September 25, 2013

JPMorgan Faces New Lawsuit Over Subprime Mortgages

JPMorgan faces new lawsuit over subprime mortgages: report

The US justice department is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against banking giant JPMorgan Chase over its handling of "subprime" mortgages after settlement talks broke off, the Wall Street Journal said. 

September 24, 2013

AFP - The US justice department is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against banking giant JPMorgan Chase over its handling of "subprime" mortgages after settlement talks broke off, the Wall Street Journal said.
The bank and the justice department broke off attempts to reach a settlement because they failed to agree on the size of a potential fine, the US newspaper reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

A spokesman for the bank declined to comment on the report to AFP.

The investigation focuses on the sale of mortgage-backed securities between 2005 and 2007, ahead of the 2008 housing bust.

Risky "subprime" mortgages are blamed for the collapse of the housing market, which sparked a financial crisis and plunged the US into a deep recession in 2008.

This new lawsuit, which could be filed as soon as Tuesday according to the US newspaper, is the latest in a string of legal woes for JPMorgan -- the largest US bank by assets.

Last week, the bank agreed to pay a combined $920 million to three US regulators and one British agency in the so-called "London Whale" trading debacle.

That figure includes $200 million to the SEC, $200 million to the Federal Reserve, $300 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and $220 million to Britain's Financial Conduct Authority, (FCA).

The trading fiasco, dubbed the "London whale" because of the location and size of bets that went sour, has cost the bank $6 billion in losses.

September 16, 2013

U.S. Agrees to Call Off Military Action Against Syria in a Deal with Russia to Remove Chemical Weapons; Obama Says He May Still Launch U.S. Strikes If Damascus Fails to Follow a Nine-month U.N. Disarmament Plan

Assad's forces on attack after U.S.-Russia arms deal

September 15, 2013

Reuters - Syrian warplanes and artillery bombarded rebel suburbs of the capital on Sunday after the United States agreed to call off military action in a deal with Russia to remove President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama said he may still launch U.S. strikes if Damascus fails to follow a nine-month U.N. disarmament plan drawn up by Washington and Assad's ally Moscow. But a reluctance among U.S. voters and Western allies to engage in a new Middle East war, and Russian opposition, has put any attacks on hold.

Syrian rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad had stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of U.S. air strikes had receded.

International responses to Saturday's accord were guarded. Western governments, wary of Assad and familiar with the years frustrated U.N. weapons inspectors spent in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, noted the huge technical difficulties in destroying one of the world's biggest chemical arsenals in the midst of civil war.

Assad's key sponsor Iran hailed a U.S. retreat from "extremist behavior" and welcomed its "rationality". Israel, worried that U.S. leniency toward Assad may encourage Tehran to develop nuclear arms, said the deal would be judged on results.

China, which like Russia opposes U.S. readiness to use force in other sovereign states, was glad of the renewed role for the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing too has a veto.

The Syrian government has formally told the United Nations it will adhere to a treaty banning chemical weapons but made no comment in the day since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov patched over bitter differences between Washington and Moscow to set a framework for the United Nations to remove Assad's banned arsenal by mid-2014.


Air strikes, shelling and infantry attacks on suburbs of Damascus through Sunday morning offered evidence in support of opinions from both Assad's Syrian opponents and supporters that he is again taking the fight to rebels after a lull following the August 21 gas attack that provoked the threat of U.S. action.
"It's a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks," one Assad supporter told Reuters from the port of Tartous, site of a Russian naval base. "Russia will give us new weapons that are better than chemical weapons," he added. "We are strong enough to save our power and fight the terrorists."
An opposition activist in Damascus echoed disappointment among rebel leaders:
"Helping Syrians would mean stopping the bloodshed," he said. 
Poison gas is estimated to have killed only hundreds of the more than 100,000 dead in a war that has also forced a third of the population to flee their homes since 2011.

The deal, suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved a dilemma for Obama, who found Congress unwilling to back the military response he prepared following the release of sarin gas in rebel suburbs of Damascus. Obama blames Assad for some 1,400 dead civilians; Assad and Putin accuse the rebels.

Russia says it is not specifically supporting Assad - though it has provided much of his weaponry in the past. Its concern, it says, is to prevent Assad's Western and Arab enemies from imposing their will on Syria. And Moscow, like Assad, highlights the role of al Qaeda-linked Islamists among the rebel forces.

Their presence, and divisions among Assad's opponents in a war that has inflamed sectarian passions across the region, have tempered Western support for the rebels. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged followers not to work with other Syrian rebels.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition elected a moderate Islamist on Saturday as prime minister of an exile government - a move some members said was opposed by Western powers who want to see an international peace conference bring the warring sides together to produce a compromise transitional administration.

Previous attempts to revive peace efforts begun last year at Geneva have foundered on the bitter hostilities among Syrians.


Assad has just a week to begin complying with the U.S.-Russian deal by handing over a full account of his chemical arsenal. He must allow U.N.-backed inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to complete their initial on-site checks by November.

Under the Geneva pact, the United States and Russia will back a U.N. enforcement mechanism. But its terms are not yet set. Russia is unlikely to support the military option that Obama said he was still ready to use:
"If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act," he said on Saturday.
The Pentagon said its forces were still poised to strike.

Assad told Russian state television last week that his cooperation was dependent on an end to such threats and U.S. support for rebel fighters. It seems likely that Moscow can prevail on him to comply, at least initially, with a deal in which Putin has invested no little personal prestige.

While Lavrov stressed in Geneva that the pact did not include any automatic use of force in the event of Syria's failure to comply, Western leaders said only the credible prospect of being bombed had persuaded Assad to agree to give up weaponry which he had long denied ever having, let along using.
"It would have been impossible to obtain if there hadn't been a stick," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Beijing. Paris had offered Obama military support against Assad.
Fabius cautioned: "This agreement is not the be all and end all. We're very cautious about it. There is all the rest that has to be solved and there must be a political solution."
Where such a political solution may come from is unclear.

Kerry and Lavrov plan to meet the U.N. envoy on Syria at the end of the month to review progress toward peace talks. Lavrov spoke of an international peace conference as early as October.


Fighting on the ground in a country divided between rebel and government forces shows little sign of slowing its descent into atrocity, with 1,000 people dying in any typical week.

Analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine:
"If anything, Assad finds himself in a stronger position. Now, he can get away with nearly anything - as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons.
"Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons," Hamid added. "He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return."
There was heavy fighting overnight in Jobar, a rebel-held area just east of downtown Damascus, opposition activists from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Residents counted three air strikes on neighboring Barzeh and there were clashes in other parts of the metropolis, too.
In the government-held centre, however, schools reopened on Sunday after the summer break and traffic was heavy - further signs the authorities see the U.S. threat has passed for now.

Lavrov and Kerry, whose personal rapport played a part in breaking some of the Cold War-era ice that has chilled relations between the world's two biggest military powers, both welcomed their agreement as a victory for diplomacy.

But Kerry warned it would not be easy:
"The implementation of this framework, which will require the vigilance and the investment of the international community, and full accountability of the Assad regime, presents a hard road ahead."
Having taken the surprise decision two weeks ago to seek congressional approval for, Obama faced a dilemma when lawmakers bridled - citing doubts about the rebel cause and wariness of new entanglements after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who back intervention blasted the deal with Moscow.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republican opponents of the Democrat Obama said it would give Assad months to "delay and deceive". They added in a statement:
"It requires a wilful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin."

The agreement states that a U.N. Security Council resolution should allow for regular assessments of Syria's behavior and "in the event of non-compliance ... the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter".

Chapter VII can include force but can be limited to other kinds of sanction. Lavrov said:
"There is nothing said about the use of force and not about any automatic sanctions."
Senior Kerry aides involved in the talks said that the United States and Russia agreed that Syria has 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents, including nerve gas sarin and mustard gas - one of the world's largest stockpiles of such material.

But the officials said there was no agreement on how many sites must be inspected. Washington thinks it is at least 45.

One U.S. official called the task "daunting to say the least". Another noted there were "targets ... not a deadline".

The weapons are likely to be removed through a combination of destroying them in Syria and shipping some for destruction elsewhere, U.S. officials said. Russia is one possible site for destruction, but no final decisions have been made.

The OPCW's experts have never moved weapons across borders before, because of the risk and have never worked in a war zone.

September 11, 2013

Syria Accepts Russia's Deal to Give Up Chemical Weapons in an Attempt to Derail U.S. Aggression

Syria says it accepted Russian weapons proposal

September 10, 2013

AP - Syria says it has accepted Russia's proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to "derail the U.S. aggression."

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is now working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action, which will be presented shortly.

Lavrov said that Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan together with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

President Barack Obama said Monday the Russian proposal could be "potentially a significant breakthrough," but he remained skeptical that Syria would follow through.

September 8, 2013

Florida County Bans Smokers from New Jobs

Florida County Bans Smokers from New Jobs

September 7, 2013

ABC News Blogs - Smokers need not apply in one Florida county, which will soon require prospective job applicants to pass a nicotine test before starting work.

The Board of County Commissioners in Flagler County, in northeast Florida, voted last month to require potential county employees to undergo testing for nicotine use and to pledge in a signed affidavit that they will remain tobacco-free throughout their employment.

But the requirements have raised flags for a civil liberties group that said it is unconstitutional for the government to administer blanket tests for nicotine or drugs on any group of people.

The board chairman, Nate McLaughlin, told ABC News that rising health insurance costs and Flagler County's generally health-conscious outlook prompted the change. The county offers its employees weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs, and has a nutritionist and exercise physiologist available for staff.

Research has shown smokers hurt employers with lower productivity and higher health insurance. A recent study said they cost employers in the private sector an average of more than $5,800 more per year than non-smokers do.
"At the end of the day, for the taxpayers, it's a smart business decision," McLaughlin said.
Other public employers have adopted similar policies, including the county's sheriff's department, according to Joe Mayer, the county's human resources director.
"We're following our own sheriff's department, who actually beat us to the punch," Mayer told ABC News.
Testing would begin Oct. 1 for all applicants who receive a conditional job offer, and would be part of the urine drug screening that the county already conducts. If applicants test positive for nicotine, the county will not consider them for employment for one year after the screening. If a new employee violates the policy, he or she could be fired.

But the policy may run afoul of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The U.S. Supreme Court has, on a number of occasions, struck down blanket testing of public employees and public school students, citing the Fourth Amendment.

Many Florida counties have drug-testing policies that violate these judgments, and the ACLU of Florida has challenged several of those policies and a similar statewide executive order, Johnson told ABC News.
"The government can't randomly drug test entire sections of the population, whether that's state employees or people receiving government benefits, without suspicion of wrongdoing," Johnson said.
The ACLU of Florida contends Flagler County's policy of drug testing all prospective employees already violates the Constitution.
"What they've essentially done is added another possibly unconstitutional provision to an already unconstitutional policy," Johnson said.
The county's lawyers are aware of the Supreme Court ruling but still approved the policy, pointing instead to a 1995 Florida Supreme Court ruling that an applicant to a city government job had no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to tobacco use.
"You have a responsibility to the public," Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey told ABC News. "It'd be no different than doing a credit check on people handling money. … In this case, it's a tobacco check."

September 3, 2013

Russia Says American Evidence on Syria 'Does Not Convince Us at All'

Russia Says American Evidence on Syria 'Does Not Convince Us at All'

September 2, 2013

Good Morning America - Russia is rejecting American evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria as "inconclusive" and urging the United States to declassify all of its intelligence.
"What we were shown before and recently by our American partners, as well as by the British and French, does not convince us at all," Sergei Lavrov said, according to Interfax, in Russia's most direct rebuke yet to the American claims.
"There are no facts, there is simply talk about what we definitely know. But when you ask for more detailed evidence, they say that it is all classified, therefore it cannot be shown to us. This means there are no such facts to encourage international cooperation," the minister told a group of students this morning.
On Friday, the Obama administration published evidence, including wiretaps, it says proves forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in an attack on August 21 near Damascus that killed 1,492 people including hundreds of children. President Obama has decided the attack warrants a military response by the United States, but will seek authorization from Congress first. 

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said there was more evidence.
"We now have evidence from hair and blood samples from first responders in East Damascus, the people who came to help, we have signatures of Sarin in their hair and blood samples, so the case is growing stronger by the day," Kerry told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on 'This Week.'
Syrian authorities have denied the claims. The US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul presented the evidence directly to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Saturday. Russian officials have dismissed it as long on claims yet short on specifics.
"Yes, we were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete - neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals. Nor did they comment on the fact that numerous experts have serious doubts regarding the video footage circulating on the Internet," Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
Lavrov urged the US to declassify all the evidence.
"If there truly is top secret information available, the veil should be lifted. This is a question of war and peace. To continue this game of secrecy is simply inappropriate," he said.
Meanwhile, Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian military official saying that a Russian spy ship called the Priazovye had been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean on "very short notice" to monitor the escalating situation. The United States has bulked up its naval presence in the region in preparation for a possible strike in Syria.
"The Priazovye departed to the designated area in the eastern sector of the Mediterranean Sea on Sunday evening. The crew are to perform their direct duties - to collect tactical information in the area of escalated conflict," the source told Interfax.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the notion that Syrian forces used chemical weapons was "utter nonsense."
"Common sense speaks for itself: the Syrian government forces are on the offensive, and they have encircled insurgents in some regions, and it would be utter stupidity to give up a trump card to those who have been regularly calling for military intervention. It defies any logic, especially on the day when UN monitors came there," Putin told reporters, suggesting the attack was a "provocation" by rebel groups to get Western powers to intervene.
Today, Lavrov said it was "strange" to hear Kerry accuse Moscow of ignoring the evidence, saying Russia wants to see the independent UN report first.
"There are plenty of contradictions and oddities, if we are speaking of footage of chemical weapons use and the condition of the victims," he said.
Lavrov also reiterated Russia's concern that an American strike will set back efforts to convene an international peace conference, saying the opposition won't show up if the West intervenes militarily.

September 2, 2013

Congress Introduces Carbon Tax Bill, an Important Control Mechanism (See New World Order Checklist Below)

A Carbon Tax That America Could Live With (Excerpt)

August 31, 2013

NY Times - This summer, the Obama administration released the President’s Climate Action Plan. It is a grab bag of regulations and policy initiatives aimed at reducing the nation’s carbon emissions, which many scientists believe contribute to global warming.


The second approach is to use government regulation to change the decisions that people make. An example is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards that regulate the emissions of cars sold. The President’s Climate Action Plan is filled with small regulatory changes aimed at making Americans live more carbon-efficient lives.  


In a free society, the government can’t easily regulate how close I live to work, whether I car-pool with my neighbor or how often I don a cardigan. Yet if we are to reduce carbon emissions at minimum cost, we need a policy that encompasses all possible margins of adjustment.

Fortunately, a policy broader in scope is possible, which brings us to the third approach to dealing with climate externalities: putting a price on carbon emissions. If the government charged a fee for each emission of carbon, that fee would be built into the prices of products and lifestyles.When making everyday decisions, people would naturally look at the prices they face and, in effect, take into account the global impact of their choices. In economics jargon, a price on carbon would induce people to “internalize the externality.”

A bill introduced this year by Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Earl Blumenauer and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz does exactly that. Their proposed carbon fee — or carbon tax, if you prefer — is more effective and less invasive than the regulatory approach that the federal government has traditionally pursued. 

The four sponsors are all Democrats, which raises the question of whether such legislation could ever make its way through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The crucial point is what is done with the revenue raised by the carbon fee. If it’s used to finance larger government, Republicans would have every reason to balk. But if the Democratic sponsors conceded to using the new revenue to reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, a bipartisan compromise is possible to imagine.

Among economists, the issue is largely a no-brainer. In December 2011, the IGM Forum asked a panel of 41 prominent economists about this statement: “A tax on the carbon content of fuels would be a less expensive way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions than would a collection of policies such as ‘corporate average fuel economy’ requirements for automobiles.” Ninety percent of the panelists agreed. 

Could such an overwhelming consensus of economists be wrong? Well, actually, yes. But in this case, I am confident that the economics profession has it right. The hard part is persuading the public and the politicians.

New World Order Checklist Includes a Carbon Tax:

September 1, 2013

Syria Resigned to a U.S. Military Strike; Israel Readies Itself for a Possible Syrian Missile Attack

Obama set to discuss Syria from White House

August 31, 2013

AP - President Barack Obama's top national security advisers gathered at the White House on Saturday, and Syrian television broadcast scenes of fighter jets, tanks and troops in training, flip sides of a countdown to a likely U.S. military strike meant to punish Bashar Assad's government for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

After days of deliberations, Obama arranged to speak in the White House Rose Garden in early afternoon. Aides who had said for days he had not made a decision on whether to strike Syria refused to repeat those words.

At the same time, one official said Obama's remarks would not be about an imminent military operation in Syria, but rather would update the public about his decisions on how to proceed.

U.N. inspectors arrived in Amsterdam after spending several days in Syria collecting soil samples and interviewing victims of an attack last week in the Damascus suburbs. Officials said it could me more than a week before their final report is complete.

It seemed unlikely Obama would wait that long to order any strike, given the flotilla of U.S. warships equipped with cruise missiles and massed in the Mediterranean; Friday's release of a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment saying Assad's chemical weapons killed 1,429 civilians; and an intensifying round of briefings for lawmakers clamoring for information.

The president said Friday that he was considering "limited and narrow" steps to punish Assad for the attack, adding that U.S. national security interests were at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

Even so, any military strike had the potential to spark unpredictable consequences, and Assad has had several days to redeploy his own military assets as Obama consulted with foreign leaders and members of Congress.

With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged him to reconsider his plans, saying he speaking to him not as a president but as the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.
"We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world," said Putin, a strong Assad ally. "Did this resolve even one problem?"
Even the administration's casualty estimate was grist for controversy.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by U.S. officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the Aug. 21 attacks.
"America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda," he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.
Obama was buffeted, as well, by some lawmakers challenging his authority to strike Syria without congressional approval, and also by others who urged him to intervene more forcefully than he has signaled he will.

The White House arranged a pair of unclassified briefings by phone Saturday afternoon, one for Senate Republicans, the other for Democrats. It also announced it would provide a classified update on Sunday in the Capitol for lawmakers who wished to fly to the capital and attend. Lawmakers have been on a summer break for four weeks, and are not due to return to session until Sept. 9.

Vice President Joseph Biden, who had planned a holiday weekend at home in Delaware, was at the White House. So, too, were Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials.

Assad's government claims that rebels were responsible for the attack last week in the Damascus suburbs, but it appeared resigned to a U.S. military strike. State television broadcast images of the weapons of war and soldiers training, over a background of martial music.
"We are anticipating it starting tonight, since the inspectors have left, but we don't really know," said a 23-year-old pharmacy student who provided only her first name, Nour.
"Just in case, we stocked up on some water and food," she said, adding that the building where she lives has laid in a supply of pillows, blankets and a first aid kit with basic medications.
In the famously flammable Middle East, Israel readied for the possible outbreak of hostilities. The Israeli military disclosed it has deployed an "Iron Dome" missile defense battery in the Tel Aviv area to protect civilians from any possible missile attack from next-door Syria or any of its allies.
Missile defenses were deployed in the northern part of the country several days ago, and large crowds have been gathering at gas mask-distribution centers to pick up protection kits.

Palestinians Reach Out to Israel as Peace Talks Begin

As talks begin, Palestinians reach out to Israel

August 30, 2013

AP - The Palestinians have traditionally shown little affection for Israeli politicians. These days, however, they are reaching out to their adversaries in an attempt to jump-start recently renewed peace efforts.

Hoping to persuade skeptical Israeli decision makers that they are serious about peace, leading Palestinian politicians have been holding a series of meetings with their Israeli counterparts. The meetings have taken place in Europe, in Israel's parliament and next week, at the Palestinian government headquarters in the West Bank.

Mohammed al-Madani, who is organizing the effort, said the Palestinians realized they need to take a new approach after watching Israeli governments build Jewish settlements on the lands the Palestinians seek for their future state. The settlements, he said, are destroying hopes for peace.
"Therefore we decided to address the Israeli decision makers and shapers of public opinion to shake things up," he said. "The two-state solution is the only possible, doable choice for both peoples."
Al-Madani heads the Palestinian Outreach Committee to the Israeli Society, a government-backed group that was formed last year after the U.N. General Assembly, over Israeli objections, recognized Palestine as a non-member state. Senior Palestinian officials, including members of President Mahmoud Abbas' inner circle, sit on the committee.

Last year's U.N. vote sent already strained Palestinian relations with Israel tumbling to a new low, with Israel retaliating with additional settlement plans and the Palestinians threatening to use their new upgraded status to pursue sanctions and war crimes charges against Israel.

After months of prodding by the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians last month reopened their first substantive peace negotiations in nearly five years.

While previous rounds of peace talks, particularly in the 1990s, generated widespread hope and optimism, the current round has created little excitement. After so many years of mistrust, failure and bouts of violence, neither side seems to be optimistic that the latest talks, expected to last nine months, will be successful.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for their state. But as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Palestinians fear time is running out to divide the land between two states. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the settlements. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli peace advocates say the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to preserve Israel's character as a democracy with a Jewish majority. The alternative, they say, is a single state in which Arabs, with their higher birthrate, will one day outnumber Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the idea of a Palestinian state. But he has continued to expand Jewish settlements and refused to commit to the broad territorial concessions the Palestinians seek.

In July, the Palestinians hosted dozens of activists from Netanyahu's hard-line Likud Party, as well as Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party whose leaders frequently take tough positions toward the Palestinians.
"Our constant message to the Israelis is the only solution is the two-state solution, and this solution is in the interests of both peoples, not only the Palestinians," said Nidal Fuqaha, director of the Palestinian Peace Coalition and a member of the committee.
Earlier this month, five centrist Israeli lawmakers met in Budapest with a Palestinian delegation that included top members of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and a member of his negotiating team.
"We didn't negotiate of course. We talked and got to meet each other," said Boaz Toporovsky, a member of the centrist Yesh Atid who participated in the two-day gathering. Yesh Atid is a partner in Netanyahu's coalition.
Israelis talked about their experiences coping with suicide bombs and wars, while Palestinians talked about the hardships of living under Israeli occupation.
"We established a good connection," he said. "We understood the hard life the Palestinians are having. They understood the difficulties we are having. When you meet the other side, this is important."
He said that the newfound trust could be important if any peace agreement goes to a vote in parliament.

In another recent meeting, a group of Palestinian officials traveled to Israel's Knesset, or parliament, as guests of the newly formed "Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict." For the first time in years, a Palestinian flag was displayed in the parliament building.

Ashraf Ajrami, a former Cabinet minister who was among the Palestinian participants, said he was surprised by how far Israelis and Palestinians have drifted from one another.

In the early days of peace efforts 20 years ago, there was frequent interaction between the sides. But there has been little contact since the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 2000. Although the violence has subsided, mistrust lingers.
"The long disconnect between us and the Palestinians has created huge gaps. There are too many Knesset members who don't understand our real position," Ajrami said. "By these discussions and meetings, we have made a breakthrough with the right-wing and religious camp."
Next Tuesday, the Palestinians plan on holding their most ambitious event yet. Abbas is to host roughly 12 Israeli lawmakers at his West Bank offices in Ramallah. The gathering is a response to the recent meeting at the Israeli parliament.
"It shows (Abbas) has a real will to talk and sees in himself a partner and therefore we immediately accepted the invitation," said Hilik Bar, a member of the dovish Labor party who leads the new parliamentary caucus.
Though the agenda of the meeting was not known, he said it would give a "backwind" to the negotiations.
"It strengthens trust, discussion and dialogue between the sides," he said.