Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is Israel forming an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

Israel estimates that strengthening Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and maintaining a dialogue with Saudi Arabia are key elements for the region's stability.

April 14, 2016

Egypt's April 9 announcement of the transfer of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabian sovereignty came as a complete surprise to many in the Middle East. The only country that was not surprised was Israel. A top-level official in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor on April 12 that Israel had been privy to the secret negotiations. Israel had given its approval to the process and did not ask to reopen the peace agreement with Egypt, even though the agreement dictates that any territorial change or transfer of Egyptian sovereignty of lands that Israel gave back to other hands constitutes a violation of the treaty.

Talks between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the transfer of these islands have been going on for years, with Israel firmly opposing the move. The fact that the transfer has now earned Israeli support reflects the depth of the shared interests between the three sides: Cairo, Riyadh and Jerusalem — although the Egyptians and Saudis prefer the label “Tel Aviv.”

This is a real geostrategic and diplomatic drama. Former Shin Bet chief Knesset member Avi Dichter of the Likud Party said on April 12 in an interview with the Israeli Kol Yisrael radio station that this step is one of the most important, dramatic diplomatic occurrences that have taken place between two Arab countries in the Middle East. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, in a small pre-Passover celebratory toast with military reporters, updated and confirmed that Israel had, indeed, agreed to the course of action and had even received a written document, signed by all sides. The document confirmed Israel’s continued freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran, in which the two strategic islands are situated; the Strait of Tiran led to the important Israeli port city of Eilat. In addition, Ya’alon noted that the Americans had been partnered to the negotiations and are also signatories on the agreement. Thus, Ya’alon said, Israel had received all the requisite guarantees.

According to a senior security official, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Ya’alon emphasized to his associates that security cooperation between Israel and Egypt had reached an all-time high. The security systems of the two countries share the same interests. Egyptians, for instance, help Israel contain and cordon off Hamas in Gaza.

The recent move — the transfer of the two islands to Saudi Arabia — reveals part of the dialogue that has been developing between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. A highly placed Israeli security official, who spoke to Al-Monitor anonymously, added some details: Israel's relationships in the region are deep and important. The moderate Arab countries have not forgotten the Ottoman period, and are very worried about the growing strength and enlargement of the two non-Arab empires of the past: Iran and Turkey. On this background, many regional players realize that Israel is not the problem, but the solution. Israel's dialogue with the large, important Sunni countries remains mainly under the radar, but it deepens all the time and it bears fruit.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's action has aroused sharp public criticism in Egypt. The president’s opponents argue that under the Egyptian Constitution he has no authority to give up Egyptian territory, but Sisi rightly warded off this criticism: These islands originally belonged to Saudi Arabia, which transferred them to Egypt in 1950 as part of the effort to strangle Israel from the south, and prevent the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from taking control of them. Israel embarked on two wars (the Sinai War in 1956 and the Six Day War in 1967) for navigation rights in the Red Sea. It took over these islands twice, but then returned them to Egypt both times. Now events have come full circle, and the Egyptians are returning the islands to their original owner, Saudi Arabia. This is a goodwill gesture from Sisi to King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, after the Saudis committed themselves to the economic solvency of the Egyptian regime for the next five years. The Saudis are making massive investments in Egypt and providing financial support to save the Egyptian economy from collapse.

There is another aspect to the Egyptian transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia: In the past, several proposals were raised regarding regional land swaps, with the goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The framework is, in principle, simple: Egypt would enlarge Gaza southward and allow the Gaza Strip’s Palestinians more open space and breathing room. In exchange for this territory, Egypt would receive from Israel a narrow strip the length of the borderline between the two countries, the Israeli Negev desert region from Egyptian Sinai. The Palestinians, in contrast, would transfer the West Bank settlement blocs to Israel. Jordan could also join such an initiative; it could contribute territories of its own and receive others in exchange. To date, this approach was categorically disqualified by the Egyptians in the Hosni Mubarak era. Now that it seems that territorial transfer has become a viable possibility under the new conditions of the Middle East, the idea of Israeli-Egyptian territorial swaps are also reopened; in the past, these land swap possibilities fired the imaginations of many in the region. In his day, former head of Israel's National Security Council Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland led a regional initiative on the subject. But he was stymied by Egypt.

Still, not everything is coming up roses. There are no simple equations in the Middle East, and this holds true in this case. In Israel there are those who are concerned about the growing Saudi Arabian influence in Egypt. This is reflected in the founding of Saudi-inspired Islamic madrassas (religious Islamic schools), and Saudi-type Sunni radicalization in Egypt. But these pessimists are the minority. “It is important for Sisi to strengthen and survive, he is the key to the stability of the entire region,” said a diplomatic source in Jerusalem who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

In light of America distancing itself from the region and the cold shoulder that Egypt has received from Washington in recent years, Saudi assistance and Israeli support to Egypt are viewed as critical to Sisi’s continued grip on the regime. And to complicate the situation even more, we can add the reconciliation attempts between Israel and Turkey; these have continued for many long months in marathon negotiations between the sides.

A highly placed Israeli official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the Egyptians don’t want to see the Turks in the Gaza Strip, and are strongly opposed to a rapprochement between Jerusalem and Ankara. This is the reason, according to the source, that the reconciliation agreement has not yet been completed, and that there are gaps between the sides. In the current state of affairs, it is possible that the Turks and Israelis will accept the fact that they can’t come to a full agreement, and will settle for a partial rapprochement: an exchange of ambassadors, limited warming of relations and nothing more. Israel is sitting on the thorns of a dilemma: between its desire to normalize relations with Turkey, which could also facilitate the signing of an agreement to supply natural gas from Israel to Turkey, following discoveries in recent years of natural gas reserve off the Israeli coast; and its desire to promote the emerging Israeli-Sunni understandings that are becoming a strategic cornerstone in Israel’s national security.

Article Link to Al-Monitor:

Is Israel forming an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

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Hastert's Long Fall From Grace

Dennis Hastert is more likely to be remembered for his reclining chair.

By Roger Simon
April 13, 2016

Once upon a time, Dennis Hastert looked forward to being the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

Today, he is more likely to be remembered for his reclining chair.

As a document filed in federal court in Illinois recently puts it, as a high school wrestling coach, Hastert “put a ‘Lazyboy’-type chair in direct view of the shower stalls in the locker room where he sat while the boys showered.”

Hastert told people he put it there to keep the boys from fighting. Now, prosecutors believe Hastert put it there for the view.

And just when Hastert thought things could not get worse — they got worse.

Last week, federal prosecutors released graphic accusations detailing how Hastert sexually abused at least four students who were on his wrestling team.

You would think keeping a large chair in a locker room would raise a few eyebrows. But it didn’t. That was the point. Hastert was practically worshipped at his school and in his town.

“Defendant was not just a teacher and coach,” the prosecutors said in a court filing. “Defendant was famous in Yorkville as the beloved coach of the state champion wrestling team; the leader of a boys’ club that took trips to the Grand Canyon and the Bahamas; and the popular teacher who gave kids rides in his Porsche.”

After the 26-page document by prosecutors became public a few days ago, Andy Richter, sidekick to late-night comic Conan O’Brien, posted a series of tweets:

— “I went to Yorkville HS ’80-’84 & I remember this chair. Purportedly “to keep boys from fighting”

— “I haven’t thought of it in 30 yrs”

— “tbh [to be honest], I don’t find it’s upsetting me now. I’m just so struck by how easy it was to do that. Nobody questioned it.”

The only alleged victim of Hastert to be named so far is Steve Reinboldt, the equipment manager of the team. In 1979, years after he was out of high school, Reinboldt told his sister that Hastert abused him for four years. His sister asked him why he had not spoken up sooner.

“And he just turned around and kind of looked at me and said, ‘Who is ever going to believe me?’” Reinboldt’s sister said. Reinboldt died in 1995.

“Mr. Hastert is deeply sorry and apologizes for his misconduct that occurred decades ago and the resulting harm he caused to others,” his lawyers have said in a court filing. “Mr. Hastert’s fall from grace has been swift and devastating.”

So much time has passed since Hastert’s alleged abuse of the students that he can no longer be charged for sex crimes. And while Hastert does not dispute all of the sexual acts contained in the federal documents, his lawyers still are trying to spin the case as one of a retired, sickly, 74-year-old man who has had a stroke and who has been punished enough.

Hastert, who went to a Christian evangelical Protestant college and received a 100 percent score from the Christian Coalition when he was in public life, is due to be sentenced on April 27, at which time one of his victims may testify against him.

To the judge hearing the case, Hastert’s lawyers have said, “We respectfully request that the court consider the humiliation and isolation that Mr. Hastert and his family have already suffered when determining his sentence.” Hastert served as House speaker for eight years and now he has been brought low.

After all, his lawyers say, Hastert’s name has “become forever tainted” and he has been “stung by the public repudiations of him that followed his indictment, including the removal of his portrait from the United States Capitol.”

It is difficult, however, to compare having your portrait taken off a wall to having been sexually abused as a teenager for a period of years.

And the prosecution fired back: “While defendant achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it, these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what [the] defendant did to them. Some have managed better than others, but all of them carry the scars [the] defendant inflicted upon them.”

Hastert’s attorneys are seeking a sentence of probation without prison time.

Prosecutors are asking the judge to send Hastert to prison for up to six months.

Hastert himself? He said in a statement in 2003, when he was speaker of the House, “it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives.”

Hastert may have changed his mind about that.

Article Link to Politico:

Hastert's long fall from grace

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Paul Ryan Should Seize the GOP's Agenda Away From Trump and Cruz

By James Capretta 
The National Review
April 13, 2016

Going into the 2016 election cycle, Republicans had a golden opportunity. The House and Senate are already under GOP control; a win in the presidential race would open up the possibility of passing the most ambitious pro-growth agenda since the Reagan landslide in 1980. All that was needed was general consensus within the party on the important features of a governing agenda for the future, and a strong, reform-minded presidential nominee who could ride that agenda to victory in November.

In early 2015, this didn’t seem so far-fetched. Now, we know better.

The two leading candidates for the GOP nomination for president — Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz — are unlikely to unite the party and set the stage for a successful legislative program next year. Trump has built his campaign around simplistic and populist appeals that resonate with a portion of the electorate but are so disconnected from reality, generally wrong in orientation, and counterproductive as to be useless as guideposts for policy. Cruz has, to some extent, followed suit. A year of this kind of messaging from the top candidates has left the Republican party utterly confused about what it stands for and where it is going.

Enter Paul Ryan. When he became speaker of the House late last year, he pledged to push forward a proactive agenda that would give the GOP something to run on in 2016. He is now in the process of making good on that pledge, setting in motion a number of internal task forces charged with developing policy positions in key areas, including health care, taxes, safety-net programs, and national-security policy. All of this has left the New York Times wondering if Ryan is positioning himself as a potential candidate for president should the party convene in Cleveland this summer without a clear nominee.

Ryan has made plain in every way possible that he isn’t running for president. Instead, he’s doing something just as important: attempting to fill the policy void left behind by a presidential nominating process that has been long on vacuous and impractical statements and short on actual plans for governing the country.

Ryan is absolutely right that the House GOP should not defer to the party’s eventual nominee when it comes time to set an agenda for 2017 and beyond, because the likely nominees have shown almost no capacity for advancing an agenda that has any hope of being enacted, much less of working to promote strong economic growth. Wresting away control of the agenda wouldn’t be easy in the best of circumstances, given the wide latitude traditionally afforded the party’s nominee in shaping its platform. But this year it will be particularly tough, because much of what has been said on the campaign trail by the leading candidates needs to be refuted and abandoned rather than adopted by the party.

This is especially true if Trump prevails and becomes the party’s nominee.

Among other things, Trump wants the United States to become protectionist. This is a terrible idea that will backfire. Since World War II, the United States has been the leading advocate for liberalizing global trade, to the great benefit of economic growth. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was ratified in 1947, and ushered in a period of profound and rapid economic growth among liberal democracies worldwide. Countless studies have documented that free trade speeds innovation and growth in productivity for the U.S. and other countries alike, thus boosting incomes and standards of living.

It would be a catastrophic mistake for the U.S. to reverse course and begin unilaterally imposing tariffs on imported goods. Trump seems to think he can rip up 70 years of international treaties and renegotiate their terms from scratch, all without consequence. He is dead wrong. Those treaties have been carefully and painstakingly constructed with the cooperation of scores of countries. By unilaterally imposing tariffs, Trump would violate the terms agreed upon by past presidents of both parties, thus inviting sanctions and tariffs on U.S. exports. The result would be a massive contraction in trade flows and a likely recession. The long-term damage to U.S. prestige and leadership would be devastating.

Both Trump and Cruz want the GOP to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated by the Obama administration. They are wrong about this free-trade agreement, too. Estimates show the agreement will boost U.S. GDP by more than 1 percent in the years ahead. The main effect of the agreement is to substantially lower trade barriers in many Asian countries, to the benefit of American companies. There is no good reason to oppose it, other than fear of a populist backlash. The GOP would do great damage to its integrity if it were to give in to the threat of such a backlash, against all evidence and contrary to its own long history of promoting sensible trade policy.

The dislocation that can sometimes occur with trade agreements is real. But it can be best addressed by helping those workers it affects, not by reversing course and imposing costs on all Americans. Workers should be supported during the transition periods of a new trade agreement, with wage support, training, and relocation assistance. But it would be shameful for the GOP to give in to protectionist impulses stoked by self-serving political opportunists.

On fiscal and tax policy, Trump is just as delusional. He claims he will cut taxes by $10 trillion over a decade, fully protect entitlement spending, and still eliminate the federal government’s entire debt. This is absurd. Trump has no plan to actually cut spending, and never will. The nation is heading toward a fiscal crisis driven by rapidly escalating entitlement spending. Trump would accelerate that crisis, and it would be disastrous for Republicans, after years of warning that a crisis was coming, to change positions and join him in making it worse.

It is true that Cruz’s fiscal- and tax-policy positions are less worrisome than Trump’s, but that isn’t saying much. To date, Cruz has offered very little by way of a practical policy agenda, and what he has said has been either completely farfetched or entirely irrelevant to what actually needs to be done. He touts a flat tax and a VAT to replace the income tax, and proposes eliminating the IRS. There is no prospect of replacing the entire progressive income tax with a single income-tax rate — 10 percent in Cruz’s plan — because of the large tax cut it would represent for the wealthiest Americans. And there’s even less prospect of eliminating the IRS without creating a replacement agency to assume its responsibilities.

Moreover, despite suggesting he is an ardent fiscal conservative, Cruz has proposed almost no real spending cuts. He backs a “Five for Freedom” plan: He says he wants to eliminate the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, in addition to the IRS. But what he actually means to do is move most of their main functions to other departments, eliminating only a very small and inconsequential number of their programs. This plan would not come close to covering the revenue lost by his tax plan, much less to narrowing the large deficits that he has denounced so fervently since arriving in the Senate.

On health care, Trump and Cruz both say they want to repeal Obamacare, but neither man has offered anything close to a credible replacement plan. Among other things, their positions would leave the GOP vulnerable to the accusation that it cares nothing for people with expensive pre-existing conditions (despite Trump’s claims to the contrary). One of the most important aspects of Ryan’s effort is to articulate a practical and credible market-based plan to provide all Americans secure health insurance without Obamacare’s immense expense and bureaucracy.

The United States desperately needs an ambitious but practical pro-growth agenda. An agenda focused on tax and entitlement reforms that can pass in Congress, replacing Obamacare with a market-based alternative, rolling back costly regulations on businesses, scaling back long-term fiscal liabilities, and improving worker productivity through better education and training. Unfortunately, the leading GOP candidates for president have given no indication that they are up to the task of articulating such an agenda.

So it will be left to Paul Ryan and his House colleagues to fill the inevitable void. Better that than no realistic agenda at all.

Article Link to the National Review:

What if Trump Loses in Cleveland?

Commentary Magazine
April 13, 2016

Ted Cruz is headed to Pittsburgh this week where he will focus on shoring up support ahead of the Keystone State’s April 26 primary. It’s a smart play from a campaign that has demonstrated remarkable strategic competence. Cruz’s maneuver will keep the nation’s focus on his skillful outmaneuvering of Donald Trump in the process of amassing loyal delegates to the Republican nominating convention.

This offense to Trump’s considerable ego is such that he appears utterly incapable of moving on and forcing the press to shift its focus to the April 19 contest in New York. The Empire State’s primary is a delegate-rich contest that will yield Trump a slew of newly committed delegates and will inevitably shift the national political narrative back to Trump’s inevitability. Indeed, following Cruz’s sweeping victory in Wisconsin, the GOP’s anti-Trump forces appear to have succumbed to a bit of irrational exuberance. Yes, the prospect of a contested convention is more likely than ever, but not inevitable. Even in the best of circumstances for this cohort of Republicans – that is, a series of ballots that eventually produce a nominee who is not Donald Trump – their foe will not have been entirely vanquished. In such a scenario, he might, in fact, become stronger than ever.

The very notion that the GOP has an energized and organized anti-Trump wing speaks to the celebrity candidate’s dominance. The party is now bifurcated along sectarian lines defined by either antipathy toward or the embrace of the one-time reality television star. If, however, Donald Trump heads to the convention without the requisite 1,237 delegates, it appears increasingly likely that he will be unable to make up the difference – even if that difference is only modest. As many have noted, the convention delegates are local party loyalists with as much or more invested in November’s down ballot races as the White House. They can read a poll, and they know that a Trump nomination would yield a rout for the Republican column, from the U.S. Senate to county commissioner. If Trump fails to win the nomination on the first ballot, it is reasonable to assume now that the forces arrayed against him on the convention floor will likely be insurmountable. For Trump, it’s ballot one or bust.

Such an outcome would probably suit the real estate mogul just fine. The celebrity candidate is never more comfortable than when he can project a sense of victimhood. If you believe such things, the account of former Trump strategist and prominent defector Stephanie Cegielski suggests that the unlikely presidential candidate never had any intention of becoming the Republican Party’s nominee. Instead, his campaign was a lark designed to enhance his personal and business brands, and their most optimistic initial projection was that Trump would come in second in the delegate count. From the candidate’s perspective, the opportunity to feign great injury at the hands of ill-defined forces within the “establishment” GOP is as good an outcome as they could have hoped for at the campaign’s outset.

For many of Trump’s core supporters, the virtue conferred by their perceived victimization at the hands of vague but omnipresent forces invested in their failure is an intoxicating conception. As studies have revealed, many Trump supporters do not believe they have a voice in the political system. From free trade agreements to tax code-based incentives for producers, Trump’s core supporters see themselves as pawns in a system designed to secure the privileges of the already privileged. Their sense of victimization is acute, and Trump being “robbed” of the nomination he failed to win outright would legitimize, vindicate, and harden this self-perception. More portentously, the idea that Trump was cheated out of that which was his due will be aggressively promoted in the press.

In the event he fails to win the party’s nomination, there are those who foresee Trump making an effort to scuttle the GOP’s political prospects by mounting a quixotic third-party bid, but that is highly unlikely. The obstacles before Trump in his effort to get on the ballot, which may be successful in just a handful of states and only after vast sums of Trump’s personal wealth are spent, are prohibitive enough to preclude such an outcome. If Trump wanted the nomination, he would have invested in a campaign apparatus designed to secure it. He did not. His campaign has always been a ploy for earned media, and he has been curiously successful in that objective. If Trump were to fail to win the nomination, he would become not merely a celebrity and a political phenomenon, but a celebrity and a political phenomenon with a righteous grievance to litigate. That’s heady stuff, and the political press would cover Trump the Pretender with the same vigor they applied to Trump the Usurper. If he emerges from the convention without the nomination, the Manhattan real estate heir will become a fixture in the press, perhaps even more so than he is today. And he’ll be a useful tool, too, because his mission will be to undermine the GOP’s political position.

In the immediate wake of a convention loss for Trump, nothing will so preoccupy the GOP as the prospect of reconciliation and reunification. That might seem a daunting, unpalatable, or even undesirable project in the heat of a primary campaign, but the party will need at least nine of every ten registered Republican voters to back the party’s nominee if they are to win the White House. That reconciliation process will be frustrated by Trump, but also by the Democratic Party. Their efforts to brand the GOP “The Party of Trump” will not end merely because the celebrity candidate’s name will not grace the top of the ticket. They will seek to tar the GOP as the party of towering and unrealizable border walls, mass deportations, a ban on Muslims, and punishments for women who seek abortions. They will brand the Republican Party an institution dedicated to misogyny and racial resentment.

Hillary Clinton and her allies will complicate the process of reintegrating Trump-curious GOP voters by seeking to label their one-time affinity for this candidate evidence of their toxicity. Democrats will not merely try to make the party’s eventual nominee in 2016 a radioactive entity, but they will also label any affiliation with a certain segment of the GOP voting base a toxic association. Even if unity between the pro and anti-Trump factions of the party is largely unsuccessful, the Democratic campaign will seek to instill in the general electorate a fear of Trump’s voters and what they stand for. For his part, the ubiquitous Trump will aid Democrats in their effort to nurture in his supporters an irreconcilable bitterness toward the GOP.

Of course, Trump may still end up the Republican nominee, even if he fails to win the nomination outright. In that eventuality, none of this will come to pass. For the Republican Party, that’s arguably an even more unattractive outcome than a rupture of the sort envisioned above. If, however, the party rescues its identity from the jaws of Trump, their struggles are only just beginning. From the minute the curtain closes on Cleveland to the second that the polls close on November 8, the party will be engaged in a bitter struggle. Not until 2017 can there be a genuine reckoning with Trump, his supporters in the grassroots and in the entertainment complex, and the issues his candidacy elevated to prominence. The GOP will be truly fortunate to emerge whole from this schismatic moment. Neither Trump, nor the Democrats, nor the press will make that outcome an easy one.

Article Link to Commentary:

Dems see Trump, Cruz putting more Senate seats in play

By Lisa Hagen 
The Hill
April 13, 2016

Democrats think they can expand the battlefield for the Senate majority if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is the GOP presidential nominee.

If an unpopular Trump or Cruz loses in a rout, Democrats see Senate seats in Arizona, Missouri, Iowa and North Carolina coming into play in addition to a half-dozen seats that have long been targets.

“Democrats have an opportunity this cycle to extend the map,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua told The Hill.

“That’s due to the recruitment of really strong candidates who can and will launch competitive races,” she added.

Republicans have acknowledged their party faces a challenging map in 2016 but voiced confidence that they’ll hold on to their majority.

“There will be a Republican majority in the Senate in January,” National Republican Senatorial Campaign spokesman Greg Blair said.

Democrats have been bullish about their chances of winning back the Senate ever since the cycle began, given that Republicans are defending 24 seats, many of them in states won by President Obama.

The party needs to gain five seats to win the majority, or four if it retains the White House — which would allow a Democratic vice president to break ties in the Senate.

Democrats are practically measuring the curtains for offices held by Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), the most vulnerable Senate Republicans this cycle. Both are big underdogs in 2016.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) are better positioned but face strong challengers in states won by Obama in 2008 and 2012. Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and the open Florida Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Marco Rubio are also in Democratic sites.

Those six seats have long been the top targets for Democrats, but the party is now getting increasingly hopeful of taking additional GOP seats because of Trump and Cruz.

Trump’s unfavorable rating hit 67 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in March, a worse rate than any candidate in the survey’s 32-year history. Cruz’s unfavorable rating was 51 percent.

“They have moved the right so far to the right that a lot of new seats are going to be competitive,” Democratic strategist Holly Shulman, a former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, said of Trump and Cruz.

Democrats recruited a strong challenger in Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander to take on Sen. Roy Blunt. A recent poll showed Blunt with a 7-point lead, but Kander has raised $3.2 million and has $2.1 million in the bank. Democrats think it’s possible for him to close the gap if 2016 is a good year for the party.

In Arizona, Democrats believe Sen. John McCain could be vulnerable. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who is often a target of grassroots conservatives, faces an August primary against state Sen. Kelli Ward and businessman Alex Meluskey.

If he wins the primary, he’d face Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the fall. Polling shows the two in a dead heat, and strategists in both parties think
McCain — who is serving his fifth term — could be in trouble. A March Merrill Poll survey found McCain edging out Kirkpatrick by only 1 point.

“At this point, she stands as good of a chance if not better to win this seat for the Democrats as any person who has tried in the last two decades,” Arizona GOP consultant Chris Baker said.

Immigration is likely to be a prominent issue in the state, which has a large Hispanic population, and Democrats are hoping that a Trump ticket would lead to a surge in anti-McCain Hispanic votes. McCain, readying for the challenge, recently scored a critical endorsement from U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Javier Palomarez — the first ever in the chamber’s history.

In North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr faces former Democratic state Rep. Deborah Ross. Several high-profile Democratic candidates passed on challenging Burr, but Democrats believe that Trump and anti-incumbent fervor will be a drain on the GOP senator, who also must overcome negative job approval ratings.

Arizona, Missouri and North Carolina are seen as second-tier targets for Democrats, but they believe that third-tier targets such as Iowa could also come into play if things go right for their party.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is at the center of a storm over Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. His leadership of a Senate GOP blockade against the nomination has made him a top Democratic target and led to criticism from Iowa newspapers.

Former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge jumped into the race last month. She’ll face state Sen. Rob Hogg and two former state legislators in the Democratic primary.

So far, GOP strategists don’t see trouble for Grassley, who has been reelected by wide margins and has historically outperformed the entire ballot even in presidential years.

But Grassley has highlighted the prospect of a tough race.

“You can’t have the ... Washington establishment recruiting a campaign, an opponent for me, without an understanding that there’s going to be big resources behind that,” Grassley told The Des Moines Register on Saturday. “If I came in here and said it was a slam dunk, people would think, ‘Well, he doesn’t understand politics very well.’”

National Democrats also pointed to the seat vacated by Sen. Dan Coats in Indiana as a seat that could be in play. Republicans are in a heated primary battle between Reps. Todd Young and Marlin Stutzman, and the winner will likely face former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill, who served five terms in the House and could be a tough opponent in the fall.

Republicans point out that Democrats also have problems.

Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, suffers from low approval ratings, which could create downwinds for her party.

“I think you need to look at both sides of the coin before you make an analysis on Roy Blunt or Chuck Grassley as truly vulnerable this cycle,” Blair said. “It’s way too premature to make those kinds of determinations.”

Article Link to the Hill:

Band plays on, as global oil glut leaves supertankers in a huge jam

By Keith Wallis and Henning Gloystein
April 13, 2016

It may be the world's biggest traffic jam.

As ports struggle to cope with a global oil glut, huge queues of supertankers have formed in some of the world's busiest sea lanes, where some 200 million barrels of crude lies waiting to be loaded or delivered.

The vessels, filled with oil worth around $7.5 billion at current market prices, would stretch for almost 40 km (25 miles) if formed up in one straight line.

One captain with more than 20 years at sea told Reuters his tanker had been anchored off Qingdao in northeastern China since late March and was unlikely to dock before the end of this week, a frustrating delay of more than three weeks.

"We've stayed here a long time," he said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, but added that another kind of jam was helping to alleviate the boredom.

"We have a piano, drums, crew who play guitar – they are not professional but they are coming good. We have more than 1,000 DVDs so there is no need to watch the same one 20 times."

The worst congestion is in the Middle East, as ports struggle to cope with soaring output available for export, and in Asia, where many ports have not been upgraded in time to deal with ravenous demand as consumers take advantage of cheap fuel.

"It's the worst I've seen at Qingdao," said a second tanker captain waiting to offload at the world's seventh busiest port, adding that his crew was killing time doing maintenance work.

Ralph Leszczynski, head of research at shipbroker Banchero Costa, in Singapore, said the snarl-up was "one of the worst tanker traffic jams in recent years".

The cause was "a perfect storm of red-hot demand from new entrant refineries in China and port infrastructure in the Middle East and Latin America that is unable to cope", he said.

Messing Up the Schedule

Ship tracking data shows 125 supertankers, with the capacity to carry oil to supply energy-hungry China for three weeks, waiting in line at ports. The combined daily cost is $6.25 million, based on current ship hire rates of around $50,000-a-day.

While daily tanker fees are typically borne by the fuel buyer, the port delays have a knock-on affect across the shipping industry.

"It messes up port schedules, catering schedules, crew schedules and the schedules of delivering the transported goods," said one shipping logistics manager in Singapore. "It also raises the cost for pretty much everyone involved."

And for dealers, a month-long delay can turn a profitable trade into a painful loss.

"If you've bought 100,000 barrels of crude at $40 (a barrel) that'll cost you $4 million," said one oil trader.

"And if you've calculated another 1.5 million bucks for a month's worth of shipping, but you end up paying double that because your ship is stuck in port congestion, then that can seriously mess up everything from your schedule to your arbitrage profitability."

At the heart of the congestion is an unprecedented rise in global oil production, along with rising consumption.

Soaring output has pulled down oil prices by as much as 70 percent since 2014. That has helped spur demand from China's independent refiners, freed from government restrictions on imports just last year and gorging on plentiful crude, putting extra pressure on ports.

Dry Ships, Bored Crews 

The oil glut is also causing congestion between the main producer and consumer hubs.

Almost all supertankers heading to Asia pass by Singapore or adjacent facilities in southern Malaysia, the world's fuel station for tankers and also a global refinery and ship maintenance hub.

Shipping data shows that some 50 supertankers are currently anchored in or close to Singaporean waters for refueling, maintenance or waiting to deliver crude to refineries or be used as floating storage.

For sailors stuck a queue of anchored tankers, one of the biggest problems is simply wiling away the time.

"Some of the ships are well-equipped for their crews, but many aren't," said a Filipino sailor who left a very large crude carrier (VLCC) in March after a voyage to China.

"On my last one, we had no regular internet ... only an old TV with a couple of old DVD movies. The food is terrible and while waiting to offload we did pretty hard maintenance work. The sort of stuff you can't do when the engine is running."

Captain Alan Loynd, who spent more than 25 years at sea and is now a marine consultant, said long port delays were rare, but could be tedious and isolating when they happened.

And unlike in previous eras, having a couple of beers to break the monotony is usually out of the question.

"The chances of getting ashore are remote," he said. "A lot of ships are now dry, so there's no alcohol on board."

Article Link to Reuters:

Wednesday, April 13, Morning Global Market Roundup: China Trade Surprise Gives Stocks a Lift

By Jamie McGeever
April 13, 2016

Global stocks rose on Wednesday after surprisingly upbeat Chinese trade data offered hope Asia's biggest economy is finally stabilising, fuelling risk appetite.

China reported exports jumped 11.5 percent year on year in March -- the first increase since June, well above market forecasts, and a huge improvement on February.

Europe's main indices rose as much as 2 percent in early trade, Asian stocks extended their winning streak to the longest in six months, and U.S. futures pointed to a positive open on Wall Street.

"Equities rallied across the board" on the data, said RBC Capital Markets strategists in a note to clients on Wednesday.

"Given the latest rebound in equity markets and the dollar, markets are likely to trade with a more risk-on mode over the next couple of days."

Europe's FTSEuroFirst index of leading 300 shares was up 1.4 percent at a two-week high of 1,334 points .FTEU3, Germany's DAX and France's CAC 40 were both up 1.8 percent.GDAXI .FCHI, and Britain's FTSE 100 .FTSE up 1.1 percent.

Earlier in Asia Chinese stocks .SSEC added 1.4 percent, while Japan's Nikkei .N225 rose 2.8 percent for its biggest daily gain in six weeks.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan .MIAPJ0000PUS added 1.5 percent, chalking up its sixth straight gain and coming within a whisker of breaching its high point for the year so far.

Oil prices ran into profit-taking.

Brent crude LCOc1 was down 1.8 percent at $43.91 a barrel, after rising 4 percent on Tuesday and breaching the 200-day moving average around $43.50 -- the first time it has scaled this key technical level in almost two years.

U.S. crude CLc1 lost 2 percent to $41.34, easing back from a four-month high, but also held above the 200-day moving average around $40.95 as attention turns to this weekend's meeting of top oil producers in Doha.

Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi ruled out an output cut, in comments to Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper published on Wednesday.

A rally in energy stocks helped Wall Street end Tuesday firmer across the board .DJI .SPX.IXIC. The S&P 500 energy sector .SPNY jumped 2.8 percent and the Dow industrials posted its best day in about a month.

JP Morgan

The focus for equity markets on Wednesday will likely be JP Morgan's first quarter results (JPM.N), the first of the world's big investment banks to report.

The first three months of the year were highly volatile across financial markets, and are expected to have torpedoed banks' trading revenues and profits.

The lift in energy overnight boosted oil- and commodity-sensitive currencies including the Canadian and Australian dollars to multi-month peaks, but that rally fizzled out as oil headed lower again.

Both currencies were down around a third of a percent against the U.S. dollar CAD=AUD=, which was in turn up a third of a percent at 108.90 yen JPY=, having climbed from a near 18-month trough around 107.63 set on Monday.

The euro rose to 123.80 yen EURJPY=R, moving further from a three-year low of 122.08 set last month.

"The big rally for the yen finally took a pause for breath with the currency closing weaker (on Tuesday), the first time it has weakened this month," Deutsche Bank's Jim Reid said.

Against the dollar, the euro eased to $1.1352 EUR=. That helped the dollar index .DXY climb back above 94.285, from a near eight-month low of 93.627.

Copper and iron ore sat on large gains while gold XAU= slipped 0.5 percent to $1,249 an ounce, having climbed to a three-week high of $1,262.60 on Tuesday.

Article Link to Reuters:

Lessons From Japan's Experiment With Negative Rates

By Mohamed A. El-Erian
The Bloomberg View
April 13, 2016

Japan’s economic and financial malaise once was thought to have little relevance for other advanced economies. Respected Western economists and policy makers even argued that “Japan couldn’t happen here.” But developments in recent years have led to a more humble attitude that recognizes the importance of understanding Japan’s experience, past and present.

Here are five of the big insights:

1. It is not easy to decisively break out of a growth slump associated with the bursting of a financial bubble. The longer an economy is stuck in a low growth regime, the greater the structural headwinds impeding an economic liftoff. This affects not just the current growth trajectory, but future potential, too. Early in the last decade, the consensus view in the West was that Japan’s “lost decade” of economic growth easily could have been avoided had Japanese policy makers adopted more timely stimulative monetary and fiscal measures. And when the West slipped into recession after the global financial crisis, this view contributed to the willingness of central banks in Europe and the U.S. to adopt a “whatever-it-takes” approach. Yet despite previously unthinkable and unconventional monetary measures by the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve, neither Europe nor the U.S. has been able to achieve growth escape velocity.

2. Not long ago, deflation was unlikely to make the list of the 10 big economic risks to Western countries. As a result, few thought that these economies had anything to learn from Japan’s multi-decade battle with falling realized prices, entrenched expectations of low future inflation and the resulting headwind to consumption and investment.

This is no longer the case. Falling prices are among the ECB's top concerns, as well as the frequent impetus for increasingly experimental measures, including negative nominal interest rates. Deflation also features among the risks the Fed is taking into account, though to a lesser extent.

3. Although most central banks have had questions about whether artificially low interest rates could stimulate higher bank lending and sustainably power the economy forward, most felt confident that they could rely, again and again, on “portfolio rebalancing” as a short-term measure -- that is, inducing investors to swap their holdings of “safe” government bonds with repressed yields for higher risk securities. The resulting boost in asset prices would have a marginal beneficial impact on growth, at least until a much-needed comprehensive policy response could take over from the extraordinary measures of central banks.

Japan’s experience now suggests the need for even greater qualifications to the already-cautious assessment of the potency of unconventional monetary policies. The Bank of Japan’s surprise move into negative interest rate territory has been associated with a series of unintended consequences that complicate the country’s growth and financial stability outlook. From more illiquid markets for government bonds to indications that households are disengaging from the financial system, along with greater political scrutiny of the central bank and swelling popular anger about its policies, there is growing awareness of potential collateral damage. This realization has introduced an important element of caution to the notion that central banks can continue to carry so much of the policy burden, without such measures becoming counter-productive.

4. Most economics textbooks suggest that the more a systemically important central bank allows the widening of an interest-rate differential with its international counterparts, the greater the impact on exchange rates. And if this central bank is loosening monetary policy further, its currency will depreciate. After its central bank took rates negative, Japan has experienced a substantial appreciation of the yen rather than depreciation. This suggests that there is a limit to the impact of interest rate differentials.

5. The most important lesson from Japan is the need for policy makers to move simultaneously on what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls the “three arrows” -- monetary easing, government spending and business deregulation.

The first two arrows alone, as Japan has discovered, do not suffice. Structural impediments to growth also must addressed, including counterproductive entry barriers to certain sectors, inadequate infrastructure, poorly functioning labor markets or pockets of excessive indebtedness. Otherwise, policy disappointments will be the rule rather than the exception, even as unconventional monetary policy loses not just its effectiveness but also risks becoming counterproductive.

Article Link to the Bloomberg View:

America's Free Riders Must Fight Their Own Battles

Rich countries like South Korea don't need our help.

By Doug Bandow
The National Interest
April 13, 2016

America’s major alliances date back six to seven decades. Washington has been protecting Europe, Japan and South Korea for longer than most Americans have been alive.

The original justification for this expensive global role was the Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union. Aggressive communism had to be contained, and America’s allies were in various degrees of prostration at the end of World War II and the Korean War. For a short moment of history the U.S. had to take on a unique and oversized international role to preserve the “free world.”

But that moment passed long ago—actually, even before the end of the Cold War. By the 1960s most of Washington’s Asian and European allies had recovered economically. With serious effort—which one would expect from nations facing serious, even existential security threats—they were capable of at least matching their potential antagonists. As the world moved into the 1980s it was evident that only their own lethargy and stinginess prevented America’s friends from taking over most, if not full, responsibility for their own security.

Today it is frankly unbelievable that Washington allows its Asian and European allies to continue cowering behind it. That they prefer not to do more is understandable. But that is no reason for America to do it for them.

The traditional argument for turning the Pentagon into an international welfare agency was security: we live in a dangerous world, etc., etc. That argument has grown threadbare given how the existential threats that once confronted, or at least plausibly affected, the United States have disappeared. No peer competitor, no ideological contest, no contending global power, no countervailing alliance, no cohesive coalition of adversaries, no credible threat to global commerce, no nothing.

What remains is—well—paltry compared to threats of global and nuclear conflict. Lots of tragedy, irritating inconvenience, abundant frustration, occasional threats to individuals, limited terrorist attacks. Genuine problems, but ones requiring limited, nuanced responses, not big alliances, carrier groups, aggressive wars, foreign occupations and endless bombing. Washington’s strategy and force structure remain mismatched to the security threats facing America. The Pentagon could do and spend far less while still safeguarding Americans.

So then, what are the existing alliances for?

Anthony V. Rinna of the SinoNK group suggests protecting commerce. In a recent TNI article, he argues,

“Managing the threat posed by instability on the Korean Peninsula to the United States’ economic interest cannot be done only through a combination of diplomacy and nuclear deterrence. It also requires the continual presence of American conventional armed forces.”


First, the Republic of Korea vastly outranges its antagonist on virtually every measure of power: forty times the GDP, twice the population, overwhelming international connections. Indeed, the North’s allies of the Korean War (China and Russia) would not support Pyongyang in a renewed conflict. So even if Washington had sufficient economic interests at stake to warrant a defense guarantee in theory, one would not be necessary in practice. Seoul has a stronger incentive to provide for its own defense. And it is capable of doing so.

Foreign policy should reflect international realities, which change over time. The ROK was vulnerable to renewed North Korean aggression at the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. Today Seoul can do whatever is necessary to deter and defeat the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. There’s no need for America to defend that which could be defended otherwise.

Second, the age of mercantilism is long gone. The military should not be used to promote economic interests. While economic survival might become an existential issue, that certainly is not at stake with Asian, let alone South Korean, trade. There’s also an interest in ensuring navigational freedom, including commercial traffic, as well as keeping hostile forces away from the United States. Neither of these justifies defending a mid-size ally with modest economic ties to America. At a fraction of today’s cost Washington could threaten retaliation against any strike on international shipping—as it did during the Iran-Iraq War, a far more sensible step than actually entering someone else’s war.

Spending billions to defend a trading partner just for its business connections would be a very bad investment. Washington would end up squandering the money of all Americans to protect the profits of select Americans. Moreover, the price if the conventional tripwire is triggered would be paid in blood as well as cash. If the North develops deliverable nuclear weapons, the cost could turn out to be astronomical.

While the U.S. would suffer more if commerce with China and Japan was disrupted, a renewed Korean war likely would have only limited impact on that: Pyongyang’s reach is modest and the DPRK would have no incentive to encourage other nations to become belligerents against it. A conflict would be most likely to inflate shipping costs, not end trade, like the Gulf tanker war of three decades ago.

Third, Seoul’s neighbors have far more at stake and should act to limit the damage from any conflict. Indeed, a second Korean war would have a variety of humanitarian, economic and military impacts on China and Japan. Any effect on commerce would reach well beyond that with America. The best way to constrain the DPRK would be to encourage Beijing to take a more active role, which it likely would do if it knew that it would bear the full consequences of North Korean aggression.

Turning friendly states into long-term military dependents is bad enough. Doing the same for China is bizarre. Washington has been attempting to convince the PRC that North Korea harms Chinese as well as American interests. The best way to make that argument would be to step back and allow Beijing to confront its North Korean problem directly.

Whatever past arguments for Washington’s role as global policeman, times have changed. The United States certainly should not go to war to protect commercial markets and trading partners. Rather, America’s populous and prosperous friends should defend themselves, including their economic interests.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Death and Taxes in Islamic State

ISIS is running out of taxpayers.

By John Ford
The National Interest
April 13, 2016

In January of this year, an internal ISIS memorandum on the group’s finances was leaked to the public. In it, ISIS revealed it was cutting the pay of its soldiers substantially. In 2015, ISIS’s fighters were being paid between $400 and $1,200 per month, depending on their seniority and their job. The leaked memo said ISIS was going to cut its fighters’ salaries in half.

In the months since the memo leaked, there have been reports that ISIS is facing defections over the pay cuts. Reports of ISIS defections arenothing new, and in the past have led to overly optimistic assessments of ISIS’s strength, but this is the first time the reports have been accompanied by hard evidence that ISIS can’t make payroll anymore.

The reports of ISIS’s financial difficulties coincide with significant losses of territory for the group. The Iraqi Army retook Ramadi in February; in March, Syria’s army retook the ancient city of Palmyra. There are a number of reasons for ISIS’s recent losses, including the eighteen-month-old U.S.-led bombing campaign, the increasing competence of the Iraqi Army and the fact that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are finally fighting ISIS rather than ignoring it. But it seems clear from reports on the scene that one of the factors is ISIS’s financial troubles.

ISIS’s newfound financial hardships contrast sharply with its position just a short time ago. ISIS was being described as the best-funded terrorist group in the world, with a wide array of known funding sources. ISIS was so flush with cash that David Cohen, the U.S. under secretary of the treasury for terrorism and intelligence, called ISIS “probably the best-funded terrorist organization we have confronted.” This sentiment was echoed by a CBS News report saying ISIS was “the world’s richest terrorist group ever.”

These statements were true at the time they were made, but now ISIS is facing major budget cutbacks. What explains the change? One explanation is U.S. air strikes against ISIS oil infrastructure, combined with falling oil prices. In August 2014, when ISIS’s territorial reach was at its greatest and the United States was not yet launching air strikes against the group, oil was trading at around $100 a barrel. Today, it trades closer to $35.

The drop in oil prices and the attacks on oil infrastructure undoubtedly hurt ISIS’s finances. But a RAND Corporation study of ISIS’s balance sheet showed that ISIS takes in more revenue from extortion and illegal taxation than from oil. Now, ISIS’s ability to fund its operations from these illegal taxes is under just as much strain as its dwindling oil revenues, because ISIS’s tax base is literally fleeing the territory the terror group controls.

Parts of Iraq that fell under ISIS’s control became severely depopulated while under occupation. Ramadi, for example, was once home to 450,000 people. By the time the Iraqi Army retook the city, only four thousand to ten thousand people remained in the city. The pattern repeated itself in Fallujah, where some estimates are that only about three thousand families remain in a city that was once home to about 250,000 people. Mosul has suffered a similar fate: ISIS has forced about a third of Mosul’s population, over five hundred thousand people, out of the city.

The depopulation of ISIS’s territories is not limited to Iraqi cities, but repeated inside ISIS’s holdings in Syria. Raqqa, ISIS’s capital, is another example. At the last recorded census, the population was 220,000. In the winter of 2013–14, when ISIS (then still nominally part of Al Qaeda) took control of Raqqa, the population had swelled with Syrians displaced by the fighting inside their country, and the population rose to about 350,000. But after a little over two years of ISIS control, the population of the city has fallen substantially. Now, the population has fallen close to its prewar level, with a substantial portion of its current residents being foreign fighters and their families, who draw a salary from the ISIS treasury rather than paying into it. The situation is so bad that ISIS had to issue a decree banning women under forty-five from leaving the city, to counteract widespread efforts by residents to smuggle female relatives out. The exodus from Raqqa reached its schizophrenic apex when ISIS, which has aggressively discriminated against non-Muslims, issued a decree banning Raqqa’s few remaining Christians from leaving the city in an effort to slow the hemorrhaging of the city’s taxpaying population.

At its height, ISIS held territory that had a population of about eight million people. This was ISIS’s tax base. Not anymore. Now, many of these people are among the 4.6 million refugees from the war in Syria and Iraq. Today, because of refugee flows and territorial losses, ISIS probably rules over only about four or five million people. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the people who seem most likely to flee are professionals, like medical doctors and engineers, whose skills are desperately needed to keep society functioning.

This loss of talented professionals is not entirely an accident. As Jeffrey Bristol wrote for War on the Rocks in December, ISIS has had a “policy of extinguishing the ‘grey zone’ of moderate Muslims, encouraging the hijrah of loyalists and expelling and executing dissidents.” ISIS has driven Yazidis and other religious minorities out of its territory, as well as a large number of Kurds, whose loyalty to the “caliphate” was nonexistent. ISIS has also driven out Sunni Arabs whose religious fervor is not sufficient to satisfy their new rulers in Raqqa.

ISIS’s response to the refugee crisis has been incoherent. It drives out those who are insufficiently pure, and then denounces as traitors all Syrians who flee to Europe instead of going to Raqqa. By driving people out of its territory who can’t or won’t live under ISIS’s harsh version of sharia, ISIS is depriving itself of the tax base it needs to finance its war. ISIS’s ideology may be slowly strangling the group to death.

To those who followed the Iraq war closely, this should sound somewhat familiar. Before it took on the name “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” it was Al Qaeda in Iraq, a key part of the Sunni insurgency. As time went by, AQI took a larger role in directing the insurgency against coalition forces. It also began to alienate other Sunni groups, including indigenous Sunni tribal leaders, by imposing a harsh version of religious law in the cities of the Sunni Triangle.

ISIS is far from beaten, but it is beginning to look as though AQI’s successor organization may be making the same mistake its predecessor did: letting radical ideology be its undoing.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Why the PKK is so interested in Mosul

The PKK is looking to join the Iraqi army and the Kurdistan Regional Government to liberate Mosul.

April 13, 2016

After a weeklong campaign, the Islamic State (IS) captured Mosul on June 10, 2014, with the help of local supporters. That was the beginning of a new phase in the region. After putting Mosul under its absolute control, IS attacked Sinjar where Yazidi Kurds lived. Thousands of Kurds were killed and thousands were taken prisoner. The town fell under IS control. Shocked by this development, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) moved to liberate Sinjar with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on its side. The PKK, which had shown special attention to Sinjar and the Yazidis for years, finally had the opportunity it was looking for.

The PKK joined the regional Kurdish forces and sent a 500-strong unit from its base in the Qandil Mountains to Sinjar. The PKK leadership announced that it would withdraw forces after liberating Sinjar.

But that is not what happened. After liberating Sinjar from IS, the PKK stayed put. The KRG warned the PKK to leave, but instead the group set up the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), composed of Yazidis, and settled in.

Sources close to the PKK say that the organization has boosted its manpower in the area to 5,000 militants. Although this number could not be verified, it is obvious that the PKK is organizing itself.

At first, nobody grasped what the PKK had in mind and why it decided to stay after Sinjar was liberated. Only after rumors of a Mosul operation began did it become clear why the PKK had stayed. The PKK openly voiced its wish to join the operation to liberate Mosul. Although the KRG opposed the idea, the PKK remained firm.

Both the YBS and the PKK’s armed wing, the People's Defense Forces, have announced they had permission from the central government to join the Mosul operation.

Why is an organization based in Turkey, whose main area of interest is Turkey's Kurdish regions, so interested in Mosul, a center of Arab nationalism? Likewise, why does the PKK want a role in the Mosul operation when it is engaged in a new phase of clashes in Turkey?

According to academic Mehmet Alkis, who conducts research on the Middle East and the Kurds, the PKK is aiming both to polish its image and boost its legitimacy. “This issue has two facets. First is the international politics angle. The PKK is trying to erase Turkey’s frequently voiced allegation that it is a 'terror organization,' which is an image accepted by the United States and the European Union,” Alkis told Al-Monitor. “It wants to establish relations with those countries and acquire legitimacy in international politics. The second aspect is its wish to become an actor in Middle East dynamics. If it can get IS out of Mosul, it will achieve that legitimacy and find itself in good standing in regional politics.”

Alkis thinks this won’t be that easy. “The PKK is trying to find a niche for itself by aligning its actions with regional actors. It wants to find a place between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This is also an issue between the PKK and [Massoud Barzani's] Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP]. The KDP has set up a de facto country. The PKK wants to get ahead of the KDP by becoming a party in Mosul. Indeed, global forces see the Kurds as a regional actor and this sometimes leads to angry competition between the Kurds of the PKK and the KDP,” he added.

So what is the PKK's chance of success? Alkis thinks that depends on international support, and that the PKK had to secure the support of global powers. It cannot achieve its dreams only by aligning itself with regional powers.

Erbil-based political analyst Siddik Hasan Sukru says that by creating an area it can control in Mosul, the PKK will be protecting both Sinjar and the Kurdish region in Syria.

“[The] capture of Mosul will be a guarantee for Rojava [the Kurdish term for western Kurdistan in Syria] and especially Sinjar. As long as IS is in Mosul, it will be a threat to Sinjar, Rojava and the Jazeera canton. The PKK is preoccupied with the Kurds of Turkey and Rojava, but I don’t think their interest in Mosul has anything to do with obtaining legitimacy. This is not their problem. The PKK wants to find its place in the region and become an actor in restructuring of the region. I don’t think the PKK will seek its legitimacy from the United States and Europe. It will want it from the Kurds,” Sukru told Al-Monitor.

Sukru says although the PKK claims it has the permission of the Iraqi government, it cannot participate in the Mosul operation without the agreement of the United States. “The PKK announced it is ready to join the operation with 4,000 guerrillas. But it can’t do it without the permission of the United States. Then there is Turkey. Turkish forces brought to Bashiqa are not there to fight IS but to block the PKK and its allies. Without US blessing there will be problems between Turkey and the PKK,” he explained.

As the debate continued, the Iraqi army announced last month the start of its Mosul operation. The Iraqi army, along with Kurdish forces, began advancing toward Mosul from Makhmur but then called off the operation after a few days.

The operation is expected to resume any moment but for now it appears to be a local skirmish. The real conflict will be behind the scenes between the Kurds. On the one hand, you have Barzani’s KDP, which doesn’t want the PKK, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which does. Behind it all is the power game over Mosul between regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. If it can get a role in the operations and control some territory, the winner may well be the PKK because it will then be astride an invaluable corridor between the Qandil Mountains and Syria.

Article Link to Al-Monitor:

Why the PKK is so interested in Mosul

Where Hawks and Doves Fly Together

Peace process negotiators have lamented that, while pursuing an elusive conflict-ending treaty, too little attention was paid to grass roots activities. But it is not too late.

By Martin J. Raffel and Dan Diker
The Jerusalem Post
April 13, 2016

Hawks and doves usually don’t fly together. We often fail to see eye to eye on the world below and skies above. We have differing perspectives on the history and current status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and perhaps its ultimate resolution.

But sometimes our viewpoints converge. We believe in peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis. To get there, we recognize on the need to develop a Palestinian governance and economic infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza capable of sustaining a future state living in peace, security and good neighborly relations next to Israel. And we believe government-to-government, civil society and people-to-people initiatives that foster cooperation and bolster trust between Israelis and Palestinians ought to be supported and expanded.

We have chosen slightly different flight paths but are mutually committed to reach the same destination.

Martin believes that both the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders share responsibility for the failure to achieve a comprehensive, conflict-ending peace agreement as envisioned by the Oslo Accords.

It is vital now, in his judgment, to preserve conditions that will enable the Palestinians to establish a viable state of their own in the future.

This will necessitate a serious alteration in Israel’s current settlement policy in the West Bank, which not only makes an equitable division of the land between the Jordan River and Sea more complicated, but also undermines the perception of Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution among Palestinians and much of the international community. The Arab Peace Initiative (API), while not perfect, provides an important foundation for launching a process that could lead to peace not just with the Palestinians, but also with the wider Arab world.

Dan places greater responsibility on the Palestinian Authority for the failure to achieve peace, particularly its incitement against Israelis and Jews that is taught in schools, preached in mosques and broadcast in PA-controlled media. However, he concurs that the Oslo Accords should continue to be the governing diplomatic framework that must enable the PA to establish a viable sovereignty. Dan would suggest that these conditions have been preserved since the signing of the April 2004 exchange of letters between US president George W. Bush and prime minister Ariel Sharon in which Israel conceded some of its legal and historical rights to settle throughout Judea and Samaria, limiting construction to inside the building lines of existing Jewish communities in those territories.

And yes, the API can serve as an important diplomatic framework for peace with the wider Arab world and the Palestinians. However, it must exclude prior conditions such as a return to the indefensible June 4, 1967 lines and the so-called Palestinian right of return of refugees into Israel.

Beyond these differences, we both share a conviction that any sustainable process toward a final peace agreement must be accompanied by mutual goodwill, cooperation and trust building reflected by the establishment of shared initiatives from health to high-tech. As a mature state with a successful economy, Israel has much to contribute to the well-being of the Palestinian people. Without downplaying the importance of the diplomatic horizon toward two states, we hope that Israel and the PA can find ways of enhancing their cooperation in such areas as the environment, water and urban planning.

The responsibility of making “peace” between peoples also is, or can be in the hands of the peoples themselves. There is a Palestinian “anti-normalization” campaign that seeks to cut off contact with Israelis. And the pernicious global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for the boycott of Israeli products and institutions, has captured the headlines.

The recent wave of violence, the so-called “knife intifada,” is creating a tense and toxic environment.

Despite it all, there are Israelis and Palestinians continuing to work, without fanfare, toward reconciliation, mutual understanding and an enhanced quality of life for both peoples.

One coalition group trying to increase the budgets of people- to-people NGOs is the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP). It has been promoting the creation of a $200 million international fund, which would come from the United States, the European Union, the rest of the international community (including the Arab states) and the private sector.

This fund is inspired by the successful International Fund for Ireland (IFI), which over the past 20 years has provided $1.5 billion and contributed dramatically to the reduction of conflict and instability in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In partnership with Forbes Magazine, ALLMEP on April 7 convened a community fair in Jerusalem with over 300 professionals and participants in people-to-people programs organized by dozens of NGOs. Examples of these efforts include: • Kids4Peace, operating from Jerusalem, is a global movement of Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies.

The organization is dedicated to bringing together Israeli and Palestinian children and their families to “break down stereotypes and foster supportive, mature friendships.”

• Middle East Education Through Technology (MEET) is also a Jerusalem- based program in which Israeli and Palestinian high school students come together to learn computer science and business from an international team of staff and volunteers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

• The Arava Institute brings together leaders from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and around the world to address regional and global environmental challenges.

Tens of thousands are currently engaged in people-to-people programs organized by such NGOs, many of which operate on shoestring budgets and have long waiting lists. These programs have a ripple effect, touching not only the direct participants but their families and communities as well. They often have a stabilizing influence, reducing violence and the hatred that gives rise to it. A substantial international fund would enable these NGOs to scale up and extend the impact.

Past peace process negotiators such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk have lamented that, while pursuing an elusive conflict-ending treaty, too little attention was paid to grass roots activities. But it’s not too late.

Hawks and doves can continue to respectfully debate and disagree about political issues. At the same time, let us come together to support a more robust ongoing effort to anchor any future agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a genuine and lasting peace between the peoples.

Article Link to the Jerusalem Post:

Lebanon: A Middle East Oasis That Deserves Preservation

An expatriate view of Lebanon’s current political deadlock

By Robert Chahine
April 12, 2016

For a long time, Lebanon was referred to as a Middle East oasis, owing to the fact that it is the only country in the region that does not have a desert within its borders. More importantly Lebanon is an oasis of freedom, democracy, diversity and until now, relative calm in a very turbulent region of the world. Nevertheless, most expatriate Lebanese and many Americans and other nationals of Lebanese origin currently suffer extreme anxiety about Lebanon’s stability and future. The relentless violence and fragmentation in Syria and the expansion of barbaric radicalism in several additional Arab countries constitute an existential threat to Lebanon. Yet despite all the unthinkable difficulties of the past few years, the country of the cedars has managed to survive and its population continues to live a near normal life with somewhat business as usual.

The long traditions of freedom and democracy, as well as the generally agreed upon strict division of power since independence, may have contributed to avoiding a new civil war. Nevertheless, regional stresses have pushed the country into a dangerous political stalemate. Modern Lebanon has had a reasonable balance between Christians and Muslims as well as relative equilibrium between the Sunnis and Shiites within its Muslim community. The wisdom, moderation and patriotism of the majority of Lebanese of all sects have certainly contributed to avoiding a complete collapse of the country. However, deep and significant problems continue to stress, erode and shake Lebanon’s constitutional institutions, which in turn have perpetuated fears and anxieties of the Lebanese and their friends, in and outside the oasis.

While its general population has distinguished itself with wisdom, tolerance and patience, Lebanon’s problems continue to progress more and more into riskier situations. This is due to complex internal and external factors. Many Lebanese leaders and politicians seem to fail in differentiating between the general interests of the country and their selfish benefits. Further, many have not adapted to the necessity of exercising their independence. They keep watching or waiting for a secret word or signal to come from abroad in their favor or against their adversaries.

The so called Arab Spring and the eruption of the Syrian Civil War necessitated that the Lebanese overcome the chronic polarization of March 8 vs. March 14 and find a consensus for unity to protect Lebanon from the stormy atmosphere in its neighborhood. Instead, the increasing tension between the competitors for Middle East dominance and the onset of barbaric violence in the name of religion has caused some internal fragmentation of the two main political groups as well as changes in alliances. This has further complicated any possible solution to the most important constitutional problem, the election of a new president. In the absence of such an election, most other institutional problems may persist or worsen, and the country will continue to suffer from very weak and shaky governance.

Two problems of immense importance cannot wait for too long before they produce irreparable consequences to the health and future of the country: The magnitude of the Syrian refugee issue remaining unchecked and practically out of control, and the accumulation of garbage, resisting solutions, with the successive failures ascribed to rampant corruption. The current government is clearly frustrated by the difficulties it encounters in trying to resolve these problems and many others, without the option to resign for fear of causing a total vacuum. Thus the election of a new president cannot be postponed any longer. Leaders in the US and the Lebanese expatriate community are constantly warning of the growing existential threats to Lebanon. Many see Harriri’s support for the Franjieh candidature, followed by Geagea’s support for the candidacy of Aoun, as further complicating and inadvertently or possibly intentionally obstructing the election of a new president. We see a potentially unifying feature in the March 14 coalition sacrificing their right to try to elect one of their own and deferring to March 8 to take the presidency of Lebanon. To capitalize on an optimistic outlook to this development, the Lebanese leaders who participate in the dialogue process should enter into intense open discussions to convince all deputies to go to parliament and elect one of the two current March 8 candidates, after securing a pledge that all Lebanese will support the winner. If after reasonable efforts to reach such a noble democratic goal, no agreement can be reached, they should return to the search for a consensus candidate from the ranks of March 8 and their allies. If they have difficulty finding such candidate, we in the expatriate community can promptly suggest two or three names fully qualified for the job and who will have the strength and ability to unify the country. Some of those, although they are not official candidates, have enough patriotism and concern for Lebanon that they may be prepared and ready to address most of the pressing issues in a courageous and timely manner.

Friends of Lebanon, whether from the Near East or the far West, have consistently shown concern and support for the country. They recognize that in the currently globalized world the small republic with a very broadly diverse population, united in moderation, must succeed in securing peace, stability and prosperity. It should serve as a prototype for the limitation of radical terrorism and previewing a better future for the world. They have always stated that Lebanon should be saved and protected. They also continue, despite sometimes conflicting interests, to do what they can to shelter Lebanon from the hurricane strength storms surrounding it. It is time that the Lebanese leaders and politicians wake up and demonstrate the necessary wisdom, patriotism and unselfish initiative to save their beautiful oasis, and secure its future stability and prosperity.

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