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Friday, November 13, 2015

Product-labeling plan by Europe deepens Israel's isolation

November 11, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — The European Union's decision Wednesday to start labeling Israeli products made in the West Bank delivered a resounding show of international disapproval over Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements and raised the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renew peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Israel condemned the measure as unfair and discriminatory, but it appeared helpless to stop its growing isolation over the settlement issue and its treatment of Palestinians. Relations with the EU in particular have deteriorated in recent years due to disputes over the settlements.

"The EU decision is hypocritical and constitutes a double standard," Netanyahu said, adding that Israel had been unfairly singled out. Speaking from Washington, he said, "The EU should be ashamed." Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and began settling both areas shortly afterward. The Palestinians claim both areas as parts of a future state, a position that has global support.

The international community opposes settlement construction, saying their continued growth undermines establishing an independent Palestine alongside Israel. Today, nearly 600,000 Israelis live in the two areas, almost 10 percent of the country's Jewish population.

Israel's centrist and dovish opposition also supports the idea of a Palestinian state, saying a separation is the only way to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. While Netanyahu has endorsed this "two-state solution," critics say he has done little to promote it.

The EU decision is "dramatically adverse to the idea of moving toward peace with our neighbors," opposition leader Isaac Herzog told reporters in New York. Another opposition lawmaker, Tzipi Livni, said Israel could thwart the Europeans' move if it shows it is serious about pursuing peace. "We need the right policies. We don't need public diplomacy and we definitely shouldn't yell at them that they are anti-Semitic," the former foreign minister said on her Facebook page.

EU officials described their decision as technical, saying it merely clarified existing policy. Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU ambassador to Israel, said the 28-nation bloc does not recognize lands captured in 1967, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, as Israeli territory. "This is something that also happens to be the view of 99 percent of the international community," he said in Jerusalem.

The EU has taken other steps to protest settlement construction. A free-trade policy with Israel does not apply to settlement goods, and a landmark technology-sharing agreement does not allow EU funds to be spent beyond Israel's pre-1967 lines.

The economic impact is likely to be minimal. While the EU is Israel's largest trade partner, settlement products account for less than 2 percent of Israel's 13 billion euro ($14 billion) exports to Europe each year. But the move is highly symbolic.

Once implemented, European consumers will be able to read on the label of most products — including agricultural goods, olive oil, cosmetics and wines — that were produced on Israeli settlements. Although such products will not be banned, Israel fears the labels will be a political stigma and could lead to a fuller boycott.

On Tuesday, Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz accused Europe of "disguised anti-Semitism." Officials avoided such language Wednesday, but the reactions were swift and angry nonetheless. The Foreign Ministry accused the EU of taking an "exceptional and discriminatory step" inspired by an international anti-Israel boycott movement. In a first step, it summoned the EU ambassador to convey its objections and suspended the meetings of several bilateral working groups with the EU.

Israeli officials noted the decision came amid a two-month wave of violence, which has been characterized by dozens of seemingly random Palestinian stabbing attacks, and would weaken any incentive for the Palestinians to return to negotiations. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called it a "shameful step that grants terror a prize."

Avi Roeh, chairman of the Yesha settlers' council, said "this attempt to isolate us or differentiate us from the rest of Israel won't succeed." He said the biggest victims would be the estimated 80,000 Palestinians who risk losing their jobs if the businesses that employ them in the settlements are hurt.

The violence began in mid-September with clashes at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site and quickly spread across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A total of 12 Israelis have been killed, mostly in stabbings, while 77 Palestinians, 50 of them said by Israel to be attackers, have died.

Israel accuses Palestinian leaders of inciting the violence. The Palestinians say it is the natural result of nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation. Some 60 percent of the West Bank, including all Jewish settlements, is under full Israeli control, heavily constricting their hopes of developing an economy and building a state.

"I highly appreciate what the EU countries did on the products of the Israeli colonial settlements," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a summit in Saudi Arabia. The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down a year and a half ago, and President Barack Obama recently acknowledged there probably would be no more talks, much less an agreement, in his term. In the past, he has said the continued settlement construction raises questions about Israel's seriousness for peace.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said before the EU announcement that the move "shouldn't come as a surprise" as Israel continues to expand settlements. "This underscores the urgent need for Israel to change its policies with regard to settlements," he said.

While running for re-election early this year, Netanyahu said he would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch. He has backtracked on that, and at a White House meeting this week, he reiterated his support for a two-state solution but again gave no indication on how to move things forward.

On Tuesday, he raised the possibility of unspecified "unilateral" Israeli steps. Dore Gold, the director of Israel's Foreign Ministry and a Netanyahu confidant, said several suggestions were raised with the White House. He declined to elaborate.

Israeli opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid, a former finance minister who supports the two-state solution, called the EU move a disastrous step that would only strengthen extremists on both sides. He said it sent a message to Palestinians that they do not need to negotiate to get what they want, while it would reduce Israelis' faith in international mediation.

"If this is meant to be a wake-up call, it's counterproductive," Lapid told The Associated Press. "They just pushed back the possibility of negotiations and separation."

Casert reported from Brussels. Alon Bernstein and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Edith M. Lederer in New York, and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.

Russia slammed in doping report, faces possible Olympic ban

November 10, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — Russia's status as a sports superpower and its participation in track and field events at next year's Olympics came under threat Monday after a report accused the Russians of widespread, state-supported doping reminiscent of the darkest days of cheating by the former East Germany.

The findings by a commission set up by the World Anti-Doping Agency were far more damaging than expected. It means that two of the world's most popular sports — soccer and track and field — are now mired in scandals that could destroy their reputations.

The WADA investigation's findings that Russian government officials must have known about doping and cover-ups, with even its intelligence service, the FSB, allegedly involved, threatened to severely tarnish President Vladimir Putin's use of sports to improve his country's global standing. Russia hosted the last Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and will hold the next World Cup in 2018.

"It's worse than we thought," said Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee veteran who chaired the WADA probe. "It may be a residue of the old Soviet Union system." The 323-page report said that in Russia, "acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread." Among its findings:

— Moscow testing laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov ordered the "intentional and malicious destruction" of 1,417 doping control samples to deny evidence for the investigation. — FSB agents regularly visited the lab, routinely questioned its staff and told some of them not to cooperate with WADA as part of "direct intimidation and interference by the Russian state" with the lab's work. Staff at the lab believed their offices were bugged by the FSB.

— FSB agents even infiltrated Russia's anti-doping work at the Sochi Olympics. One witness told the inquiry that "in Sochi, we had some guys pretending to be engineers in the lab, but actually they were from the Federal Security Service."

— "Widespread inaction" by track and field's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, and Russian authorities allowed athletes suspected of doping to continue competing. "The Olympic Games in London were, in a sense, sabotaged by the admission of athletes who should have not been competing," the report said.

The WADA commission, set up after a German TV documentary last year alleged widespread Russian doping and cover-ups, recommended that WADA declare the Russian athletics federation "noncompliant" with the global anti-doping code, and that the IAAF suspend the federation from competition.

The IAAF responded by saying it will consider sanctions against Russia, including a possible suspension that would ban Russian track and field athletes from international competition, including the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. IAAF President Sebastian Coe gave the Russian federation until the end of the week to respond.

"If they are suspended — and it sounds like the IAAF is moving in that direction already — and they are still suspended, at the time of Rio, there will be no Russian track and field athletes there," Pound said in an interview with The Associated Press after the release of the findings.

He said Russia's doping could be called state-sponsored. The commission said its months-long probe found no written evidence of government involvement, but it added: "It would be naive in the extreme to conclude that activities on the scale discovered could have occurred without the explicit or tacit approval of Russian governmental authorities."

"They would certainly have known," Pound said. To the AP, he added: "We have finally identified one of the major powers as being involved in this. It's not just small countries or little pockets. This is a major sporting country. It's got to be a huge embarrassment."

Vladimir Uiba, head of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency that provides medical services to Russian national team competitors, said the report is part of a "politically motivated" campaign linked to the crisis in Ukraine.

Russian athletes suspected of doping are also likely to keep their medals because canceling any results would require "a huge number of legal proceedings," Uiba told the Interfax news agency. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, whose ministry was accused by the WADA probe of giving orders to tamper with anti-doping tests, insisted Russia's problems are no worse than in other countries. Russia is being persecuted, he said, telling Interfax: "Whatever we do, everything is bad."

He threatened to cut all government funding for anti-doping work, saying "if we have to close this whole system, we would be happy to" because "we will only save money." Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member and heads the committee organizing soccer's 2018 World Cup in Russia, denied any wrongdoing to the WADA panel, including knowledge of athletes being blackmailed and FSB interference.

Pound said Mutko must have known. "It was not possible for him to be unaware of it," Pound said. "And if he was aware of it, he was complicit in it." Pound said there may still be time for Russia to avoid the "nuclear weapon" of a ban from the Olympics if it starts reforming immediately. That work will take at least "several months," and "there are a lot of people who are going to have to walk the plank before this happens," he said.

"I think they can do it. I hope they can," he added. More potentially damaging revelations are to come, and the crisis in athletics might ultimately trump even the criminal investigations into alleged corruption at FIFA.

The WADA commission is also looking at the role senior officials at the IAAF allegedly played in bribery and extortion involving Russian athletes. French authorities last week detained and later charged former IAAF President Lamine Diack with corruption and money laundering. The WADA panel's findings on that angle could come before the end of the year. For the moment, the commission said evidence of "corruption and bribery practices at the highest levels of international athletics" has been shared with Interpol.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which brought down Lance Armstrong in another case that shattered public faith in sports, was damning in its response to the findings. "If Russia has created an organized scheme of state-supported doping, then they have no business being allowed to compete on the world stage," USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.

Other countries and sports could also fall under the WADA spotlight for abetting doping. Pound singled out Kenya, saying it seems that the East African powerhouse of long-distance running "has a real problem."

"In its considered view," the WADA panel said, "Russia is not the only country, nor athletics the only sport, facing the problem of orchestrated doping."

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed to this report.

Pomp, protests greet India's premier Modi on lavish UK visit

November 12, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British counterpart David Cameron vowed Thursday to use U.K. knowhow and investment to help modernize the world's largest democracy, as Modi was greeted with official honors and noisy protests in London.

Hailing billions in new business deals between the two countries, Cameron promised to "set this relationship free" from its colonial past. Modi said the visit marked "a huge moment for our two great nations."

Although it's not a state visit — since Modi isn't a head of state — the three-day trip has a lavish level of ceremony. Modi was welcomed by ranks of Scots Guards, saw a ceremonial fly-past by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows aerobatic team and gave a speech to Parliament. He'll also have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II on Friday at Buckingham Palace.

Still, there has been criticism of the star treatment for Modi, a Hindu nationalist who has been accused of failing to stop growing religious intolerance and violence in India, including the lynching of Muslims for allegedly eating beef.

Several hundred people, including Muslims, Sikhs, Nepalis and members of women's groups, protested Thursday outside Cameron's 10 Downing St. office, accusing Modi of overseeing the persecution of India's minorities. Modi was taken into Downing St. through a back route to avoid the protesters.

At a news conference, he insisted that intolerance was unacceptable in the "land of Gandhi." "We do not tolerate such incidents at all," Modi said. "We take strong actions." India and Britain have close, complex ties dating back to Britain's time as colonial ruler until the mid-20th century. Nowadays, Britain is eager for more access to India's fast-growing economy and its market of 1.3 billion people.

Cameron said relations between the two countries, once "imprisoned by the past," were now a "modern, dynamic partnership" between the world's fifth-largest economy — Britain — and India, which will soon rank third.

Cameron said the two countries expected to sign 9 billion pounds ($14 billion) worth of commercial deals during Modi's visit, including a plan for London's financial district to become a center of offshore rupee bonds, and U.K. investment in three Indian "smart cities" — part of a plan to bring 21st-century road and telecommunications infrastructure to the vast and underdeveloped country.

"We want to become your No. 1 partner for securing the finance needed for this ambitious plan," Cameron said. In a speech to both houses of Britain's Parliament, Modi said the destiny of India was "the destiny of one-sixth of humanity."

He said the relationship between Britain and India would be "one of the leading global partnerships." Following a state visit to Britain last month by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Modi's trip is a sign of the growing economic clout of Asia's fast-growing economies.

Britain is already the largest investor in India among G-20 countries, and Indian firms have also made major investments in Britain, including Tata Motors' ownership of automaker Jaguar Land Rover. The Confederation of British Industry, a business group, welcomed Modi's visit and praised his "business-friendly approach." But critics said Britain should be wary of the Indian leader's poor human rights record.

More than 200 writers, including novelists Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Val McDermid, signed a letter expressing concern about what they called "a rising climate of fear, growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices" in India.

Modi swept to power in 2014 on promises to develop India's economy and root out the corruption and incompetence that had crippled the previous government. But his BJP party suffered a recent drubbing in an important state election widely seen as a referendum on Modi's popularity. And India's economic growth is slowing, although it still outpaces much of the world.

Modi has not always been welcome in London. Britain and the U.S. both shunned him after 2002 anti-Muslim riots killed at least 1,000 people in India's western state of Gujarat, where Modi was then the top official.

Muslim leaders and human rights groups said Modi did little to stop the violence, a charge he denies. India's Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him for the violence. Modi is to spend Thursday night at Chequers, the U.K. prime minister's official country retreat. On Friday, he'll lunch with the queen before capping his visit with a glitzy rally, complete with fireworks, for thousands of supporters at London's Wembley Stadium.

Suu Kyi's party wins historic majority in Myanmar polls

November 13, 2015

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party on Friday secured a historic majority in Myanmar's parliament, making it possible for them to form the Southeast Asian country's first truly civilian government in more than half-a-century.

With the tally still being counted, the Election Commission said that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won 21 additional seats — pushing it over the threshold of 329 seats needed for a majority in the 664-member, two-house Parliament.

The party with a combined parliamentary majority is able to select the next president, who can then name a Cabinet and form a new government. Suu Kyi's victory had been widely expected, but few anticipated a landslide of such dramatic proportions. The results have shown a resounding rejection of military rule in Myanmar, which has been under army control for half a century.

Elections were not held in seven constituencies, meaning a simple majority could be reached at 329 seats. The NLD has officially won 238 seats in the lower house — which means it now will have the power to pass bills — and 110 in the upper house, for a total of 348.

In comparison, the ruling pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party has won 40 seats, according to the latest results Friday afternoon. The military automatically receives 25 percent of the seats in each house under the constitution.

While the army has not conceded defeat for the ruling USDP party, it has acknowledged the massive success of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in Sunday's election, and pledged it will respect the final results. Those results seem virtually certain to allow the opposition to take over the government.

The office of army commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said the military will hold talks with Suu Kyi after the election results are complete. Suu Kyi issued an invitation on Wednesday for a meeting with the commander, along with President Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann.

While an NLD majority assures it of being able to elect the president, Suu Kyi remains barred from the highest office by a constitutional provision inserted by the military before it transferred power to Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government in 2011.

Suu Kyi has declared, however, that she will become the country's de facto leader, acting "above the president" if her party forms the next government, and that the new president will be a figurehead.

Myanmar's military, which took power in a 1962 coup and brutally suppressed several pro-democracy uprisings during its rule, gave way to Thein Sein's nominally civilian elected government in 2011 — with strings attached.

It installed retired senior officers in the ruling party to fill Cabinet posts and gave itself key powers in the constitution, including control of several powerful ministries and a quarter of the seats in both houses of Parliament. In a state of emergency, a special military-led body can even assume state powers. Another provision bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her sons hold foreign citizenship.

While Myanmar's people voted overwhelmingly Sunday to remove the military-backed ruling party from power, it's clear that the army's involvement in politics won't end, and the NLD will need to convince it to cooperate.

Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Myanmar transition to democracy on track after Suu Kyi win

November 12, 2015

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president has promised a peaceful transfer of power to the victorious party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in general elections, ensuring that the country's march toward greater democracy after decades of military rule will not be derailed.

The election commission announced more results Thursday, showing Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy just seven seats short of the 333 seats it needs for a majority in the 664-member, two-house Parliament: it had won 243 seats in the lower house and 83 in the upper house for a total of 326.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said Wednesday it received a message from Information Minister Ye Htut on behalf of President Thein Sein congratulating it for leading the race for parliamentary seats in the Nov. 8 election.

Ye Htut said the government will pursue a peaceful transfer of power "in accordance with the legislated timeline." He was not immediately available for comment. The message helps remove lingering concerns that the military, which has a large influence over the ruling party, may deny the NLD power, as it did after elections in 1990.

It also means that Myanmar is likely to soon have its first government in decades that isn't under the military's sway. But while an NLD victory virtually assures it of being able to elect the president as well, Suu Kyi remains barred from becoming president by a constitutional provision inserted by the military before it transferred power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.

Suu Kyi has declared, however, that she will become the country's de facto leader, acting "above the president," if her party forms the next government. She described that plan further in an interview Tuesday with Singapore's Channel NewsAsia television.

"I make all the decisions because I'm the leader of the winning party. And the president will be one whom we will choose just in order to meet the requirements of the constitution," she said. "He (the president) will have to understand this perfectly well that he will have no authority. That he will act in accordance with the positions of the party."

The military, which took power in a 1962 coup and brutally suppressed several pro-democracy uprisings during its rule, gave way to a nominally civilian elected government in 2011 — with strings attached.

It installed retired senior officers in the ruling party to fill Cabinet posts and gave itself key powers in the constitution, including control of powerful ministries and a quarter of the seats in the 664-member two-chamber Parliament. In a state of emergency, a special military-led body can even assume state powers. Another provision bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her sons hold foreign citizenship.

While Myanmar's people voted overwhelmingly Sunday to remove the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party from power, it's clear that the army's involvement in politics won't end, and the NLD will need to convince it to cooperate.

NLD co-founder Tin Oo told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the party expects to win about 80 percent of the votes — putting it on pace with the party's 1990 landslide that the military annulled. If the NLD secures a two-thirds majority of the parliamentary seats at stake — a likely scenario now — it would gain control over the executive posts under Myanmar's complicated parliamentary-presidency system.

The military and the largest parties in the upper house and the lower house will each nominate a candidate for president. After Jan. 31, all 664 legislators will cast ballots and the top vote-getter will become president, while the other two will be vice presidents.

Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Yangon and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Myanmar president says military will respect poll results

November 07, 2015

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president said his government and the military, which gave up power only five years ago, will respect the results of Sunday's elections that are expected to be won by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party.

"I heard that there are worries whether the outcome of the election would be respected. Our government and the military want to repeat that we will respect the outcomes of the free and fair election," President Thein Sein said in a speech broadcast on national television late Friday night.

His remarks are also aimed at signaling to the international community that the government is sincere about holding a free and fair election despite concerns about voter list irregularities, intimidation and disenfranchisement of a large section of the population — the Rohingya Muslims who have been denied citizenship and made ineligible to vote.

"According to the outcome of the election, we will work together in the new political arena," said Thein Sein, who is also the chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is aligned closely to the military.

Concerns about the military's lurking influence stems from events in 1990, when it refused to accept results of elections that were won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. The junta continued its rule that had begun in 1962.

After intense international pressure, the military called elections in late 2010, which the NLD boycotted, citing unfair rules. By default, the elections were won by the USDP, made up of former military figures. It formally took over power from the junta in 2011.

"To be where we are today, we have overcome a difficult history. It was never easy to be able to hold this election. That's why as the election will change our destiny, especially in this important transition, I encourage all the voters to vote," Thein Sein said.

Observers believe that the election is Myanmar's best chance in decades to move toward greater democracy despite an in-built handicap for Suu Kyi's party: of the 664 seats in Parliament, 25 percent are reserved for the military.

This means the military-aligned USDP will have to win only a little more than 25 percent of the seats to have a combined majority. But given the huge crowds that Suu Kyi and her candidates have been attracting, even winning a 25 percent share might be difficult for USDP.

The NLD's popularity was evident in the 2012 by-election, when it won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested. Despite such odds, USDP co-chairman Htay Oo said Friday that his party will win the election comfortably.

"Some expect that the USDP will win 80 percent in the election, but I want to say we will win between 65 and 80 percent," he told Radio Free Asia's Myanmar service. He said experts have underestimated the support for the party.

"The USDP didn't show the strength of the party in the past, but when we campaign, we can see how many party members and supporters we have," he said. Other party leaders also exuded confidence. "I'm sure that we will win on Nov. 8. So we will no longer use the phrase 'we will win.' Let me tell you in advance that that we have won," USDP central executive committee member Nada Kyaw Zaw said at a campaign rally.

Suu Kyi in her campaign rallies has also said her party expects to win if the elections are fair. Winning the election would only be the first step toward full power for the NLD. After the polls, the newly elected members and the military appointees will propose three candidates, and elect one as the president. The other two will become vice presidents. That vote won't be held before February.