaway of military aid, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s latest draft of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would give $705 million to Israeli missile defense programs. The sizable sum is a remarkable $588 million increase from the request made by President Donald Trump and a $105 million increase from last year’s NDAA.

The committee’s draft of the NDAA, which would fund the Pentagon over the next fiscal year, would grant $268.5 million for the research, development, testing and evaluation of “multi-tiered missile defense systems” along with $290 million more for their purchase.

According to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the systems receiving funding include the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 systems. While most are developed by Israeli weapon manufacturer Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, some – namely David’s Sling – are made in cooperation with U.S. arms giant Raytheon. Both companies are sure to greatly benefit from the NDAA’s patronage if the bill is passed in its current draft form.

In a tweet posted last Thursday, AIPAC stated that the additional funds “will help Israel defend its citizens against rocket and missile threats, and contribute to America’s missile defense programs,” hinting at Raytheon’s role in their development.

Related: Lawsuit Warns $234B In Aid To Israel Violates US Law Against Secret Nuclear States

Some have argued that Israel’s huge missile defense system is overkill, given the type of rockets that have targeted Israel in the past. For example, rockets launched by Hamas – which are mostly homemade and by no means military-grade – have caused minimal casualties compared to the repeated bombings of Gaza conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces over the years.

Committees provided a total of $705m for R&D and procurement funding for Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 & Arrow-3 missile defense systems

These funds will help  defend its citizens against rocket and missile threats, and contribute to ’s missile defense programs.

U.S. funding for the Israeli missile defense program is nothing new. In 2016, the U.S. spent $487.5 million on the program, which increased to more than $600 million in 2017. The millions of dollars the NDAA draft allocates to Israeli missile defense represents only a fraction of the military aid Israel receives annually from U.S. taxpayers. The amount of aid is so massive that current figures place the amount of U.S. military aid given to Israel on a daily basis at $9.8 million. It has been the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid since 1976.

This already enormous amount of military aid received a huge boost in 2016, when the Obama administrationpledged $38 billion to the Israeli military over the next ten years. It was – and still is – the largest military assistance deal the U.S. has ever made with another nation. Allegedly, Israel agreed not to ask Congress for additional funds outside of the deal. However, the latest 2018 NDAA draft shows this apparent concession on Israel’s part was not meant to last, likely due to the Trump administration’s close ties to Israel.

McCain & Neocons up DOD budget by $100 billion + Get ready for FAMIGA – F**k America, Make Israel Great Again 

NDAA – National Defense Authorization Act

NDAA for Fiscal Year 2018 H.R. 2810 Floor Action

In addition, Israel has long maintained that the development of state-of-the-art missile systems is essential in defending itself against Iran, citing concerns about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon despite the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. However, U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies are well aware that Iran has never had a nuclear weapons development program and that all of the nation’s nuclear activity has been used for civilian purposes.

Israel, by contrast, is widely known to have several hundred nuclear warheads in its arsenal, many of which are presumed to be exceedingly powerful and possess sophisticated delivery capabilities. According to leaked emails from former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at Iran. In addition, despite being the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel is the only country in the region that has refused to sign the nuclear weapon non-proliferation treaty.

Gaza soccer team wins Palestine Cup despite Israeli restrictions

HEBRON, West Bank — Shabab Rafah became the first Gazan team to win soccer’s Palestine Cup in more than a decade Friday, despite Israeli restrictions keeping 10 of its players off the pitch.

Rafah and Ahly al-Khalil from the West Bank city of Hebron which hosted the game ended the second leg in a 0-0 tie, but Rafah’s 2-0 first leg lead meant it took the title.

The Gazan club had to field a weakened side, with only 15 of its 25 members of the playing squad given Israeli permits to travel to the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.

Rafah director Khaled Kweik told AFP it was the first time the team had ever won the cup, calling it a “historic” victory.

“We were harassed as we entered the West Bank and the Israelis banned 10 players from entering,” he said after the final whistle.

“But the rest of the players were able to protect the draw and take the title.”

Players from Gaza's Shabab Rafah soccer team celebrate following their victory in the second leg of the Palestinian Cup final at the stadium in the city of Dura, near the West Bank town of Hebron, on August 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

The West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israel, and Palestinians looking to travel between the two must apply for Israeli permits. Hamas, an Islamist terror group which seeks the elimination of Israel, runs Gaza.

Ahly won the cup in 2015 and 2016, but its home advantage in this year’s second leg was not enough to see it overturn the two-goal deficit.

The annual fixture pits the winners of separate cup competitions in Gaza and the West Bank over a two-leg final — with one game in Gaza and one game in the West Bank.

The cup did not take place for 15 years largely over problems with Israeli permits, but resumed in 2015 after world soccer body FIFA intervened.

A player from Gaza's Shabab Rafah soccer team (blue) jumps to head the ball against a member of Hebron's Ahly Al-Ahli team during the second leg of the Palestinian Cup final at the stadium in the city of Dura, near the West Bank town of Hebron, on August 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

On Thursday, Shabab announced that 10 of their players had been prevented from entering Israel through the Erez border crossing with Gaza.

The Coordination for Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry agency responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank and at the Gaza border crossings, said the ban was for “security reasons” compounded by a late submission of paperwork.

US to join climate talks despite Paris accord exit

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States announced Friday it would still take part in international climate change negotiations in order to protect its interests, despite its planned withdrawal from the Paris accord on global warming.

Two months after US President Donald Trump announced the United States would abandon the 2015 global pact, his administration confirmed it had informed the United Nations of its “intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement” — a process that will take at least until 2020.

But in a statement, the State Department said Washington was still committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and engaging with the international community on combating climate change.

“We will continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions through innovation and technology breakthroughs, and work with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and deploy renewable and other clean energy sources,” said the statement.

It added: “The United States will continue to participate in international climate change negotiations and meetings… to protect US interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.

“Such participation will include ongoing negotiations related to guidance for implementing the Paris Agreement.”

US President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

Trump sparked widespread international criticism when he announced on June 1 that he had decided to pull the world’s largest economy out of the painstakingly-negotiated accord, in line with his pledge to voters in last year’s election.

Open to re-engaging?

While Trump said he was open to a renegotiation of the pact, the suggestion was swiftly shot down by fellow world leaders who said it was non-negotiable.

Speaking on a visit to Paris last month, Trump again raised the prospect of a change in policy by saying “something could happen” regarding US participation in the accord but gave no details.

Friday’s statement reiterated that Trump was “open to re-engaging” in the pact if the US could “identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers.”

Andrew Steer, president of the US non-profit World Resources Institute, said the letter implied a level of ambiguity that could indicate a desire to remain engaged.

“The United States could engage constructively in those negotiations on an issue such as transparency,” he said.

“But a climate loner that is intent on withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will not be listened to if it aims to weaken or undermine the accord in any way.”

The United States is the world’s second biggest producer of greenhouse gases after China and its withdrawal was a seen as a body blow to the Paris agreement.

Boys look at a hot air balloon of the environmental group Greenpeace, near the Eiffel Tower ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, in Paris, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The accord commits signatories to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, which is blamed for melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels and more violent weather events.

They vowed steps to keep the worldwide rise in temperatures “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times and to “pursue efforts” to hold the increase under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Despite notifying the UN of its intention to withdraw, the United States will not be able to formally pull out of the accord until 2020 at the earliest.

However, Trump has previously said his country would cease implementation immediately.



After a slump at the end of 2015, 2.9 million tourists arrived in 2016, an increase of nearly 4% from the previous year, and in the latest three-month period (March, April, May), tourism rose to a record annual rate of 3.4 million, 5% above last year. For the February through April period, the number of foreigner-tourist nights at Israeli hotels rose 6% from last year to an annual rate of 10.3 million.

Why improbable? Since October 2015, Israel has been experiencing a wave of “lone-wolf terrorism” and tourism is known to be sensitive to terrorism.

The latest wave of terrorism peaked in the winter of 2016, when there were almost daily attacks, then subsided and rose again during the month of Ramadan. Nevertheless, 4.5% more American tourists arrived in 2016, and in the last four months of 2016, at the peak of the new terrorism wave, “all time records were broken for tourist entries,” the Ministry of Tourism reports.

Compared to the previous year, 69% more Chinese tourists arrived in 2016, and Chinese tourists spend more in Israel on average than tourists from any other country.

Tourism is important to Israel’s economy.

While it comprises only 4% of gross domestic product, it employs about 8% of the labor force – mainly in low-paying service jobs, but nonetheless vital for those without higher education.

A Bank of Israel study in 2014 showed, in general, how sensitive inbound tourism is to war and violence. Tourist arrivals fell 30%, from 110,000 a month to 70,000, after the first intifada broke out in 1987. They recovered sharply during Operation Desert Storm, then fell again in March 1996 after a Gaza war (Operation Grapes of Wrath). The outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 had a disastrous effect – tourist arrivals fell from 200,000 a month in the summer of 2000 to 45,000 at the outbreak of the second Iraq war in March 2003. Again, sharp declines occurred during and after the Second Lebanon War, which began in July 2006, and Operation Cast Lead, at the end of 2008.

So how do we explain the current tourist boom in the face of an ongoing campaign of Palestinian violence? There are, I think, two explanations: one is simple; a second is more complicated.

Let’s begin with the simplest.

It’s partly due to media fatigue. Potential tourists learn about terrorist attacks through the media. Highly dramatic attacks – burned and blown-up buses or strewn bodies after a truck runs over victims – are shown vividly worldwide on TV news and social media.

But a knife attack on a soldier? After several of those, foreign media tire of them. Lone-wolf terrorist attacks just don’t have shock and awe value for media. There is no mayhem, so foreign reporting becomes sparse.

For tourists – out of sight, out of mind.

“When exposure of potential tourists to the level of terrorism in Israel declines, the [number of] visitors to Israel tends to rise,” note the Bank of Israel economists.

There is a more complicated explanation, presented in a 2010 S. Neaman Institute study by Sharon Regev Teitler (Kinneret College) and Benjamin Bental (University of Haifa), “Terrorism Risk and Its Impact on Tourism.”

First, they note the enormous impact of the second intifada on Israel from September 2000 to February 2005, which slashed tourist arrivals by half. They ask whether this is rational. “In Israel,” the authors note, “which is regarded as a dangerous destination, the probability… of a tourist suffering damage due to an act of terrorists… was 0.0000292 in 2000 and 0.000175 in 2001. Why, despite the small probability of getting hurt by a terror attack, [is] the effect of a potential attack so big? “ The reason for the high sensitivity to events of terror is not high aversion to risk of the tourists,” conclude the authors, “but the high elasticity of substitution among the different tourist destinations.”

In other words, tourists ask, why look for trouble when I can choose from so many other wonderful spots that are completely peaceful? “Trouble,” it is understood, is perceived only when dramatically reported by the media. The problem for tourists is, “trouble” now seems to be everywhere, even in such serene spots as Bali, Indonesia, where 202 people (mainly tourists) died in a terrorist nightclub bombing in 2002.

Teitler’s and Bental’s research finds that Israel suffers a 0.8% decline in gross domestic product following a 10% increase in the probability of terrorism. This implies that a “quality” attack, in the words of Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS, is one that is dramatic, lethal and, therefore, highly publicized, and so impacting perception.

In other countries, too, terrorists wreak havoc with local economies. Take Egypt, for instance.

In 2010, Egypt welcomed 15 million tourists. Then, by 2016, tourist arrivals were slashed by two-thirds to 5 million following the Arab Spring (Tahrir Square) uprising that began on January 25, 2011, an ISIS airline bombing over Sinai that killed 224, and deadly bombings of Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria.

Facing an economic crisis, Egypt has had to slash food and gasoline subsidies, which brought inflation to 31%, and has borrowed heavily from the International Monetary Fund. Its massive public debt is like a dark cloud over the economy. Terrorist attacks in Sinai by ISIS-linked groups have led Israel to close its border crossing at Taba.

IN 2018, the Grand Egyptian Museum, a billion-dollar project that showcases Egyptian antiquities, will open. It is five times bigger than the world-famous Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and will be the biggest archaeological museum in the world.

Will it revive Egyptian tourism and, thus, its economy? A couple of “quality” terrorist attacks could kill the potential gains.

As a journalist, I cherish the right of people to be informed. But I still worry that the dissemination of stark images and accounts of terrorist attacks is a powerful incentive for more such attacks.

Even Paris, one of the world’s supreme tourist destinations, has suffered. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 and coordinated attacks in Paris and St. Denis in November 2015, Paris got 1.5 million fewer visitors in 2016, and a 6% drop in takings from tourism, according to The Independent newspaper.

In Britain, Brexit (the vote to leave the European Union) caused the value of the British pound to fall steeply and, as a result, brought 20% more tourists, mainly to London. Now, terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have offset some of that increase.

What does the future hold? The Tourism Ministry, led by Yariv Levin, sees potential in China and Russia. Since 2012, China has become the world leader in outbound tourism. Some 135 million well-heeled Chinese tourists spent $261 billion abroad in 2016, up 12% from the year before. In Paris, Chinese tourists spend an average of 1,400 euros (5,600 shekels) at the upscale department store Galeries Lafayette.

There is also growing potential in medical tourism. According to the World Tourism Organization, Israel is one of the world’s top destinations, ranking third, after Canada and the UK. Each year, 14 million patients travel abroad for medical treatment, and this market is growing 15%-25% annually. Of these, 1.4 million are Americans, where health care is often super-expensive – and they spend more than $100 billion (357b. shekels) worldwide.

The cost of specific medical treatments in Mexico, Brazil or Singapore can be as much as 20% to 40% below typical US costs.

Quality is maintained by a rigorous international accreditation system. Among the top global specialties for medical tourism are cosmetic surgery, dentistry, cardiovascular, orthopedics, cancer, and weight loss.

In 2014, the latest data available, Israel welcomed 60,000 medical tourists

Despite Concerns About Blackmail, Flynn Heard C.I.A. Secrets

WASHINGTON — Senior officials across the government became convinced in January that the incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

At the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — agencies responsible for keeping American secrets safe from foreign spies — career officials agreed that Mr. Flynn represented an urgent problem.

Yet nearly every day for three weeks, the new C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, sat in the Oval Office and briefed President Trump on the nation’s most sensitive intelligence — with Mr. Flynn listening. Mr. Pompeo has not said whether C.I.A. officials left him in the dark about their views of Mr. Flynn, but one administration official said Mr. Pompeo did not share any concerns about Mr. Flynn with the president.

The episode highlights a remarkable aspect of Mr. Flynn’s tumultuous, 25-day tenure in the White House: He sat atop a national security apparatus that churned ahead despite its own conclusion that he was at risk of being compromised by a hostile foreign power.

The concerns about Mr. Flynn’s vulnerabilities, born from misleading statements he made to White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, are at the heart of a legal and political storm that has engulfed the Trump administration. Many of Mr. Trump’s political problems, including the appointment of a special counsel and the controversy over the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, can ultimately be traced to Mr. Flynn’s stormy tenure.

Time and again, the Trump administration looked the other way in the face of warning signs about Mr. Flynn. Mr. Trump entrusted him with the nation’s secrets despite knowing that he faced a Justice Department investigation over his undisclosed foreign lobbying. Even a personal warning from President Barack Obama did not dissuade him.

Mr. Pompeo sidestepped questions from senators last month about his handling of the information about Mr. Flynn, declining to say whether he knew about his own agency’s concerns. “I can’t answer yes or no,” he said. “I regret that I’m unable to do so.” His words frustrated Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Either Director Pompeo had no idea what people in the C.I.A. reportedly knew about Michael Flynn, or he knew about the Justice Department’s concerns and continued to discuss America’s secrets with a man vulnerable to blackmail,” Mr. Wyden said in a statement. “I believe Director Pompeo owes the public an explanation.”

After Mr. Pompeo’s Senate testimony, The New York Times asked officials at several agencies whether Mr. Pompeo had raised concerns about Mr. Flynn to the president and, if so, whether the president had ignored him. One administration official responded on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Pompeo, whether he knew of the concerns or not, had not told the president about them.

A C.I.A. spokesman declined to discuss any interactions between the president and Mr. Pompeo.

“Whether the C.I.A. director briefed the president on a specific intelligence issue during a specific time frame is not something we publicly comment on, and we’re not about to start today,” said the spokesman, Dean Boyd.

Concerns across the government about Mr. Flynn were so great after Mr. Trump took office that six days after the inauguration, on Jan. 26, the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, warned the White House that Mr. Flynn had been “compromised.”

Ms. Yates’s concerns focused on phone calls that Mr. Flynn had in late December with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. When the White House faced questions about whether the two men had discussed lifting American sanctions on Russia, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that Mr. Flynn had assured him that sanctions were not discussed. Intelligence officials knew otherwise, based on routine intercepts of Mr. Kislyak’s conversations.

“That created a compromise situation,” Ms. Yates later told Congress, “a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Mr. Trump waited 18 days from that warning before firing Mr. Flynn, a period in which Mr. Pompeo continued to brief Mr. Flynn and the president. The White House has offered changing explanations for why the president waited until Feb. 13 — soon after Ms. Yates’s warning made national news — before firing Mr. Flynn.

White House officials have said they moved deliberately both out of respect for Mr. Flynn and because they were not sure how seriously they should take the concerns. They also said the president believed that Ms. Yates, an Obama administration holdover, had a political agenda. She was fired days later over her refusal to defend in court Mr. Trump’s ban on travel for people from several predominantly Muslim countries.

A warning from Mr. Pompeo might have persuaded the White House to take Ms. Yates’s concerns more seriously. Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman, is a Republican stalwart whom Mr. Trump has described as “brilliant and unrelenting.”

Mr. Pompeo was sworn in three days before Ms. Yates went to the White House. He testified last month that he did not know what was said in that meeting. By that time, C.I.A. officials had attended meetings with F.B.I. agents about Mr. Flynn and reviewed the transcripts of his conversations with the Russian ambassador, according to several current and former American security officials. Separately, intelligence agencies were aware that Russian operatives had discussed ways to use their relationship with Mr. Flynn to influence Mr. Trump.

Mr. Pompeo, who briefs the president nearly every day, had frequent opportunities to raise the issue with Mr. Trump.

The President’s Daily Brief is a rundown of what America’s spies consider the most pressing issues facing the United States. On any given day, it can include details of a terrorist plot being hatched overseas, an analysis of a foreign political crisis that threatens American interests or a look at foreign hackers who are trying to breach American government computer systems.

Each president takes the briefing differently. Mr. Obama was said to prefer reading it on a secure tablet. President George W. Bush liked his briefers to talk through the document they were presenting. Mr. Pompeo has described Mr. Trump as a voracious consumer of the briefing who likes maps, charts, pictures, videos and “killer graphics.

At an event last month at Westwood Country Club in Northern Virginia, Mr. Pompeo told retired C.I.A. officials that his briefings often ran past their scheduled 30 minutes, according to one retired official in attendance. Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Trump was eager for information and asked many questions.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Pompeo assured senators that he would provide the president with unvarnished information, even when it would be viewed as unpleasant. “I can tell you that I have assured the president-elect that I’ll do that,” Mr. Pompeo said.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Wyden questioned why Mr. Pompeo continued having discussions with Mr. Flynn despite the concerns of intelligence officials. “He was the national security adviser,” Mr. Pompeo said. “He was present for the daily brief on many occasions.”

Mr. Flynn had no love for the C.I.A., and the feeling was mutual. An Army general who had risen to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr. Flynn emerged in retirement as a C.I.A. critic, blaming the agency for his firing and what he called its failure to foresee the rise of the Islamic State. He insisted the Obama administration had politicized the agency, an assertion Mr. Pompeo later said he saw no evidence to support.

Norwegian Officials Deny “No Go Zones” in Migrant Suburb Despite Weeks of Arson, Attacks on Police

Oslo city representatives have blamed three weeks of arson and violence against police by “youths” in the migrant-dominated Norwegian suburb of Stovner on young people feeling “rootless and restless”.


District Director Elf Humborstad Sørland told Norwegian broadcaster NRK: “There is a general problem that many young people are out too late in the evenings.”

The district of Stovner, which according to Statistics Norway has one the highest immigrant populations in the country at over 50 per cent, has seen three weeks of youths setting cars on fire and throwing stones at police, ambulance personnel, and the fire brigade responding to the fires.

Lars Norbom, general secretary of Oslo’s ‘Ravens’ neighbourhood watch organisation, acknowledged the high proportion of migrants involved in the violence. Speculating the youth gangs, who live in low socio-economic conditions, feel “excluded”, “rootless and restless”, he urged the engagement of mosques and NGOs to improve the conditions of young migrants.

Despite the reports of violence against police and there being 20 reported cases of arson from January to March alone, Stovner Police Chief John Roger Lund has denied the Oslo suburb is suffering from “Swedish conditions” where police “run when attacked” in migrant no-go zones, stating: “Here, the youngsters run when we arrive.”

Police Inspector Lund believes there are only a “small number of youngsters” aged 17 to 19 behind the attacks and arson, and have detained and let go several young men.

Speaking to Aftenposten, the chief would not state whether the youths were part of a “gang environment”, but confirmed suspects are “known to police”. Police said they could not provide information about the ethnicity of the gang members.

However, Norway’s Human Rights Service, an organisation praised by ex-Muslim and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has accused the media and Norwegian authorities of “hushing up” the reports of crimes and violence in migrant-heavy neighbourhoods.

“As we know, media and politicians have tried to tell us over time that we do not have ‘Swedish conditions’ – conditions that Swedish media and politicians will not recognise even though the awakening in neighbouring countries has begun,” organiser Rita Karlsen wrote.

U.S. President Donald Trump was chastised by media and political figures in February for linking mass migration and rising violence in Sweden. Hours later, a riot in the migrant no-go zone of Rinkeby broke out with cars set ablaze and shops looted in what a journalist on the scene described as being “like a warzone”. Police were pushed back after a group of 30 rioters pelted them with stones.

Frequent arson attacks also occur in high-immigrant districts of France, with French authorities being accused of a cover-up after claiming New Year’s Eve 2016/2017 “went off without any major incident” despite more than 1,000 cars being torched.