March 17, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

ISRAEL

The Jaws of Victory

Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Israel’s most powerful and longest-lasting leaders, now appears to be facing ignominious defeat.

In recent parliamentary elections, Netanyahu’s Likud party and his allies won more seats than his rival Benny Gantz and his Blue and White alliance, reported the Times of Israel. Netanyahu called the election “the biggest win of my life,” noted the BBC.

But Netanyahu led by only a few seats and didn’t win enough support to form a government. The results were not so different from the two other inconclusive elections that Israel has held in the past year.

Gantz had a few tricks up his sleeve, too.

Netanyahu was scheduled to go on trial this week on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The case, which Netanyahu has called a “witch hunt,” has been postponed for two months while the country takes steps to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Still, Netanyahu is the only Israeli prime minister ever to be indicted while in office.

That gave Gantz an opportunity for some parliamentary maneuvering. He and even some of Netanyahu’s allies who form a so-called “anti-Bibi coalition” – referring to Netanyahu’s nickname – proposed legislation that would bar indicted lawmakers from being appointed to form a government. The Daily Beast described the proposed legislation as “eliminating any route” for Netanyahu’s political survival.

Then, on Sunday, in an unprecedented move in Israeli politics, all 15 members of the predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset joined with lawmakers from Jewish parties in recommending that Gantz be given the first chance to form a government, according to the New York Times.

The president listened. President Reuven Rivlin asked Gantz late Sunday to form a new government. Four weeks of intense political maneuvering will now begin in which Gantz will try to create a broad enough coalition from Israel’s parties to turn voter ire with Netanyahu into a change in government, the Wall Street Journal wrote.

To be sure, Gantz faces more hurdles. Some of his allies in the Blue and White coalition have previously balked at participating in a government with the Arab parties, wrote the Jerusalem Post.

“Most Israelis are Zionists, and they just cannot accept that four anti-Zionist parties would be allowed in the government,” Michael Milshtein, who heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, told the Washington Post. “There is a deep, psychological fear that they would want to change the basic character of the Jewish state.”

Also, Netanyahu’s bloc of 58 lawmakers, comprising of right-wing religious parties and his Likud party, sent a letter Monday to the leaders of the Blue and White party and the left-wing parties backing Gantz, offering two other options: A national unity administration with Netanyahu as leader for two years and then Gantz serving for the next two years; or an emergency government led by Netanyahu that would last six months before Gantz forms his own government.

On Monday, as the new parliament was sworn in, it wasn’t clear which of the three options might prevail – or a fourth: new elections.

Still, Gantz has a better shot forming a coalition this time around, not least because of the ire Netanyahu has inspired. Foreign Policy detailed how his controversial proposal to annex much of the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as their territory, his attacks on judicial independence, and other policies have alienated plenty of his fellow citizens.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an analysis noting that two striking turnarounds had occurred. In the run-up to the election, Gantz pledged not to work with Arab parties. After the vote, many Israelis initially thought Netanyahu had secured a decisive win.

Both assumptions turned out to be wrong. Plenty of others going forward will likely suffer the same fate.

COVID-19 Global Update

Of the 155 nations worldwide with confirmed cases of the coronavirus, here are the top 10 as of 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time:

  1. China 81,053
  2. Italy 27,980
  3. Iran 14,991
  4. Spain 9,942
  5. South Korea 8,320
  6. Germany 7,272
  7. France 6,655
  8. United States 4,661
  9. Switzerland 2,330
  10. United Kingdom 1,553

WANT TO KNOW

FRANCE

The Long Wait

French prosecutors said Monday that 20 people will be charged for involvement in the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015, France 24 reported.

The move comes after authorities concluded their extensive investigation over the attacks launched by the Islamic State group, part of a wave of jihadist strikes on French soil over the past five years.

Officials have yet to announce a date for the trial, which will include more than 1,760 civil plaintiffs, many of them relatives of the victims.

In November 2015, 10 heavily armed gunmen launched several attacks around Paris, including at the Bataclan concert hall. All of the attackers detonated their explosive vests or were killed by police except Salah Abdeslam, who will also be charged.

He was arrested in Belgium in March 2016, and has since refused to cooperate with investigators.

Anti-terror prosecutors charged 14 people currently in prison or under judicial supervision in November as accomplices. Six others remain at large.

The cell that conducted the attacks in Paris is also believed to be responsible for three bombings targeting Brussels’ airport and metro system in March 2016, killing 32 people.

CHINA

The Aftermath

China’s National Bureau of Statistics released a staggering report on Monday highlighting the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on the Chinese economy, with analysts adding that the nightmare is far from over, CNN Business reported.

The report said that the collapse in activity affected every sector of the world’s second largest economy: Retail sales fell by more than 20 percent during January and February compared to the same period in 2019, while industrial output plunged 13.5 percent – the sharpest contraction on record.

The bureau argued that the economy might improve by the second quarter as the Chinese government encourages companies to restart business activity, albeit under strict conditions to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

China is also planning to provide several relief measures, including fiscal and monetary instruments, to further ease the tax burden and increase government spending.

Analysts, however, warn that the recovery could be weak due to a rise in Chinese unemployment – unemployment rose to 6.3 percent in February from 5.2 percent in December.

SAUDI ARABIA

Machiavelli’s Disciple

Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption body announced earlier this week that it had detained hundreds of government officials suspected of bribery and abuse of power, Al Jazeera reported Monday.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission said that it would indict 298 officials, including military and security personnel, for crimes including bribery and embezzlement totaling $101 million.

The arrests come a few weeks after the government launched a new crackdown against senior members of the royal family, in what appears to be an attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to gain more power in the kingdom.

In 2017, Saudi security forces arrested several princes and members of the country’s business and political elite in an attempt to fight corruption in the kingdom.

Analysts argue that Bin Salman used the purge to remove people who could potentially pose a political threat.

Several royals and members of the business elite have expressed frustration at the crown prince’s ability to lead following the international backlash to the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

DISCOVERIES

Walking Tall

Anthropologists have wondered how the structure of the human foot creates the stiffness required for upright walking.

For years,  researchers mostly focused on the longitudinal arch, which runs from the heel to the ball of the foot, and paid little attention to the role of a second arch, the “transverse arch,” which runs across the width of the midfoot.

A new study, however, found that the transverse arch evolved in hominins 3.5 million years ago and was “a key step in the evolution of modern humans,” according to the British-based PA Media news group.

A research team analyzed fossil samples of human ancestors and relatives, and also conducted several bending tests on modern human feet to determine whether the transverse arch creates stiffness.

Their results revealed that the transverse arch is responsible for more than 40 percent of the foot’s stiffness and evolved 1.5 million years before emergence of the genus Homo.

Researchers believe that their study might help explain how the ancient human relative Australopithecus afarensis could form footprints like human ones despite lacking a longitudinal arch.

They also hope that their findings can help design better robotic feet.

“Having a firm understanding of how the human foot works has several real-world applications,” said co-author Mahesh Bandi.