Morning Read 3/20: For Hamas, Passover is time for terror

Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman warned that Hamas is planning a Passover attack [Niv Aharonson]
Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman warned that Hamas is planning a Passover attack [Niv Aharonson]

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INTERNATIONAL


Israel said to strike Syria for second time in 24 hours, amid threats from Damascus

Israel is said to have struck Syria overnight Sunday-Monday, the second strike in 24 hours and third in three days as tensions escalated between the two countries over the weekend.

Syria media reported early Monday that Israeli jets took out a number of targets near the Lebanon-Syria border including a Hezbollah weapons convoy and Syrian military sites.

The reports have not been confirmed.

Earlier Sunday, an Israeli drone strike reportedly killed a member of a Syrian pro-regime militia, an attack that came two days after Israeli jets, in an early Friday morning operation, hit an arms transfer meant for Hezbollah near Palmyra, with Syrian air defenses firing missiles at the planes.

One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense battery, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.

On Sunday evening, Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said Syria’s response to Friday’s strike was a “game-changer.”

Speaking on Syrian state TV, Jaafari said the military’s response was “appropriate and in line with Israel’s terrorist operation,” and that Israel “will now think a million times [before striking again],” according to a translation cited in Ynet.

“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” he said.

His comments came hours after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems for targeting the Israeli aircraft during the bombing run Friday.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said on Israel Radio. [ToI]

Shin Bet chief: For Hamas, Passover is prime time for terror

The head of the Shin Bet security service warned lawmakers on Monday that terror groups may try to carry out attacks during the Passover holiday next month.

“We are just before the Passover holiday, and there is no doubt that terrorist infrastructures, mostly the established one, and specifically Hamas, will try to agitate the area and carry out attacks,” Nadav Argaman told the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“Our goal, of course, is to ensure quiet holidays for every citizen of the State of Israel,” he added.
Israel’s security forces regularly warn that holidays serve as opportunities for terrorist groups to conduct attacks. The Israel Defense Forces raised such concerns ahead of Passover last year as well.

Jewish pilgrims often visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City during the holiday, often prompting Palestinian claims that settlers are “storming” the holy site, which can incite potential attackers. During interrogations, Palestinian terrorists have cited the situation on the Temple Mount as a driving force behind their attacks.

During holidays, especially weeklong festivals like Passover, families are more inclined to travel and hike, and there is thus an increased risk of attacks.

Therefore, for most major Jewish holidays, the IDF shuts down the crossings between the West Bank and Israel. [ToI]

Netanyahu chief of staff heads to US to sort out settlements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz left for Washington on Sunday to discuss settlement building with the Trump administration.

He will join Ron Dermer, Israel’s Washington ambassador, to continue discussions with US special envoy Jason Greenblatt in an attempt to reach an understanding between Israel and US President Donald Trump’s administration about building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu left Israel on Saturday night for a three day trip to China, and the fact that Horowitz did not accompany the prime minister but went instead to Washington highlights the importance of the negotiations with the US.

Greenblatt visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan last week to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. Despite two meetings with Netanyahu during the course of the visit, no agreement was reached on settlement construction.

Netanyahu and the Trump White House have been trying to reach an understanding on Israeli settlement activity since last month’s meeting between the Israeli leader and the US president, who in a joint press conference told Netanyahu that he wanted him to “hold back” on the settlements.

Netanyahu has been trying to get the White House’s approval for the construction of a new settlement — the first in some 25 years — to replace the illegal outpost of Amona, which was evacuated and demolished last month. [ToI]

Paris Airport Attack Puts Focus on Check-In Security

The attack Saturday at Paris’s second-largest airport, in which a man seized a soldier’s gun before being shot dead, comes at a time of heightened security concerns at such departure points for international travelers and repeated attacks on air travel.

The incident took place at the publicly accessible part of the airport, before passengers and their carry-on bags go through the layers of security checks put in place to make flying more secure. Those checks have shifted the attention of potential attackers to the less-secure areas of airports before those controls.

Some airports have instituted checks on individuals as they enter terminals. But security officials are split on the utility of such screening. Some warn that those checks merely create new choke-points that make attractive targets for terrorists.

The man, a 39-year-old Frenchman who had previously been flagged as radicalized during a stint in prison, shouted “I’m here to die for Allah” as he wrestled away a soldier’s rifle early Saturday, before being shot by two other soldiers. French authorities have launched a terrorist investigation into the attack.

The incident marked the latest in a series of attacks at airports. Almost exactly a year ago, bombers struck the departure hall near the check-in counters at Brussels’ main airport, killing 16 people. The blasts devastated the facility and kept the airport closed for days.

Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the city’s main hub, was attacked in June last year. Three suicide bombers detonated their devices before passing through security, killing more than 40 people. [WSJ]

Egypt’s Sisi to visit Washington on April 3: White House
U.S. President Donald Trump will host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks in Washington on April 3, a White House official said on Sunday.

The visit will be at Trump’s invitation, the official said. The two leaders, in a Jan. 23 phone call just days after Trump’s inauguration, discussed ways to boost the fight against terrorism, and Trump underscored his commitment to bilateral ties, the two governments said at the time.

Sisi, who had strained relations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was elected in 2014, a year after leading the military’s ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s president, Mohamed Mursi, after mass protests. [REUTERS]

Trump Budget Proposals Prompt Concern at U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Diplomats and officials at the United Nations warned that President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts in U.S. spending on U.N. programs risked hampering institutional reforms and leaving a financial void that will be difficult to fill.

Mr. Trump’s 2018 budget, revealed on Thursday, slashes spending on peacekeeping and climate programs at the U.N. The exact details and allocations of funds for the U.N. aren’t yet clear, but the new budget calls for elimination of funds to climate programs. The budget also would reduce the U.S. cap to 25% on contributions to the approximately $8 billion U.N. peacekeeping fund. It is currently 28.6%.

Overall, the U.S. donates 22% of the U.N.’s operational budget of $5.4 billion, making it the largest contributor among 193 countries that make up the membership organization. The U.S. has long criticized the U.N. for its bureaucracy, and Mr. Trump’s administration has made U.N. organizational reform a cornerstone of its engagement with the world body.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement on Thursday that he was committed to working closely with the U.S. on reform, but warned that sudden shifts could jeopardize the effort. “Abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts,” Mr. Guterres said.

Some diplomats and U.N. officials said that China, which has increased its contributions to the U.N. over the years, could emerge as a leading source of funds for peacekeeping and climate programs.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who said in her Senate confirmation hearing that she doesn’t believe in a “slash and burn” approach, supported Mr. Trump’s budget proposal and said it fell in line with promises made to the American people during the campaign.

“In many areas, the U.N. spends more money than it should, and in many ways it places a much larger financial burden on the United States than on other countries,” said Ms. Haley in a statement.

Some diplomats at the Security Council, which is tasked with approving peacekeeping missions, said the cuts were “extremely worrisome,” and could lead to the perception that the U.S. was disengaging from multilateralism. [WSJ]


NATIONAL


Comey Could Shed Light on Russia, Wiretap Charge

WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey will be called before lawmakers Monday as part of an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that he had been wiretapped by his predecessor during the campaign.

In advance of Mr. Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a number of lawmakers of both parties have said they have seen no evidence to support Mr. Trump’s allegation about then-president Barack Obama . Mr. Trump in early March tweeted that Mr. Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower, the New York building where Mr. Trump lived and worked during the campaign, an extraordinary claim of illegal activity by a president.

“Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No. It never happened,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) said Sunday on Fox.

National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers is also scheduled to testify before the panel Monday, marking the first time both he and Mr. Comey have publicly testified before Congress since Mr. Trump was inaugurated.

Republicans, seem to be wearying of the two-week-long imbroglio, some even urging Mr. Trump to apologize to Mr. Obama and to the British, whom he suggested had conducted wiretapping of Trump Tower at the Obama administration’s request.

“It never hurts to say you are sorry,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R., Texas) on ABC. Mr. Hurd, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the continuing controversy about Mr. Trump’s accusations “takes away from the rest of his agenda.”

In a statement, GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, said any claim that it was asked to conduct surveillance on Mr. Trump is “utterly ridiculous.” [WSJ]

Man arrested after claiming bomb at White House gates: police report

A 29-year-old man who was arrested near the White House late on Saturday falsely told the U.S. Secret Service he had a bomb, according to a police report released on Sunday.

Sean Patrick Keoughan of Roanoke, Virginia, was arrested after he pulled up to the security checkpoint near the White House just after 11 p.m. on Saturday in a stolen 2017 Chevrolet Impala.

Keoughan told the Secret Service: “There’s a bomb in the trunk” while holding something in his right hand, the police report said. As he was arrested, Keoughan added: “This is a
test,” the report added.

The suspect was charged with false bomb threats and unauthorized use of a vehicle.

It was the second scare at the presidential residence on Saturday after a person jumped over a bike rack in a buffer zone in front of the White House at 12:40 p.m.

Washington police said in a separate report that 58-year-old William Bryant Rawlinson of Silver Spring, Maryland, was arrested for unlawful entry. The Secret Service said Rawlinson was “standing behind the security barrier in an unauthorized area, yelling nonsensical statements,” the report said.

President Donald Trump was in Florida at the time of both incidents.

It was not immediately clear on Sunday if either suspect had been released. [REUTERS]

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee to face senators in marathon hearing

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch will face tough scrutiny at his Senate confirmation hearing starting on Monday, with Democrats seeking to make the case that he is a pro-business, social conservative insufficiently independent of the president.

Nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a year-old vacancy on the court, Gorsuch is a conservative appeals court judge from Colorado. Cool-headed and amiable, he will likely try to engage senators without being pinned down on specifics.

Among questions Gorsuch will face will be whether he is sufficiently independent from Trump, who has criticized judges for ruling against his bid to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries. Another line of attack previewed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is to focus on rulings Gorsuch, 49, has authored in which corporate interests won out over individual workers.

Gorsuch’ views on social issues, including a 2006 book he wrote in which he argued against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, will be discussed too.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a plain-spoken Iowan, will chair the proceedings, which could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.

Trump nominated Gorsuch, 49, to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. If Gorsuch is approved by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court. [REUTERS]

Bidding Process for U.S. Border-Wall Construction Begins

LOS ANGELES — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officially opened the process to accept bids to design and build a wall “physically imposing in height” along the southern border with Mexico.

The requests for proposals, posted online Friday night, are the latest steps in the Trump administration’s push to fulfill a campaign promise—despite significant legal and logistical challenges.

The documents say the government will consider proposals for two separate designs for the barrier: a solid concrete wall, and a wall made of alternative material.

Both requests call for the wall along the southwestern border—from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas—to be a minimum of 18 feet high. The requests add that the government’s “nominal concept is for a 30-foot high wall.”

The requests say the structure should include anti-climbing fixtures to make it impossible to scale, and be sturdy enough to at least temporarily withstand a variety of tools—such as chisels, battery-powered devices and torches—that could be used to breach it.

In its bidding documents, Customs and Border Protection also said the wall should run at least 6 feet below ground level to prevent tunneling.

The government noted that including a “see-through” component to the barrier would be ideal, and said the wall should include “sliding gates” to allow cars and pedestrians to pass through.

The bidding requests also take into account the physical appearance of the wall—at least on the U.S. side of the border.

“The north side of wall (i.e. U.S. facing side) shall be aesthetically pleasing in color, anti-climb texture, etc., to be consistent with general surrounding environment,” the requests state. [WSJ]


LOCAL


New York Attorney General Steps Up Scrutiny of White House

New York state’s attorney general, to date one of the most vocal antagonists of President Donald Trump, is preparing to escalate his office’s litigation against the president’s administration.

Democrat Eric Schneiderman has hired one of the top public-corruption prosecutors under former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to focus specifically on issues involving the Trump administration. Howard Master, who prosecuted the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s case against longtime New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver , is expected to work on both continuing and new White House-related matters for the attorney general, as well as on high-level public-corruption cases.

The hiring of Mr. Master, whose title will be senior enforcement counsel, signals Mr. Schneiderman’s continued intent to take on the Republican president.

Eric Soufer, a spokesman for Mr. Schneiderman, confirmed Mr. Master’s hiring and said he “will be working on a wide range of civil and criminal investigations and enforcement matters, including public corruption, complex civil litigation” and potentially litigation against the Trump administration. [WSJ]

State pol rebukes Brooklyn Public Library for holding lecture series by Israel critic, author Norman Finkelstein

ALBANY — A state lawmaker from Brooklyn is condemning the borough’s public library for hosting a 10-week lecture series with controversial author and Israel critic Norman Finkelstein.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat, described Finkelstein as a “Holocaust revisionist” and said taxpayer dollars should not be used to give him a forum for his “hateful” views.

“The question is, ‘Why would the Brooklyn Public Library allow this vile propagandist to use their facilities to spread his hate to the public?’ ” Hikind said.

The politician said the library should cancel the 10-week class, entitled, “No Free Speech for Fascists.”

Finkelstein, 63, has been a prominent defender of the Palestinians and Hezbollah. He also wrote a book called “The Holocaust Industry” that accused Elie Wiesel and others of exploiting the memory of the Holocaust as an “ideological weapon.”

In the book, Finkelstein wrote that “a repellent gang of plutocrats, hoodlums and hucksters” were using the Holocaust to shake down German and Swiss banks for settlements.

“I don’t want my tax dollars going” to promote such views, Hikind told the Daily News.

A library spokeswoman defended the series. [DN]

MTA financial exec fired for allegedly bribing accounting giant

He was supposed to be watching out for taxpayers and the MTA’s bottom line — but its chief procurement officer is now under investigation in a suspected bribery scheme, sources told The Post.

Angel Barbosa, 47, is accused of seeking “favors’’ from accounting giant KPMG in exchange for making sure the firm scored big-bucks contracts with the transit agency, according to MTA sources.

“They were leading him on and making him think they were going to give him things in exchange for getting the contracts.”

It’s unclear whether Barbosa actually scored any kickbacks in the alleged illicit scheme.

But the financial executive — who raked in nearly $194,000 a year overseeing contracts for everything from workers’ health benefits to headquarters upkeep — was fired and escorted from his desk by security on March 8, according to sources.

The MTA has been awarding lucrative contracts to KPMG since at least 2010 to help the agency streamline its multibillion-dollar budget and cut costs.

Barbosa had been the main procurement officer for the agency since 2013. He previously handled contracts for New York University and the global bank UBS.

In addition to the alleged bribery scheme, Barbosa is also accused of fixing it so that his girlfriend in the office was promoted to his assistant, which landed her “tens of thousands of dollars’’ more in pay, according to a source.

“He was manipulating documents and records to increase the salary and position for a lady friend” in the office, the source said.

The girlfriend was suspended without pay while the investigation is ongoing, a source said. She was not immediately identified.

MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger is investigating the allegations — which are serious enough that he is considering bringing the case to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office or federal investigators, a source noted.

MTA officials confirmed Barbosa’s firing and the investigation into the alleged scheme. [NYP]

Non Affordable 1 Bedroom Apt. Available for rent

De Blasio, landlord of two Park Slope properties, seeking new tenants
Apartment hunters can live in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Park Slope home for $1,825 a month, according to a new ad on real estate site Streeteasy that describes the rental as a “sunny & sweet 1 bedroom in a private house.”

Prior tenants of the 11th Street row house owned by the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, moved out to buy their own place, mayoral spokesman Austin Finan said. The upstairs apartment of the home is available in May for nonsmokers who do not have pets.

The available apartment, described having “a comfortable, sun filled and flexible layout,” cost $1,800 until the mayor raised it by $25 a month in June of 2015. The 1.4 percent increase came just as he was hailing a “historic” rent freeze on one-year leases from the city’s Rent Guidelines Board, whose nine members he appoints.

The mayor and his wife have owned the two-family house, where de Blasio’s late mother lived, since 2004. In 2014, a mayoral spokeswoman told POLITICO the downstairs unit was renting for $2,750, but when asked, Finan would not provide the current rent on that unit.

The house is too small to be part of the state’s rent stabilization program and is therefore not subject to the board’s regulations. [POLITICO]


POLITICS


Artist defends anti-Trump billboard

The artist behind an anti-Trump billboard seen along a Phoenix roadway defended her illustration of the president seen in between dollar-sign shaped swastikas and mushroom clouds.

“I think a lot of people are feeling this way and I’m just trying to express what I think is on a lot of people’s minds these days,” Karen Fiorito, the artist, told KPNX-TV on Saturday. “Something that really concerned us was this idea of a dictatorship where things were going in a certain direction.”

Clowns are also seen in the mushroom clouds and Trump is pictured wearing a Russian lapel. The opposite side of billboard has sign language, which stands for “unity,” Fox 10 Phoenix reported.

“I got the opportunity to have a platform to say something, and I took that opportunity, and I take full responsibility for it,” Fiorito told Fox 10 Phoenix.

Moore told KPNX-TV that the billboard will stay up as long as Trump is president.

“Some of these issues are so important you can’t not speak out,” Moore said.

Some residents around the billboard expressed their displeasure about the structure.

Jeff Whiteman added, “I don’t necessarily agree with the leader of our country and all the things going on, but I would not disrespect him or any leader.”

The pair was reportedly behind another controversial billboard. Fiorito created a billboard of then-President George W. Bush and other officials in 2004 as part of her master of fine arts thesis at Arizona State, according to KPNX-TV.

The billboard read: “Dear America, we lied to you for your own good. Now trust us.” [FOXNEWS]

Cruz: I negotiated health care at Mar-a-Lago

Sen. Ted Cruz said Sunday he spent three hours at the Mar-a-Lago estate of his former rival on Saturday, negotiating with President Donald Trump’s team on changes to the Republican health care bill.

The Texas Republican said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he went to the Florida estate with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) to talk with “the president’s team.”

“I have got to tell you, I am spending night and day meeting with House members, meeting with senators, meeting with the administration,” Cruz said. “Just yesterday, I spent three hours at Mar-a-Lago with … Mike Lee and Mark Meadows negotiating with the president’s team, trying to fix this bill.”

Cruz didn’t say what specifically he talked about with Trump’s staff, other than that they discussed ways to lower costs for consumers.

“If we lower premiums — and, hopefully, lower them a lot — that’s a victory for the American people,” Cruz said. “If premiums keep going up, that’s a victory for insurance companies and lobbyists, but it’s a loss for the people who elected us.”

Cruz said he’s also had “multiple conversations” with Vice President Mike Pence on the subject. [POLITICO]

Spicer: Trump didn’t hear Merkel’s handshake request

White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended President Donald Trump’s failure to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand on Friday.

Spicer told Germany’s Der Spiegel that Friday’s incident was a misunderstanding.
“I do not believe he heard the question,” Spicer told the paper.

The press was gathered in the Oval Office Friday to take photos and video of the two world leaders meeting.

Merkel could be heard leaning toward Trump and asking, “Do you want to have a handshake?”

Trump did not shake Merkel’s hand, leading some on social media to characterize the action as a rejection of Merkel’s request.

Trump did shake hands with her when they first entered the White House. [THEHILL]

Germany’s defense minister to Trump: No, we don’t owe NATO money

(CNN) Germany’s defense minister has rejected claims from US President Donald Trump that her country owes NATO “vast sums of money.”

In a statement released on Sunday, Ursula von der Leyen said “there is no debt account in NATO. To relate the 2% defense spending that we want to reach in the next decade solely to NATO is wrong.

“The defense spending also goes to UN-peace mission, into European missions and towards our contributions to the fight against ISIS terrorism.”

Von der Leyen was responding to claims by Trump that some NATO allies owe money after not meeting defense spending targets. In its recent annual report, NATO estimated that Germany spent 1.2% of its GDP on defense in 2016, a figure that is expected to rise in 2017 and beyond. [CNN]

Justice Dept. delivers documents on wiretap claim to Congress

The U.S. Justice Department on Friday said it delivered documents to congressional committees responding to their request for information that could shed light on President Donald Trump’s claims that former President Barack Obama ordered U.S. agencies to spy on him.

The information was sent to the House and Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, said Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Devin Nunes, said in a statement late on Friday that the Justice Department had “fully complied” with the panel’s request.

A government source, who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said an initial examination of the material turned over by the Justice Department indicates that it contains no evidence to confirm Trump’s claims that the Obama administration had wiretapped him or the Trump Tower in New York.

The House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on Monday on allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers will testify and are expected to field questions on Trump’s wiretap claim.

Leaders of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, including from Trump’s Republican Party, have said they have found no evidence to substantiate Trump’s claims that Obama ordered U.S. agencies to spy on Trump or his entourage. The White House has publicly offered no proof of the allegation.

On Monday, the House panel sent the Justice Department a letter asking for copies of any court orders related to Trump or his associates which might have been issued last year under an electronic surveillance law or a wide-ranging anti-crime statute. [REUTERS]

Poll: Trump job approval hits new low

President Trump’s job approval rating has dropped to a new low of 37 percent, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll.

Only 37 percent of respondents approve of the job the president is doing, compared to 58 percent who disapprove.

The daily results are based on interviews with about 1,500 adults. The margin of error is 3 percent.

The drop comes as Republicans pitch the GOP healthcare plan, seeking to rally members behind their proposal to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

A Fox News poll conducted earlier this month showed the president’s job approval rating had dropped by 5 points since last month. According to that survey, 43 percent of voters approved of the job the president was doing compared to 51 percent who disapproved. [THEHILL]

Republicans revamp health bill, boost benefits to older Americans

U.S. House Republicans are working on changes to their healthcare overhaul bill to provide more generous tax credits for older Americans and add a work requirement for the Medicaid program for the poor, House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Sunday.

Ryan said Republican leaders still planned to bring the healthcare bill to a vote on the House of Representatives floor on Thursday. Speaking on the “Fox News Sunday” television program, he said leaders were working to address concerns that had been raised by rank-and-file Republicans to the legislation.

Republicans remain deeply divided over the healthcare overhaul, which is President Donald Trump’s first major legislative initiative. It aims to fulfill his campaign pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, the signature healthcare program of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

“We think we should be offering even more assistance than the bill currently does” for lower-income people age 50 to 64, Ryan, the top Republican in Congress, said of the tax credits for health insurance that are proposed in the legislation.

Ryan also said Republicans were working on changes that would allow federal block grants to states for Medicaid and permit states to impose a work requirement for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.

Trump told reporters in a brief conversation aboard Air Force One that he had meetings about healthcare reform in Florida at the weekend and that the effort to sell the proposal was going well.
He has been wooing lawmakers to vote for the bill and won the backing of a dozen conservative lawmakers on Friday after an Oval Office meeting in which the president endorsed a work requirement and block-grant option for Medicaid. [REUTERS]


CULTURE


Second Monumental Arch of Titus Celebrating Victory over Jews Found in Rome

It wasn’t enough for the Romans to enslave the Jews, plunder Judea, conquer Jerusalem, destroy the Temple and then erect a massive triumphal arch to commemorate those feats of war for millennia to come: They had to build a second, even larger monument to celebrate their victory.

Archaeologists in Rome have uncovered the remains of a second triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Titus and his success in putting down the Great Revolt of the Jews in the first century C.E.

The discovery of the second arch offers insight into the political climate of the late first century and the workings of the imperial propaganda machine, says Marialetizia Buonfiglio, the archaeologist in charge of the dig.

While Roman leaders and generals loved to boast about their successes in battle, the archaeologist could not recall another case of two arches being built to celebrate the same victory.

Domitian, desperately seeking respect
Both arches had been built around 82 C.E. by Domitian, who became emperor following his elder brother Titus’ brief, two-year reign. Rumors implicating Domitian in Titus’ sudden death by a mysterious fever were never proven, but what’s sure is that the young emperor lacked the natural charisma and the military record of his brother and their father Vespasian.

He may have felt the need to consolidate his power by latching on to the glorious past of his predecessors, Buonfiglio speculates.

The Roman empire had also suffered a series of setbacks recently, including a devastating fire in 80 C.E. that damaged parts of the capital, and the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius a year earlier.

For Domitian, whose family had already built wonders like the Colosseum, it was the perfect time to start a grandiose program of construction or restoration of roads, circuses, palaces and temples.

“Under the Flavian emperors [the dynasty founded by Vespasian] and especially under Domitian, a lot of propaganda was done through construction and infrastructure projects, especially in very symbolic places like the Circus Maximus,” Buonfiglio told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “It’s not very different from what some politicians do today.”

Domitian’s plan worked, up to a point. An efficient administrator and popular leader, he was beloved by most of his subjects. But the Senate and the aristocracy resented his ruthless, authoritarian rule, and had him assassinated in 96 CE.

Finally, subduing the Jews
Actually, scholars had long suspected the existence of the second Arch of Titus, from depictions in ancient maps and Roman art, but its remains only came to light over a decade-long archaeological dig at the southern end of the Circus Maximus, which reopened to the public late last year.

Experts now have a good idea of how the arch would have looked like. At a width of 17 meters and a height of more than 10 meters, the massive triple arch was much larger than its single-gated counterpart on the Palatine. Decorated with a bronze statue of Titus driving a four-horse chariot, just like the ones that raced in the circus, it was the first major sight for visitors entering the city from the south, and a key landmark under which military parades and religious processions would pass.

The two arches would have had slightly different purposes, says Buonfiglio: The one on the Palatine was more a monument to Titus, marking his post-mortem deification. The arch in the circus “was a proper triumphal arch” commemorating his victory over the Jews, the archaeologist explains.

As much is confirmed by the arch’s dedicatory inscription, which has not survived, but was transcribed into the account of an anonymous ninth-century pilgrim. The text bombastically proclaimed how Titus, “following the advice and direction of his father, subdued the Jewish people and destroyed Jerusalem, something which all other generals, kings and peoples before him had not even attempted or had failed to accomplish.”

Yet time has not been kind to this symbol of Roman supremacy. Thanks to the ninth-century chronicle, we know the arch must have been in fairly good shape in the early Middle Ages. It may have been damaged by an earthquake in 847, which also collapsed part of the nearby Colosseum, and its precious marbles and decorations were likely looted for reuse, Buonfiglio said.

By the 12th century, the Circus Maximus, which once housed 150,000 spectators, had become farmland, and a new aqueduct to water the fields and supply the city was channeled through the arch, further increasing the damage.

Today, only a few broken fluted columns, the plinths on which the arch stood and fragments of the decorations have been recovered amongst the ruins of the Roman bleachers and a later medieval fortification. We do not know what scenes from the Great Revolt or Titus’ triumph decorated this arch. The only figurative decoration recovered is fragments showing the legs of some combatants, and the face of a Roman soldier. [HAARETZ]


FINANCE


China prepares to counter any U.S. trade penalties

China’s government has been seeking advice from its think-tanks and policy advisers on how to counter potential trade penalties from U.S. President Donald Trump, getting ready for the worst, even as they hope for business-like negotiations.

The policy advisers believe the Trump administration is most likely to impose higher tariffs on targeted sectors where China has a big surplus with the United States, such as steel and furniture, or on state-owned firms.

China could respond with actions such as finding alternative suppliers of agriculture products or machinery and manufactured goods, while cutting its exports of consumer staples such as mobile phones or laptops, they said.

Other options include imposing tax or other restrictions on big U.S. firms operating in China, or limiting their access to China’s fast-growing services sector, they added.

Premier Li Keqiang said last week that Beijing did not want to see a trade war with the United States and urged talks between both sides to achieve common ground.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also said last week that the Trump administration did not want trade wars, but that certain trade relationships needed re-examining to make them fairer for U.S. workers.

No major U.S. measures have been announced, and there were no public indications of Washington’s intentions on trade at the weekend when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited China.

Trump is expected to host President Xi Jinping next month. [REUTERS]

Victory for Trump as the G20 DROPS its pledge to fight against economic protectionism at key summit in Germany

The world’s top economic powers dropped a long-standing endorsement of open trade amid pushback from the Trump administration.

Financial leaders from the G20 group of leading economies, including the US, China and Germany, held tough discussions in the German town of Baden-Baden.

After deliberating for two days, they issued a statement Saturday that contained only a bland reference to “working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies”.

By comparison, last year’s meeting called on them to resist “all forms” of protectionism, which can include border tariffs and rules that keep out imports to shield domestic companies from competition.

The threat of economic protectionism and border taxes from the White House have worried countries that rely on the US for trade.

Before the meeting, experts said that a failure by the G20 to commit to free trade would signal that Trump is serious about following through with those threats.

G20 members China, Canada and Mexico are America’s largest trading partners, accounting for nearly $2 trillion worth of imports and exports.

The statement from the G20 finance ministers and central bankers helps set the tone for further global economic cooperation.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, taking part in his first international meeting since being sworn in, sought to downplay the wording issue.

He said that the statement needed to reflect the discussion at the current summit.
‘The historical language was not really relevant,’ said Mnuchin.

‘We believe in free trade: we are one of the largest markets in the world, we are one of the largest trading partners in the world.

‘Having said that, we want to re-examine certain agreements … And to the extent that agreements are old agreements and need to be renegotiated we’ll consider that as well,’ he said.

Mnuchin said trade deals need to offer a “win-win situation”.

He said the Trump administration would be looking at relationships where the US was buying more than it could sell to its partner, and would be more aggressive in seeking enforcement of existing rules that would benefit the nation’s workers through the Geneva-based World Trade Organization. [DAILYMAIL]

Uber president Jeff Jones quits, deepening turmoil

Ride services company Uber Technologies Inc has been thrust deeper into turmoil with the departure of company president Jeff Jones, a marketing expert hired to help soften its often abrasive image.

Jones quit less than seven months after joining the San Francisco company, an Uber spokesman said on Sunday.

In a statement to Reuters, Jones said he could not continue as president of a business with which he was incompatible.

“I joined Uber because of its mission, and the challenge to build global capabilities that would help the company mature and thrive long term,” Jones said.

“It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he added. Jones wished the “thousands of amazing people at the company” well.

Uber’s vice president of maps and business platform, Brian McClendon, said separately he plans to leave the company at the end of the month to explore politics.

“I’ll be staying on as an adviser,” McClendon said in a statement to Reuters. “This fall’s election and the current fiscal crisis in Kansas is driving me to more fully participate in our democracy.”

Jones and McClendon are the latest in a string of high-level executives to leave the company.

Uber, while it has long had a reputation as an aggressive and unapologetic startup, has been battered with multiple controversies over the last several weeks that have put Kalanick’s leadership

Uber is also facing a lawsuit from Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car division that accuses it of stealing designs for autonomous car technology known as Lidar. Uber has said the claims are false.

Jones joined Uber in August and was widely expected to be Kalanick’s No. 2. Jones was tasked with overseeing the bulk of Uber’s global operations, including leading the ride-hailing program, running local Uber services in every city, marketing and customer service, and working with drivers.

The Independent Drivers Guild, an organization that advocates for Uber drivers, on Sunday was critical that Jones “has left the company without making a single improvement to help drivers struggling to make a living,” said Ryan Price, executive director of the guild. [REUTERS]

03/20/2017 10:48 AM by David Kinzer
Tags: Morning Read

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