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Archive for May, 2020

Pompeo’s Mission: A Deal in Jerusalem?

Israel’s new two-headed government, with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, was supposed to be sworn in on Wednesday. Then suddenly the inauguration was postponed by one day to accommodate a quick visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What brought Pompeo so far for so short a time?

It obviously wasn’t the declared agenda of coordinating American and Israeli policy on Covid-19 and Iran. Many American lives would have been spared if Trump had followed Israel’s example on the coronavirus threat (Israeli deaths per million 30, US deaths per million 252), but it’s too late for that now. And there’s nothing very urgent about Iran at the moment.

The real purpose of Pompeo’s lighting visit to Israel was to make sure that Netanyahu actually goes ahead with the annexation of part of the occupied West Bank, thus killing off the possibility of a ‘two-state solution’ that includes a Palestinian state. But surely that’s what Netanyahu wants to do anyway.

President Trump’s ‘Vision for Peace’, released in January, endorsed the unilateral imposition of Israeli sovereignty on 30 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu has made endless promises to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, an important part of the voting support for his various coalitions, to annex their settlements to Israel. So why was Pompeo’s visit necessary?

It’s because everybody knows Netanyahu can’t be trusted – and he has reasons not to go ahead with the annexation as planned.

The bigger Arab states are all resigned to the end of Palestinian hopes for a state, but there would still be negative consequences for Israel in the region. Jordan has a long border with Israel, and popular protests against the annexation (the country’s population is over half Palestinian) might force the king to end the peace treaty with Israel in order to survive.

The Palestinian Authority, an unelected body that effectively runs the occupied West Bank (except the Jewish settlements) on behalf of Israel, would probably collapse. That would leave Israel with the difficult task of maintaining direct military rule over three million Palestinians.

Even worse, if Netanyahu actually annexed the West Bank he would lose the ability to dangle that promise endlessly before the settler voting bloc. He is quite cynical enough to be guided by this calculation, so Donald Trump cannot trust him to do the annexation – and Trump really needs him to do it before November, because of the US election.

“For Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish base, Israeli annexation – and the last rites it will administer to the dying two-state solution – is wildly popular,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, in the Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz’. Trump will need the enthusiastic support of those voters to win in November, so he has to nail Netanyahu down now.

That is tricky, because the government that has just taken power in Jerusalem is far more complicated than the usual Israeli coalition. It is a two-headed monster in which Netanyahu’s Likud bloc and Benny Ganz’s Blue-and-White bloc (which was originally founded with the explicit goal of driving Netanyahu from office) will not share power but exercise it separately.

It says so right in Article 2 of the 14-page coalition agreement: “The government will be a two-bloc government.” Netanyahu and Ganz will each appoint half the ministers, and they will have no power to change or dismiss those appointed by the other man.

Netanyahu and Ganz will each be prime minister for eighteen months, and every government committee will be equally divided between the blocs. For the first six months, at least, both men will have a veto on any proposed legislation – with one important exception. From July 1, Netanyahu can propose a law annexing part of the West Bank without fear of a veto by Ganz.

Netanyahu fought hard for that exception, because Trump is his ally and he needs to be able to deliver for Trump on the annexation. But how much of the West Bank should Israel seize? Mike Pompeo is there to help the unwilling partners decide, and here’s what he’s probably selling.

Trump would be content to have Israel annex only a few chunks of the West Bank near the Israeli border – say Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel. Most of his evangelical supporters wouldn’t notice the difference, because they’re not good on the geography of modern Israel (although they are pretty solid on Old Testament geography).

Benny Ganz would settle for that too, because it would be less likely to trigger the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the abrogation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.

And Netanyahu? He would still have the annexation of the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank to dangle before the settler voters of the next generation. Even if he’s convicted of corruption in his forthcoming trial, he’s only 70.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 11. (“It obviously…moment”; and “It says…man”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Fantasy Life of Jordan Goudreau

It’s hard being born Canadian if your ambition is to be a real-life version of movie tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme (Blood Sport, Death Warrant, Universal Soldier, Last Action Hero). The same goes for being Belgian, of course, but Van Damme just wanted to be in the movies.

Jordan Goudreau wanted the real thing, and joining the Canadian army reserves while studying computer science at the University of Calgary didn’t quite do it for him. So he moved to the United States and joined the Green Berets, which provides a much better mix of derring-do, martial arts, and exotic foreigners to kill. (Sudden Death, Die Fast Die Furious, 6 Bullets, Kill ‘Em All).

Goudreau was not a fake. He did several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq killing real people, and by all accounts was a brave and competent soldier. But action heroes have early expiry dates.

At 60, Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing self-mocking tough-guy commercials for Coors Light. Goudreau’s luck ran out in 2016, when he was injured in a parachute accident and had to retire from his beloved Special Forces at the age of 40.

Nobody offered him any beer commercials, and his great idea to sell the services of military veterans to schools to stop mass shooters – parents would pay a subscription of $8.99 a month – didn’t fly. So he ended up doing what washed-up American action heroes always do: he went to Latin America (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, etc.)

Specifically, he went to Colombia. Having set up a ‘security company’ called Silvercorp in Florida, he got in touch with the Venezuelan congressional leader who claims to be the legitimate president, Juan Guaidó, offering to overthrow Nicolás Maduro (who actually lives in the presidential palace).

This would be done in the time-honoured way, by recruiting and training exiles and mercenaries who would go in, attack the regime, and trigger a mass uprising. (Think the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, only successful.) And for about two weeks last October, Guaidó was tempted.

He even signed a $213 million contract with Goudreau’s Silvercorp for unspecified “general services”, but he cancelled the contract in early November. Maybe Guaidó is not quite as gullible as he seems, or maybe he just remembered that hiring foreigners to overthrow your country’s government, even in the name of democracy, is a bad look.

Anyway, that was the end of the grand plan, but Goodreau didn’t quit. The US government had recently declared Maduro a ‘narcoterrorist’ (whatever that is), and put a $15 million price on the Venezuelan dictator’s head. So Goodreau’s Plan B was to send in a crack team (they’re always called ‘crack teams’) to capture Maduro, airlift him out of the country, and collect the reward.

By now Venezuela’s intelligence service and practically everybody else knew about Goudreau’s plan. Associated Press even ran a story about it on May 1st, quoting associates of Goudreau as saying he was “in way over his head.” But before we get to the end of the story, a brief pause to contemplate the equally spectacular incompetence of the other side.

By late March the Venezuelan government was on hair-trigger alert for Goudreau’s planned raid, and on the 30th the Venezuelan navy spotted a Canadian-owned cruise-ship, the RCGS Resolute, stopped off the Venezuelan island of Tortuga. So the navy patrol ship Naiguatá ordered the ship to proceed to port for inspection.

Resolute didn’t move, because it couldn’t. It had already suffered some mechanical failure and put out a warning that it was ‘not under command’. But the Venezuelans thought it was stalling, and after firing some shots at or near the cruise-ship it started ramming it repeatedly on the starboard bow, apparently trying to force it around in the right direction.

Now, Naiguatá was not some little speedboat; it was a 90-metre steel ship with a crew of 44 and a helicopter on the aft deck. But Resolute has four times the displacement and its hull is ice-strengthened for cruising in polar waters. Ramming it was like running at a brick wall again and again with your head, hoping to make an impression. Eventually, the Naiguatá just sank.

Another ship picked up its crew, and eventually Resolute got underway again. It’s now parked in Curaçao, and no, there weren’t any mercenaries aboard. No passengers of any kind, in fact.

And finally, the tragicomic end. A few dozen volunteers and mercenaries tried to land on the Venezuelan coast near Caracas a week ago. Six were killed, all the rest were arrested. Goudreau would have been there too –“’He would have 100% gone out in a blaze of gunfire because that´s who he is,” said a friend – but he couldn’t leave Florida because of coronavirus travel restrictions.

Donald Trump denies any official US involvement, and for once I almost believe him.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12, 13 and 14 (“Resolute…fact”) and substitute the following single paragraph:
The Resolute was actually stopped with an engine problem, so it didn’t move. The Naiguatá’s captain lost his patience and started ramming it – repeatedly. This was unwise, because the cruise-ship was four times bigger than his and had an ice-strengthened hull for polar cruising. Eventually, the Naiguatá just sank. (The crew was rescued.)

Some Reasons to Hope

You don’t feel like reading about the Plague today? Good. I don’t feel like writing about it again either. So here’s some reasons to hope, none of which are even remotely related to the coronavirus.

First, they have found not one but three new ways to combat malaria, just as the problem of growing resistance to existing drugs and insecticides was getting out of hand.

In Burkina Faso, collaboration last year between the local Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé and the University of Maryland showed the effectiveness of modifying a fungus that normally infests mosquitoes. The fungus was genetically engineered to produce lethal spider toxin, and 99% of the mosquito population in the trial area died within 45 days.

Scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute have found that an existing drug, Ivermectin, which is used against parasitical diseases like river blindness and elephantiasis, is also effective against malaria. It kills both the plasmodium falciparum parasite in your blood and the mosquito whose bite put it there. (But you’ll still get bitten first – try hanging chicken feathers on the porch.)

And best of all, a cure that doesn’t kill the mosquitoes, who are an important source of food for many bird species. The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi has discovered that around 5% of the mosquito population on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya carries a microbe called Microsporidia MB that completely blocks the plasmodium parasite.

The microbe lives in the mosquitoes’ gut and genitals without doing them any harm, and mothers pass it on to most of their offspring. So if you could spread that microbe to the rest of the mosquito population….

Microsporidia form spores that could be released en masse to infect mosquitoes, or male mosquitoes could be infected in the lab and released into the wild to infect the females when they have sex. It’s early days, but this could actually solve the malaria problem for good.

Second piece of happy news: researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are having some success in blocking the growth of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. This is the most urgent medical issue of our time, because if the antibiotics don’t work then the old infections that they have long suppressed will come back and make even the simplest operation life-threatening.

Bacteria share and spread their resistance by swapping genes, and to do that they secrete a protein called CSP. The Groningen team worked through more than 1,300 existing drugs, and found 46 candidates that disrupt the ability of the bacteria to produce CSP. It’s a first step, but a very promising one.

And now for something completely different. Environmentalists hate plastics because half of the megatons produced each year ends up in landfills or the oceans. However, plastic is a strong, lightweight material that is very useful in many different roles. The trick is to recycle it all properly, so it doesn’t end up damaging the environment.

Enter a French start-up company called Carbios, which began by screening 100,000 micro-organisms for promising candidates that could decompose plastics quickly and cheaply into chemical building blocks that can be recycled into new plastics. They found what they were seeking in a leaf compost heap: a bacteria that produces an enzyme that will do that job.

It took a little work to mutate the enzyme so that it enthusiastically consumes the PET plastic from which plastic bottles are made. Carbios predicts that it will be operating at an industrial scale by 2024 – and in March German researchers found a different bacteria that will eat up polyurethane.

Now for the big one. There is a company called Solar Foods, in Helsinki, which is growing bacteria (just add hydrogen) to make an organic soup from which you can make flour. Tweak the bacterial formula a bit and you can create the right proteins and fats for lab-grown meat, fish, milk and eggs.

There are many other companies just a bit behind Solar Foods (which will open its first commercial factory next year). The prospect glimmering on the horizon is that we might be able to feed the world from a relatively small amount of land, and give the rest back to nature.

We would then have to figure out what to do with the half of mankind that currently makes its living from farming, but we can assume that this would be a change that takes decades to work its way through the very large and extremely complex global society we live in today.

What all this tells us is that there are many clever people working on all the problems that threaten our future, and that for some of them at least, solutions will arrive in time. It is still heroically optimistic to believe that all of them will, or even enough of them. There is hope, but there is also great danger.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Microsporidia…good”; and “We…way”)

Trump and the Yellow Peril

It was completely predictable that Donald Trump would try to blame China for the fact that at least 30 million Americans are unemployed and that 70,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19. His polling numbers are down and the election is only seven months away. What else was he going to do? Blame himself?

That’s why we’re now getting the good old ‘Yellow Peril’ defence, fresh from the late 19th century. As a memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates put it: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China.”

The coronavirus now spreading death across the world certainly originated in China. The Chinese government itself said so, before it started prevaricating after Donald Trump began using China as a scapegoat.

There was at least a week’s delay in late December when officials in Wuhan didn’t report the outbreak to Beijing, fearing they would be blamed for alarmism, or simply for letting it happen. That’s when Dr. Li Wenliang wrote in a private WeChat group: “7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market.”

It wasn’t really Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It was a new coronavirus closely related to SARS, which had caused a much smaller but lethal epidemic in 2002. But Wuhan officials didn’t want to believe it, and on 3 January Li got a warning from the local police to stop “making false comments on the Internet”.

Six days later the first person in Wuhan died of what we now call Covid-19. On the same day, 9 January, the World Health Organisation (which Trump now vilifies as ‘China’s public relations agency”) announced that China had reported the emergence of a new coronavirus like those that caused the SARS and MERS epidemics.

So there was at least a week when Chinese officials at the local or national level had the information and hesitated to publish it, partly because they weren’t sure yet themselves. But only two days later Chinese scientists published the full genetic sequence of Covid-19 so that researchers everywhere could start working on potential treatments and vaccines.

Other East Asian countries that had experience of SARS understood the seriousness of the WHO warning and promptly began diligent testing, tracing and isolation of infected persons. As a result, they never had to go into lockdown (South Korea has had 250 deaths; Taiwan had 6). China did a partial lockdown, but is now up and running again.

But then the real delay happened, and it had nothing to do with when China reported the disease. The point is that Western countries did nothing serious about the pandemic for an astonishing TWO MONTHS after that.

Trump boasts that he banned travel from China to the United States early, but in fact the United States was the 41st country to declare such a ban, on 2 February. And it was a very leaky ban, affecting only non-US citizens. Another 40,000 US citizens and permanent residents flew in from China during the next two months, many not being checked for coronavirus at all.

Italy started locking down some municipalities in the country’s badly hit north in late February, but no European country went into national lockdown until 9 March. The United Kingdom waited a further two weeks after that, until 24 March. The United States never did a national lockdown, but most states had social distancing policies in place by early April.

Those even longer delays explain why the UK and the US are on track to be the two countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates, but why did they all wait so long. Why weren’t they at least setting up comprehensive testing, tracing and contacting systems and making more ventilators and protective clothing back in January? Did they think they were exempt?

That’s probably what they did think, and their people are now being punished for their governments’ arrogance. But Donald Trump’s attempt to shift the blame for a huge US death toll and a looming economic disaster onto China is utterly cynical and false. The problem wasn’t a week’s delay in China; it was a couple of months’ delay in America.

If it should turn out that the first human infections with Covid-19 were due to a leak from the Biosafety level 4 Wuhan Institute of Virology, not at the Huanan Seafood Market in the same city, it changes nothing. BSL4 labs (there are around twenty in the world) routinely work with dangerous viruses, because otherwise we’d never develop defences against them.

An accidental leak from a BSL4 lab would be a rare and very serious mistake, but that’s probably not what happened in Wuhan, and in any case it’s clear that no hostile intent was involved. The US national intelligence director’s office has determined that Covid-19 “was not manmade or genetically modified.”

That will not stop Donald Trump from scapegoating China, even at the risk of causing a new Cold War. Never mind the fate of the world. It’s the fate of Trump’s presidency that’s at stake here.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Other…again”; and “Trump…at all”)