The World Today for November 17, 2023

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NEED TO KNOW

Pardoning Politics

SPAIN

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party achieved a political masterstroke to remain in power, but also probably sowed the seeds to reap bitter enmity from his conservative rivals for the rest of his life.

In July, when Spanish voters elected a new parliament, Sánchez looked like he was out. The conservative Popular Party finished first. But the conservatives lacked sufficient votes in parliament to form a government.

Sánchez went to work, assembling a coalition of leftist groups to keep him in the premiership. These left-wing groups agreed to cut working hours without cutting wages, hike the minimum wage, and spend more on public housing, reported Euronews. He still didn’t have enough lawmakers to form a government, however.

Then he took a step that his allies might think makes him a genius – but which his detractors will undoubtedly use to tar his name forever, Politico reported. In return for the support of their allied lawmakers in parliament, Sánchez agreed to pardon Carles Puigdemont and around 1,500 other separatists who organized an independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017, and then attempted to secede the region from the central government in Madrid.

His gambit worked. On Thursday, Spain’s lower house of parliament voted to make Sánchez prime minister for another term, ending more than four months of political deadlock, France 24 reported.

Sánchez had argued for the political pact, saying it would bring an end to the Catalan crisis, La Prensa Latina wrote. Conservatives, however, immediately accused Sánchez of delivering a humiliating defeat for Spain, reported the BBC. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets for weeks to denounce the move, with some demonstrations turning violent. The prime minister was rewarding a movement that tried to split up the country, and still could, they said.

“The pact will open a rancorous and potentially explosive new chapter in Spanish politics,” wrote the Financial Times. “Sánchez says that he is defusing long-running Catalan tensions, but opponents accuse him of political expediency and trashing the rule of law.”

Puigdemont, the former president of the Spanish region of Catalonia, has been living in Belgium as a fugitive from justice for the past six years. He’s now a kingmaker in Spanish politics, explained the Guardian. The question now is whether he will immediately pursue his dreams of Catalan independence, or move slowly and wait for the most propitious time to call for separation.

In the meantime, another development cast a larger shadow over Sánchez’s deal.

On the same day that Sánchez announced the amnesty, Spanish conservative politician Alejandro Vidal-Quadras was shot in the face on a Madrid street. Vidal-Quadras was the conservative Popular Party’s regional leader in Catalonia, reported the Associated Press. Doctors said he would live. The shooter escaped on a motorbike.

Are the controversial political deal and attempted assassination linked? That’s a lingering question. But what is sure: Sánchez may have gotten what he wanted, but governing this diverse country now will be twice as hard.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Misery, Recognized

ISRAEL/ GAZA

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday passed a resolution calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses” in the fighting, unhindered humanitarian assistance to civilians, and the release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups, in what was its first unified statement on the war in Gaza since it broke out more than a month ago, the Washington Post reported.

Twelve member states voted in favor of the resolution, while Russia, the US and the United Kingdom abstained: The US and the UK criticized the resolution for failing to condemn the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and its affiliated groups that killed more than 1,200 people and left 240 more as hostages. Russia, meanwhile, wanted the resolution, drafted by Malta, to call for a ceasefire, the Associated Press added.

Four previous efforts to pass a resolution on the war had failed.

The resolution comes as a growing number of world leaders worry about civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 11,000 people have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and more than 30,000 have been injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which says that because of a lack of power and fighting near the hospitals, it is no longer able to provide accurate death tolls, but believes the true number of casualties to be far higher.

Meanwhile, the resolution comes as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) began its search of al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in the enclave, seeking evidence that Hamas was using it as a command center, as the IDF has claimed for weeks, the BBC reported. That search continued Thursday.

Israeli officials released photographs and video Wednesday that they said showed small caches of rifles and laptops belonging to Hamas. Hamas is designated as a terror group by the US and the European Union.

The hospital has been struggling with power and supplies such as food, water and medicine for weeks, hospital officials said. Meanwhile, doctors and other health personnel at the hospital have denied that it is being used by Hamas or for military purposes. They have also refused to evacuate as advised by Israel because of patients who are unable to be moved.

Also on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Hamas has agreed to a deal– still being considered by Israel – to release at least 50 women and children being held by Hamas.

In exchange for the hostages, Israel would agree to a multi-day pause “in place” in the fighting, increased humanitarian aid to Gaza, and would also release an unspecified number of women and children held in Israeli prisons.

The deal is being negotiated by Qatari, Egyptian and American officials.

An earlier deal that would have seen the release of 50 hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire was derailed last month after Israel sent ground troops into Gaza.

Small Expectations

CHINA

US President Joe Biden met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, this week for the first time in a year, a meeting aimed at preventing tensions between the world’s two largest economies from spiraling into conflict, Agence France-Presse reported.

During the meeting at the Filoli estate in California on Wednesday, both nations agreed to restore military-to-military communications, which China severed after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. They also agreed to deepen cooperation on climate change ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Dubai next month.

Xi also agreed to tackle the production of ingredients used in the making of the drug fentanyl, which is responsible for a deadly opioid epidemic in the US.

Relations between China and the US have been tense over the years amid trade disputes and Beijing’s human rights record, but they took a nosedive earlier this year when Washington shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon.

Despite the positive rhetoric and the exchange of warm words during the encounter, underlying tensions persist. One area of contention is the tightening of restrictions on the export of advanced technology by the US, particularly in light of China’s economic struggles, according to the Guardian.

China voiced concern that such measures, including restrictions on chipmaking technology, seriously hurt its legitimate interests.

Disagreements on key issues remain, especially on the Taiwan question – China views Taiwan as a renegade province. Xi Jinping emphasized that the US should “stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification.”

The US, on the other hand, reiterated its commitment to arming Taiwan as a deterrent.

Meanwhile, shortly after the summit ended, Biden called Xi a “dictator.”

Green Light

HAITI

Kenya’s parliament approved Thursday the deployment of 1,000 police officers to Haiti, as part of a multinational mission aimed at helping the Caribbean country get a grip on its dire security situation, the Associated Press reported.

The approval came months after Kenya announced it would lead a United Nations-backed multinational policing team in Haiti, which has seen a spiraling political crisis and areas of the country taken over by criminal groups since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.

But last month, a Kenyan court blocked the deployment in a case brought by opposition politician Ekuru Aukot, who said the move was unconstitutional and didn’t involve public participation, Reuters noted.

Supporters countered that Kenya had a moral obligation to aid Haiti.

Still, the deputy speaker of parliament Gladys Boss called a vote, citing a report that said the deployment meets the constitutional requirement to take into account public opinion.

A number of African and Caribbean countries have also pledged troops for the multinational mission which could cost Kenya more than $230 million.

Gang violence has been plaguing Haiti for years, but has worsened over the past few years.

On Wednesday, a gang attacked Fontaine Hospital Center in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Police evacuated about 40 children and 70 patients, including those on oxygen, to a safer location in the city, USA Today wrote.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, a Ukrainian military officer, Roman Chervinsky, is alleged to have coordinated the September 2022 attack on the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, damaging three out of four pipelines running under the Baltic Sea, according to Voice of America. The United States and NATO termed it an act of sabotage, while Russia called it an act of international terrorism. Chervinsky, a decorated colonel, is said to have managed logistics for a team that used a sailboat and deep-sea diving equipment to place explosive charges on the pipelines. He denies involvement, claiming the case against him is politically motivated. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reportedly was unaware of the operation. Chervinsky is under arrest for attempting to convince a Russian pilot to defect in 2022, leading to a deadly attack on a Ukrainian air base.

Also this week:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin paved the way for holding Russian presidential elections in occupied Ukrainian territory in March, part of a controlled process aimed at extending his rule until at least 2030, the Washington Post reported. Despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Putin is expected to announce his candidacy for a fifth term, with his victory all but assured due to the manipulation of the electoral system and limited opposition. Most challengers lack influence, and critics argue they serve only to maintain a facade of democracy without posing a real threat to Putin’s regime, though among the declared candidates is Boris Nadezhdin, an opposition pundit critical of the war in Ukraine. The main threat to Putin over the past few years has been opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt while in Germany – only to be jailed in remote Russia for an additional 19 years on extremism charges, in addition to other “sham” charges he was already facing when he returned to Russia, Politico said. Recently, three lawyers who represent Navalny were arrested, depriving the Kremlin critic of one of his few links to the outside world. That sent the signal that it was dangerous to represent any critics of the regime, the Washington Post reported.
  • Three Ukrainians, including current lawmaker Oleksandr Dubinsky, former legislator Andriy Derkach, and ex-prosecutor Kostyantyn Kulyk, have been charged with treason for aiding former US president Donald Trump’s campaign’s efforts to discredit the family of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the BBC wrote. The 2019 drive, led by Rudy Giuliani, centered on unproven allegations of corrupt dealings between Biden and Ukraine. Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) claimed the three were paid $10 million by Russian military intelligence – the GRU – to spread falsehoods, including the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2020 US elections. The charges also involve allegations involving Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine. The accused have denied the charges, with Dubinsky claiming political persecution. The trio had been previously sanctioned by the US for undermining the 2020 election.
  • The European Commission is proposing new sanctions against Russia because of its war on Ukraine, including a ban on Russian diamonds, tighter reporting requirements for Russian oil, and restrictions on Russian liquefied propane, Politico noted. The ban on Russian diamonds, to apply from January 2024, aims to address the circumvention of sanctions, and involves collaboration with Belgium and the G7. The draft proposals also seek tougher reporting requirements to prevent the resale of Russian oil from violating existing sanctions, particularly focusing on ancillary costs. The European Union is aiming for approval of the new rules by the end of the year.

DISCOVERIES

Disappearing Act

Saturn’s famous rings will vanish in 2025, CBS News reported.

Fortunately, this disappearing act is just temporary and it doesn’t mean the majestic ring system will disappear completely.

NASA scientists confirmed last week that the planet will go edge-on, which means it will become invisible to us on Earth.

Saturn rotates on an axis tilted by 26.7 degrees. That means our view of its rings changes over time.

Every 13 to 15 years, Earthlings see Saturn’s rings “reflect very little light, and are very difficult to see, making them essentially invisible,” according to Vahe Peroomian, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Southern California.

The last time this edge-on phenomenon happened was in 2009. The next one is likely to occur on March 23, 2025, and will last for a few months.

First spotted in 1610 by renowned astronomer Galileo Galilei, new research has shown that the planet’s rings are about 100 million years old – fairly new in terms of a cosmic timeline.

Still, they aren’t going to be there much longer.

In 2018, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 missions confirmed that Saturn is losing its rings due to a phenomenon called “ring rain.” Ice particles from the rings are pulled into Saturn by gravity, driven by the planet’s magnetic field.

This process could make Saturn’s rings disappear in 300 million years. Meanwhile, data from the Cassini spacecraft suggested that material falling into Saturn’s equator might accelerate this loss, causing the rings to vanish in just 100 million years.

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