The Palestinian Authority has pulled out of informal talks with Israel over a newly announced settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. Israel announced this week it had authorized plans to build 1,600 new homes in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo. The move came just as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel to promote a renewal of US-backed peace talks. On Wednesday, the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, announced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had ruled out talks for now. Moussa also called on the Obama administration to exert meaningful pressure on the Israeli government.
Amr Moussa: "The condemnation is not enough. The condemnation is welcome but cannot really bring the parties to the table of negotiations while the territories are being settled and the announcements, one after the other, by the government of Israel that they are going to build more settlements in Jerusalem, occupied Jerusalem, or in the rest of the Occupied Territories."
Moussa’s comments came hours after Vice President Biden met with Abbas in Ramallah. Biden condemned the Israeli settlement expansion, but offered no new steps to pressure Israel, including the conditioning of US aid on freezing and dismantling settlements.
Vice President Joe Biden: "Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin, as well as produce, have profitable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action. As we move forward, the United States will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did."
Although the Palestinian Authority based its decision on Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new settlement homes, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is now reporting the number will be far higher. Israeli planning officials say the Israeli government will build some 50,000 new housing units on occupied land beyond its internationally recognized 1967 borders. A small number of units will be built in Arab neighborhoods, but most will be built in Jewish-only East Jerusalem settlements.
Meanwhile in Israel, a trial has begun in a wrongful death case brought by the family of the slain American peace activist Rachel Corrie. A twenty-three-year-old college student, Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza seven years ago. She was standing in front of a Palestinian home to help prevent its demolition. An earlier internal Israeli army investigation exonerated the bulldozer drivers. On Wednesday, Rachel Corrie’s father, Craig Corrie, reflected on the long path to justice.
Craig Corrie: "We pursued justice through diplomatic means, hope for a US investigation, and, of course, Prime Minister Sharon promised President Bush a thorough, credible and transparent investigation into our daughter’s killing. And that hasn’t happened yet."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Saudi Arabia today for talks expected to center on Iran. The New York Times is reporting Gates has assured the Saudi royal family the US plans to help Saudi Arabia acquire "a broad range of air, naval and missile" weapons. As he arrived in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Gates said he expected the topic of Iran to "come up" in talks.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "Well, we have a broad number of subjects to talk about, including the military-to-military relationship with our Saudi friends and partners. So we have a very broad agenda to cover. I suspect that Iran will come up."
President Obama hosted Haitian President René Préval at the White House on Wednesday as part of Préval’s visit with top US officials in Washington. The Haitian government is finalizing an aid proposal ahead of an international donors’ conference later this month. Obama pledged to help Haiti rebuild following the devastating earthquake.
President Obama: "As President Préval and I discussed, the situation on the ground remains dire, and people should be under no illusions that the crisis is over. Many Haitians are still in need, desperate need in some cases, of shelter and food and medicine. And with the spring rains approaching, those needs will only grow. The challenge now is to prevent a second disaster."
Despite Obama’s comments, Préval’s pleas for US assistance to his government have fallen mostly on deaf ears. In an interview with the Washington Post, Préval said congressional leaders gave a cool reception to his request for help in overcoming a projected $350 million budget shortfall. Two weeks after the earthquake, the Associated Press reported the Haitian government is receiving less than a penny for each dollar the United States spends on aid efforts in Haiti. Thirty-three cents of every dollar was then going to US military aid, over three times the nine cents spent on food. In Haiti, an unemployed Haitian worker criticized Préval’s visit abroad.
Pierre Aliodor: '’We don't get nothing to eat. We don’t have a safe place to live. You know what I mean? So we don’t have nothing. We’re just living alone. So we don’t see the Haitian government. So that’s the reason, when Préval is moving, just going to meet to Obama, he’s just going to take care of his business, so he’s not going to do nothing for the Haitian people.’’
In Burma, the military junta has imposed a new law that would prevent its main opponents from running in national elections. The law bars anyone with a criminal conviction from seeking office, including the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In a statement, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams condemned the junta’s move, saying, "It continues the sham political process aimed at creating the appearance of civilian rule with a military spine."
Here in the United States, new figures show unemployment has increased in at least thirty states since the start of the year. The Labor Department says five states reported record-high unemployment, including California, at 12.5 percent, and Florida, at 12 percent. Michigan still has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, at 14.3 percent.
The news comes as the Senate has approved a $138 billion measure extending jobless benefits to unemployed workers as well as several expiring tax cuts. Six Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the measure by a 62-to-36 vote. The bill now goes to the House.
More details have emerged on a proposed compromise on the makeup of the Obama administration’s proposed federal consumer protection agency. The Washington Post reports several key lenders would be shielded from the agency’s purview. Compliance checks would be held only at banks and mortgage firms, but not controversial lenders such as payday lenders, pawnbrokers, car dealers and other companies that make loans but don’t hold bank charters. The proposal is expected to be unveiled in the coming days as part of the bipartisan financial regulation overhaul from Senate Banking Committee Chair Christopher Dodd and Republican Senator Bob Corker.
The news comes as the Obama administration is facing Democratic opposition to including an overhaul of student loans as part of healthcare reform. The White House has sought to expand Pell Grants while diminishing the role of private companies criticized for charging exorbitant rates on student loans. But several Democratic lawmakers have opposed including student loans in the healthcare package. The Washington Post reports "a consensus appear[s] to be emerging" among Democrats that it would be unwise to push for the education proposal as part of healthcare reform.
In other congressional news, House Democrats have announced plans to unveil a measure that would ban federal earmarks for private corporations. Under the proposal, companies would no longer be eligible for no-bid contracts from government agencies.
A federal judge has reaffirmed her earlier ruling blocking the congressional effort to de-fund the anti-poverty group ACORN. On Wednesday, Judge Nina Gershon cemented a decision from last year that stripping ACORN of its federal funding amounted to an unconstitutional "bill of attainder." Judge Gershon has asked all federal agencies to allow ACORN funding without delay. The congressional vote followed the release of videos appearing to show ACORN staffers offering advice to two right-wing activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. ACORN has long been a target of right-wing scorn for its work helping low-income Americans with voter registration, tax problems and foreclosures.
In Missouri, the Kansas City Board of Education has voted to close almost half of the city’s public schools amidst a $50 million deficit. The so-called "Right-Size" plan would shutter twenty-eight of Kansas City’s sixty-one schools and cut 700 of 3,000 jobs, including 285 positions for teachers.
The United Nations independent expert on torture has criticized the Obama administration for refusing to launch an extensive probe of torture committed under former President George W. Bush. On Wednesday, Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said the administration risks laying the groundwork for more torture by refusing to investigate recent policies.
Manfred Nowak: “There are so many other reasons for the Obama administration to really establish a high-level, blue-ribbon commission or a special investigative — has all the investigative powers to really look into the practices. That means us to declassify still certain documents, so to tell the American public what happened, but those of the world, what were major human rights violations committed by the Bush administration and, in my case, of course, what kind of torture methods. Perhaps we don’t know everything.”
And ten women activists from around the world have been awarded the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the awards on Wednesday at the State Department.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We are honoring women from around the world who have endured isolation and intimidation, violence and imprisonment. Many have even risked their lives to advance justice, freedom and equal rights for everyone. Their stories remind us of how much work there is left to do before the rights and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or where you live, are respected and protected by the world’s governments. But these women prove that change is possible."
Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe spoke on behalf of the award recipients.
Jestina Mukoko: "The International Women of Courage Award is a solidarity message that unites women from all over the world, regardless of race, religion and color, and we have learned that even language has failed to be a barrier to understanding and acknowledging what each one of us is doing. This, indeed, Madame Secretary, not only resonates with your strong notion that women’s rights are human rights, but is in line with the theme this year of the International Women’s Day: equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all."