Sunday, May 30, 2021

Last Call For Israeli A Problem, Con't

The one thing that's kept Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in power for the last two years, despite a massive corruption and bribery scandal, is the fact that the opposition hasn't been able to put enough votes together in the Knesset to oust him and form a new government. In fact, Israel is on its fifth attempt to do so in two years, and Netanyahu has remained in power out of sheer bloody-minded inertia.

A diverse coalition of Israeli opposition parties said Sunday that they have the votes to form a unity government to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader and its dominant political figure for more than a decade.

Under their agreement, reached after weeks of negotiations spearheaded by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid, former Netanyahu defense minister and ally Naftali Bennett will lead a power-sharing government. Bennett, 49, would serve as Israel’s next prime minister, according to terms of the deal reported by Israeli media, to be succeeded in that role by Lapid, 57, at a later date.

“We could go to fifth elections, sixth elections, until our home falls upon us, or we could stop the madness and take responsibility,” Bennett said in a televised statement Sunday evening. “Today, I would like to announce that I intend to join my friend Yair Lapid in forming a unity government.”

Lapid is expected on Monday to inform President Reuven Rivlin of his ability to form a government with the support of Bennett, and will have a week to finalize coalition deals. At the end of the week, the government will come up for a vote of confidence in the Knesset.

Netanyahu, 71, has struggled to hold onto power after four inconclusive elections in the past two years while facing an ongoing corruption trial. Bennett is one of several former loyalists who have flirted with joining the so-called change coalition, a collection of parties that span the political spectrum but share a desire to end Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure.

Their announcement follows the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip this month, which some analysts speculated would help bolster the embattled Netanyahu. At the outset of the fighting, Bennett, a former Netanyahu protege who had been poised to join a unity government with Lapid, said the military operation, which killed more than 250 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, had ended his interest in joining with the anti-Netanyahu coalition, which has the support of left-leaning and Arab parties.
But after an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold May 21, criticism of Netanyahu surged again. Some 47 percent of Israelis said they opposed the cease-fire and 67 percent said they expected another round of fighting with Hamas within the next three years, according to opinion polls published last week by Israel’s Channel 12.

Netanyahu’s rivals said the operation lacked a coherent or long-term strategy and that Netanyahu’s failure to stop Hamas rocket fire from raining down on Israel or secure the remains of Israeli soldiers was further proof of his need to leave office.

“With the best intelligence and air force in the world, Netanyahu managed to extract from Hamas an ‘unconditional cease-fire.’ Embarrassing,” tweeted Gideon Saar, another former Netanyahu protege now with the change coalition.
Amazingly enough, it seems that Netanyahu's far right flank has turned on him not because of his nearly two decades of making the Palestinians suffer, but because he hasn't made them suffer enough

Still, even an ousted Netanyahu facing felony prison time will remain dangerous. Count on that.

It's About Suppression, Con't

Texas takes the lead in the voter suppression and election fascism Olympics as GOP state lawmakers passed an omnibus slate of voting and election measures Sunday that will, among other things, allow judges to overturn elections very easily and without evidence, and the Texas Senate broke their own rules in order to pass it.

Texas is one of several Republican-led states — including Iowa, Georgia and Florida — that have moved since the 2020 presidential contest to pass new laws governing elections and restricting voting. The impetus is both Republicans’ desire to appease their base, much of which continues to believe former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and the party’s worries about a changing electorate that could threaten the G.O.P.’s longtime grip on power in places like Texas, the second-biggest state in the country.

In a statement on Saturday, President Biden called the proposed law, along with similar measures in Georgia and Florida, “an assault on democracy” that disproportionately targeted “Black and Brown Americans.” He called on lawmakers to address the issue by passing Democratic voting bills that are pending in Congress.

“It’s wrong and un-American,” Mr. Biden said. “In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote.”

Republican state lawmakers have often cited voters’ worries about election fraud — fears stoked by Mr. Trump, other Republicans and the conservative media — to justify new voting restrictions, despite the fact that there has been no evidence of widespread fraud in recent American elections.

And in their election push, Republicans have powered past the objections of Democrats, voting rights groups and major corporations. Companies like American Airlines, Dell Technologies and Microsoft spoke out against the Texas legislation soon after the bill was introduced, but the pressure has been largely ineffective so far.

The final 67-page bill, known as S.B. 7, proved to be an amalgamation of two omnibus voting bills that had worked their way through the state’s Legislature. It included many of the provisions originally introduced by Republicans, but lawmakers dropped some of the most stringent ones, like a regulation on the allocation of voting machines that would have led to the closure of polling places in communities of color and a measure that would have permitted partisan poll watchers to record the voting process on video.

Still, the bill includes a provision that could make overturning an election easier. Texas election law had stated that reversing the results of an election because of fraud accusations required proving that illicit votes had actually resulted in a wrongful victory. If the bill passes, the number of fraudulent votes required to do so would simply need to be equal to the winning vote differential; it would not matter for whom the fraudulent votes had been cast.

Democrats and voting rights groups were quick to condemn the bill.

“S.B. 7 is a ruthless piece of legislation,” said Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It targets voters of color and voters with disabilities, in a state that’s already the most difficult place to vote in the country.”

But Republicans celebrated the proposed law and bristled at the criticism from Mr. Biden and others.

“As the White House and national Democrats work together to minimize election integrity, the Texas Legislature continues to fight for accessible and secure elections,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “In Texas, we do not bend to headlines, corporate virtue signaling, or suppression of election integrity, even if it comes from the president of the United States.”
As I've said before, Texas is much less of a red state than it is a non-voting, voter suppression state, and it was already the worst state to try to vote in before this law. 
On top of all this, the law gives poll watchers unprecedented authority to directly interfere with voters, making it a crime for watchers to be denied access to voting areas and election officials. where they are free to harass voters.

Finally, surveillance video of all vote counting must be provided by each county and made public, so that poll watcher groups or anyone can sue individual counties over "election fraud".

Such laws would have been dismantled by the Voting Rights Act previously. But the VRA is dead thanks to the Roberts Court. And new voting laws will never survive a guaranteed GOP filibuster.

Our country my never survive the lack of them.

Sunday Long Read: The Olympia Gambit

This week's Sunday Long Read comes to us from Vanity Fair's Joshua Hunt, who details the theft of Magritte's Olympia, stolen from a private museum in Brussels and ransomed for millions. It's the story of Section Art, Belgium's dedicated art theft recovery squad, and the people who operate there, because it turns out that art theft and ransom is both profitable and quite possibly done so to fund terrorist attacks.
The doorbell rang at 135 Rue Esseghem, a modest row house in Jette, a Brussels suburb. The concierge was occupied with a pair of Japanese tourists visiting the apartment, which had been home to the surrealist painter René Magritte and his wife, Georgette Berger, from 1930 until 1954, and was now a private museum. It was shortly after 10 a.m. on September 24, 2009. When she excused herself to answer the door, the concierge found two young men waiting at the threshold. One of them asked if visiting hours had begun; the other placed a pistol against her head and forced his way inside.

The armed men quickly rounded up both tourists and the three staff members on duty, leaving them kneeling in the museum’s small courtyard, where Magritte had hosted weekly gatherings for painters, musicians, and intellectuals. With the hostages out of their way, one of the thieves jumped the glass partition protecting the tiny museum’s centerpiece: Olympia, a 1948 portrait of the late artist’s wife, pictured nude with a seashell resting on her stomach. The painting measured 60 by 80 centimeters and was estimated to be worth 2 million euros. Belgian police arrived within minutes, summoned by an alarm triggered by the removal of the painting. But by that time, the thieves had returned to a getaway car that sped off toward the neighboring suburb of Laeken.

It was uncommon in those days for small museums to bother installing surveillance cameras, so police had to rely on sketches of the two suspects, who appeared to be in their 20s. Interpol described one suspect as short, of Asian descent, and an English speaker, while the other was described as a bit taller, of European or North African descent, and a French speaker. Brazen as it was, the robbery seemed to be the work of professionals—a daring, high-value heist carried out with speed and precision by men who knew how to handle weapons, how to deal effectively with hostages, and how quickly to expect a police response. They had also been clever about selecting their target. Magritte, whose surrealist paintings influenced the work of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, is a national treasure in Belgium, where a number of museums display his work. But the thieves had avoided larger, more secure metropolitan museums in favor of one exceptionally valuable painting from the artist’s former home, open only by appointment, leaving slim chance they would arrive to find it packed with more visitors than they could manage.

With little to go on, one of the first police officers to reach the crime scene called someone he knew could help: Lucas Verhaegen, a veteran officer with Belgium’s Federal Police force in a specialized unit called Section Art. Last August, when I met Verhaegen at police headquarters in central Brussels, he recalled the investigation from behind his tidy desk, next to a table piled high with old case files. He wore gray slacks, a short-sleeve button-up, and the scuffed black dress shoes favored by detectives and those who play them on TV. His face served as its own good-cop-bad-cop routine: friendly, disarming smile; penetrating blue eyes.

“They know very well what they must do when there is a theft,” Verhaegen said of Belgium’s local police. “But when it’s art theft, what we need is a very good description, a photo; a maximum of information, very quickly, because we know that a lot of stolen objects go abroad. In the first hour, sometimes it’s in another country.”

Verhaegen was 51 at the time of the Magritte heist and had been a cop for two decades. It was a childhood dream that he pursued only after earning degrees in agronomy and biochemistry, then working for a few years in the private sector. His law enforcement career began with a five-year stint on the local police force in Brussels, where he patrolled the central district of Belgium’s capital city. Next he worked as part of a special intervention unit that investigated organized crime and managed underworld informants; he specialized in Eastern Europe. When he joined Section Art in August 2005, Verhaegen’s years of particular experience proved surprisingly useful: Serbian gangs are heavily involved in trafficking stolen art and antiquities, Verhaegen told me, along with organized crime networks that can be traced to Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and elsewhere in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

“Our borders are open,” Verhaegen said. “It’s very easy to do an important art theft here in Belgium and then the same night, or 15 hours later, they are in Croatia or in Albania. There they can sell [the art] to finance their own criminal activities: drugs, arms, prostitution.” 
You know me, I love a good true crime story, especially if it's a sophisticated art heist.  This one's a good story and then some.
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