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Protests Erupt as Russia Seeks Closer Ties With Belarus



(MINSK, Belarus) — The leaders of Russia and Belarus spent more than five hours Saturday in sensitive talks on deepening ties between the two allies — a meeting that triggered a protest in the Belarusian capital among those who fear Russia’s intentions.

No immediate deal was announced after the talks in Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, but a senior Russian official said they edged closer to an agreement.

More than 1,000 opposition demonstrators rallied in Minsk to protest closer integration with Russia, which they fear could erode the post-Soviet independence of Belarus, a nation of 10 million. The protesters marched across the Belarusian capital, chanting “No to integration!” and “Belarus to Europe!”

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relies on cheap Russian energy and loans to maintain his country’s Soviet-style economy.

Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1997 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of forming a single nation.

The Kremlin has recently cranked up the pressure on Belarus, raising energy prices and cutting subsidies. Russian officials say Minsk should accept closer economic integration if it wants to benefit from lower energy prices.

Speaking at the start of talks in Sochi, Lukashenko urged Putin to continue sending fuel shipments to Belarus at Russia’s domestic prices.

“We just want equal conditions — nothing else,” Lukashenko said with a wry smile as he faced Putin across the table.

“We shall talk about future prospects. It’s a landmark meeting,” Putin said. “I hope we will keep doing all we can to make our peoples and nations feel close and keep moving primarily in the economic sphere, but also in the social field, to benefit from that integration.”

Russian Economics Minister Maxim Oreshkin said the two sides narrowed their positions on oil, gas and other disputed issues and the leaders instructed officials to continue to iron out the remaining differences. Putin and Lukashenko are to meet again on Dec. 20 in St. Petersburg.

Some in Belarus fear the new agreements could pave the way for a full merger of the two countries, concerns fueled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

There also has been speculation that Putin, who has been in power for nearly two decades, could contemplate a merger with Belarus as a way to stay at the helm of the new union state of Russia and Belarus after his current Russian presidential term expires in 2024.

“The Kremlin no longer wants to pay for rhetoric and is starting to demand political concessions from Minsk ahead of 2024, in a hint at the new state and the new job for Putin,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based political analyst.

Putin has been coy about his future plans.

Lukashenko has bristled at the Russian pressure, charging that some Russian officials want to push Belarus into weakening its sovereignty. The Belarusian leader has vowed not to surrender Belarus’ post-Soviet independence but the opposition in Belarus has remained nervous.

“Politicians are playing with Belarusian sovereignty like in a card game, and we will keep protesting as long as a threat to our independence remains,” said Pavel Severinets, the organizer of Saturday’s rally.

The protest wasn’t sanctioned by the authorities, but police allowed the demonstrators to march across downtown Minsk.

“They are again trying to pull us back into that rotten empire that is trying to revive itself at the expense of neighbors,” said 19-year-old student Mikhail Olshansky, who covered his face with Belarus’ pre-Lukashenko red-and-white flag.

Lukashenko has shown little tolerance for dissent, earning him the nickname of Europe’s last dictator, but he has increasingly sought to reach out to the West as he faces pressure from Russia.

The U.S. and the European Union have repeatedly criticized Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and crackdowns on the opposition, but they have lifted some their sanctions in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners.

“Minsk is playing a simple game, trying to win advantages for its Soviet-style economy by threatening to break the union with Russia and get closer to the West,” Karbalevich said. “That is the reason why repressions against the opposition were put on standby. Lukashenko doesn’t want to wake up one day as a provincial governor in Russia.”


Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

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How the Trump Administration’s Israel-Palestine Peace Plan Will Change the Middle East



Over the last two days, I received an exclusive early look at President Donald Trump’s proposed plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The effort was led by the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner. The administration’s peace plan tears up the playbook of prior presidents who have tried and failed to make real progress on peace in the region. The Trump “ultimate deal” is unabashed power politics. It recognizes Israeli power on the ground and recent dramatic shifts in the region’s geopolitics. On top of it all, it’s a deal that carries domestic political upside for the president in the midst of an impeachment hearing.

This proposal will not lead to peace in the coming weeks or months or maybe ever—and it may lead to an immediate outbreak of violence in the Palestinian territories. But, I think by recognizing the harsh realities on the ground and leveraging the unique position of the U.S. in the Middle East, it might open a process that will reduce tension in the region. Based on my early assessment of the plan, it is an effort worth taking.

At the core of the new plan, the Trump administration has declared support for an independent, sovereign State of Palestine with a capital on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. It’s a startling turnabout for an administration that controversially moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 and recognized Israeli control over the Golan Heights. Trump has also gotten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz on board. Netanyahu today called the Trump plan a realistic path to peace. Gantz told me, “I applaud President Trump for his leadership and will do everything in my power to translate his plan into reality following the elections in Israel.” Both Netanyahu and Gantz expressed support for recognizing a State of Palestine. In addition, once the plan is formally implemented by the Israeli government, Israel would freeze settlement construction or expansion in areas that, according to the plan, would become the future State of Palestine, for up to four years.

The starting point of the Trump team’s view that more geopolitical honesty might change the game. Previous U.S. governments presented themselves as neutral arbiters between Israelis and Palestinians; neither side ever took that claim seriously. The Trump administration has never hidden its pro-Israel bias and, as expected, its peace plan is the most pro-Israel proposal ever to be put forward by Washington. It aims to contain, not roll back, Israeli settlements, giving Palestinians a smaller plot of land for their state, about 70% of the West Bank. It also rejects the long-standing Palestinian claim to control over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and it will remain under Jordanian custodianship.

But this is just the plan laid out by the Trump team and supported by Israel’s leadership. To be clear as of my writing, the Palestinian leadership hasn’t agreed to any of this. For two years, they’ve publicly refused to meet with Trump officials. In addition to anger over the Jerusalem embassy move and the recognition of the Golan Heights, Palestinian leaders are furious about a series of Trump administration moves targeted at their political and economic standing, including the U.S. decision to cut off funding for Palestinian refugee programs and to shutter the Palestinian office in Washington. Importantly, however, the plan is not final. Senior administration officials told me that there is still “meat on the bone” if the Palestinians decide to start talking. They will face pressure from across the region to do so. As a senior Arab diplomat involved in the negotiations told me, “We strongly encourage the two parties to sit down and engage directly with American leadership.”

Taken within the context of the rest of Trump’s foreign policy, this deal is an outlier. The plan is detailed and thoughtful, unlike the agreement announced with North Korea. It emphasizes diplomatic engagement, unlike the administration’s Iran policy. Most surprising, one of the most unilaterally-oriented of administrations takes a multilateral approach to resolving one of the world’s thorniest conflicts. The administration has worked with European and Arab diplomats to craft this plan, a fact that will become apparent as prominent Arab states likely release supportive statements in coming days. The U.S. may not be an honest broker between Israel and Palestine, but it’s proving to be an honest broker between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Geopolitically, it’s worth considering which is more important.

The Trump plan has embraced several blunt realities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, with a vast expansion in settlement activity over the past two decades, Israelis are winning the territorial war for the West Bank. While a majority of settlers live near Israel proper, small numbers of committed, well-armed settlers are establishing outposts in strategic areas in the West Bank designed to break up a future Palestinian state. The Trump plan offers Palestinians a way to stem that territorial bleeding.

Second, the plan also underscores the reality that Palestinian leaders have lost the active support of much of the Arab world, where leaders worry much more about Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, ISIS and domestic economic development. That’s a development over more than a decade, but Trump has seized on this reality in ways his predecessors haven’t. As Kushner told me: “The United States is now energy independent. Our national interest in the Middle East is less focused on oil than countering extremism, empowering allies, and fostering long term stability.”

This is where the economic component comes in. The Trump administration has pledged to drum up $28 billion over 10 years to support Palestine, with $22 billion of additional funding going to Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. This aid comes in the form of investment. The money would go toward infrastructure and transportation links, raising standards of living, and enabling broader regional trade. Funding would also be devoted to improving education, healthcare, and workforce development. Only small amounts of money were pledged at the Bahrain conference last year. But the U.S. has pledged that they’re not going to let the process die for lack of cash.

Yet, many Palestinians—and especially their leaders—will likely not accept anything that smells like a payoff. Despite dire long-term economic prospects in the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinian and other critics will seize on four highly sensitive elements of the plan to dismiss it.

First, the plan crucially includes a poison pill that may stop the deal from advancing very far. Before Palestine can unlock any benefit, the Hamas government in Gaza must be removed from power and replaced with the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas wants to remain in power, the group must renounce violence, fully disarm, and accept the existence of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. That’s a non-starter. Hamas faces political and economic pressure, but a capitulation of its ideology or its power is unlikely. The plan also requires the new State of Palestine to safeguard freedom of speech and religion and promote financial and government transparency.

Second, the Trump plan would allow the State of Palestine to build a capital in the outskirts of East Jerusalem, but only in areas east of the existing separation barrier. Senior U.S. officials consider the village of Abu Dis or the Shuafat refugee camp as potential sites for a future capital; this stands in contrast to previous proposals, which envisioned that the core of East Jerusalem would serve as the Palestinian capital. Further, the State of Palestine would not exercise sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which would remain under Jordanian custodianship, as it is today.

Third, the State of Palestine would control just 70% of the West Bank, in contrast to the 94-96% proposed by Bill Clinton in 2000. Trump has proposed allocating chunks of territory along the Israeli border with Egypt to Palestine as industrial and agricultural areas, in order to boost the overall square mileage for the new state and provide new economic opportunities. That will be little consolation for Palestinians who’ve seen their land seized by Israeli settlers.

Finally, the administration’s position on the Palestinian “right of return” is a serious infringement on Palestinian sovereignty. No Palestinian refugees will be admitted to Israel under the plan, and Israel will have the power to restrict the Palestinian refugees permitted to enter Palestine—limiting Palestinian “right of return” even to their own state.

The Palestinians this week rejected the plan, based on early reports, and their leaders will make their anger clear in the coming days. The plan does not rely on Palestinian agreement to advance. Instead, once the Israeli government approves all or part of the document and extends sovereignty over West Bank settlements, the U.S. will immediately recognize the move. In all, 97% of Israelis who currently live in the West Bank would be under control of the State of Israel.

Senior administration officials have already told Israeli and Arab leaders that territory is specifically open for negotiation. The deck is certainly tilted toward Israel, in part because the Palestinians have refused to talk with the Trump administration for more than two years. International and domestic pressure is likely build on the government of Mahmoud Abbas to either get with the program or leave power. Trump is using to his advantage the massive power asymmetries between the US and the Palestinians. Tony Blair commented to me that, “This is one of the toughest things I have seen any Administration try. The first time anyone has put down a map. It is a comprehensive plan. It will provoke as much as it pleases but it will force everyone to face up to the real challenges and choices.”

This plan isn’t just about Israeli-Palestine. It’s central to the administration’s Middle East strategy. For decades, the international consensus has been that peace cannot blossom in the region unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed first. But as the conflict becomes more marginal to the interests of key actors, and the U.S. has generally become less interested, that’s no longer true. Arab-Israeli normalization is only a matter of time, and the Palestinians are at risk of missing that train.

This peace plan is directly connected to the current political situation in both Israel and the U.S. Although U.S. officials insist they’re not taking sides in the Israeli elections slated for March 2, the timing of the plan’s release is useful for Netanyahu, who was indicted today on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. Given Netanyahu’s troubles (and the likely prospect that he’s not Prime Minister for much longer), the administration was committed to bringing Gantz on board with the plan as well. Kushner told me: “It’s good to see how two competitors in the Israel elections can put aside their differences to promote the interests of their country ahead of their political interests.” That wasn’t the Gantz’s initial position—he first publicly objected to the release of the plan before the election; after weeks of diplomacy he reversed his position and expressed support. Meanwhile, while Netanyahu will receive receive a temporary boost, he will have trouble guarding his right flank. The far-right parties on which he relies for political survival will decry his endorsement of a Palestinian state, whatever else the plan says.

Meanwhile, from the US side, the Middle East peace plan will further energize Trump’s base. Already this year, Trump has secured a “Phase One” trade deal with China, killed a prominent Iranian general, and proposed a fix to one of the most intractable political problems in history with the full support of Israeli leaders. Tomorrow, he will sign a trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. This is significant counter-programming to the Democratic Party’s Iowa Caucus and the impeachment hearings in the Senate.

We should consider the release of this plan the end of the beginning of the Trump peace plan. The administration told me they consider it an opening bid. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger told me that he thought the plan was “a responsible first stage and broader approach to the world’s most intractable geopolitical issue.” Whether this bid draws a constructive counter-offer and longer bargaining process plan will depends on a new set of factors in the region, ultimately determining whether (and which) Palestinians will engage. The ball’s heading to their court, whether they want it or not.


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Meet The First-Ever Women Impeachment Managers



The impeachment of President Trump has been anything but conventional. Although he’s one of only three U.S. presidents to ever actually be impeached in the House of Representatives, he’s not exactly taking the process seriously. To date, Trump has called his impeachment a “witch hunt,” a hoax, and a joke, and has complained about his lawyers being relegated to deliver his defense on a Saturday — the “Death Valley in TV” as he called it. So far, Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate has lived up to the bizarreness of his presidency. There’s been milk drinking in the chamber, arguments have gone late into the night (cc: Midnight Mitch McConnell), and Republican moderators refuse to vote for amendments that would introduce witnesses and evidentiary documents into the trial. For many people, the entire impeachment process has been a lesson in how an impeachment process even works.For instance, just because Trump has been impeached in the House, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be removed from office (which is what the Senate decides). And specific people are in charge of making the case for removal on behalf of the American public. As the Senate debates Trump’s fate on criminal charges, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected a group of impeachment managers from the House to oversee the Senate’s process. This isn’t specific to Trump’s impeachment — every impeachment will have house managers. In the Senate process, these managers will make a case for Donald Trump’s conviction, arguing against the president’s lawyers for the Senate’s final vote. But this particular group of seven is historic: for the first time ever, three of the managers are women: Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California, Sylvia Garcia of Texas, and Val Demings of Florida. In an interview with NBC News, the women talked about their roles and the overall significance of the trial. “It seems to me, if there’s not a full, fair trial with witnesses, [Donald Trump] may get an acquittal, but he’s not going to get an exoneration,” Lofgren said. “It’s going to be seen for what it is, just a rubber stamp to get him off the hook.” In case you are wondering who these three powerhouse women are and what they will each bring to the Senate’s impeachment proceedings, we’re here to tell you. Zoe LofgrenLofgren is especially familiar with how impeachments go down. She’s had roles in two previous impeachment inquiries. In 1998, she was on the House Judiciary Committee when it approved articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. She was also involved with drafting the Watergate charges against President Richard Nixon when she was a young law student in 1974, making her a prime candidate to act as one of the impeachment managers for Trump.  “Impeachment is a grave & solemn matter. It is a stress test for our democracy,” Lofgren wrote on Twitter. “I hope every Senator is prepared to seriously consider & vote honestly with an open mind for the future of our democracy.” Sylvia GarciaElected in 2018, Garcia is one of the first two Latina congresswomen from the state of Texas. She is a former lawyer, judge, and member of the Texas senate. For two terms, she was Houston city controller, the second highest elected office in Houston’s city government and its chief financial officer. Garcia now serves on the House Judiciary Committee, and tweeted that she was “honored” to serve as one of the impeachment managers this year. “For me, this is about upholding my oath to office,” Garcia wrote. “I take my responsibility seriously because we’re working to defend our Constitution at a pivotal moment in our democracy.” Val DemingsBefore coming to Congress, Demings spent 27 years working in the Orlando Police Department, where she rose through the ranks to become the department’s first woman police chief. She is currently serving her second term in Congress, representing Florida’s 10th Congressional District. Last July, Demings first came to national attention for expertly questioning former special counsel Robert Mueller when he testified before Congress. She has served on both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. Demings is proving to be a vocal force in the impeachment process, with powerful perspectives on enforcing the law throughout. “I am a descendant of slaves, who knew that they would not make it, but dreamed and prayed that one day I would make it,” Demings said on Twitter. “My faith is in the Constitution. I’ve enforced the laws, and now I write the laws. Nobody is above the law.” Who are the other impeachment managers?Democratic Reps. Jason Crow of Colorado, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Jerry Nadler of New York, and Adam Schiff of California round out the crew of impeachment managers. Schiff, who is also the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, has been extremely vocal throughout the House and Senate processes. Schiff presented bold opening arguments last week and is attributed as the Democrats unofficial spokesperson through this process.Undoubtedly, this group brings the necessary experience to take on one of the toughest jobs out there: trying to get Midnight Mitch to agree to a fair trial — complete with actual evidence and witnesses. It’s a daunting task, but someone’s gotta do it.  Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Why Senators Drink Milk During Impeachment TrialsWhat's Next In Trump's Impeachment Senate TrialWill The Iran Attack Affect Trump's Impeachment?

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New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern Faces Tough Campaign as She Picks Date for New Election



(WELLINGTON, New Zealand) — Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern may be lauded around the world as a liberal icon but whether she can translate that into a reelection victory in September remains uncertain.

Ardern on Tuesday announced the general elections would be held on Sept. 19. She is seeking a second term in office and is expected to face tough competition from conservative challenger Simon Bridges.

Voters will also decide on two contentious social issues in referendums on the same date: whether to legalize euthanasia, and whether to legalize recreational marijuana.

Ardern promised to run “a positive, a factual and a robust” election campaign.

“New Zealanders deserve freedom from misinformation and some of the negative style of campaigning that we have seen take place overseas,” she said.

She said her government was responsible for overseeing a strong economy and making crucial investments in health, education and reducing child poverty.

Ardern is seen by many of her supporters globally as the antithesis of President Donald Trump. She was widely lauded for her empathy after a white supremacist gunman attacked two mosques in March, killing 51 Muslim worshippers. She is also seen as a role model of a high-profile working mother after giving birth to a daughter while in office.

But her international acclaim has sometimes been regarded with suspicion at home, where she and her Labour Party remain locked in a tight struggle for support with Bridges’ National Party. Polls indicate the election will be a close contest.

“Bring it on,” Bridges said in a statement, saying that while Ardern and her Labour Party had promised much, they had delivered little.

“New Zealanders know we will get things done, whether it’s more money in your pocket, a stronger economy, less tax, building infrastructure and roads or keeping families safer from increasing gang violence,” Bridges said.

Under New Zealand’s proportional voting system, which is similar to the model used in Germany, political parties must generally form alliances to govern. That makes the votes won by smaller parties crucial to the outcome. That was the case in the last election, with mercurial politician Winston Peters and his small New Zealand First party choosing to side with Ardern, allowing her to govern.

The scramble for votes appears to be already underway, with Ardern due Wednesday to announce billions of dollars in extra infrastructure spending.

New Zealand holds its elections every three years, with the government deciding the exact date.

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