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Extremist lawmaker surges ahead of elections in Israel…

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Extremist lawmaker surges ahead of elections in Israel…

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir calls his Arab colleagues “terrorists.” He wants to deport his political opponents, and in his youth, his views were so extreme that the army banned him from compulsory military service.

Yet today, the populist lawmaker who was once relegated to the margins of Israeli politics is surging ahead in the polls ahead of November elections. He has received the blessing of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is poised to emerge as a major force that could propel the onetime premier back to power.

Ben-Gvir’s stunning rise is the culmination of years of efforts by the media-savvy lawmaker to gain legitimacy. But it also reflects a rightward shift in the Israeli electorate that has brought his religious, ultranationalist ideology into the mainstream and all but extinguished hopes for Palestinian independence.

“Over the last year I’ve been on a mission to save Israel,” Ben-Gvir recently told reporters. “Millions of citizens are waiting for a real right-wing government. The time has come to give them one.”

Ben-Gvir, 46, has been a fixture of Israel’s extreme right for more than two decades, gaining notoriety in his youth as a disciple of the late radical rabbi, Meir Kahane. He first became a national figure when he famously broke a hood ornament off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995.

“We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too,” he said, just weeks before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Kahane’s violent anti-Arab ideology — which included calls to ban Jewish-Arab intermarriage and for the mass expulsion of Palestinians — was considered so repugnant that Israel banned him from parliament and the U.S. listed his party as a terrorist group. Kahane himself was assassinated by an Arab assailant in New York in 1990.

But in recent years, his followers and some of his ideas have made their way to the Israeli mainstream — in large part thanks to Ben-Gvir.

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He transitioned into politics last year after a career as a lawyer defending radical Jewish West Bank settlers. His intimate knowledge of the law has helped him test the boundaries of the country’s incitement laws and avoid sanctions that have prevented some of his closest associates from running in elections.

Ben-Gvir, for instance, calls Kahane “righteous and holy” but also says he doesn’t agree with everything his former mentor said. He’s careful to limit his own calls for expulsion to those who engage in violence and lawmakers — Jewish or Arab — who he says undermine the state.

Before entering politics, he removed a photo of Baruch Goldstein — a Jewish militant who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994 — from his living room. He no longer allows his supporters to chant “Death to Arabs” at political rallies. Instead, they are told to say, “Death to terrorists!”

Supporters say Ben-Gvir has changed, been misunderstood, or wrongly painted an extremist.

“People mature. People develop,” said Nevo Cohen, Ben-Gvir’s campaign manager. “They stuck a label on Ben-Gvir that is totally wrong.”

Ben-Gvir’s office turned down an interview request. But he makes frequent appearances on Israeli TV and radio, displaying a cheerful demeanor, quit wit and knack for deflecting criticism as he banters with his hosts.

He also has tapped into a wave of anti-Arab and nationalist sentiment driven by years of violence, failed peace efforts and demographic changes. Ben-Gvir’s supporters are largely religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to have large families, and also come from the influential West Bank settler movement. Ben-Gvir himself lives in a hard-line settlement next to the West Bank city of Hebron, home to more than 200,000 Palestinians.

“He is a populist demagogue. He plays on the sentiments of hate and fear of Arabs,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on Israel’s far right at the Jewish People Policy Institute. “He interviews well, he is good on camera and he has had plenty of screen time that has given him legitimacy.”

In the opposition over the past year, Ben-Gvir has positioned himself as a rabble rouser against the government — the first ever to have an Arab party as a member. He publicly quarreled with Arab lawmakers in scenes captured on camera and widely broadcast.

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In the tense run-up to last year’s Gaza war, he staged provocative visits to Arab neighborhoods, rallying ultranationalist supporters to confront Palestinians and assert “Jewish Power” — the name of his party.

He set up an outdoor parliamentary “office” in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem where Jewish settlers are trying to expel Palestinians from their homes, setting off a melee. He later called for police to use live fire against Palestinian protesters at a flashpoint holy site.

His surge in the polls has made him a central figure in Netanyahu’s comeback strategy.

Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the public is again torn over his fitness to rule. After four consecutive inconclusive elections, Netanyahu and his Likud party hope to break the logjam with Ben-Gvir’s support.

“Yes, Ben-Gvir is someone very militant and yes, sometimes a little provocative, but he is someone who cares about Israel,” said Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant Miki Zohar, who insisted Ben-Gvir would fall in line under a Netanyahu-led government.

Last week, Netanyahu personally brokered a deal between Ben-Gvir and a rival far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich, to ensure they run together. If they hadn’t, Smotrich might not have made it into parliament, depriving Netanyahu of a critical source of support.

“Joining forces is the order of the day,” Netanyahu said.

One recent poll forecast Ben-Gvir’s alliance with 12 seats, which would make it parliament’s fourth-largest. That means Netanyahu almost certainly would make Ben-Gvir a Cabinet minister if he can form a government.

Ben-Gvir has said his first order of business would be to pass a law allowing deportations of those who allegedly subvert the country and its security forces. He has proposed imposing the death penalty for “terrorists” and granting immunity to soldiers accused of committing violent crimes against Palestinians.

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Thabet Abu Rass, the Arab co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence, said the mainstreaming of figures like Ben-Gvir is not only a threat to Israel’s Arab citizens, but to the country as a whole.

By branding Arab members of parliament as traitors who should be expelled, Ben Gvir delegitimizes the political participation of Arab citizens — who make up around 20% of Israel’s population — and the possibility of Jewish-Arab partnerships, Abu Rass said.

“It’s very dangerous for the whole Israeli society,” he said. “It’s going to bring about the collapse of democracy.”

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Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Peace Prize winner sentenced to 6 months in jail

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Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Peace Prize winner sentenced to 6 months in jail

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A labor court in Bangladesh’s capital Monday sentenced Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to six months in jail for violating the country’s labor laws.

Yunus, who pioneered the use of microcredit to help impoverished people, was present in court and was granted bail. The court gave Yunus 30 days to appeal the verdict and sentence.

Grameen Telecom, which Yunus founded as a non-profit organization, is at the center of the case.

Sheikh Merina Sultana, head of the Third Labor Court of Dhaka, said in her verdict that Yunus’ company violated Bangladeshi labor laws. She said at least 67 Grameen Telecom workers were supposed to be made permanent employees but were not, and a “welfare fund” to support the staff in cases of emergency or special needs was never formed. She also said that, following company policy, 5% of Grameen’s dividends were supposed to be distributed to staff but was not.

Sultana found Yunus, as chairman of the company, and three other company directors guilty, sentencing each to six months in jail. Yunus was also fined 30,000 takas, or $260.

Yunus said he would appeal.

“We are being punished for a crime we did not commit. It was my fate, the nation’s fate. We have accepted this verdict, but will appeal this verdict and continue fighting against this sentence,” the 83-year-old economist told reporters after the verdict was announced.

A defense lawyer criticized the ruling, saying it was unfair and against the law. “We have been deprived of justice,” said attorney Abdullah Al Mamun.

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But the prosecution was happy with what they said was an expected verdict.

“We think business owners will now be more cautious about violating labor laws. No one is above the law,” prosecutor Khurshid Alam Khan told The Associated Press.

Grameen Telecom owns 34.2% of the country’s largest mobile phone company, Grameenphone, a subsidiary of Norway’s telecom giant Telenor.

As Yunus is known to have close connections with political elites in the West, especially in the United States, many think the verdict could negatively impact Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S.

But Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen on Monday said relations between Bangladesh and the U.S. would likely not be affected by an issue involving a single individual.

“It is normal not to have an impact on the state-to-state relations for an individual,” the United News of Bangladesh agency quoted Momen as saying.

The Nobel laureate faces an array of other charges involving alleged corruption and embezzlement.

Yunus’ supporters believe he’s being harassed because of frosty relations with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh’s government has denied the allegation.

Monday’s verdict came as Bangladesh prepares for its general election on Jan. 7, amid a boycott by the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s arch-enemy. The party said it didn’t have any confidence the premier’s administration would hold a free and fair election.

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In August, more than 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates in an open letter urged Hasina to suspend all legal proceedings against Yunus.

The leaders, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more than 100 Nobel laureates, said in the letter that they were deeply concerned by recent threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.

Hasina responded sharply and said she would welcome international experts and lawyers to come to Bangladesh to assess the legal proceedings and examine documents involving the charges against Yunus.

In 1983, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to entrepreneurs who would not normally qualify for bank loans. The bank’s success in lifting people out of poverty led to similar microfinancing efforts in other countries.

Hasina’s administration began a series of investigations of Yunus after coming to power in 2008. She became enraged when Yunus announced he would form a political party in 2007 when a military-backed government ran the country and she was in prison, although he did not follow through on the plan.

Yunus had earlier criticized politicians in the country, saying they are only interested in money. Hasina called him a “bloodsucker” and accused him of using force and other means to recover loans from poor rural women as head of Grameen Bank.

In 2011, Hasina’s administration began a review of the bank’s activities. Yunus was fired as managing director for allegedly violating government retirement regulations. He was put on trial in 2013 on charges of receiving money without government permission, including his Nobel Prize award and royalties from a book.

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Kim Jung Un says military should ‘annihilate’ US and SKorea if provoked…

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Kim Jung Un says military should ‘annihilate’ US and SKorea if provoked…

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his military should “thoroughly annihilate” the United States and South Korea if provoked, state media reported Monday, after he vowed to boost national defense to cope with what he called an unprecedented U.S.-led confrontation.

North Korea has increased its warlike rhetoric in recent months in response to an expansion of U.S.-South Korean military drills. Experts expect Kim will continue to escalate his rhetoric and weapons tests because he likely believes he can use heightened tensions to wrest U.S. concessions if former President Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November.

In a five-day major ruling party meeting last week, Kim said he will launch three more military spy satellites, produce more nuclear materials and develop attack drones this year in what observers say is an attempt to increase his leverage in future diplomacy with the U.S.

In a meeting Sunday with commanding army officers, Kim said it is urgent to sharpen “the treasured sword” to safeguard national security, an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons program. He cited “the U.S. and other hostile forces’ military confrontation moves,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

Kim stressed that “our army should deal a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate them by mobilizing all the toughest means and potentialities without moment’s hesitation” if they opt for military confrontation and provocations against North Korea, KCNA said.

In his New Year’s Day address Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said he will strengthen his military’s preemptive strike, missile defense and retaliatory capabilities in response to the North Korean nuclear threat.

“The Republic of Korea is building genuine, lasting peace through strength, not a submissive peace that is dependent on the goodwill of the adversary,” Yoon said, using South Korea’s official name.

At the party meeting, Kim called South Korea “a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state” whose society is “tainted by Yankee culture.” He said his military must use all available means including nuclear weapons to “suppress the whole territory of South Korea” in the event of a conflict.

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South Korea’s Defense Ministry warned in response Sunday that if North Korea attempts to use nuclear weapons, South Korean and U.S. forces will punish it overwhelmingly, resulting in the end of the Kim government.

KCNA said North Korean officials held talks on Monday to implement an order by Kim to disband or reform organizations handling relations with South Korea to fundamentally change the principle and direction of the North’s struggle against the South. There was no immediate explanation of how that might alter inter-Korean relations, which have been stalled for an extended period.

Experts say small-scale military clashes between North and South Korea could happen this year along their heavily armed border. They say North Korea is also expected to test-launch intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the mainland U.S. and other major new weapons.

In 2018-19, Kim met Trump in three rounds of talks on North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal. The diplomacy fell apart after the U.S. rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle his main nuclear complex, a limited step, in exchange for extensive reductions in U.S.-led sanctions.

Since 2022, North Korea has conducted more than 100 missile tests, prompting the U.S. and South Korea to expand their joint military exercises. North Korea has also tried to strengthen its relationships with China and Russia, which blocked efforts by the U.S. and its partners in the U.N. Security Council to toughen U.N. sanctions on North Korea over its weapons tests.

KCNA said Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged New Year’s Day messages on Monday on bolstering bilateral ties. North Korea faces suspicions that it has supplied conventional arms for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for sophisticated Russian technologies to enhance the North’s military programs.

Estimates of the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal vary, ranging from about 20-30 bombs to more than 100. Many foreign experts say North Korea still has some technological hurdles to overcome to produce functioning nuclear-armed ICBMs, though its shorter-range nuclear-capable missiles can reach South Korea and Japan.

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Sen. Fetterman says he thought news about his depression treatment would end his political career

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Sen. Fetterman says he thought news about his depression treatment would end his political career

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. John Fetterman acknowledges having “dark conversations” about harming himself before he hit “the emergency brake” and sought treatment for depression.

He remembers thinking about his three school-age kids. “I can’t be a blueprint for my children. I can’t let them be left alone or not to understand why he would have done that,” the first-term Pennsylvania Democrat told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in a deeply personal and introspective interview taped before the broadcast that aired Sunday.

So he checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last Feb. 15. “There was nowhere else to go,” he said, describing how he often felt during his stay that “there wasn’t any hope sometimes and like, ‘What do I have left?’”

He also wondered whether he would survive politically.

“When it got released where I was and where it was going, it was a big story. And so, I had assumed that that would be the end of my career,” he said

When he sought treatment for clinical depression, Fetterman was still coping with the effects of the stroke he had in May 2022, during his campaign for one of the Senate’s most contested seats. “My heart technically stopped, and it was a very touch-and-go situation,” said Fetterman, 54. A pacemaker was implanted with a defibrillator to manage two heart conditions, atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy.

His victory over Republican Mehmet Oz had helped Democrats keep control of the Senate and made him a national figure. It was the height of his political career. But he couldn’t make it out of bed at his home in Braddock, in western Pennsylvania.

“I really scared my kids, and they thought, ’You won, Dad. Why aren’t we enough? Why are you still so sad? Why are you even more sad?’ And it was hard for — to explain why I was. And, of course, a 9-year-old child wouldn’t understand that. And it was awful,” Fetterman said.

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So much so that he said he “pleaded not to go down to D.C.” later that November for orientation sessions in Washington for newly elected lawmakers.

His favorite holiday was nearing, yet he was unable to think about getting Christmas presents for his children and “dreading” his swearing in on Capitol Hill early in the new year.

Within two months, he was at Walter Reed. Aides had described the new senator as being withdrawn and uninterested in eating, discussing work or the usual banter with staff.

“This is a conversation that I’ve had with myself and anybody that knows they’re unable to address their depression, is they start to have dark conversations with themself about self-harm,” Fetterman said. “And things continued to kind of tick off the list. And then I kind of hit the emergency brake.”

He added, “I knew I needed help.”

Before checking into Walter Reed, Fetterman had never publicly discussed his battle with depression. He has since said that he has experienced it on and off throughout his life.

He left Walter Reed at the end of March after six weeks of inpatient treatment with his depression “in remission,” according to a statement from his office.

Doctors describe “remission” as when a patient responds to treatment so that they have returned to normal social function and they are indistinguishable from someone who has never had depression.

Fetterman has since become a visible presence in the Capitol, bantering with reporters, joking with Senate colleagues and speaking up at Senate hearings.

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To others who are now “facing a really dark holiday time,” Fetterman offered this guidance: “I know that last year’s was desolate. And this year’s might be desolate. Next year’s can be the best ever. And that’s what happened for me.”

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