Morning Read 4/27: Israel Strikes in Syria Again

Israeli forces bombed targets in Damascus, according to Syrian media [Bo Yaser]
Israeli forces bombed targets in Damascus, according to Syrian media [Bo Yaser]

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Israeli missiles hit near Damascus airport: Syria state media

A huge blast which struck near Damascus airport early on Thursday was caused by Israeli missiles hitting a “military position,” Syria’s state SANA news agency reported.

“A military position southwest of Damascus International Airport was targeted at dawn today by an Israeli aggression using several missiles fired from occupied territory, sparking explosions in the area,” SANA said, citing a military source.

In the terminology of the Syrian regime, occupied territory can refer to Israel inside its internationally recognised borders. The missiles caused “material damage”, the source said.

The source did not specify whether the military position belonged to the Syrian army or one its allies. Earlier, Damascus ally Hezbollah said the blast was “probably” the result of an Israeli air strike. [AFP]

Intelligence Minister Katz: Israel will not agree to permanent Iranian military presence in Syria

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz was interviewed on Wednesday night by Reuters during his Washington visit. He said that he plans to meet with U.S. lawmakers and White House officials and convince them to impose additional sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah. Katz also said that Israel is interested in reaching an understanding with the Trump administration regarding the possibility of Iran establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.

“I want to achieve an understanding, an agreement, between the U.S. and Israel … not to let Iran have permanent military forces in Syria, by air, by land, by sea,” Katz said. He also praised the U.S. missile strike three weeks ago against a Syrian airbase: “It was important morally and strategically.”

Katz said that such an understanding needs to be part of the future international agreement that will hopefully put an end to the Syrian civil war. Katz said that Israel does not want the U.S. to send more forces to Syria and that this understanding can be achieved “by talking to the Russians, by threatening Iran, by sanctions and other things.” [JERUSALEMONLINE]

Nuclear tests will ‘never stop,’ North Korean government official says

A North Korean government official in a rare interview promised his country’s nuclear tests would “never stop” as long as the US continued what they viewed as “acts of aggression.”

Speaking to CNN Wednesday, Sok Chol Won wouldn’t confirm when the country’s long-anticipated sixth nuclear test would take place but said it wouldn’t be influenced by outside events. “The nuclear test is an important part of our continued efforts to strengthen our nuclear forces,” he said. “As long as America continues its hostile acts of aggression, we will never stop nuclear and missile tests.”

Sok’s official title is director of North Korea’s Institute of Human Rights at the Academy of Social Sciences, but he was authorized to comment to CNN on all matters.

His comments came as top US Cabinet members put a stress on economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to rein in North Korea, calling for a return to dialogue after a Senate briefing on the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program. The calmer tone came in contrast to US President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric toward North Korea earlier this week. [CNN]

Brexit: Chancellor Merkel warns UK on scope of talks with EU

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says some British people have “illusions” about discussing the UK’s future ties with the EU at the same time as nailing down the UK’s Brexit terms.

The future relationship can only be discussed once the exit issues – such as UK payments to the EU budget – are resolved, she told German MPs.

On the sequence of the Brexit talks, she said “some people in the UK still have some illusions on that score. That would be just a waste of time.”

EU leaders are to meet on Saturday to adopt their joint negotiating position on Brexit.

Ms Merkel also insisted that “a third country – which is what the UK will be – cannot and will not have the same rights as an EU member state. “All 27 EU countries and the EU institutions agree about that,” she told the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. [BBC]


Jewish politician, group decry NY college inviting Linda Sarsour as commencement speaker

A New York public university is standing by its decision to invite Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour to deliver a commencement address despite some opposition.

Sarsour, who stirred controversy last month by saying one cannot be part of the feminist movement unless he or she is critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, was chosen to address the graduates of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy on June 1. Sarsour, an organizer of January’s Women’s March on Washington and the International Women’s Strike, made the remarks during an interview with The Nation. She also was one of the organizers of a wildly successful online fundraiser to help repair a Jewish cemetery outside St. Louis that was seriously damaged in a vandalism attack labeled as anti-Semitic.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat and an Orthodox Jew, and the head of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, decried the CUNY decision to speak at the commencement. Klein in a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on him to rescind the invitation.

But Ayman A.E. El-Mohandes, the dean of CUNY’s School of Public Health, said in a statement that Sarsour would remain the speaker, adding that she opposes all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

Hikind said Sarsour “is someone who associates with radical Islamists; supports them; shows support for them,” according to WCBS-TV in New York. “She is someone who has said, clearly, she thinks throwing rocks at cars in Israel is a good thing. I mean, it’s just nuts. It makes no sense. It’s crazy to have this woman be the person who’s going to speak to the students.” Hikind also suggested to WCBS that her support of Sharia, or Islamic law, made her an inappropriate candidate for speaking at a public-funded university.

Klein in his letter to Cuomo called Sarsour “a bigot and divider” and “extremist,” according to the New York Post. He also identified her as a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. [JTA]

Sessions vows to press legal fight on sanctuary cities

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is promising to keep up the legal battle to carry out President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting so-called sanctuary cities, but the top lawman is stopping short of echoing Trump’s pledge to take the issue to the Supreme Court.

In a statement Wednesday night, Sessions did not indicate whether the administration plans to appeal a district court judge’s order Tuesday barring federal officials from using Trump’s order to withdraw a broad array of federal funding from localities that decline to cooperate with enforcement of immigration laws.

“Actions that have always been understood to be squarely within the powers of the President, regardless of the administration, have now been enjoined,” Sessions said. “The Department of Justice cannot accept such a result, and as the President has made clear, we will continue to litigate this case to vindicate the rule of law.” [POLITICO]

United explains passenger removal to senators

United Airlines on Wednesday explained its recent forced removal of a passenger to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s top members.

“We are working to regain our customers’ trust with the highest quality of service and deepest level of respect and care,” United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote to the committee.

“As part of my commitment to ensuring we prevent something like Flight 3411 from happening again, we are finalizing a thorough review of our policies and will be making changes to avoid putting our customers, employees and partners into impossible situations due to policies we control.”

Munoz’s letter was sent to Commerce Chairman John Thune(R-S.D.) and ranking Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.). The message was also addressed to Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rep. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), its ranking Democrat.

Munoz said that United has promised not “to ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety or security.” [THEHILL]


Kosciuszko Bridge opening signals new beginning for NYC commuters

Thursday marks the end for the old span, a 78-year-old structure known for traffic that was as bad as its potholes. All traffic from the old bridge will be redirected onto the first span of the new Kosciuszko Bridge when it opens to motorists late Thursday evening, after 11 p.m.

This summer, the old Kosciuszko will be blown up — a demolition that many drivers will consider a celebration. “I don’t know any New Yorker who hasn’t spent hours of their lives trying to get over that bridge,” said Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which is planning a party for the demolition.

Phil Eng, the MTA’s newly appointed chief operating officer, spearheaded the building of the new bridge as the chief engineer at the state’s Department of Transportation. He said the new Kosciuszko, a bridge that will retain the name, will save the state millions in upkeep and have an “immediate impact” on traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and in the region.

“We see that truckers who use this route will stay on this route if traffic is moving, but when the BQE backs up, they look to alternatives on local streets,” Eng said. “We believe with traffic going on top, people will stay on the BQE.”

The first span of the Kosciuszko will open with three lanes of traffic in each direction. The second span is still being built and is expected to open in early 2020, ahead of schedule. Once it does, the Queens-bound span will carry five lanes of traffic and the separate Brooklyn-bound span will carry four lanes. There will also be two important features missing from the old bridge: traffic shoulders and a 20-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian path, which will attract visitors looking for a view of the city skyline, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“The new bridge — the first major New York City bridge to open in more than 50 years — will bring much-needed relief to commuters and be a spectacular addition to the New York City skyline,” Cuomo said, grandly, in a statement. “It is a vibrant symbol of how the state is not just talking about moving vital infrastructure projects forward, but actually getting them done and restoring New York’s tradition of excellence.” [AMNY]

De Blasio Increases Spending and Savings in $84.86 Billion Executive Budget

Nearly $200 million more in spending and $587 million in savings were added to the budget for the 2018 fiscal year in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest iteration of the city’s spending plan released on Wednesday.

The mayor presented an $84.86 billion executive budget, which increased proposed spending from the $84.67 billion proposed in the preliminary budget in January. The new spending is targeted at early childhood education, job creation, veterans services, anti-eviction legal services, and other areas. The mayor also unveiled an updated version of the city’s ten-year capital plan, which he added more than $5 billion to from January in order to fund more affordable housing and infrastructure projects.

De Blasio framed the need for the new initiatives in now-familiar language about the city’s affordability crisis and maintaining the city’s core commitments to New Yorkers amid uncertainty over proposed federal funding cuts under the Trump administration.

“This budget continues the work we started four years ago, recognizing that for so many people in this city, it is still a great challenge to make ends meet,” de Blasio said. “We’re trying everywhere we can to relieve those burdens and make it easier on our people to live a good life in this city.” The fundamental goal of his budget proposal, he said, was to make sure the city is both stronger and fairer in the future.

De Blasio and the City Council will now continue budget negotiations, including another round of Council hearings, before a final deal is reached ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. It is the final budget of what de Blasio hopes is the first of two terms; the Democratic mayor is seeking re-election this fall. [GOTHAMGAZETTE]

Mayoral candidates trash de Blasio at Republican forum

Republican candidates for Mayor held a forum on the Upper East Side tonight in hopes of finding a challenger to Mayor De Blasio that Republicans can rally around. The event included candidates Bo Dietl, a former cop and TV talking head, pastor Michel Faulkner, Staten Island Assembly member Nicole Malliotakis, and real estate mogul Paul Massey.

All took turns treating De Blasio like a virtual piñata. “I’m running for mayor because Bill de Blasio is an Olympic-level failure,” Massey said in his opening remarks. “We’ve got record homelessness, failing schools, a housing crisis and we’re creating no jobs.”

While the organizers asked for unity among the candidates, Faulkner took a number of shots at his Republican opponents — jabbing Massey for donating $4,950 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “You knock Bill de Blasio but you maxed out for him the last election cycle,” Faulkner said to Massey.

All four ripped de Blasio’s nearly $85 billion fiscal 2018 executive budget as bloated and they universally disagreed with his plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail house over 10 years.

But they each offered unique ideas and proposals as well. Faulkner called for a city-residency requirement to be housed in the shelter system to reduce abuse by out-of-towners, and said he’d even house the homeless at City Hall until the issue gets resolved.

Massey offered the idea of building “a bridge, a tunnel and a subway” from Manhattan to Long Island City, Queens in order to spark economic development.

Malliatokis, who only officially entered the race this week, said she supports a fast-ferry service for Staten Island to help reduce some of the longest commuting times in the nation. [NYP]


Trump Tells Foreign Leaders That Nafta Can Stay for Now

President Trump told the leaders of Mexico and Canada on Wednesday that he would not immediately move to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement, only hours after an administration official said he was likely to sign an order that would begin the process of pulling the United States out of the deal.

In what the White House described as “pleasant and productive” evening phone calls with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, Mr. Trump said he would quickly start the process of renegotiating Nafta — not abandon it, as he said he would do during the 2016 presidential campaign if he could not rework the deal to his satisfaction.

“It is my privilege to bring NAFTA up-to-date through renegotiation,” Mr. Trump said in a statement issued by the White House at 10:33 p.m. “I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better.”

The announcement appeared to be an example of Mr. Trump’s deal-making in real time. It followed a day in which officials signaled that he was laying the groundwork to pull out of Nafta — a move intended to increase pressure on Congress to authorize new negotiations, and on Canada and Mexico to accede to American demands. [NYTIMES]

White House Proposes Slashing Tax Rates, Significantly Aiding Wealthy

President Trump’s call for a dramatic overhaul of the tax code sets in motion his most ambitious legislative initiative to date, testing whether he can cut the deal of his life on an issue that has long bedeviled Washington.

On Wednesday, Trump issued a one-page outline for changes to the tax code, pinpointing numerous changes he would make that would affect almost every American.

He wants to replace the seven income tax brackets with three new ones, cut the corporate tax rate by more than 50 percent, abolish the alternative-minimum tax and estate tax, and create new incentives to simplify filing returns.

But the White House stopped short of answering key questions that could decide the plan’s fate. For example, Trump administration officials didn’t address how much the plan would reduce federal revenue or grow the debt. They also didn’t specify what income levels would trigger inclusion in each of the three new tax brackets.

The goal, White House officials said, was to cut taxes so much and so fast that it led to immediate economic growth, creating more jobs and producing trillions of dollars in new revenue and wealth over the next decade.

Despite its brevity — it was less than 200 words and contained just seven numbers — the document marked the most pointed blueprint Trump has presented Congress on any matter. “This is about economic growth, job creation, America first, and that’s what [Trump] cares about,” White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said. “Our tax plan is a big leg of that stool. It’s a big leg. And in many respects, he thinks it’s the most important leg.”

The plan now must navigate a legislative and political gantlet on Capitol Hill that has killed numerous other efforts to rework the tax code. [WASHPOST]

Freedom Caucus backs health care proposal but obstacles remain

he conservative House Freedom Caucus said Wednesday it is supporting a plan aimed at bridging the internal Republican Party divide between moderates and conservatives on health care reform.

The proposal would give states the chance to apply for waivers that could gut several core Obamacare insurance reforms that protect consumers with pre-existing conditions, including requiring insurers are required to cover certain benefits and remove the ban on allowing carriers to charge more based on a person’s health history.

The Freedom Caucus backing could remove a major obstacle to passing a bill that repeals much of the Affordable Care Act, giving House Republicans and President Donald Trump a major victory that has escaped them over the past two months. But there is no guarantee GOP moderates will go along and the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate.

The amendment unveiled Tuesday was negotiated between Rep. Tom MacArthur, a New Jersey moderate, and conservative House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

The Freedom Caucus made public its support of the proposal in a statement Wednesday. “While the revised version still does not fully repeal Obamacare, we are prepared to support it to keep our promise to the American people to lower healthcare costs,” the caucus said in their statement.

The proposal was intended to appeal to the Freedom Caucus members — who have long advocated states need more flexibility to drive down insurance premiums — but the amendment also includes a provision that guarantees members of Congress and their staffs would still get the Obamacare regulatory protections that could be gutted for other consumers. That optics of that weren’t sitting well on Capitol Hill just hours after the amendment was unveiled even though multiple House GOP aides said that including the provision was necessary in order to comply with a special set of Senate rules.

According to a senior GOP aide, leaders were already promising Wednesday morning that once the health care bill as passed, members of Congress would vote separately to ensure that members wouldn’t be exempted from the new rules, but it’s a rocky start for an amendment that was intended to get Republicans back on track to repeal and replace Obamacare. [CNN]

Ivanka Trump creating fund to support female entrepreneurs: report

Ivanka Trump is crafting a fund to support female entrepreneurs around the world, Axios reported on Wednesday.

“The statistics and results prove that when you invest in women and girls, it benefits both developed and developing economies,” the first daughter and senior presidential adviser told Axios’s Mike Allen on Tuesday. “Women are an enormous untapped resource, critical to the growth of all countries.”

Trump has secured commitments from a number of companies and foreign governments to provide funds to small- and medium-sized ventures, an unidentified source told Axios.

Trump has reportedly spoken to World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim about the plan, and is said to have the full support of President Trump.

Ivanka Trump was in Berlin on Tuesday to participate in a panel discussion at the Women20 summit, a conference promoting women’s economic empowerment. During that discussion, Trump drew boos and jeers from the crowd after touting her father’s position on women’s issues. [THEHILL]

Trump expected in Israel last week of May; Nikki Haley to visit in June

Trump administration delegation is expected to arrive in Israel on Thursday to oversee technical arrangements for a visit by President Donald Trump to Israel in the last week of May.

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that preparations for Trump’s visit were at the advanced stage, although it has not yet been finalized, and told Army Radio, “There’s a feeling that we have a real friend in the White House.”

The visit will be Trump’s first ever trip to Israel. Channel 2 said he is expected to stay for one night only, and that it is not yet clear whether he will visit the Palestinian areas. The president hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February and is set to host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 3.

The advance delegation will hold talks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and visit possible sites for the president’s itinerary.

On the eve of May 23 and on May 24, Israel will mark Jerusalem Day, celebrating 50 years since the reunification of the city under Israeli control in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel extended sovereignty to East Jerusalem and the Old City and claims the entire city as its capital; the Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The Channel 2 report, noting the resonance of the date for Israelis and Palestinians, said Trump’s visit would not be on Jerusalem Day itself.

The TV report also said that Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, will visit Israel in June. Haley has become a particularly popular member of the Trump administration in Israel and in the pro-Israel community in the US for her repeated castigations of anti-Israel bias at the UN. [TOI]


NBA All-Stars to host summer camp in Israel

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is preparing to bring an international program to Israel this summer in what will mark the league’s first official visit to the Jewish state.

The NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB) program, which since 2001 has utilized sports to promote cultural understanding and an active lifestyle in cities around the world, will visit Israel in collaboration with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).

“We’re looking forward to the chance to bring all communities together for this program,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs. “This is going to be about bringing the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and other communities together.”

BWB’s first camp was hosted in Italy, and the initiative later brought together athletes during tense political times in the former republic of Yugoslavia.

This August, leading teen athletes from more than 30 countries—including Spain, Germany, France and Israel—will be coached and tutored by former NBA All-Stars, including center David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, at BWB’s summer camp in Netanya. The teens will also perform community outreach in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“It’s great to see the NBA and FIBA recognize Israel’s basketball development efforts by hosting the camp there for the first time,” said Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born player in NBA history. “I look forward to working with Europe’s top male and female players and showing them the beauty and culture of my home country.” [JNS]


The most unaffordable place to live in America is…

The most unaffordable place to live in the U.S. is not San Francisco or Manhattan. It’s Brooklyn.

A person earning the average salary in Brooklyn cannot afford the average home there — even if he or she could spend his entire salary (and then some) on housing, according to a survey released on Thursday by real estate data company ATTOM Data Solutions, which looked at home sales price data in 414 of the most populous counties in the U.S. as well as average wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The second and third most unaffordable places in America are Santa Cruz, Calif. and Marin County, Calif. — both of which would also require the average wage earner to spend his or her entire salary and more to buy the median home in the area.

In each of these three cases, many people — priced out of the Manhattan, San Francisco and San Jose — are moving from the pricey city center to Brooklyn, Marin County and Santa Cruz, respectively, which is pushing prices there up, says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president of ATTOM. Meanwhile, wages in those counties aren’t keeping pace with the home price appreciation, which makes these three areas the most unaffordable in the nation for residents looking to buy. (Note that the average home prices in Manhattan, San Francisco and San Jose are still higher than in Brooklyn, Marin and Santa Cruz, but so are the wages.)

Roughly one in four markets are unaffordable, meaning that buying a median-priced home was less affordable in those places than the historically normal level for that county going back to the first quarter of 2005. And, since 2012, home prices have increased 10 times faster than wages.

Across America, the average wage earner would need to spend just over 36% of his or her income to afford the median home in the area. Though this figure is higher than the government recommends, it is still far less than Brooklyn, Marin County and Santa Cruz. [MARKETWATCH]

Fortis not responsible for $2M in defects caused by prior developer, judge says in ruling against 20 Bayard Street residents

A court decision in Brooklyn last week will let Fortis Property Group get away with selling allegedly faulty condominiums in Williamsburg, for the simple reason that Fortis wasn’t the one that built them in the first place.

When developer Isaac Hager’s company went into bankruptcy at the 62-unit Bayard Views Condominium at 20 Bayard Street on McCarren Park, Fortis in 2011 swooped in and bought the 37 unsold units at the building, becoming the the new sponsor on the condo’s offering plan.

But some homeowners at the Karl Fischer-designed condo began realizing that their units were defective, with many needing repairs, even though the building was relatively new. According to a complaint brought by the condo board in 2014, frequent flooding and water leaks damaged several parts of the buildings, there was an inadequate HVAC system, there was cracking in the building’s exterior facade, as well as an inadequately installed electricity system. The cost of all these problems amounted to $2 million, the residents claimed.

Bankruptcy meant they couldn’t sue Hager, so the condo board targeted Fortis. A judge in Brooklyn, however, has ruled in favor of Fortis in what Fortis’ attorney Adam Leitman Bailey said could mean a new status quo for condo law.

Judge Lawrence Knipel ruled that Fortis could not be held liable for defects that existed before Hager’s company, the original developer, effectively entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The condo board can, however, continue to try suing Fortis’ principals, Joel Kestenbaum and Jonathan Landau, the judge’s order indicates.

As for Fortis, Bailey says they’ve been making repairs all the while anyway, and that the lawsuit, filed in 2014, is out of date. [TRD]

04/27/2017 10:30 AM by David Kinzer
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