November 30, 2012

Stung by U.N. Defeat, Israel Authorizes 3,000 New Settler Homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem

Stung by U.N. defeat, Israel pushes settlement plans

November 30, 2012

Reuters - Hours after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to grant de-facto statehood to Palestine, Israel responded on Friday by announcing it was authorising 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

An official, who declined to be named, said the government had also decided to expedite planning work for thousands more homes in a geographically sensitive area close to Jerusalem that critics say would kill off Palestinian hopes of a viable state.

The decision was made on Thursday when it became clear that the U.N. General Assembly was set to upgrade the Palestinians' status in the world body, making them a "non-member state", as opposed to an "entity", boosting their diplomatic clout.

The motion was backed by 138 nations, opposed by nine, while 41 members abstained - a resounding defeat that exposed its growing diplomatic isolation.

An Israeli official had earlier conceded that this represented a "total failure of diplomacy" and warned there would be consequences - which were swift in coming.

Plans to put up thousands of new settler homes in the wake of the Palestinian upgrade were always likely, but the prospect of building in an area known as E-1, which lies near Jerusalem and bisects much of the West Bank, is seen by some as a potential game changer.
"E-1 will signal the end of the two state-solution," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on settlements. 
He added that statutory planning would take another six to nine months to complete, meaning building there was not a foregone conclusion.

About 500,000 Israelis already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war - territory the Palestinians claim for their independent state.

The United States, one of the eight countries to vote alongside Israel at the U.N. General Assembly, said the latest expansion plan was counterproductive to the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Ahead of the U.N. vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government had argued that the unilateral Palestinian move breached their previous accords and accused the 193-member world body of failing in its responsibilities.
"The General Assembly can resemble the theatre of the absurd, which once a year automatically approves ludicrous, anti-Israeli resolutions," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

"Sometimes these are supported by Europe, sometimes they are not," he added, alluding to the fact that only one European state, the Czech Republic, had voted against the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, analysts said the vote exposed the gulf that had opened between Europe and Netanyahu over his handling of the Western-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the depth of EU opposition to settlement expansion.
"The government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the challenge to Israel's fundamental legitimacy in Europe," said Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think-tank.

"The Palestinian bid in the U.N. is turning out to be a bigger defeat than anticipated."
In many ways, Israel was caught off guard.

Last week it was fighting Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip, grateful to see much of the West offering support for its determination to stop indiscriminate rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave whose leaders preach Israel's destruction.

The eight-day bombardment ended in a truce that was widely viewed as handing Gaza's Hamas Islamists a PR boost at the expense of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who have renounced violence in favour of diplomacy.

The West pumped billions into Abbas's administration over the years to bolster a partner for Middle East peace and felt they had to rally to his support in New York. Before the Gaza conflict, the Palestinians said they would win 115 'yes' votes at the United Nations. They ended up with more.


By itself, the U.N. upgrade will make little practical difference to the Palestinians or Israelis. However, the new position will enable Abbas to seek membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague if he wants.

This is what worries Israel.

The Geneva Convention forbids occupying powers from moving "parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies", leaving Israeli officials potentially vulnerable to an ICC challenge. Israel says its settlements are legal, citing historical and Biblical ties to the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The Palestinians say they are in no rush to go to the ICC, but the threat is there, putting pressure on Israel to come up with creative solutions to overcome the peace-talks impasse, which the Jewish state blames on Abbas.
"This U.N. vote is a very strong signal to the Israelis that they can't shove this matter under the carpet for any longer," said Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "This is a red light for Israel."
With politicians campaigning ahead of a Jan. 22 election, Israel is unlikely to change course.

Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu's right-wing bloc will win a new term in office. The coalition includes pro-settler parties, and the prime minister's own Likud group appeared to shift to the right in primaries this week, making any land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians look more complex than ever.

His opponents seized on the U.N. vote, with ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, aspiring to become Israel's second female prime minister, blaming a failure of initiative.
"When we do not initiate, we are imposed upon," she said.
Israeli officials say the Palestinians themselves must show they are ready to make the sort of concessions that they believe are needed to secure an accord - such as renouncing any right to return to modern-day Israel for refugees and their descendants.

However, analysts say that with the elections out of the way, the new government will have a period of calm to try once more to end their decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.
"The strategy toward the Palestinian Authority and statehood is likely to be on the top of the agenda of the next government in the winter," said the Reut Institute's Grinstein.

"The outcome of its strategic reassessment may well be active engagement in upgrading the powers and responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority toward statehood, and eventually recognising the Palestinian Authority as a state."
If E-1 building goes ahead, the chances of talks resuming will be close to non-existent.

Obamacare Pushes U.S. Over the Cliff

Bureaucrats want to cut Medicare and Social Security, which are directly funded by payroll taxes (FICA)... the Feds will use our tax dollars to subsidize expansion at the state level of Medicaid to all Americans. Where is the money coming from to fund this? If we are on a 'fiscal cliff', then Obamacare should be the first thing to go. Obamacare is not about extending affordable heath care coverage to every American: it's about the government controlling and rationing our healthcare and forcing every American to have an electronic health care record (which bureaucrats will have access to) in order to receive coverage. It's also about collecting additional taxes from small businesses and individuals by forcing people without insurance to pay a fee to the IRS unless they meet federal poverty levels (currently $11,170 for individuals, $23,050 for a family of four). Obamacare could lead to the government having real-time access to individuals' finances and bank accounts and a 'National ID Card'—the mark of the beast (source).
"That information will be irrevocably integrated into a cradle-to-grave medical record to which insurers, employers, government and law enforcement will have access is, to me, exactly what privacy is not. People are not going to feel comfortable going to the doctor, because now you are going to have a permanent record that will follow you around for the rest of your life that says you had syphilis, or depression, or an abortion or whatever else." - A.G. Breitenstein, director of the Health Law Institute

Counting down to ObamaCare: What's coming in 2013?

November 29, 2012

The Week - Most Americans still don't know what to expect from President Obama's health care overhaul, and the big changes are yet to come

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said after the 2012 election that "ObamaCare is the law of the land," he was more stating the facts than waving a white flag. Republicans haven't entirely given up on neutering, or at least undermining, President Obama's signature domestic achievement, but the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has survived several legislative attempts at repeal, a harrowing Supreme Court challenge, and now a presidential election that promised critics their last best chance of killing ObamaCare before it takes full effect in 2014. Still, a lot of the nuts and bolts of the law are still loose (or still in their packaging), making 2013 a very big year for the health care overhaul.

Here's a chronological rundown of what benefits and rules kick in over the next year, what has yet to be finalized, and what the GOP is doing to keep up the fight:

What has already taken effect

As Obama noted repeatedly in the presidential campaign, ObamaCare already allows parents to keep their children on their health insurance plans until age 26, makes it so children cannot be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions, offers some preventative services at no out-of-pocket cost, and prohibits insurers from setting lifetime limits on benefits. On Nov. 20, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a whole ream of (largely technical) rules guiding how ObamaCare will be implemented.

December 14, 2012

This is the HHS deadline for states to decide whether they will set up their own health insurance exchanges, partner with the federal government, or let the feds set one up for them.
"Basically, these will be health insurance stores," says Peter Grier at The Christian Science Monitor, "markets intended to provide a more organized and competitive way for people to buy a product that's often complicated and confusing." 
Eligible shoppers will include workers whose employers don't provide affordable health care, the self-employed, and early (pre-Medicare-age) retirees.

As of Nov. 29, 18 states have said they will set up their own exchanges, six have signed on for state-federal partnerships, 17 said they will leave the work to the federal government, and 10 are still undecided. Massachusetts and Utah already have exchanges, although Utah's is "relatively barebones" and only serves employers, not individuals, says Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post.

This is one of the major ways Republicans hope to hobble ObamaCare. Setting up the exchanges will be a huge undertaking for the states, and the federal government will have an even harder time setting up 17 to 30 different systems for opt-out states. If the Obama team can't create those exchanges, ObamaCare loses its conduit for providing insurance to millions of Americans. It would serve Democrats right, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. There's no way HHS can pull off the exchanges in a year, and "when it turns out that ObamaCare's costs are underestimated and its benefits exaggerated," why should GOP governors who opposed it be left holding the bag?

January 1, 2013

Regardless of what happens with the "fiscal cliff," a few ObamaCare-specific taxes will kick in at the New Year. People earning more than $200,000 a year (for couples, $250,000), the Medicare Part A (hospital coverage) payroll tax will go up less than 1 percent, to 2.35 percent of wages. Medical device makers face a new 2.3 percent tax, although the IRS has not yet defined what counts as a taxable "medical device."

July 1, 2013

This is the scheduled date for a group of new Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO-OP) nonprofit, member-run health insurance companies to open their doors for business.

October 2013

At this point, the states' health insurance exchanges are supposed to go live, letting residents browse through the approved options and sign up for plans. As envisioned, shopping for health insurance should be as easy as shopping for plane tickets or rental cars online.
Of course, "Buying health insurance is a lot more difficult than purchasing a plane ticket on Expedia," says The Washington Post's Kliff
So this is also the informal deadline for "setting up large-scale customer support operations" at the state and/or federal level.

Late 2013

In the GOP's other big shot at striking a blow against ObamaCare, the Supreme Court recently opened the door to a second high-court challenge to the law. In this case, the challenge involves the employer mandate — companies with 50 or more employees will have to provide health coverage or pay a $2,000 fine for every worker past No. 30 — and the requirement that all non-church employers provide free contraception. If the lower court makes its ruling by spring 2013, as expected, says Kilff, "that could lay the foundation for a repeat performance in front of the Supreme Court late next year — just before the major parts of the health care law are expected to kick into gear."

January 1, 2014

The major parts of the law are scheduled to kick into gear: The individual mandate and employer mandate, the health insurance exchanges, and the ban on insurers excluding people based on pre-existing medical conditions. This is also when Medicaid coverage expands to everyone in participating states who earns up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Under the individual mandate, everyone will be required to have health insurance, with federal subsidies for everyone earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $11,170 for individuals, $23,050 for a family of four).

Find out how ObamaCare affects you, or watch this video primer from the Kaiser Family Foundation:

Israel Says Peace Will Not Come Through UN; The Next Stop for Palestinians Could Be Global Court

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor says the only way to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians is through agreements between the parties, not through the United Nations. Speaking Thursday before a General Assembly vote that would grant the Palestinians nonmember state observer status at the U.N., Prosor said the U.N. can't break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and land of Israel. He accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of ignoring history. - The Associated Press, November 29, 2012

US urges Palestinians, Israel to resume peace talks

November 30, 2012

Reuters - Hamas's leader in exile Khaled Meshaal said on Monday Israel must take the first step if it wants a truce in the conflict in Gaza.

UNITED NATIONS - The United States called on the Palestinians and Israelis on Thursday to resume peace talks after the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution that implicitly recognised a Palestinian state.
"The United States calls upon both the parties to resume direct talks, without preconditions, on all the issues that divide them and we pledge that the United States will be there to support the parties vigorously in such efforts," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said.  
"The United States will continue to urge all parties to avoid any further provocative actions in the region, in New York or elsewhere," she said after voting against the resolution.

Analysis: The next stop for Palestinians could be global courts

November 30, 2012

Reuters - The U.N. General Assembly's overwhelming vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member state offers little prospect for greater clout in world politics but it could make a difference in the international courts.

The formal recognition of statehood, even without full U.N. membership, could be enough for the Palestinians to achieve membership at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), where member states have the power to refer for investigation alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity.

With its upgraded status at the U.N., the Palestinians may now seek to apply to the ICC for membership and authority to file war-crimes charges against the Israeli government and its officials.

That threat of so-called "lawfare" has already prevented some Israeli civilian and military leaders from traveling abroad out of fear they'd be arrested as war criminals.
"Israelis are afraid of being hauled to The Hague," said Robert Malley, the Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group.
The Palestinians have long planned to use non-membership statehood at the U.N., once obtained, as a way to enter the ICC. One Palestinian negotiator, in talking to the International Crisis Group, called the strategy a "legal or diplomatic intifada" against Israel.

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the United Nations in September he specifically accused Israel of committing war crimes.Israeli officials have said the country's armed forces strictly adhere to international law and argue the true aim of Palestinians' accusations is to isolate Israel.

Last spring, the ICC's former chief prosecutor turned down a 2009 Palestinian request for prosecution of Israel's actions in the 2008-2009 Gaza war with Hamas, specifically noting that Palestine was only a U.N. observer entity.

In September, the new ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said a General Assembly vote could make the difference.
"What we have also done is to leave the door open and to say that if this -- if Palestine is able to pass over that (statehood) hurdle, of course, under the General Assembly, then we will revisit what the ICC can do," Bensouda said during a talk in New York.
The Hague-based ICC is the one international venue where individuals can be criminally charged. All 117 countries that ratified the Rome Statute, which created the court, are bound to turn over suspects.

The United States and Israel have not joined the Rome Statute, but that would not prevent the Palestinians from pursing cases under the treaty. ICC arrest warrants and rulings carry geopolitical weight even when they can't be enforced. An indictment of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi last year helped mobilize international support for the rebels who opposed him.

Of course, if the Palestinians enter the legal battlefield, they, too, risk being accused and prosecuted in the venues where they'd try to target Israelis.

There is no guarantee for either side that the ICC prosecutor would follow through on charges. The ICC has procedural obstacles that could head off any prosecution there.

Some commentators argue that, like lawyers in any legal fight, both the Palestinians and Israelis have exaggerated the stakes in what's more of a political and public-relations drama.
"The concern that something dramatic would change is overblown," said Rosa Brooks, a professor of international law at Georgetown University who has also served in policy roles at the State and Defense departments.
And it's important to remember that the ICC is a political organization as much as a legal one -- cases are initiated by member governments and the U.N. Security Council -- so geopolitical considerations can trump a strictly legal case.

Israel says U.N. vote won't hasten Palestinian state

November 30, 2012

Reuters - A U.N. General Assembly vote on Thursday recognizing a Palestinian state will do nothing to make it a reality, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Israel had fiercely opposed the Palestinian bid to become a "non-member state" at the United Nations, but had been unable to prevent wide international support for the initiative, notably among its European allies.
"This is a meaningless resolution that won't change anything on the ground. No Palestinian state will arise without an arrangement ensuring the security of Israeli citizens," Netanyahu said in a statement issued by his office shortly before the U.N. vote was to be held.
Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of violating agreements with Israel by going to the U.N. unilaterally.
"Israel will act accordingly," Netanyahu said. "The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is through direct negotiations without preconditions, not unilateral decisions at the U.N."
Peace talks collapsed in 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building on territory Palestinians seek for a state.

The Israeli leader used unusually strong language to denounce a speech to the General Assembly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - who had singled out an Israeli offensive in Gaza last week in which at least 170 Palestinians were killed. Six Israelis died in rocket fire from Gaza.

Abbas's comments were "hostile and poisonous", and full of "false propaganda", a statement released by Netanyahu's office said. "These are not the words of a man who wants peace."

Israel had mounted an intensive campaign, supported by the United States, to dissuade European governments from backing the Palestinian move in the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly, long sympathetic to the Palestinians.

The vote took place on a date burned into collective memory - the Assembly voted on November 29, 1947 for Resolution 181 to partition British-ruled Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. Arab rulers rejected it and, after bitter fighting, Israel alone was recognized as a state six months later.
"No matter how many hands are raised against us," Netanyahu said during a visit to a museum in Jerusalem ahead of the U.N. vote, "there is no power on earth that will cause me to compromise on Israel's security."
Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, says a Palestinian state must be the product of direct negotiations and a peace deal that imposes security measures and charts borders that pose no danger to Israelis.


Netanyahu, while hinting Israel may seek to retaliate, made no specific mention of punitive measures, in a shift in tone after eight days of fighting around the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu is running for re-election in a January 22 national ballot and has been accused by critics of harming Israel's international standing through his Palestinian policies.

Israeli officials said Israel will wait and see what the Palestinians do after the vote, which will allow them access to the International Criminal Court where they could seek action against Israel for alleged war crimes.
The Palestinians have signaled they are no hurry to join the ICC, and pledged in their draft resolution to relaunch the peace process immediately after the vote. Recognition by the General Assembly falls short of the legal weight of a similar move by the U.N. Security Council. A U.S. veto on that body ensures that Palestinians have little immediate prospect there.

Just two weeks ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the U.N. Assembly's approval of the Palestinian resolution would "elicit an extreme response from us".

Another member of Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet, Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, said three years ago that Israeli counter-measures could include annexing some of the 120 settlements in the West Bank.

But in the past week, Israeli officials have retreated from such talk, retrenching after European countries, which had been largely supportive of Israel's November 14-21 Gaza offensive, started showing their backing for Abbas's U.N. move.

Israel is now threatening only one measure: the withholding of $200 million from the monthly transfers of duties that Israel collects on the Palestinian Authority's behalf. It says it will cover the PA's debt to the Israel Electric Corporation.

The deduction, equal to two months' worth of Palestinian tax receipts, would be painful for Abbas's cash-strapped government in Ramallah. But it would stop short of a formal suspension of transfers vital to the economy in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has previously frozen payments to the PA during times of heightened security and diplomatic tensions, provoking strong international criticism, such as when the U.N. cultural body UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership a year ago.


UN Vote for Palestine is Far More Than Symbolic - It Could Give Palestinians Leverage in Future Border Talks; Netanyahu Rejects the 1967 Borders

Palestinians Hope to Gain Leverage from UN Bid

November 28, 2012

AP - The expected U.N. vote Thursday to recognize a state of Palestine will be far more than symbolic — it could give the Palestinians leverage in future border talks with Israel and open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state.

The Palestinians want the 193-member General Assembly to accept "Palestine," on the lands Israel occupied in 1967, as a non-member observer state. They anticipate broad support.

For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.N. bid is a last-ditch attempt to stay relevant as a leader after years of failed peace talks with Israel, at a time when his Islamic militant Hamas rivals are gaining ground.

The U.S. and Israel have tried to block the quest for U.N. recognition of Palestine, saying it's an attempt to bypass Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down four years ago.

The U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, met with Abbas in New York on Wednesday, asking Abbas again to drop the idea and promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Abbas told Burns it was too late.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said U.N. recognition of an independent Palestine won't help to reach a lasting two-state peace agreement and stressed that the "path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York."

Israel, meanwhile, appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.

The Palestinians say they need U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's predecessors accepted the 1967 lines as a basis for border talks, with modifications to be negotiated, including land swaps that would enable Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. Those talks did not produce a deal, and the sides remained apart on other key issues.

Netanyahu rejects the 1967 lines as starting point while pressing ahead with settlement construction, leaving Abbas little incentive to resume negotiations. Israel goes to elections in January, and polls indicate Netanyahu has a strong chance of winning.

Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the U.N., though the recognition request presented to the world body calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.

It's not clear if negotiations could resume even if Obama, freed from the constraints of his re-election campaign, can turn his attention to the Mideast conflict.

Abbas aides have given conflicting accounts of whether Abbas, once armed with global backing for the 1967 borders, will return to negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze. About half a million Israelis have settled on war-won land.

A construction stop is unlikely, even more so after hawks in Netanyahu's Likud Party scored major gains in primaries this week.

Israel has said it is willing to resume talks without preconditions.

Government spokesman Mark Regev affirmed the position on Wednesday. Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate "both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations."

Palestinian officials countered that their historic U.N. bid is meant to salvage a peace deal they say is being sabotaged by Israeli settlement expansion. 
"It is a last-ditch effort because we believe the two-state solution is in jeopardy as a result of these actions," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, told reporters in Ramallah on Wednesday.
The Palestinians expect that at least two-thirds of the 193 member states in the General Assembly will support them on Thursday, including a number of European countries, among them France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland.

Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Ashrawi urged the U.S. to at least abstain, saying that voting no "would be seen as being really pathetic by the rest of the world" and hurt American interests in the Middle East.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that "in the long term, this region can only find peace through negotiations to resolve the Middle East conflict," but she did not say whether her country would abstain or vote against.
"Nothing will really be gained either by unilateral Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations which aim for recognition nor by Israel's continued building of settlements," she said.
The vote comes at an important time domestically for Abbas. His Hamas rivals, who control Gaza, have gained popularity after holding their own during an Israeli offensive there earlier this month, aimed at stopping frequent Gaza rocket fire on Israel.

During the Gaza offensive, Abbas was sidelined in his compound in the West Bank, underscoring international concerns that the deadlock in peace efforts is weakening Palestinian pragmatists. Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, argues that negotiations with Israel are a waste of time, but Hamas leaders have come out in support of the U.N. bid in recent days.

Other than creating leverage in negotiations, U.N. recognition would also allow the Palestinians to seek membership in U.N. agencies and international bodies, for example making them eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Perhaps most significantly, it could open the door to a new attempt to join the International Criminal Court and seek an investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel in the occupied territories.

Abbas' self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, unilaterally recognized the court's jurisdiction in 2009 and pressed prosecutors to open an investigation into Israel's previous Gaza offensive. Prosecutors noted at the time that the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, is only open to states. Israel has not signed the statute and does not recognize the court's jurisdiction.

Ashrawi on Wednesday avoided explicit threats to take Israel to court, but suggested it's an option. 
"If Israel refrains from settlement activities ... there is no immediate pressing need to go," she said, adding that this could change if "Israel persists in its violations."
Israel would respond "forcefully" if the Palestinians try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC, said an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss policy considerations.
If the Palestinians use their upgraded international status "as a tool to confront Israel in the international arena, there will be a response," he said.
Until then, he said, Israel will be bound by its obligations to the Palestinians under existing peace agreements, but won't necessarily go beyond them. Earlier there was talk of Israel retaliating by canceling partial peace accords dating back to the 1990s.

In the West Bank, the view of Abbas' quest for recognition was mixed. Many were bitter, saying they've heard too many promises that statehood is near and don't believe a nod from the U.N. will make a difference.
"Nothing will come of it," said Arwa Abu Helo, a 23-year-old student in Ramallah. "It's just a way of misleading the public."
Yousef Mohammed, a bank teller, said Abbas was trying to "gain the spotlight after Hamas said it won in Gaza."

Hurriyeh Abdel Karim, 65, said she was willing to give Abbas a chance. "If he succeeds, maybe our life improves," she said.

November 29, 2012

Palestinians Win Implicit U.N. Recognition of Sovereign State

U.N. General Assembly Votes to Grant Palestine 'Non-member State' U.N. Observer Status

November 29, 2012

Reuters and AP - The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution on Thursday to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's observer status at the United Nations from "entity" to "non-member state," implicitly recognizing a Palestinian state. There were 138 votes in favor, nine against and 41 abstentions. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly before a historic vote on Thursday that it "is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine."

The Palestinians were certain to win U.N. recognition as a state, but Israel and the United States warned it could delay hopes of achieving an independent Palestinian state through peace talks with Israel.

Abbas said the vote is the last chance to save the two-state solution.

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, warned the General Assembly that "the Palestinians are turning their backs on peace" and that the U.N. can't break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.

The General Assembly vote was certain to succeed, with most of the 193 member states sympathetic to the Palestinians. Several key countries, including France, recently announced they would support the move to elevate the Palestinians from the status of U.N. observer to nonmember observer state.

Jubilant Palestinians crowded around outdoor screens and television sets at home Thursday to watch the United Nations vote.

Palestinians say a successful vote will strengthen their hand in future talks with Israel, which has lambasted the recognition bid as an attempt to bypass such negotiations.

The vote would grant Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.

The U.N. bid also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts. His rival, Hamas, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after an Israeli offensive on targets linked to the Islamic militant group there earlier this month.

UN vote is a boost to Palestinian statehood hopes

November 29, 2012

AP - The expected admission of Palestine as a nonmember state in the United Nations is far more than a symbolic vote. For the Palestinians, the move gives them an important boost of international legitimacy in their quest for independence. For Israel and its key ally, the United States, it is a diplomatic setback with potentially grave implications.

Here is a look at how key players are affected by Thursday's vote:


The vote benefits the Palestinians on many levels. Domestically, it gives embattled President Mahmoud Abbas a boost in his rivalry with the Hamas militant group. As peace efforts have flagged, Abbas has steadily lost popularity with the Palestinian public, while Hamas is riding high after battling Israel during an eight-day flare-up in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip this month.

Internationally, it puts Abbas and the Palestinian agenda back at center stage. The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.

It also opens the door to the Palestinians joining U.N. agencies, most critically the International Criminal Court, where they could use their newfound status to press for war crimes charges against Israel for military operations and construction of Jewish settlements on occupied territories. On the downside, the vote does not change the situation on the ground — a point Israelis have repeatedly stressed in an effort to blunt any appearance of defeat.


The vote amounts to a massive international show of displeasure with Israel, particularly over its continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. While Israel is used to lopsided U.N. resolutions against it, even key allies are expected to abandon it this time around. Germany, Italy, France and Australia are among the Israeli allies expected to abstain or vote with the Palestinians.

Moving forward, the resolution could weaken Israeli claims to keeping parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city claimed by both sides for their capitals. After four years of deadlock in peace efforts, the world seems to be laying the blame on Israel. If opinion polls are correct and Netanyahu, backed by hard-line, pro-settler allies, cruises to victory in upcoming parliamentary elections, he could find himself facing stiff international pressure to make concessions to get peace talks back on track.


The expected vote appears to reflect the world's frustration over President Barack Obama's failure to get Israel and the Palestinians to start talking. During his first term, Obama initially spoke out strongly against Israeli settlements and even coaxed Netanyahu into a partial freeze on settlement construction. But after that freeze expired, Netanyahu rejected Obama's calls to extend it and Obama dropped the matter.

The mixed messages ended up alienating both Israel and the Palestinians, leaving peace efforts in tatters. After failing to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their push at the U.N., Obama will likely face international pressure to make another diplomatic push in the region.


The Islamic militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, has been emboldened by the performance of its forces in fighting against Israel this month and its growing acceptance among the new Islamist rulers rising in the fast-changing Middle East. Since capturing Gaza from Abbas in 2007, both sides have largely resisted attempts to reconcile.

Thursday's vote is an important reminder that Abbas is still the main address for the international community, and could put pressure on Hamas to reconcile. Perhaps sensing this changing constellation, Hamas lined up behind Abbas' U.N. bid, after earlier criticizing it.

Abbas urges U.N. to issue "birth certificate" for Palestine

November 29, 2012

Reuters - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday urged the U.N. General Assembly to grant de facto recognition to a sovereign state of Palestine by upgrading the U.N. observer status of the Palestinian Authority from "entity" to "non-member state."

"Sixty-five years ago on this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two states and became the birth certificate for Israel," Abbas told the 193-nation assembly after receiving a standing ovation.

"The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine," he said.
The assembly is expected to approve a resolution shortly that implicitly recognizes Palestinian statehood, despite threats by the United States and Israel to punish the Palestinians by withholding funds for the West Bank government.

The move would lift the Palestinian Authority's U.N. observer status from "entity" to "non-member state," like the Vatican. It is expected to pass easily in the 193-nation General Assembly. At least 15 European states plan to vote for it.

Israel, the United States and a handful of other members are set to vote against what they see as a largely symbolic and counterproductive move by the Palestinians, which takes place on the anniversary of the assembly's adoption of resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in New York, but did not address the assembly. Israeli U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor spoke after Abbas, reiterating the Jewish state's desire for peace with Palestinians, but opposing the resolution.
"It doesn't enhance peace," Prosor said ahead of the vote on the resolution. "It pushes it backwards."
"No decision by the U.N. can break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel," he said.
Granting Palestinians the title of "non-member observer state" falls short of full U.N. membership - something the Palestinians failed to achieve last year. But it would allow them access to the International Criminal Court and other international bodies, should they choose to join them.
"The ICC issue is what the Israelis are really worried about," a U.N. official said on condition of anonymity. "They know this whole process isn't really symbolic, except for that."

Abbas has been leading the campaign to win support for the resolution, which follows an eight-day conflict this month between Israel and Islamists in the Gaza Strip, who are pledged to Israel's destruction and oppose a negotiated peace.

The U.S. State Department made a last-ditch effort to get Abbas to reconsider, but the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, refused to turn back.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated to reporters in Washington on Wednesday the U.S. view that "the path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York."

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly warned that the U.N. status change could lead to a reduction of U.S. economic support for the Palestinians. The Israelis have also warned they might take significant deductions out of monthly transfers of duties that Israel collects on the Palestinians' behalf.

Despite its fierce opposition, Israel seems concerned not to find itself diplomatically isolated. It has recently toned down threats of retaliation in the face of wide international support for the initiative, notably among its European allies.

But U.N. diplomats say Israel's reaction might not be so measured if the Palestinians seek ICC action against Israel on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity or other crimes the court would have jurisdiction over.

The European Union, a key donor for the Palestinians, has made clear it will not curtail aid after Thursday's vote.

Flag-waving Palestinians thronged the squares of the West Bank and Gaza Strip before Thursday's vote. In a rare show of unity, Abbas's Islamist rivals, Hamas, who have ruled Gaza since a brief civil war in 2007, let backers of the president's Fatah movement hold demonstrations.

Peace talks have been stalled for two years, mainly over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have expanded despite being deemed illegal by most of the world. There are 4.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the draft resolution, the Palestinians have pledged to relaunch the peace process immediately following the U.N. vote.

With strong support from the developing world that makes up the majority of U.N. members, it is virtually assured of securing more than the requisite simple majority. Palestinian officials hope for more than 130 yes votes.

Abbas has focused on securing as many votes as possible from Europe, and his efforts appear to have paid off.

Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland all pledged to support the resolution. Britain said it was prepared to vote yes, but only if the Palestinians fulfilled certain conditions.

The fiercely pro-Israel Czech Republic was planning to vote against the move, dashing European hopes of avoiding any no votes that would create a three-way split on the continent into supporters, abstainers and opponents.

It was unclear whether some of the many undecided Europeans would join the Czechs. Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Estonia and Lithuania plan to abstain.


Palestinians are Certain to Win U.N. Recognition as a State

The Palestinians will not rush to sign up to the International Criminal Court if they win a U.N. status upgrade on Thursday, but warned that seeking action against Israel in the court would remain an option, said the Palestinian U.N. observer. The Palestinians appear certain to earn approval in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly for a status upgrade to "observer state" - similar to the Vatican's rank - from observer "entity." The move would implicitly recognize Palestinian statehood. Israel, the United States and a handful of other members of are expected to vote against it. [Reuters]

Palestinians certain to win recognition as a state

November 29, 2012

AP - The Palestinians are certain to win U.N. recognition as a state Thursday but success could exact a high price: Israel and the United States warn it could delay hopes of achieving an independent Palestinian state through peace talks with Israel.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly declared Thursday that the Palestinians would have to back down from long-held positions if they ever hope to gain independence.

Ahead of Thursday's vote, thousands of Palestinians from rival factions celebrated in the streets of the West Bank. Although the initiative will not immediately bring about independence, the Palestinians view it as a historic step in their quest for global recognition.

In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.

With most of the 193 General Assembly member states sympathetic to the Palestinians, the vote is certain to succeed. Several key countries, including France, have recently announced they would support the move to elevate the Palestinians from the status of U.N. observer to nonmember observer state. However, a country's vote in favor of the status change does not automatically imply its individual recognition of a Palestine state, something that must be done bilaterally.

The Palestinians say they need U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel. They say global recognition of the 1967 lines as the borders of Palestine is meant to salvage a peace deal, not sabotage it, as Israel claims.

The non-member observer state status could also open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court.

Netanyahu warned the Palestinians Thursday that they would not win their hoped-for state until they recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, declare an end to their conflict with the Jewish state and agree to security arrangements that protect Israel.
"The resolution in the U.N. today won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu declared. "It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off."
While Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the U.N., the recognition request presented to the world body in fact calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.

Netanyahu's predecessors accepted the 1967 lines as a basis for border talks. Netanyahu has rejected the idea, while pressing ahead with Jewish settlement building on war-won land, giving Abbas little incentive to negotiate.

For Abbas, the U.N. bid is crucial if he wants to maintain his leadership and relevance, especially following the recent conflict between his Hamas rivals in Gaza and Israel. The conflict saw the Islamic militant group claim victory and raise its standing in the Arab world, while Abbas' Fatah movement was sidelined and marginalized.

In a departure from previous opposition, the Hamas militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, said it wouldn't interfere with the U.N. bid, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, some in a crowd of several thousand raised green Hamas flags, while in the city of Ramallah, senior figures of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two militant groups normally opposed to Abbas, addressed the crowd.
"It's the right step in the right direction," Nasser al-Shaer, a former deputy prime minister from Hamas, said of the U.N. bid.
The Palestinians chose the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" for the vote. Before it takes place, there will be a morning of speeches by supporters focusing on the rights of the Palestinians. Abbas is scheduled to speak at that meeting, and again in the afternoon when he will present the case for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.
"We need an environment conducive to that," she told reporters in Washington. "And we've urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult."
The U.S. Congress has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians improve their status at the United Nations.

Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defense bill Wednesday that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate "both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations," which broke down four years ago.

But Israeli officials appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.

Regev, meanwhile, affirmed that Israel is willing to resume talks without preconditions.

U.N. diplomats said they will be listening closely to Abbas' speech to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon before the vote to see if he makes an offer of fresh negotiations with no strings, which could lead to new talks. The Palestinians have been demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition.

As a sign of the importance Israel attaches to the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to New York and was scheduled to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before the vote.

Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and the resolution to raise the Palestinian status from an observer to a nonmember observer state only requires a majority vote for approval. To date, 132 countries — over two-thirds of the U.N. member states — have recognized the state of Palestine.

The Palestinians have been courting Western nations, especially the Europeans, seen as critical to enhancing their international standing. A number have announced they will vote "yes" including France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.

The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.

Following last year's move by the Palestinians to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, the U.S. withheld funds from the organization, which amount to 22 percent of its budget. The U.S. also withheld money from the Palestinians.


November 28, 2012

Ron Paul: How to End the Tragedy in Gaza

How to End the Tragedy in Gaza

In a 2009 interview with Iranian state television, during the midst of a previous conflict between Israel and the Hamas government, Paul referred Gaza as a "concentration camp" and denied that the Hamas government was the aggressor. He suggested that if the United States were to stop supporting Israel, the Jewish state would be forced to start negotiating with its Arab neighbors, such as the Hamas regime in Gaza. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, dismantling Jewish settlements.

November 27, 2012

Ron Paul - As of late Friday the ceasefire in Gaza seems to be holding, if tentatively. While we should be pleased that this round of fighting appears temporarily on hold, we must realize that without changes in US foreign policy it is only a matter of time before the killing begins again.

It feels like 2009 all over again, which is the last time this kind of violence broke out in Gaza. At that time over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, of which just 235 were combatants. The Israelis lost 13 of which 10 were combatants. At that time I said of then-President Bush's role in the conflict:
"It's our money and our weapons. But I think we encouraged it. Certainly, the president has said nothing to diminish it. As a matter of fact, he justifies it on moral grounds, saying, oh, they have a right to do this, without ever mentioning the tragedy of Gaza.... To me, I look at it like a concentration camp."
The US role has not changed under the Obama administration. The same mistakes continue. As journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote last week:
"For years now, US financial, military and diplomatic support of Israel has been the central enabling force driving this endless conflict. The bombs Israel drops on Gazans, and the planes they use to drop them, and the weapons they use to occupy the West Bank and protect settlements are paid for, in substantial part, by the US taxpayer..."
Last week, as the fighting raged, President Obama raced to express US support for the Israeli side, in a statement that perfectly exemplifies the tragic-comedy of US foreign policy. The US supported the Israeli side because, he said, 
"No country on Earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."
Considering that this president rains down missiles on Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and numerous other countries on a daily basis, the statement was so hypocritical that it didn't pass the laugh test. But it wasn't funny.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, but she refused to meet with elected Palestinian leaders. Clinton said upon arrival in Israel, 
"America's commitment to Israel's security is rock-solid and unwavering." 
Does this sound like an honest broker?

At the same time Congress acted with similar ignobility when an unannounced resolution was brought to the House floor after the business of the week had been finished; and in less than 30 seconds the resolution was passed by unanimous consent, without debate and without most Representatives even having heard of it. The resolution, H Res 813, was so one-sided it is not surprising they didn't want anyone to have the chance to read and vote on it. Surely at least a handful of my colleagues would have objected to language like, 
"The House of Representatives expresses unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders..."
US foreign policy being so one-sided actually results in more loss of life and of security on both sides. Surely Israelis do not enjoy the threat of missiles from Gaza nor do the Palestinians enjoy their Israel-imposed inhuman conditions in Gaza. But as long as Israel can count on its destructive policies being underwritten by the US taxpayer it can continue to engage in reckless behavior. And as long as the Palestinians feel the one-sided US presence lined up against them they will continue to resort to more and more deadly and desperate measures.

Continuing to rain down missiles on so many increasingly resentful nations, the US is undermining rather than furthering its security. We are on a collision course with much of the rest of the world if we do not right our foreign policy. Ending interventionism in the Middle East and replacing it with friendship and even-handedness would be a welcome first step.

Gazans Thank Iran for Help in Battling Israel

Gazans thank Iran for help in battling Israel

November 28, 2012

AP - Residents of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday plastered large billboards in key locations thanking Iran for its help during a recent eight-day battle against Israel.

The posters reflected the strong ties between Iran and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups in Gaza. Israel considers Iran to be its most dangerous enemy, citing Iran's support for the militants and its suspect nuclear program.

During the fighting, Gaza militants groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, including Iranian-made "Fajr" missiles reaching as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Israel has long accused Iran of funneling weapons into the Gaza Strip, but only recently have the militant groups openly acknowledged the origins of their arsenal.

The posters, displayed at busy intersections through Gaza, show the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, surrounded by Iranian and Palestinian flags, two hands in a handshake with the words, 
"Thanks and Gratitude to Iran" in Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi.
The posters were not signed, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives said their groups had nothing to do with them. But their prominent location, at busy intersections and next to a destroyed Hamas security compound, as well as the fact that they were not removed, indicated that the militants were involved in the effort. Hamas has ruled Gaza with a firm hand since overrunning the territory in 2007.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders have also publicly thanked Iran.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev accused the Hamas leadership of putting its interests above those of the people of the Gaza Strip.
"I don't think anyone should be surprised by the connection between Hamas and Iran, because they share the same extremists and hateful ideology," he said.
Israel launched the offensive in Gaza on Nov. 14 in response to months of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire. Israel launched roughly 1,500 airstrikes at Palestinian rocket launchers and storage sites. While Israel claims to have inflicted heavy damage, the militants continued to fire rockets until a cease-fire was declared on Nov. 21.

In eight days of fighting, more than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian medical officials. Six Israelis were killed.

Obamacare Countdown: What is Slated to Happen Over the Next Year?

Obamacare countdown: What is slated to happen over next year?

The health-care reform law, aka Obamacare, is poised to enter a crucial 12 months that includes setting up state exchanges, levying taxes on the wealthy, and preparing for the individual mandate.

November 28, 2012
Christian Science MonitorObamacare lives. That may be one of the most sweeping consequences of the 2012 presidential election. By winning a second term, President Obama has essentially ended Republican hopes of rolling back his signature Affordable Care Act before it takes full effect. Even adamant opponents of the health-care reform law in the GOP-controlled House recognize that it's pointless to continue pushing repeal legislation, at least for now.
"Obamacare is the law of the land," said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio on Nov. 8.

With its immediate future secure, the health-care law now enters a crucial 12 months. Federal and state officials must race to prepare for Jan. 1, 2014, which is opening day for some of the Affordable Care Act's most far-reaching provisions. As Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted in congressional testimony this past spring,
"2013 will be a critical year for building the infrastructure and business operations" needed to expand health insurance coverage to millions of low-income Americans.
It's possible that some aspects of Obamacare (as many people, including the president, now call it) could be scaled back in budget negotiations intended to avert the "fiscal cliff" crisis. But here's a primer on top upcoming milestones as the law currently stands.

State insurance stores. By 2014, each state (and the District of Columbia) is supposed to have a health insurance exchange up and running. Basically, these will be health insurance stores – markets intended to provide a more organized and competitive way for people to buy a product that's often complicated and confusing.

Those eligible to shop at the exchanges will include people whose employers don't offer affordable health coverage, and others who need to buy insurance on their own for some reason (such as, they're self-employed, or they're retired and not yet eligible for Medicare).

States are supposed to tell Washington by Dec. 14 whether they'll run their own exchanges, partner with the federal government, or not get involved, in which case Uncle Sam will set up and run insurance stores for them.

Whoever controls them, there's a lot of work to get ready for October 2013. That's when exchanges are supposed to open their (presumably online) doors and allow potential customers to check out their products and begin the selection process. Between now and then, exchange officials will have to sort and certify offerings from insurance providers, while building the information systems and electronic customer interfaces they'll need to conduct business.

Coverage purchased through exchanges is slated to take effect at the beginning of 2014.

Tax hikes. Whatever the outcome of current budget negotiations, taxes on the wealthy are certain to rise in at least one area. To help pay for the Affordable Care Act's expansion of coverage, the tax on wages for Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) will rise by just under 1 percent for individuals who make more than $200,000 and for married couples who earn more than $250,000.

The increase will put this payroll tax at 2.35 percent for folks in those income levels. It's scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

The Affordable Care Act also mandates a new 2.3 percent tax on "medical devices," set to begin on the same date. The Internal Revenue Service hasn't yet issued final regulations setting the boundaries for what this levy will hit, however. Among the issues here is whether things often sold to consumers as well as health-care professionals, such as latex gloves, will be subject to the new tax.

Insurance mandate. The US government doesn't require you to have health insurance – yet. But that day is coming. That day is Jan. 1, 2014, to be precise, when the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate takes effect.

Starting then, adults who don't have health coverage will have to pay a fine (or tax, as the US Supreme Court ruled) of $95 per year, or as much as 1 percent of income – whichever is greater. This is scheduled to rise year by year, topping out in 2016 at $695 per adult or 2.5 percent of income.

For families, the fine goes from a maximum of $285 or 1 percent of household income to $2,085 or 2.5 percent of income, over the same period.

The fine can be waived for a limited number of reasons, including financial hardship. And it goes hand in hand with government subsidies intended to help make coverage affordable.

For instance, Obamacare calls for an expansion of Medicaid, the big federal-state health insurance program for poor and disadvantaged people. The Affordable Care Act provides a big influx of federal dollars to try to cajole states to expand Medicaid so that it includes everybody who makes less than 133 percent of the poverty level.

The US Supreme Court has said states don't have to participate in this, though, and some Republican governors have said they'll decline the expansion.

For Americans who earn a bit more, Obama­care also has provisions. Uncle Sam will provide subsidies on a sliding scale for people making up to 400 percent of the poverty level.


Dramatic Tax Increases and Government Program Spending Cuts Become Law on January 1, 2013

Liberals want tax increases on the wealthiest Americans to help balance the budget, while conservatives make a case for deep cuts in programs for the poor and a widening of the tax base to raise revenues without raising tax rates.

Why the fiscal cliff is like getting a huge paycheck cut

November 28, 2012

National Constitution Center - As rival lawmakers struggle to avoid the dreaded fiscal cliff in Washington, research shows that Americans will get a huge cut in their take-home pay if Congress can’t reach a deal on tax hikes and spending cuts.

In basic terms, the fiscal cliff is a set of dramatic tax increases and government program spending cuts that would decrease the annual deficit run up by the federal government.

It was put into a debt-negotiation process by lawmakers as a “poison pill,” an alternative so politically toxic that it would force Democrats and Republicans to agree, or face an angry mob of voters.

But an agreement was never reached in 2011, and now, the stark tax increases and spending cuts become law on January 1, 2013, unless a bipartisan agreement can be reached or the problem is pushed back into the hands of a new Congress.

The math behind the fiscal cliff can be quite complicated, but to see why politicians are scrambling to find a solution now, you only need to look at how the cliff would suck money out of voters’ paychecks, if the fiscal cliff goes unchecked.

As a rule, Americans don’t like taxes, and they don’t like dramatic tax actions. Look back at the original Tea Party in Boston as an example.

A study from the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, shows that tax hikes triggered by the cliff will “dock the pay” of 90 percent of Americans.
“Taxes would rise by more than $500 billion in 2013—an average of almost $3,500 per household—as almost every tax cut enacted since 2001 would expire. Middle-income households would see an average increase of almost $2,000,” the group said in an October 2012 report.
The telling factor in the Center’s report is that after-tax income will fall in every tax bracket, at an average of 6.2 percent.

In other words, instead of getting a 6 percent raise in 2013, you’d have your take-home pay docked 6 percent, before your employer even had a chance to give you a raise.

About 40 million Americans in the lowest fifth of the economy would see take-home income fall 3.7 percent. Taxpayers in the top fifth of the economy would see a 7.7 percent drop. Middle income tax payers would see take-home income fall by 4.4 percent.
Fiscal Cliff Changes in Take-Home Pay

Percent Dollars
Lowest quintile -3.7% $        412
Second quintile -4.5% $    1,231
Middle quintile -4.4% $    1,984
Fourth quintile -5.1% $    3,540
Top quintile -7.7% $  14,173

Average -6.2% $    3,446

The tax changes hit Americans from all angles. The biggest hit is from the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, but there are also Obama-era tax cuts and credits that expire.

There will be tax penalties for married couples and for families with children. And the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax is in the mix, which would increase taxes for 22 million people.

So income taxes would go up, payroll taxes would go up, and estate taxes and dividend taxes would go up.
And there is a new tax to pay for the Affordable Care Act.

If there is a silver lining, the federal government would bring in an extra $536 billion in 2013 to use for deficit reduction. About 54 percent of that money would come from ending the Bush-era tax cuts and from new payroll taxes.

The health-care tax would take up about 5 percent of the overall tax hikes.

To get a different look at how the tax changes would affect your family, the Tax Foundation has an online calculator that lets you put in your income and deductions and see your actual tax hike under different scenarios.

Recent Constitution Daily Stories

The Foundation has its critics, which say it is a conservative-leaning group.

But when we added data from the calculator on a married couple, with two children, making $60,000 annually, the tax-home pay number was similar to the information from the Tax Policy Center.

In most middle-income scenarios, the Foundation calculator shows take-home income falling by about 5 percent.

Its calculator also lets you pick different scenarios for dependents and dropping the Alternative Minimum Tax.

For now, President Obama and House leader John Boehner aren’t speaking, and the Democrats and Republicans are presenting the tax and spending plans to Americans, in advance of a big congressional showdown in December.

Obama is committed to extending tax cuts for the middle class and hiking taxes on wealthier citizens. The GOP is committed to deep spending cuts in “entitlement” programs as part of any fiscal cliff bargain, which would include sparse tax hikes.

The most anxious watchers are Wall Street and its partners in the global economy, which are very much aware of Congressional Budget Office projections of a 2013 recession if the fiscal cliff goes into effect.