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Ex-general challenging Israeli PM reels from hacking scandal

Friday, March 15

JERUSALEM (AP) — The main challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his heated race for re-election is trying to play down an embarrassing phone-hacking scandal that erupted just as the ex-general is sliding in opinion polls.

Benny Gantz’s campaign late Thursday confirmed that the former military chief, who has campaigned on his security credentials, was the target of an Iranian hacking attack. His campaign says the lapse occurred months before he entered politics and suggested the leak was a politically-motivated attempt to embarrass him ahead of April 9 elections.

At a press conference Friday, Gantz downplayed the matter and sought to divert attention to overnight cross-border violence with Gaza militants. Gantz provided few details about how he was hacked or what information might have fallen into Iranian hands.

Palestinian agency urges donors: Match 2018 funds in 2019


Associated Press

Monday, March 18

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency that helps 5.3 million Palestinian refugees on Monday urged donors who filled a $446 million hole in its budget last year after the Trump administration drastically cut the U.S. contribution to be equally generous this year.

“Last year we had an extraordinary crisis and an out of the ordinary response,” Pierre Krahenbuhl said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Our humble request to all the donors is: Please keep your funding levels at the same level as 2018.”

He said he has been thanking donors for their “exceptional” contributions that enabled the U.N. Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion.

Krahenbuhl said the agency, known as UNRWA, also adopted a $1.2 billion budget for 2019, and this year it is getting nothing from the United States. Last year, the Trump administration gave $60 million, a dramatic reduction from the $360 million it provided in 2017, when the United States was the agency’s largest donor.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive U.S. aid money — a comment that raised alarm from leaders of 21 international humanitarian groups, who protested that the administration’s link between aid and political objectives was “dangerous.”

Krahenbuhl said the campaign that UNRWA launched immediately after the U.S. slashed its contribution succeeded as a result of “very important donations,” starting with the European Union, which became the agency’s biggest donor. He said 40 countries and institutions increased funding to UNRWA, including Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Australia. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait each gave $50 million, he said.

“Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution,” Krahenbuhl said.

Last year, he said, the number of multi-year funding agreements with donors rose to 19.

So UNRWA right now is in “a somewhat better position” than it was last year, with a shortfall of just over $200 million, Krahenbuhl said.

So far this year, the agency has received $245 million and is expecting $100 million more, he said, which means it should be financially OK until about May.

“But from then on we’ll start to … reach some crisis points,” Krahenbuhl said.

He said UNRWA is thinking about holding some events in the next two or three months “to collectively mobilize the donor community.” In June, he said, there will be a pledging conference at which the U.N. and donors will take stock of the agency’s financial situation.

Krahenbuhl said he is committed to making up for the $60 million that UNRWA is losing from the United States this year through internal cost saving measures to reduce the agency’s expenditures.

“That’s going to hurt, but that’s where we feel our financial responsibility, so that we preserve the trust that was generated by the level of donors,” he said, noting that UNRWA last year saved $92 million.

Krahenbuhl said donors recognize the agency does important work. He pointed to the 280,000 boys and girls in UNRWA schools in Gaza and the food assistance the agency provides to 1 million people there every three months. “That’s half of Gaza’s population,” he said.

The UNRWA chief also said that continuing the agency’s services to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and elsewhere in the Mideast “is in everybody’s interest” and important for stability in the region.

“If you take Gaza right now … it’s continuously at the razor’s edge,” Krahenbuhl said, stressing that any shift in humanitarian assistance or conditions that people live in “can trigger the need for justification, or the excuse … to go back to war.”

Noting his own experience in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, Krahenbuhl said, “this is absolutely devastating and needs to be avoided.”

Gaza parrot gets treatment from Israeli animal rights group

Tuesday, March 19

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip (AP) — An ailing parrot in the blockaded Gaza Strip has received treatment from an Israeli animal rights group after its Palestinian owner appealed for help via Facebook.

Abdullah Sharaf said Tuesday his African grey parrot, Koki, drank bleach that burned a hole in his throat. He says local veterinarians, ill-equipped to handle specialized cases, suggested his exotic pet be put down.

Unconvinced, Sharaf appealed via Facebook to an animal rights group in central Israel, which agreed to help. The group sent a mobile surgery clinic to the Israel-Gaza frontier and successfully treated the bird at the crossing.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in 2007. Palestinians in Gaza face severe travel restrictions, making it difficult to get specialized medical treatment.

Supreme Court won’t intervene in oldest US synagogue dispute


Associated Press

Monday, March 18

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Monday in a fight over control of the nation’s oldest synagogue and its religious bells worth millions, leaving in place a ruling that the Rhode Island synagogue will remain the property of a New York congregation.

The Congregation Jeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island, had asked a judge to declare that it owned the more than 250-year-old Touro Synagogue and a set of Colonial-era Torah bells, called rimonim. It had a plan to sell the bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million as a way to shore up its finances.

Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation, became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It fought the plan to sell the bells.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel has worshipped at Touro since the late 1800s, and the two sides have periodically fought since then over who controls it.

Lou Solomon, a lawyer for Congregation Shearith Israel, struck a conciliatory tone, saying he looked forward to “a return of harmonious relations” between them and Touro’s congregation.

“It’s a national treasure, it’s going to remain open for all Jews,” Solomon said.

But he added a caveat.

“We’re going to go forward with or without them. It is my hope that there will not be any more hostile acts,” he said.

A trial judge awarded control of the property and the bells to the Newport group, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went the other way, giving them to the group from Manhattan.

Gary Naftalis, a lawyer for the Newport congregants, said they were disappointed.

“Our petition raised significant constitutional issues affecting the survival of Touro Synagogue and the rights of religious organizations in America,” he said, adding that they hope the congregation’s “right to continue to pray in the historic Touro Synagogue, as it has for over a century, will be respected.”

Solomon said the New York congregation plans to reach out to the one in Newport soon with an offer to meet and plan for ways to move forward together.

“We don’t want to be the imperialists that are coming there and kicking people out. What matters is that the synagogue remain a house of worship for all Jews, open to all Jews,” he said.

Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site. The synagogue was visited by George Washington in 1790, and he later sent its congregants a letter declaring that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” It attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Former VP of United Auto Workers charged in corruption probe


Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — A former vice president at the United Auto Workers was charged Monday with conspiracy in a scheme with Fiat Chrysler executives to buy meals, golf and other perks with the automaker’s money — the highest-ranking official snagged in an investigation that has exposed corrupt ties between labor and management.

The conspiracy charge against Norwood Jewell was filed as a criminal information, which means a guilty plea is likely. At least seven people have pleaded guilty so far.

Officials at Fiat Chrysler, known as FCA, and the UAW enriched themselves by using company money set aside for a job-training center. The corruption occurred at the same time both sides were negotiating labor agreements.

“We can confirm that we have had professional and productive discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office towards a fair and just resolution,” defense attorney Michael Manley told The Detroit News. “We are confident that when the facts of the case come out as it relates to Mr. Jewell, his decades-long reputation of honorable service to members of the UAW will remain intact.”

Jewell was the senior UAW official dealing with Fiat Chrysler, from 2014 through 2016. He apparently had no knowledge of corruption that was occurring before stepping into the post — his predecessor had a $262,000 mortgage paid off — but he quickly joined it, according to the government.

The court filing says Jewell signed off on dinners valued at thousands of dollars at an exclusive Detroit restaurant, the London Chop House, and golf and meals in Palm Springs, California.

Former Fiat Chrysler executive Al Iacobelli, who conspired with UAW officials and also enjoyed the spoils, is serving a 5 ½-year prison sentence.

The union’s president, Gary Jones, said he’s “deeply saddened and irritated” by the scandal.

The UAW is “engaged in comprehensive reforms to make sure that this behavior never happens again,” Jones said last week.

T-shirt gun used to launch contraband into Oklahoma prison

SAYRE, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma woman was arrested after authorities say she used a T-shirt gun to launch drugs, cellphones and other contraband over a prison fence.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says the incident prompted a lockdown at the North Fork Correctional Unit in Sayre, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) west of Oklahoma City.

The agency says authorities arrested Kerri Jo Hickman after discovering the T-shirt gun and another package in her vehicle.

Tulsa television station KOTV reports that the container that was launched Sunday contained cellphones, ear buds, phone chargers, methamphetamine, digital scales, marijuana and tobacco.

Hickman remained jailed Friday in Beckham County on complaints of introducing contraband into a penal institution, conspiracy and drug trafficking. Jail records don’t list an attorney who could speak on her behalf.

The Conversation

Even if Netanyahu goes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue

March 20, 2019

Author: Dov Waxman, Professor of Political Science, International Affairs and Israel Studies, Northeastern University

Disclosure statement: Dov Waxman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

After a decade in office, Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as Israel’s prime minister may soon be ending.

Whether his Likud Party loses power following Israel’s election on April 9, or he’s forced to resign the premiership after being indicted on multiple corruption charges, Netanyahu’s downfall appears imminent.

Without the hawkish Netanyahu – who opposes full Palestinian statehood – at Israel’s helm, what are the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Not good. Even an Israel-friendly peace plan, like the one expected to be proposed by the Trump administration, has little chance of success in a post-Netanyahu world.

No domestic pressure for peace talks

If the popular political newcomer Benny Gantz, who heads the recently formed “Blue and White” centrist alliance along with Yair Lapid, becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he is unlikely to prioritize peace talks with the Palestinians.

Although the official platform of the Blue and White alliance expresses a willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinians, Gantz will be in no hurry because there’s no public pressure for peace talks.

Most Israelis, like most Palestinians, have concluded that they have no partner for peacemaking and they’ve given up on the peace process.

Israelis are more concerned with their economy and their security. Though they would like to resolve their long-running conflict with the Palestinians, or at least “separate” themselves from Palestinians and stop ruling over them in the West Bank, most Israelis see no safe or easy way to do so. However unsatisfactory it is, the status quo is bearable for them.

Major concessions unlikely

Even if peace talks do eventually get underway, an Israeli government led by the Blue and White alliance would be only slightly more amenable to compromise than Netanyahu’s governments have been.

Blue and White’s platform rejects many of the concessions that Israel would probably have to make to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In my forthcoming book, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know,” I explain what concessions each side would have to make on highly controversial issues like the future of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The party’s platform rules out any division of Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement. And it calls for Israel to keep all the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as for Israel to retain control over the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians have previously rejected Israel’s demand for an indefinite military presence in the Jordan Valley, deep inside the West Bank.

The platform also explicitly rejects a unilateral withdrawal – like Israel’s 2005 so-called “disengagement” from Gaza – from anywhere in the West Bank.

And, although it promises to “deepen the process of separation from the Palestinians,” it makes no mention of Palestinian statehood or a two-state solution. This is hardly a recipe for peace.

Hawks, not doves

It may be tempting to believe that this is all just electioneering, and that in its effort to appeal to right-wing voters, the Blue and White alliance is disguising its dovish intentions.

Indeed, this is what Netanyahu has been repeatedly telling Israelis, claiming that Blue and White is really run by “leftists.” In current Israeli political discourse, that is about the worst offense imaginable – “leftist” has basically become a byword for traitor.

The candidates on Blue and White’s slate, however, are far from peaceniks.

Former military generals dominate the list, including Netanyahu’s onetime defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is number three on the party list. Ya’alon is even more right-wing than Netanyahu, who was at least willing to consider the eventual possibility of a Palestinian state – albeit only a “state-minus” as he put it.

Like Ya’alon, Gantz was also once the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He has been reticent, if not enigmatic, in expressing his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But whatever his personal opinions might be, for the sake of his leadership and the survival of his political alliance, Gantz will have to be attentive, if not responsive, to the views of the alliance’s right-wing members and voters.

Coalition politics

Because of Israel’s proportional representation electoral system, no party ever wins a majority of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. So, the Blue and White alliance will have to depend on other parties in order to form and maintain a governing coalition. That means getting the support of more than half of the 120 Knesset members.

The alliance might be able to rely upon the parliamentary support of Arab parties – as Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party did in the early 1990s when it began the Oslo peace process. But it is more likely to avoid doing so, as every other Israeli government in history has done.

That’s because relying upon Arab parties risks delegitimizing the government in the eyes of Israeli Jews, many of whom perceive the Arab parties as radical and disloyal, a “fifth column” in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Instead of assembling a center-left parliamentary bloc that includes Arab parties, I believe the Blue and White alliance is more likely to form a “national unity” government with Zionist parties to its left and right. This coalition may well include the right-wing Likud Party, especially if Netanyahu no longer leads it.

Typically, such national unity governments, containing a range of views from the left and right, are politically paralyzed when it comes to pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

A more centrist Israeli government than the current one, which is dominated by right-wing parties, would surely take a more moderate approach to the Palestinian issue. Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority would probably improve, the growth of Jewish settlements in the heart of the West Bank might slow, and Israel could further ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

All of this would reduce the risk of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But, sadly, peace will remain a distant prospect.


Max Fisher: In my forthcoming book, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know,” I explain what concessions each side would have to make

Yet your article here, like the vast majority of similar analyses, avoids completely any discussion of the century long and continuing acts and policies by Palestinians that have defeated the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Conversation

6 questions you can ask a loved one to help screen for suicide risk

Updated March 11, 2019

Author: Andres Pumariega, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Florida

Disclosure statement: Andres Pumariega does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners: University of Florida provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Suicide rates in the United States have increased by 25-30 percent since 1999. This is particularly true for youth ages 12-24, with increases of approximately 30 percent over the same period. In Alachua County, Florida, where I teach and practice at the University of Florida, the base rate for suicides among youth ages 12-17 had been about five per 100,000 for many years, below the base national rate of 13 per 100,000. However, in the year 2017 that rate of completed suicides increased to 27 per 100,000, and for 2018 we are at a pace that will likely equal 2017.

While we mental health professionals know that depression and other mental and emotional disorders contribute to deaths by suicide and having thoughts or plans for suicide, life stressors are more often listed as causes, especially since most people do not access mental health services. These include such things as relationship problems, job and financial problems, substance abuse and life crises. Suicides also take approximately twice as many lives as homicides, which garner much more attention.

Our society is now aware that we are facing a national epidemic. The challenge is to identify and serve individuals who are at risk of attempting and completing suicide before that tragic outcome. I have been part of important work over the past few years that offers hope for early identification and prevention, including at a population level.

Curbing a heartbreaking trend

Health care organizations have established a national patient safety goal of reducing suicide as part of receiving health care, particularly in hospitals, promoted by The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that certifies health care programs and professionals.

While at Reading Hospital and Medical Center in Reading, Penn. as chair of psychiatry from 2006 until 2011, I was approached by the nursing leadership about tools and processes for suicide screening for patients being admitted, consistent with that national safety goal. Searching the literature, I identified the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) as a possible tool. It had been primarily developed Dr. Kelly Posner as a tool to screen for suicidality in medication research trials. It is now mandated by the FDA for psychiatric, neurological and endocrinological trials. This came after concerns about suicidal thoughts and at-risk behaviors being associated with the use of such medications.

The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale was unique in having predictive value for future suicide attempts, but I found it was cumbersome to administer as a brief screener. Being convinced of the potential for the tool, I approached Dr. Posner about developing an abbreviated screening version. She agreed to the proposal, and my research assistant, Udema Millsaps, and I proceeded to develop a brief, six-item version. Five questions that relate to having ideas about suicide and one question on prior suicidal attempts met Dr. Posner’s approval.

In 2009, we went on to implement the first screening C-SSRS, embedded in the initial nursing assessment within the electronic medical record, for all patients being admitted to Reading Hospital. We also developed a response algorithm for either referral to mental health services or urgent safety precautions and psychiatric response during the hospitalization. We also trained over 600 nurses on its administration, with the assistance of Dr. Posner. The results, including both feasibility and outcomes, were very encouraging, including reliability of administration and effective identification of patients at risk, and we presented them at national meetings.

Since that time, I similarly worked with nursing leadership at Cooper University Hospital during the years 2011-2013 in implementing systematic suicide screening using the screening C-SSRS as part of the initial nursing assessment, much as was the case with Reading Hospital. By that time, Dr. Posner had done further work on the scoring of the screening C-SSRS and had developed a new official version, which we happily adopted. Both Reading Hospital and Cooper University Hospital were early adopters of this novel approach to suicide prevention.

However, the team at Columbia has gone much further in promoting the implementation of the screening C-SSRS, now recommending it for broad use in many settings, including our military as well as by the general public. There is now a community version that is recommended to be used by concerned friends and family members if they identify someone close to them as having some risk for suicide.

The six questions

The first five questions are about a person’s feelings over the past month. These questions can be asked of people ages eight and older. They need to be included within an empathic conversation indicating concern for the person, and asked in a non-alarming, matter-of-fact manner.

Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?

Have you actually had any thoughts about killing yourself? If the loved one answers “yes” to question 2, ask questions 3, 4, 5 and 6. If the person answers “no” to question 2, go directly to question 6.

Have you thought about how you might do this?

Have you had any intention of acting on these thoughts of killing yourself, as opposed to you have the thoughts but you definitely would not act on them?

Have you started to work out or worked out the details of how to kill yourself? Do you intend to carry out this plan?

Always ask question 6: In the past three months, have you done anything, started to do anything, or prepared to do anything to end your life?

Examples you could mention would be: Have you collected pills; obtained a gun; given away valuables; written a will or suicide note; held a gun but changed your mind; cut yourself; tried to hang yourself.

The potential of this work has only touched the surface of this critical problem, and it has many broader applications and opportunities for implementation. These include combining the screening C-SSRS with training on risk surveillance for implementation by teachers, counselors and student organizations, ranging from middle school through the college levels. This especially includes minority and culturally diverse populations, where there have also been major increases in numbers of suicide attempts.

I am currently pursuing such opportunities to make this tool as well as awareness about suicide widely available with the ultimate goal of saving young lives.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). The website is National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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