August 18, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Israel’s African Handshake

Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby was escorted from the mat by loud boos in Rio de Janeiro last week, after the judo player refused to bow or shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson – who had defeated him handily.

But in the political arena, Egypt may be getting snubbed, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wraps up a whirlwind tour of African nations intended to boost the country’s status on a continent that still mostly sees it as a colonial power, writes Al-Monitor.

Last month, Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, while Israeli business delegations wooed officials and potential partners at state-sponsored meet-and-greets. Last week, he met with Togo President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé in Israel, and he is likely to travel to Nigeria for a summit of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) before the end of the year.

The visits come as Israel faces ever-greater international pressure over the construction of settlements in the West Bank. The country may also face new threats from the possible normalizing of U.S. relations with Iran and other shifting alliances in the Middle East.

Netanyahu, who said he was struck by how willing the African nations were to forego linking diplomatic and trade relationships with Israel to the status of the Palestinian issue, clearly hopes that stronger alliances with African and Arab nations can help “blunt the antagonism” Israel faces at the United Nations, reported Bloomberg.

“I don’t think it’s a journey of 1,000 miles, but we have definitely crossed the first mile. I see momentum being built,” the news agency quoted Netanyahu as saying.

Already, the reception afforded the Israeli leader suggests that a significant change may be afoot. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, many African countries have eschewed close relations with Israel – which also backed the apartheid regime in South Africa. But during Netanyahu’s five-day July trip, he succeeded in winning support for his request that Israel’s observer status be reinstated in the Addis Ababa-based African Union.

Israel had observer status in the body that was replaced by the African Union. But that status was not renewed when the African Union was founded in 2002. By contrast, since 2013, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has used Palestine’s observer status to attend summits, deliver addresses and garner support against Israel.

“Israel is working very hard in many African countries. There is no reason to deny this observer position to Israel,” Al Jazeera quoted Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as saying after meeting Netanyahu.

Apart from Israel’s new willingness to woo them, the chaos in the Middle East and the plunge in oil prices have made African leaders more interested in listening. Israel’s thriving high-tech economy looks much more attractive with oil at less than $50 a barrel. And Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is barely keeping his nose above water – making it difficult if not impossible to project his power abroad. Earlier this year, for instance, Sisi was compelled to transfer sovereignty of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a bid to keep Egypt solvent, giving rise to protests not unlike those that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

“Arab countries should be made aware that the rug is being swept from under their feet,” an Arab political commentator wrote in the Gulf News.

WANT TO KNOW

Disappearing Act

South Sudan’s former vice president and opposition leader Riek Machar has fled the African country for a neighboring state, said officials from the opposition.

Machar’s departure from South Sudan comes only weeks after he pulled out of the capital city of Juba during an intense round of fighting with government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir.

The opposition declined to say exactly which country Machar had left for, calling it only “a safe country within the region,” reported Reuters.

Machar had waged a two-year rebellion against longtime rival Kiir before both sides reached a peace deal in August 2015.

The rebel and opposition leader then returned to Juba in April to reclaim his position as vice president, but Machar and his forces withdrew from the capital in mid-July as fighting between the two sides broke out again.

President Kiir also dismissed Machar from his post after the fighting resumed last month, and replaced him with Taban Deng Gai, a member of the opposition who had fallen out with Machar.

Parole Granted

Turkey announced Wednesday that it plans to empty its prisons of up to 38,000 criminals convicted of nonviolent offenses to make room for the lawyers, teachers, journalists and judges arrested in connection with the recent failed coup.

The decision to release so many criminals back onto the streets at once is a sign of the pressure the Turkish state apparatus has been put under as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to expand his purge of supposed enemies of the government, writes the New York Times.

Erdogan blames the attempted July 15 coup on the exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers, many of whom have long held positions in Turkish state institutions like the military.

Over 40,000 people have been arrested or detained on coup-related charges so far, while tens of thousands of teachers, policemen, state bureaucrats and the like have lost their jobs, creating gaping holes in government and other institutions like schools and the judiciary.

Turkey’s prisoner-release plan – made possible by powers granted under a state of emergency that allows the government to bypass Parliament – will free convicted criminals who have served at least half of their sentence on supervised parole. Criminals guilty of murder, rape or other violent crimes are not eligible for release, said the government.

Switching Sides

North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong Ho, has defected to South Korea along with his family in one of the highest-profile defections in history from the Hermit Kingdom.

Thae, second in command at North Korea’s embassy in London, said he was “sick and tired” of Kim Jong Un’s regime, according to officials in Seoul.

Thae and his family have arrived in South Korea and are in the government’s custody, although sources declined to give information on the date of his defection or his whereabouts.

The dramatic defection raises new questions about the loyalties of the Pyongyang elite who are essential to ensuring the continued rule of Kim Jong Un, writes the Wall Street Journal.

South Korean officials have been happy to point to Thae’s defection as proof that Kim Jong Un is losing his grip on a ruling class that is increasingly losing faith in the North Korean regime.

“He felt frustrated with the Kim Jong Un regime, and he did not see any hope or vision,” said South Korean government spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee.

DISCOVERIES

Silent Spring

The causes behind the widely observed decline of wild bees worldwide have been hotly debated, as concerns grow over the effects of their demise on the pollination of crops.

Is climate change the ultimate bee killer? Or human incursions into their territory? Are pesticides wiping them out?

Now, a new study published in the journal Nature Communications has furnished more evidence that man-made chemicals – specifically neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides – are responsible for the bees’ demise.

The study, led by the UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology, found that wild bee populations in England that consumed neonicotinoid-treated oilseed rape were three times as negatively affected as bee populations that didn’t forage on the pesticide.

The study considered data on population changes of 62 wild bee species stretching back to 1994 – an 18 year period that includes the widespread introduction of neonicotinoids in British agriculture.

The results are solid evidence that neonicotinoids affect bees at the population level, in addition to affecting whole bees, entire colonies and even bee brain cells, said Christopher Connolly, a bee expert at the University of Dundee who was not directly involved in the study.

But others caution against mixing up association and causation and warn that farmers need to rely on pesticides if they are to defend crops like oilseed rape from more dangerous pests than bees.