Monthly Archives: March 2013

Barack Obama is only the fifth serving US president to visit Israel since the state was founded in 1948. As Marvin Kalb notes: “A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary.So who are the other four?

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO​.

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO

1) Richard Nixon made history as the first US president to visit Israel while in office. He and the first lady, Pat Nixon, touched down in Israel for 24 hours in June 1974 as part of a trip that included Austria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. According to Aaron David Miller, “Nixon’s trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration’s deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed.”

The itinerary Nixon’s daily diary records that after giving a speech at Ben Gurian airport, the President “motored” to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where the president and his wife were staying in suite 429) accompanied by Ephraim Katzir, Israeli president, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister. Later, he went to “the residence of Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel”, along with Henry Kissinger and Rabin. The following day, Nixon and the first lady went to the Yad Vashem memorial, where they took part in a ceremony for Jews killed during the Second World War. Nixon then went to the Knesset and met the Israeli cabinet.

Gifts from Israel to Nixon: A papyrus scroll, a menorah and a book entitled “Justice in Jerusalem”

Hotel: King David Hotel

 Read more

Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)

There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.

The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.

On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.

Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution. Read more

AFP/Getty

As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.

President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.

Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more

More on the island rescue

Elsewhere in the world

 Read more

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Sightings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, are rare these days. He is 89, physically frail and was hospitalised briefly in February.

But on Wednesday he popped up at a conference organised by Standard Chartered bank in the city’s Shangri-la Hotel, taking part in a “fireside chat” with Paul Volcker, the 86-year old former US Federal Reserve chairman.

Most people in the audience, which included the finance minister of the Philippines, were probably just as interested to see how the architect of modern Singapore looked, as in what he might have to say.

The last time I can remember seeing him in any public setting was last August, when he made a surprise appearance at Singapore’s national day celebrations.

The night before, taxi drivers were telling their passengers that the great man had died. His appearance silenced that gossip, but Singaporeans have been more conscious of their former leader’s mortality ever since.

Lee looked thin on Wednesday, but was dressed sharply in a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, with red cuffs. He made his way unaided to the stage and sat down. The only concession to physical decline were the sports shoes on his feet, which presumably help him walk more comfortably.

Much of what the founder of modern Singapore thinks about the big geopolitical issues of the day are well-known.

He doesn’t think that conflict between the US and China is inevitable (China needs the US export market for a good while yet); he doesn’t think that an “Arab Spring” is possible in Asia (there isn’t the vast disparity in wealth and incomes that exist in the Middle East); and Japan risks “dissolving into nothingness” if it continues to refuse taking in migrants to boost its working age population. Read more

“We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people,” President George W Bush said in a short but memorable televised address on March 19 2003.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Anniversaries, however arbitrary they seem as preordained moments of pause, offer a chance for reflection that might otherwise get lost amid the 24-hour news cycle. In that spirit, here are just a few of the best anniversary reads we could find. Please share your own recommendations – there is a lot of great stuff out there – in the comments. Read more

Xi Jinping (Getty)

Xi Jinping (Getty)

Fresh from his “surprise” election as president of China last week, Xi Jinping is about to set off on his first foreign trip. Later this week, he will travel to Moscow. The choice is a traditional one, and redolent of the Cold War, when Russia and China were the twin pillars of the Communist world.

Back then, China was the junior partner in the relationship. These days, although the Russians would be reluctant to acknowledge it, China is the more important partner – simply because of the sheer size and dynamism of its economy.

That said, there is a time lag in the way the two countries behave on the international stage. Russia is no longer a superpower, but still has the instinct to demand a central role in the settlement of the big international issues – just look at the role that the Russians have assumed over Syria. By contrast, China is an emerging superpower, but is still loath to take the lead on international issues outside of its immediate neighbourhood. Read more

On the Cyprus crisis:

In other news…

 Read more

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at a previous meetingBody Language. The worst-kept secret in diplomacy is the bad blood between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When he was first elected, Netanyahu apparently felt Obama was trying to strong-arm him on settlements. It has been downhill since. There was the time when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval office. Or the time when Obama told Nicolas Sarkozy: “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” Or when Netanyahu appeared to endorse Mitt Romney (he was just being polite to an old friend, the Israelis say). Or when Obama was quoted calling Netanyahu a “political coward”. Given that this squabbling is bad politically for both leaders, expect them to behave like the best of chums this week. Watch for how many time Obama calls Netanyahu ‘Bibi’.

The Peace Process. The White House has done everything it can to play down expectations about the launch of any new initiative on this trip to such an extent that Obama is being accused of going merely as a “tourist”. But given how little the White House has said about what the US might do or how much importance it places in the peace process in Obama’s second term, any hints or suggestions will be pounced upon.

John Kerry. One of the signals on the peace process will be how Obama talks about his new secretary of state, who will be accompanying him on the trip. Some in Washington expect Obama to state publicly that he is tasking Kerry with picking up the reins of the peace process, which would give him much greater authority. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
European leaders must surely know that they are taking a big risk with Cyprus. The danger is obvious. Now that everybody with money in Cypriot banks is being forced to take a hit, nervous depositors elsewhere in Europe might notice that a dangerous precedent has been set. Rather than run even a small risk of an unwanted financial “haircut” in the future, the customers of Greek, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian banks might choose to get their money out now. If that starts to happen, the euro crisis will be back on again – with a vengeance.

The architecture world’s most prestigious award – the Pritzker – was announced on Sunday, and the winner was Toyo Ito – an acclaimed Japanese architect whose works include the Sendai Mediatheque, the temporary Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London’s Hyde Park, and the amazing solar-powered World Games stadium in Taiwan.

Born in 1941, Ito studied at Tokyo University’s Department of Architecture before founding his own studio in 1971. His projects range from public, multipurpose buildings like the Mediatheque, to commercial buildings like his Tod’s outlet in Tokyo, and also include deeply personal, intimate spaces such as the “White U” house that he built for his recently widowed sister in 1976.

In awarding the prize, the jury said:

Toyo Ito’s personal creative agenda is always coupled with public responsibility. It is far more complex and riskier to innovate while working on buildings where the public is concerned, but this has not deterred him. He has said that architecture must not only respond to one’s physical needs, but also to one’s senses.

We’ve put together a slideshow of some of his most stunning works from throughout his career (and a picture of the prizewinner himself, of course). Read more

 Read more

Stock markets have recovered from their earlier turmoil as Cypriot politicians and central bankers hold emergency meetings to negotiate a rescue package with the island’s creditors.

Lina Saigol, Tom Burgis and Ben Fenton, from the FT’s Live News Desk follow the event, along with FT correspondents in Europe

 

A tale of two Middle East anniversaries
March 15 marks the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria and on March 20 it will have been a decade since the start of the Iraq war, a conflict that still reverberates around the region and the world. Abigail Fielding-Smith, FT correspondent in Damascus; David Gardner, senior international affairs commentator, and Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, join Shawn Donnan.

Photo by Getty

“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Proud, unrepentant, unreflecting, these are the words of Dick Cheney in a new documentary to be aired on American television on Friday evening.

The film is being released a few days before the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but it is not the place to go for a candid reassessment of the war. Mr Cheney admits that “we did not find stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction, but he adds: “We did find that he had the capability and we believed he had the intent.”

He is equally unflinching in his support for torture and other controversial aspects of the war on terror. “It isn’t so much what you achieved as is what you prevented,” he says. Read more

 Read more

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.

Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”

But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success. Read more

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio decided he would be called Francis in his new life as Pope, he knew people would understand that his choice was charged with symbolism.

As some of the cardinals present at the conclave have confirmed, the new pontiff’s choice is in honour of St Francis of Assisi, who lived and preached in Italy between the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant who abandoned his well-off lifestyle to live in poverty. The monastic order he set up, the “Lesser Friars” (who became known as Franciscans after his death), has absolute poverty as a rule. This applies both individually and to the monastic communities.

St Francis is one of the most venerated figures in the Catholic world thanks to his mysticism and rectitude. Yet no pope had ever dared to pick his name. This is in sharp contrast to the number of times Gregory (16), Leo (13) and Pius (12) have been chosen. Read more

 Read more

Stunned, then overjoyed (Getty)

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti

The first pope from the Americas, the first from the Jesuit order, the first to name himself Francis … the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio signals a break with the past on many fronts for a Roman Catholic Church in desperate need of renewal. Yet he is also regarded as a theological conservative in the mold of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and at the relatively advanced age of 76 he will have to overcome fears that he too will be a transitional pope.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s normally unflappable spokesman and a fellow Jesuit, was just as stunned at the choice as the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “Personally I am shocked that I have a Jesuit pope,” he told reporters, noting that Jesuits usually eschew positions of authority. He added: “He had the courage to pick a name that has never been chosen. It expresses simplicity and evangelical testimony.”

Rebecca Rist, an expert in papal history at Reading University, said the choice of Francis – echoing both the 13th-century St Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first followers of the Jesuits – signalled that the new pope would emphasise poverty and reform. Furthermore, by choosing a name never used before he was indicating “something new – that he would not emulate a predecessor”. Read more