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US-Russia reach agreement on Syria weapons

   Associated PressBy MATTHEW LEE and JOHN HEILPRIN | Associated Press

    GENEVA (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached agreement Saturday on a framework for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons, and said they would seek a U.N. Security Council resolution that could authorize sanctions — short of military action — if Syrian President Bashar Assad's government fails to comply.
  The deal announced by the diplomats on the third day of intense negotiations in Geneva includes what Kerry called "a shared assessment" of Syria's weapons stockpile, and a timetable and measures for Assad's government to comply.
  "The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment," Kerry told a packed news conference in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, where he has been staying and the negotiations were conducted since Thursday night. "There can be no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime."
  The deal calls for international inspectors to be on the ground in Syria by November and to complete their initial work by the end of that month. All of Syria's chemical weapons stocks, material and equipment would have to be destroyed or removed by mid-2014.
  Administration officials had said that President Barack Obama was open to a Security Council resolution that did not include military force as a punishment if Assad doesn't follow through on promises regarding the weapons. While Russia would be all but certain to veto any measure with such a penalty, Obama's willingness to concede the point — after threatening a U.S.-led military strike with or without approval by the U.S. Congress — provided a step forward.
  "I have no doubt that the combination of the threat of force and the willingness to pursue diplomacy helped to bring us to this moment," Kerry said.
  "Providing this framework is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose, not only to the Syrian people, but also to their neighbors, to the region, and because of the threat of proliferation, this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world," he said.
  But the stakes have been especially high in Geneva, because the negotiations between the United States and Russia on securing Syria's chemical weapons also are considered key to breaking the international stalemate that has so far blocked a resumption of peace talks to end the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
  "We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify," Kerry said.
  Among the highlights of the agreement is that the U.S. and Russia would agree to work together on a new, binding Security Council resolution that would ensure verification of the agreement to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks and remove its capability to produce such weapons.
  The resolution would allow for punitive measures for non-compliance, but stop short of military action, if the 15-nation Security Council approves them. The U.S. and Russia are two of the five permanent Security Council members with a veto. The others are Britain, China, and France.
  Another major feature of the agreement is that the U.S. and Russia plan to give Syria one week, until Sept. 21, to submit "a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and local and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities."
  In addition, the U.S. and Russia have agreed that international inspectors should be on the ground in Syria by November and complete their initial work by the end of the month. They must be given "immediate and unfettered" access to inspect all sites.
  Notably, Kerry said they had agreed on grounds under which they might request a Security Council "Chapter 7" resolution at the United Nations, which is a measure that could include military and non-military sanctions.
  But Lavrov, who said the agreement was "based on consensus and compromise and professionalism," indicated there would be limits to using a Chapter 7 resolution, which Russia would almost certainly veto if it specifically authorized a military strike such as what President Barack Obama has threatened.
  "Any violations of procedures ... would be looked at by the Security Council and if they are approved, the Security Council would take the required measures, concrete measures," Lavrov said.
  "Nothing is said about the use of force or about any automatic sanctions. All violations should be approved by the Security Council," he added.
  Kerry also said any violations will result in "measures" from the Security Council, while Lavrov said the violations must be sent to the Security Council from the board of the chemical weapons convention before sanctions — short of the use of force — would be considered.
  Kerry said the pair and their teams of experts had come to agreement on the exact size of Syria's weapons stockpile, which had been a sticking point before their meetings in Geneva. But in marathon sessions into early morning hours, the U.S. and Russia succeeded in narrowing their differences.
  The agreement over the Russian proposal to inventory, isolate and eventually destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks comes as the Obama administration warned that there is a timetable for a diplomatic resolution of the weapons issue.
  Administration officials have said that Obama would retain the authority to order U.S. airstrikes against Syria. Obama himself said that any agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile "needs to be verifiable and enforceable."
  U.N. inspectors prepared to turn in their own poison gas report this weekend. Two U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the time was not yet final, said Friday night that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the Security Council about the report on Monday morning.
  Ban said Friday that he expected "an overwhelming report" that chemical weapons were indeed used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. Obama called for a limited military strike against Assad's forces in response, then deferred seeking congressional approval to consider the Russian proposal.
  Kerry and Lavrov also met Friday with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about the potential for a new peace conference in the Swiss city. Kerry said he, Lavrov and Brahimi agreed to meet around Sept. 28 on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.
  "We are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world," Kerry said.
  Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told reporters after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva will require success first with the chemical weapons talks.
  Kerry planned to travel to Jerusalem Sunday to discuss the situation in Syria with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will then go to Paris to see French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday about the Syrian war. In Paris, he will meet separately with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Pro-Israel Groups Differ on Approaches Toward Iran



    WASHINGTON — Even before President Obama declared this month that “I have Israel’s back” in its escalating confrontation with Iran, pro-Israel figures like the evangelical Christian leader Gary L. Bauer and the conservative commentator William Kristol were pushing for more.

    In a slickly produced, 30-minute video, the group that the two men lead, the Emergency Committee for Israel, mocked Mr. Obama’s “unshakable commitment to Israel’s security” and attacked his record on Iran as weak. “I’ll be brutally honest: I don’t trust the president on Israel,” Mr. Bauer, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, said in an interview. “I think his record on Israel is abysmal.”

    With Israeli leaders warning of an existential threat from Iran and openly discussing the possibility of attacking its nuclear facilities, pro-Israel groups on all sides have mobilized to make their views known to the Obama administration and to Congress. But it is the most hawkish voices, like the Emergency Committee’s, that have dominated the debate, and, in the view of some critics, pushed the United States closer to taking military action against Iran and another war in the Middle East.

     “It’s not about Israel,” said Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the House majority leader and a key Congressional ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

     “It’s about the U.S.,” Mr. Cantor said in an interview. “It’s about our interests in the region. There have been a lot of conflicting messages coming out of the White House.”

Among those advocating a more aggressive approach toward Iran are prominent Republicans in Congress, like Mr. Cantor and Senator John McCain of Arizona; the party’s presidential candidates; groups like the Emergency Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac; the so-called “neocons” from the George W. Bush administration who were strong proponents of the war in Iraq; pro-Israel evangelical Christians like Mr. Bauer, who is also active in the group Christians United for Israel; and many Democrats.

Urging diplomacy are liberal groups like J Street, which is helped by $500,000 a year in contributions from the liberal philanthropist George Soros, and Tikkun, a Jewish journal that has begun running newspaper advertisements here and abroad that urge, “NO War on Iran and NO First Strike!” Tikkun, based in Berkeley, Calif., is hoping to link its antiwar message with the Occupy protests.

“A lot of people talk about the ‘Israel lobby’ as if it’s a monolithic thing,” said Dylan Williams, head of government affairs for J Street. “It’s a myth. There is a deep division between those who support military action at this point and those who support diplomacy.”

Clear fissures have developed among pro-Israel groups — not only between hawks and doves over whether to use military force against Iran, but among hard-liners themselves over just how aggressively to confront it.

Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner who is a staunch supporter of Israel, was once a major donor to Aipac. But because of Aipac’s support for American aid to the Palestinian Authority, he has broken from the group. This year, Mr. Adelson has given at least $10 million, along with his wife, to support Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

Like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, Mr. Gingrich has pushed for stronger support of Israel and attacked Mr. Obama’s policies on the Iranian issue as weak. He also described the Palestinians as an “invented people.”

The disagreements over what to do about Iran reflect the divisions among Jews themselves. In a survey of American Jews last September by the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, 56 percent of those polled said they would support American military action against Iran if diplomacy and sanctions failed, while 38 percent opposed it. Support was down slightly from a year earlier.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, a leader of Tikkun and an affiliated antiwar coalition of religious groups, said backers of diplomacy want to slow what they have seen as a “drumbeat to war” in recent weeks. Rabbi Lerner and other opponents of military action say the debate over Iran echoes the political climate in 2002 before the United States-led invasion in Iraq.

Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who opposes military action against Iran, said, “The rhetoric is overblown.”

Those advocating military intervention “whip up fear and whip up doomsday scenarios,” Mr. Ellison said in an interview. “It has an effect. If nothing else, they’re making Obama talk about military options with regard to Iran.”

But Mr. Ellison is in the minority on Capitol Hill, where the debate over Israel and Iran was largely settled long ago.

Even in the oft-divided Senate, a measure last fall to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran passed 100-0 despite White House concerns. Beyond antiwar activists like Mr. Ellison and the recently defeated Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, or neo-isolationists like Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the Republican presidential candidate, there is almost no constituency in either party for anything other than tougher sanctions against Iran and clear expressions of solidarity with Israel.

In the standoff with Iran, it is the hawkish groups supporting military action that wield more money, political clout and high-profile names than do the advocates of a diplomatic solution.

In all, pro-Israel political action committees and donors affiliated with them have given more than $47 million directly to federal candidates since 2000, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. They rank among the top contributors to a number of prominent Democrats and Republicans, and pro-Israel groups have hosted many lawmakers on expense-paid trips to Israel. When Aipac featured Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu at its conference this month, more than half the members of Congress attended.

Richard N. Perle, an influential neoconservative voice who served as a senior Defense official in the Bush administration, said he saw a growing “sense of urgency” among Republicans over the need to consider all options — including military intervention — to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb that could be used against Israel. The “noisy public debate” has now made military operations more politically viable for Mr. Obama, he said in an interview.

The president himself has warned against “loose talk of war” in the public debate over Iranian policy, even as he has left open the possibility of military action. At the Aipac conference, Mr. Obama reassured Israeli officials and supporters that he had “Israel’s back.” He referred explicitly to military action as an option for dealing with Iran and rejected a policy of containment. The harder line that Mr. Obama articulated also happens to be good domestic politics, according to experts. The president’s statements, they said, calmed the jitters of some Jewish voters about his support for Israel and defused the effort of Republican presidential candidates to use Iran as a wedge issue against him.


     Steve Rabinowitz, who served in the Clinton administration and now advises Jewish groups, said that an issue that Republicans “hoped would be a major weapon in turning Jews against the president was all but taken away from them.”

Obama Cites ‘Window’ for Diplomacy on Iran Bomb

  The New York Times       WASHINGTON         — With Israel warning that it may mount a military strike against Iran, President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to the White House, but signaled that he would press for more time for a campaign of economic sanctions to work on Tehran.

Appearing with Mr. Netanyahu in the Oval Office before their meeting, Mr. Obama declared that “the United States will always have Israel’s back.” He reiterated that the United States would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he added, “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

Mr. Netanyahu, sitting next to the president, declared that “Israel must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” He thanked Mr. Obama for affirming, in a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group on Sunday, that, as Mr. Netanyahu put it, “Israel has the sovereign right to make its own decisions.” Israeli officials interpreted this to mean that the United States would not try to block a preemptive Israeli strike.

While the two leaders struck a tableau of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, the differences in their approach to Iran were on display. Mr. Netanyahu said nothing about diplomacy and the economic sanctions that Mr. Obama promoted. And while the president repeated his vow that “all options are on the table” to halt Iran’s pursuit of a weapon, he did not explicitly mention military force, as he did on Sunday.

Mr. Obama said once again that that the United States rejected a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, saying that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would follow, raising the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and that an Iran with nuclear weapons would be able to behave with impunity in the region.

Mr. Netanyahu sought to eliminate any daylight between the United States and Israel on Iran, noting that Iran’s leaders vilify the United States as the “Great Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan.”

 “We are you, and you are us,” he said. “We are together.”

Israeli officials have been comforted in recent days by Mr. Obama’s explicit rejection of a containment policy, as well as his affirmation that Israel has the right to act on its own to defend its national security. But the president has not embraced another key Israeli demand: that military action be taken before Iran acquires the ability to manufacture a bomb, as opposed to before it actually builds one.

Still, officials said, Mr. Obama is likely to discuss in greater detail with Mr. Netanyahu the “red lines” that the United States has established on Iran, even as he tries to persuade Mr. Netanyahu to give diplomacy and pressure more time.

The mood in the Oval Office was somber and businesslike, as it usually is in meetings between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu — two men who have had a sometimes fractious relationship over Middle East diplomacy.

In their last Oval Office encounter, in May 2011, Mr. Netanyahu summarily rejected a proposal by the president to revive moribund peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. With a stone-faced Mr. Obama sitting next to him, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would not pursue “peace-based illusions.”

This time, the peace process will barely figure in the conversation. Neither man is particularly focused on reviving the talks, with election-year politics in both the United States and Israel discouraging any bold new proposals, and with the Palestinian Authority more focused on unity talks with Hamas and its campaign for recognition at the United Nations than on talks with Israel.

In interview, Obama says he's not bluffing on Iran


    Associated Press (By ANNE GEARAN and MARK S. SMITH)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama warned that he is not bluffing about attacking Iran if it builds a nuclear weapon, but in an interview published Friday, Obama also warned U.S. ally Israel that a premature attack on Iran would do more harm than good.

In his most expansive remarks on the issue thus far, Obama told The Atlantic magazine that Iran and Israel both understand that "a military component" is among a mix of many options for dealing with Iran, along with sanctions and diplomacy. That is the most direct threat he has issued during months of escalating tension with Iran over its disputed nuclear development program.

His comments appeared aimed more at Israel and its supporters in the United States than at Iran. Obama addresses the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday and meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday at the White House. Netanyahu will also address AIPAC.

"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff," he said in the interview. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But (both) governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

Obama will try to convince Netanyahu to postpone any plans his government may have to unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear facilities in coming months. An attack that soon would not carry U.S. backing, and the U.S. would probably not be involved in planning or executing it.

Nonetheless, it could force the United States into a new conflict and an arms race in the Middle East, as Obama made clear in the lengthy interview. It also could allow Iran to paint itself the victim and draw new support that would undermine rather than enhance Israel's security, Obama warned.

"At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally (Syria) is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?" Obama said.

At the same time, Obama has consistently refused to renounce a military option for the United States down the road. The dispute with Israel is over the timing and efficiency of such a strike, not whether one is ever appropriate. The difference of opinion has quickly come to dominate the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the U.S. strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran is a major issue for American Jewish voters in this election year.

Israeli leaders have strongly hinted that they want to hear clearer terms from Obama for what the United States would do if Iran crosses the threshold from nuclear energy to nuclear weapons. Until now, Obama has said a nuclear Iran is unacceptable but has not spelled out just what the U.S. would do or when.

In the interview, Obama did go further than he has before. He explicitly referred to the possible use of military force, and he firmly rejected the notion that the United States might settle for a strategy of deterring Iran from using a nuclear weapon.

"You're talking about the most volatile region in the world," he said. "It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe. "

He also pointed to economic turmoil in Iran and reiterated that sanctions against the Iranian regime are starting to bite.

In a series of recent meetings with Israeli leaders, administration officials are believed to have sought to persuade the Jewish state to give sanctions more time to work and to hold off on any military strike. Speaking Thursday to reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama believes there is still "time and space" for those measure to persuade the Iranian regime to take a different course.

Israeli officials acknowledge the pain in Iran but have publicly expressed doubt those measures will ever cause Iran's clerical leaders to change course.

Obama wasn't so sure. "They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing," he told the Atlantic. "They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them."

Though Obama emphatically portrays himself as one of Israel's best friends, touting military and other ties, his relationship with Netanyahu has at times been frosty. The two have sparred publicly over Jewish settlements on the West Bank, with Netanyahu pushing back on Washington's efforts to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Iran issue has risen to the forefront of his foreign policy. At a fundraiser in New York on Thursday night, an audience member shouted out, urging the president to avoid a war with Iran.

"Nobody has announced a war," Obama cautioned. "You're jumping the gun a little bit."

Medvedev: Russia may target missile defense sites

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will deploy new missiles aimed at U.S. missile defense sites in Europe if Washington goes ahead with the planned shield despite Russia's concerns, President Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday.

Russia will station missiles in its westernmost Kaliningrad region and other areas if Russia and NATO fail to reach a deal on the U.S.-led missile defense plans, he said in a tough statement that seemed to be aimed at rallying domestic support.

Russia considers the plans for missile shields in Europe, including in Romania and Poland, to be a threat to its nuclear forces, but the Obama administration insists they are meant to fend off a potential threat from Iran.

Moscow has agreed to consider NATO's proposal last fall to cooperate on the missile shield, but the talks have been deadlocked over how the system should operate. Russia has insisted that the system should be run jointly, which NATO has rejected.

Medvedev also warned that Moscow may opt out of the New START arms control deal with the United States and halt other arms control talks if the U.S. proceeds. The Americans had hoped that the treaty would stimulate progress further ambitious arms control efforts, but such talks have stalled over tension on the missile plans.

"The United States and its NATO partners as of now aren't going to take our concerns about the European missile defense into account," a stern Medvedev said, adding that if the alliance continues to "stonewall" Russia it will take retaliatory action.

The U.S. plan calls for placing land- and sea-based radars and interceptors in European locations over the next decade and upgrading them over time.

Medvedev warned that Russia will deploy short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, a Baltic Sea exclave bordering Poland, and place weapons in other areas in Russia's west and south to target U.S. missile defense sites.

Medvedev added that prospective Russian strategic nuclear missiles will be fitted with systems that would allow them to penetrate prospective missile defenses.

He and other Russian leaders have made similar threats in the past, and the latest statement appears to be aimed at domestic audience ahead of Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

Medvedev, who is set to step down to allow Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reclaim the presidency in March's elections, leads the ruling United Russia party list in the parliamentary vote.

A sterm warning to the U.S. and NATO issued by Medvedev seems to be directed at rallying nationalist votes in the polls.

U.N. and activists urge inquiry into Gaddafi death

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations and human rights groups called on Friday for a full investigation into the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and voiced concerns that he may have been executed, a war crime under international law.

Images filmed on mobile phones before and after Gaddafi's death showed him wounded and bloodied but clearly alive after his capture in his hometown of Sirte on Thursday, and then dead amidst a jostling crowd of anti-Gaddafi fighters.

"If you take these two videos together, they are rather disturbing because you see someone who has been captured alive and then you see the same person dead," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters Television.

Asked whether Gaddafi may have been executed, he said: "It has to be one possibility when you look at these two videos. So that's something that an investigation needs to look into."

Under the Geneva Conventions which lay down the rules of conduct in armed conflict, it is prohibited to torture, humiliate or murder detainees.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which upholds respect for the 1949 pacts, said it had no information on Gaddafi's death. "In general, a captured person must be treated correctly," an ICRC spokesman said.

Russia believes that Gaddafi should have been treated as a prisoner of war according to the Geneva Conventions and should not have been killed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday, calling for an investigation.

"If Colonel Gaddafi was killed after his capture, it would constitute a war crime and those responsible should be brought to justice," Claudio Cordone, senior director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, interviewed by CNN in Sirte near the drainage ditch where Gaddafi was captured, said: "We do not think he was caught in crossfire. Did Muammar Gaddafi die from wounds or did he receive a fatal head wound after he left this area?

"We are calling for an autopsy and an investigation. This is a blemish on the new Libya that he died under suspicious circumstances," he said.

Some 95 bodies were found after Libyan transitional forces took Gaddafi's besieged hometown, including several bodies executed with gunshots to the head, according to Bouckaert.

Gaddafi's body lay in an old meat store on Friday as arguments swirled over his burial and the circumstances of his death.

With a bullet wound visible through the familiar curly hair, the corpse shown to Reuters in Misrata bore other marks of the violent end to a violent life that was being broadcast to the world in snatches of grainy, gory cellphone video.

A television station based in Syria that supported Gaddafi said on Friday that the slain Libyan leader's wife had asked for a U.N. investigation into his death.

                                         ARRESTED ALIVE, KILLED LATER

Colville said it was a fundamental principle of international law that people accused of serious crimes should be tried if possible. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants in June for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and their intelligence chief for crimes against humanity.

"Summary executions are strictly illegal under any circumstances. It's different if someone is killed in combat. There was a civil war taking place in Libya. So if the person died as part of combat, that is a different issue and that is normally acceptable under the circumstances," he told Reuters.

"But if something else has happened, if someone is captured and then deliberately killed, then that is a very serious matter," he said.

Libya's interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Gaddafi was killed in a "crossfire" while being brought to hospital after his capture. A doctor who examined Gaddafi's body said he had been fatally wounded by a bullet in his intestines.

But a senior interim ruling National Transitional Council source told Reuters Gaddafi was killed by his captors: "While he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him," the source said. "He might have been resisting."

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Misrata and Gleb Bryanski in Moscow; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

Senate Republicans likely to kill Obama jobs bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's jobs bill, facing a critical test in the Senate, appears likely to die at the hands of Republicans opposed to stimulus spending and a tax surcharge on millionaires.

Obama has been waging a campaign-style effort seeking to rally public support behind the $447 billion measure, which will be the subject of a Senate vote Tuesday. The plan combines payroll tax cuts for workers and businesses with $175 billion in spending on roads, school repairs and other infrastructure, as well as unemployment assistance and help to local governments to avoid layoffs of teachers, firefighters and police officers.

The key elements of the jobs package reprise parts of Obama's $800 billion-plus 2009 stimulus measure and a Social Security payroll tax cut enacted last year. Unlike the controversial deficit-financed stimulus bill, the jobs measure would be paid for by a 5.6 percent surcharge on income exceeding $1 million that raises more than $450 billion over a decade.

In making the case for the bill, the White House cites economists like Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, who predicts that the measure would add 2 percentage points of growth to the economy, add 1.9 million payroll jobs, and reduce unemployment by a percentage point. But Republicans point to optimistic predictions about the 2009 measure that didn't come to pass; unemployment hovers just above 9 percent nationwide.

Republicans say the 2009 stimulus measure was an expensive failure and that the current plan is just like it.

The president has been struggling in opinion polls and his crusade for the measure has always been a long shot given that Republicans control the House and can filibuster at will in the Senate. Obama has nonetheless pressed for the bitterly divided Congress to pass the measure in its entirety rather than seek compromise with his GOP rivals.

"This is not the time for the usual games or political gridlock in Washington," Obama said in his weekend radio and Internet address. "Any senator out there who's thinking about voting against this jobs bill needs to explain why they would oppose something that we know would improve our economic situation."

While Republicans backed the payroll tax cut last year and support elements like continued tax breaks for investments in business equipment, they're adamantly opposed to further spending and say the tax surcharge would strike at small businesses, which, in total, employ more than 300,000 people.

"It's not a jobs bill. In our view, it's another stimulus bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News last week. "I don't think it'll pass and I don't think it should." House GOP leaders say they won't bring the measure to the floor.

Democratic unanimity is not assured. Moderates like Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — both are up for re-election next year in states where Obama figures to lose — may abandon the party, even as oil-state Democrats have been assuaged by a decision to get rid of an Obama proposal to have oil companies give up tax breaks.

Top Democratic vote counter Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said in an interview Monday on the Chicago television station WTTW that the party could lose up to four Democrats on the vote. That would leave the measure short of a simple majority, much less the 60 votes needed to cut off a GOP filibuster on a motion to simply begin debate on the measure. If Democrats fail as expected — they control 53 votes in the 100-member Senate — it'll start up a fresh wave of partisan finger-pointing.

Both the House and Senate are then expected to turn this week to approving U.S. trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, one of the few areas of agreement between Republicans and the administration on boosting the economy.

Obama's healthcare law appealed to Supreme Court

  By James Vicini | Reuters

 WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to back the centerpiece of Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul -- the requirement that all Americans have health insurance.

The appeal was largely expected as a high court ruling against the law could be a fatal blow to the president's signature domestic policy achievement and could have major implications for his re-election bid.

The same day the administration filed its appeal, 26 states and a major business group urged the justices to strike down the entire law, which would have a far-reaching impact on future healthcare coverage for Americans and company costs.

The case is likely to be heard and decided in the Supreme Court's upcoming term that begins next week and lasts through June 2012. A ruling is likely in the midst of the campaign for the November 2012 elections.

The administration and the opponents of the law called for a quick ruling by the high court to resolve uncertainty affecting the federal government, states and companies about the law's key provisions that are taking effect.

The 26 states and National Federation of Independent Business argued in their appeals the entire law should be invalidated because Congress exceeded its powers requiring that Americans buy health insurance or face a penalty.

The Obama administration filed its own appeal in which the Justice Department argued the so-called individual mandate, due to take effect in 2014, was constitutional and said the issue was appropriate for Supreme Court review.

"Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed," the Justice Department said.

"We believe the challenges to Affordable Care Act ... will also ultimately fail and that the Supreme Court will uphold the law," the department said in a statement.

White House adviser Stephanie Cutter said the administration asked the Supreme Court to hear the case "so that we can put these challenges to rest and continue moving forward implementing the law to lower the cost of health care and make it more secure for all Americans."

At issue was a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta in August that declared unconstitutional the individual insurance requirement but refused to strike down the entire law.

That decision conflicted with rulings by other appeals courts that have upheld the law or have rejected legal challenges, including a lawsuit by the state of Virginia that was dismissed earlier this month on procedural grounds.

The law, passed by Congress and signed by Obama in 2010 after a bruising political battle, is expected to be a major issue in the 2012 elections as Obama seeks another four-year term. Republican presidential candidates oppose it and Republicans in Congress have pushed to repeal the law.


Obama, a Democrat, has championed the law as a major accomplishment of his presidency and as a way to try to slow soaring healthcare costs while expanding health insurance coverage to the more than 30 million Americans without it.

The Supreme Court long has been expected to have the final word on the law's constitutionality. The dispute has important legal, political and financial implications for companies in the healthcare field.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said the states sought Supreme Court review of their lawsuit.

"This healthcare law is an affront on Americans' individual liberty and we will not allow the federal government to violate our constitutional rights," she said.

Legal experts have said the nine-member Supreme Court, with a conservative majority and four liberals, most likely will be closely divided on whether the individual mandate requiring insurance purchases exceeded the power of Congress.

The Obama administration earlier this week said it decided against asking the full U.S. Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit to review the August ruling by a three-judge panel of the court that found the insurance requirement unconstitutional.

That decision cleared the way for the administration to go to the Supreme Court.

The states in their appeal also argued the law's expansion of Medicaid, a federal-state partnership that provides health care to low-income Americans, was unconstitutionally coercive, forced upon the states.

A senior Justice Department official told reporters that political considerations played no role in moving for Supreme Court review. The official said it was important to get a ruling soon so planning for the far-reaching law can proceed.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott)

Obama and Netanyahu discuss differences on Mideast

By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press Erica Werner, Associated Press (05/20/2011)

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is conceding that he has differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a future state for Palestinians but that such disagreements happen "between friends."

Obama spoke after a lengthy meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Both men greeted reporters with smiles despite the deep tension surrounding their talks.

Netanyahu told Obama that Israel values the U.S. president's efforts to advance the peace process.

The two leaders spoke after Obama declared in a speech Thursday that the United States supports creation of a Palestinian state based on the border lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel forces occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu said Israel can make some concessions but cannot return to the 1967 borders, which he called "indefensible."

Sharply at odds over terms for Middle East peace, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in the Oval Office Friday in an encounter likely to produce little more than frustrations for both men.

They spoke on the day after Obama for the first time endorsed the Palestinians' demand that their eventual state be based on borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel forces occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu dismissed that position as "indefensible," saying it would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Then he boarded a plane for his long-scheduled visit to Washington, vowing to seek clarifications in his meeting with Obama at the White House. He arrived in Washington early Friday.

The encounter was pitting a president deeply frustrated with a peace effort in shambles against an Israeli leader confronted by a Palestinian government he says he cannot do business with.

International pressure is growing on both to answer the demands of the Palestinian people as revolts sweeping the Arab world crest against Israel itself. Palestinian protesters marched on the Jewish state's borders this week, and at least 15 people were killed.

Against that backdrop, Obama was aiming "to try to convince Netanyahu and the Israelis that there's a greater urgency in reaching agreement with the Palestinians because of the dramatic changes under way in the region and greater diplomatic pressures and efforts to isolate Israel and delegitimize its existence," said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Netanyahu was informed shortly before Obama's speech of its contents by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to U.S. officials. Netanyahu sought in vain to get the border language removed from the speech, the officials said, and was incensed when he was told it was staying in. One official described Netanyahu's reaction as "passionate." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic exchange.

Netanyahu's tough response to Obama's speech "expresses disappointment at the absence of central items that Israel had demanded, primarily the (Palestinian) refugees," a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not free to discuss U.S. policy on the record, told reporters traveling with the prime minister.

The official said Netanyahu was disappointed the speech did not address the Palestinian demand to repatriate to Israel millions of Palestinians, most descendants of people who were driven from or fled homes in the war over the Jewish state's 1948 creation.

"There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, Washington does not understand what we face," the official said. Netanyahu is to address the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, an invitation he sought to give him an opportunity to press Israel's case.

Obama's stance on the 1967 borders was not a major policy change, since the U.S — along with the international community and even past Israeli governments — previously have agreed to building on the 1967 lines.

But it was the first time he'd explicitly endorsed those borders as a starting point, a position Netanyahu rejects, and raised fears among some in the Israeli government of further U.S. concessions to Palestinian demands. Obama said Israel can never be a truly peaceful Jewish state if it insists on "permanent occupation." But he did say the 1967 borders should be accompanied by land swaps agreed to by both sides, which could accommodate existing Jewish settlements.

Obama was unsparing, too, in his words for the Palestinian leadership, repudiating its pursuit of unilateral statehood through the United Nations and questioning its alliance with a Hamas faction bent on Israel's destruction. It was not immediately clear, however, whether Obama's statement on the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations — something the Palestinians have long sought — would be sufficient to persuade the Palestinians to drop their quest for U.N. recognition.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was consulting with officials in a number of Arab countries to discuss a response to Obama's speech. Erekat said Abbas wants to hear from the Arab world before convening the Palestinian leadership.

Asked whether the parameters laid out by Obama are enough to entice the Palestinians to return to talks and drop their bid for U.N. recognition, Erekat said it's too early to consider such a step.

Obama's blunt attempt to steer the peace effort was a major change in tactics from a president who has avoided imposing any U.S. plan but is now running out of patience and reasons to be subtle. Seeking to shake up a dynamic of mutual blame for the stalled peace talks, Obama pushed both sides to accept his starting point — borders for Palestine, security for Israel — and get back to solving a stalemate "that has grinded on and on and on."

"The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome," the president said Thursday at the State Department. "At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever."

That doesn't mean resolution is anywhere in sight.

Ahead of his trip to Washington, Netanyahu delivered a speech to his parliament in which he made clear his opposition to talks with a newly constituted Palestinian government that shares power between the mainstream Palestinian Fatah faction led by Abbas and the radical Hamas movement that rules Gaza. He also made a series of demands that the Palestinians — and especially Hamas — are not likely to meet. Among them were dropping their claim to east Jerusalem, their would-be capital, and recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Palestinians, for their part, refuse to negotiate while Israel continues to expand Jewish enclaves in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be part of an eventual state. Israel refuses to freeze settlement construction, saying the matter should be resolved through negotiations.

With talks at a standstill, the Palestinians are planning to unilaterally take their bid for statehood to the United Nations in September, a step Obama rejected Thursday, saying, "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."

But Obama had no solution to the question of Hamas, and no blueprint for how to solve enormous conflicts over the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. The border issue, he conceded, was just a start.


Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Matt Lee in Washington, Amy Teibel traveling with Netanyahu, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

Editor: Mihai GHEORGHIU


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