Saturday, January 14, 2012

Scandal 'Could Mean the End of Merkel's Government'
Demonstrators wave shoes as a sign of disrespect during a demonstration against German President Christian Wulff in front of his official residence in Berlin on Saturday. Zoom
Getty Images
Demonstrators wave shoes as a sign of disrespect during a demonstration against German President Christian Wulff in front of his official residence in Berlin on Saturday.
German President Christian Wulff refuses to step down amid a scandal involving a threatening phone call to a major newspaper and dodgy business dealings. German commentators warn that his resignation could cause Angela Merkel's government to collapse.

The scandal surrounding Christian Wulff gets murkier by the day, but the German president is refusing to resign from the largely ceremonial position, despite growing calls for him to quit. On Monday, his lawyer even went on the offensive.
At the crux of the affair is a message that Wulff left on the voicemail of Kai Diekmann, editor in chief of the powerful tabloid Bild, on Dec. 12. The newspaper claims that Wulff wanted to prevent the publication of a damaging story about a private loan that Wulff took out. Many Germans regard Wulff's alleged threats as an attack on press freedom. For his part, Wulff insists that he only wanted to delay the publication of the story. In a high-profile television interview last week, Wulff admitted he had made a "serious mistake" by phoning Diekmann but denied he had considered resigning.

Last week, Bild said it wanted to publish the actual message as support for its version of events, but asked Wulff for his permission to make the voicemail public. The president denied the request. But on Monday, Wulff's lawyer, Gernot Lehr, said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk public radio that the president was not afraid of the message being published. If Bild "wants to do so, then let them," he said. "It is Bild's business if they want to break this taboo."

In its new issue, published Monday, SPIEGEL printed lengthy extracts from the message, after obtaining a transcript. According to the transcript, Wulff did indeed ask the newspaper to delay the publication of the story. He also, however, threatened to take legal action, which observers see as a clear attempt to stop the article's publication.

SPIEGEL also reported on a second message that Wulff left on the voicemail of Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer AG, which publishes Bild. According to sources at the publishing house, the tone of the message was similar to the one he left Diekmann. Wulff apparently expressed anger at Bild and spoke of a campaign against him. When Döpfner called Wulff back, the president was reportedly very indignant. According to the sources, Wulff said that if the article about his private loan was published, it would mean war between the president's office and the Springer publishing house until the end of his time in office.

Suspect Vacation

As part of its cover story on Wulff, SPIEGEL also reported on another controversy involving links between Wulff and Wolf-Dieter Baumgartl, a businessman who is head of the supervisory board of the Talanx insurance group. In 2008, Christian Wulff and his wife spent a vacation at Baumgartl's villa in Tuscany without paying. According to SPIEGEL, while Wulff was governor of the state of Lower Saxony, he had lobbied on behalf of the insurance sector and had spoken of his services to the industry in a 2005 speech. Baumgartl was present at the event and was greeted personally by Wulff.
Wulff has been repeatedly criticized for his apparent close friendships to prominent entrepreneurs. In 2010, Wulff came under fire for spending a vacation on the Spanish island of Mallorca on an estate belonging to another well-known German entrepreneur, Carsten Maschmeyer.

Meanwhile, parts of the German political establishment have already turned to the question of what will happen if Wulff steps down. On Sunday, the leader of the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, offered Chancellor Angela Merkel help in a possible search for a successor. He said if the parties could agree on a joint candidate then the SPD would not put forward its own candidate. Merkel would probably be dependent on opposition votes in the Federal Assembly, the specially convened body that elects the German president, if it came to an election. The chancellor narrowly avoided a debacle in 2010, when her handpicked candidate Wulff needed three rounds of voting to get elected, despite the government's majority in the assembly.

Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) strongly denied media reports that they had been holding talks with their coalition partners, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), about the best course of action should Wulff step down. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday that Merkel saw no reason to address the issue of a possible resignation by Wulff.

On Monday, German editorialists look at the implications of the Wulff affair for Merkel and her government.

The financial daily Handelsblatt addresses the reports that Merkel is already searching for a replacement for Wulff, which her office has strenuously denied:

"It was Merkel who praised her former adversary right into the president's palace. And it is Merkel who is thinking about a possible successor -- even if her coalition is strenuously denying such notions. Does anyone seriously believe that, after (the sudden 2010 resignation of President Horst) Köhler that the chancellor wants to get caught wrong-footed by the resignation of her own handpicked president?"
"So what can she do? With her coalition holding an extremely thin majority of a maximum of four votes in the Federal Assembly, putting forward another candidate to replace Wulff would be risky. This would hold particularly true if the opposition Social Democrats and Greens were to put their former candidateJoachim Gauck, who lost to Wulff in 2010 but is widely respected, back in the running. A defeat in the struggle for Germany's highest office in 2012 would send a major symbolic message for the loss of power in Merkel's coalition government. Together with the collapse of the 'Jamaica' coalition in Saarland (comprised of the CDU, the FDP and the Greens), the general withering of the FDP and the possibility of a CDU defeat in state elections in Schleswig-Holstein in May, a formidable political headwind could form that the chancellor would then have to fight during the next federal election in 2013."

"Merkel is more likely to take the lesser risk, just as she has done during the euro crisis, by buying as much time as she can and holding on to Wulff for as long as possible. The fact that the office of the president will be further damaged by that choice is part of the 'collateral damage' of her power politics. But if it does come to a resignation, Merkel could still build a new bridge to the Social Democrats -- one that might lead to a later grand coalition between her party and the SPD."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It might seem to some people as if the fate of President Wulff is dependent on the goodwill and consent of the chancellor. According to that way of thinking, even if Wulff wants to hold on to his office, he will have to resign as soon as Angela Merkel gives him the thumbs-down. But if she remains loyal to him despite his lack of credibility, he will be able to stay. If one looks at the real power relationships, however, it's actually the other way around. It's not Wulff's position that depends on Merkel and the leadership of her conservatives. Rather, it is the CDU/CSU coalition with the FDP, and maybe even the chancellorship, that stands or falls depending on whether Wulff remains in office or not."

"Even though the CDU, CSU and FDP had a comfortable lead of almost 20 votes in the Federal Assembly in 2010, it still took them three rounds of voting to get their preferred candidate Wulff elected. Since then, their majority has shrunk to four votes, as a result of the governing parties' losses in regional elections. Merkel would never take the risk of presenting her own candidate again, should Wulff resign. She would be forced to find a consensus candidate with the main opposition parties, the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens. In that case, her junior coalition partner, the FDP, would hardly be needed. The result of a new presidential election could persuade the humiliated FDP to try one last attempt to save themselves, namely by ending their coalition with the conservatives. That would mean the end of Merkel's government."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The opposition is right: Of course Wulff is Merkel's president. In 2010, she elevated her internal party rival Wulff, a hard-nosed political professional, into a position of power. Her political motives were clear at the time -- but the decision was a mistake."

"The Wulff affair poses one big danger for Merkel's party. Wulff's behavior challenges Christian Democrats' image of themselves. The president makes a mockery of values that the conservatives like to believe in, such as integrity, honesty and standing up for what you believe in."

"By proving day after day how little these values mean to him, Wulff exposes the cold calculation of the chancellor. Merkel may despise his antics, but she is supporting the president purely for tactical reasons. She behaved the same way with Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, another high-ranking conservative who turned out to be a fraud (and resigned as defense minister in 2010 following a plagiarism scandal)."

"This is a problem for the Chancellor, who moulds party policy to suit reality: Some of the CDU's core supporters will reject her strategy and her personnel decisions and stay home (at the next German federal election) in 2013."

"But Wulff's resignation would not constitute an acute national crisis, as some opposition politicians have suggested. It might be unpleasant for Merkel, but it would be manageable."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The mercy that the president (who has the power to pardon offenders) is showing to himself is matched by the mercilessness of his opponents in their criticism of him. Their stubborn determination probably stems partly from the fact that he refuses to resign, despite being criticized for so long and with good reason."

"But with their stubbornness, Wulff's critics are robbing themselves of their own legitimacy: It is not the media's job to force someone to resign. A resignation is not the media's reward for uncovering a scandal. And the absence of the desired resignation is not an attack on press freedom."

"If the president does not resign, that may be regrettable. But if the strong feeling of regret about (Wulff's) arrogant behavior turns into a showdown between the press and the president, then that will be difficult and dangerous."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Christian Wulff will lose this war, even if he doesn't have an enemy. He himself is the enemy. He himself organized -- or disorganized, if you will -- his life in such a way that all of these questions must be asked of him."

"Three weeks after the affair began, he has created more confusion than clarity with his answers. He has misused his tool of the trade, the word. With that, he has done himself in. Germany no longer has a president."

-- David Gordon Smith

German President Blasted by Party Allies


Unfulfilled Promises

German President Blasted by Party Allies

German President Christian Wulff is under fire. Still.Zoom
German President Christian Wulff is under fire. Still.
German President Christian Wulff promised transparency in a television interview last week regarding questions about his personal finances. But since then, he hasn't delivered. Several members of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, the party which propelled Wulff into office, have turned on him.

It was the kind of event that is normally the highlight of a head of state's schedule. German President Christian Wulff on Thursday stood for hours with his wife Bettina receiving honored German citizens, dignitaries and the cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel at Bellevue Palace in Berlin. The occasion was the traditional presidential new year's reception -- handshakes, smiles and photo-ops, the bread and butter of statesmanship.

But it was hard to miss the shadow hanging over the event. Even as Wulff found friendly words for guest after guest, media outlets across the country were once again reporting a new wave of condemnation. Much of it came from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party that Wulff has been affiliated with for his entire political career.

"I expected a great deal from Christian Wulff as German president," said Heinz Riesenhuber, a former cabinet minister under CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the oldest member of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, told the daily Die Welt. "But he got tangled up in things that appear very unpleasant and borderline. It is very difficult now to imagine how Wulff will exude the luminosity that I had hoped of him."

CDU parliamentarian Karl-Georg Wellmann went a step further, essentially suggesting that Wulff should resign. "A horrible end is better than horror without end," Wellmann said, in reference to the likelihood that criticism will continue to dog Wulff if he clings to his office. "My personal advice to him would be to no longer subject himself, his family and his office to (the condemnation)."

'Massive Comprehensive Loss of Trust'

Several other CDU politicians likewise have heaped censure on the German president this week, including powerful conservative parliamentarian Peter Altmaier, a close ally of Merkel. And Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, a senior CDU member, complained in newsmagazine Stern of the "massive, comprehensive loss of trust" in the president.

In violation of a promise made in the course of a televised interview one week ago, they say, Wulff has yet to provide complete transparency when it comes to questions about his financial dealings. Indeed, they say, he has given the impression that he is engaging in deliberate obfuscation.

Those questions arose in mid-December following a report by tabloid Bild showing that Wulff misled the Lower Saxony state parliament in 2010 regarding a private home loan he took from a close friend of his. Wulff had claimed in parliamentary testimony that he had no business relations with businessman Egon Geerkens, who funded the loan through his wife.

Once the press got ahold of the story, it became clear that Wulff had refinanced that loan with one from a bank -- but at a much lower interest rate than those available to the general public. That loan, in turn, was turned into a market-rate mortgage -- but Wulff's characterization of when that refinancing took place was countered by the bank. It was finalized, apparently, after criticism of his business practices had already begun to mount.

Angry Messages

An additional flank became exposed when it became known that Wulff had actually called both the top editor and publisher of Bild -- and left angry messages for both -- in an effort to either prevent publication of the original loan story or, as Wulff insists, delay publication by a day.

During his interview with German public television stations ARD and ZDF last Wednesday, Wulff promised complete transparency and said he would make public all press queries relating to his business affairs and his answers to them. "Tomorrow morning, my lawyer will put everything in the Internet. Then every citizen can see and evaluate all the details, also legally." He also said "I will gladly give you the 400 questions and the 400 answers."

The very next day however, Wulff denied Bild's request to publish a transcript of Wulff's messages. And his lawyer put merely a six-page summary of the press queries and answers online. On Tuesday of this week, his lawyer, Gernot Lehr, said that making the answers of journalistic queries public would violate laws intended to protect the rights of media outlets as they conduct research and write stories. Prominent German media rights expert Rolf Schwartmann told German news agency DPA that Lehr's argumentation was correct.

Not Budging

In response, Bild Editor-in-Chief Kai Diekmann informed Wulff that he would be happy to put his own paper's queries and answers online himself. The dailiesBerliner Zeitung and Frankfurter Rundschau likewise indicated they would forego their legal rights pertaining to their own queries and resulting replies. SPIEGEL would likewise not take legal action.

"On television, Wulff promised 18 million citizens that 450 questions would be answered and made public," Björn Thümler, CDU floor leader in the Lower Saxony state parliament, told the Norwest Zeitung newspaper. "I think we are all waiting for that and that is what must happen. There is no alternative."
As of Thursday, Wulff had not budged. Instead, he stood for hours before television cameras greeting his some 80 visitors. Not all, however, accepted his invitation to the new year's reception. Transparency International stayed away, as did the German Journalists Association. In protest.
cgh -- with wire reports


    A Greek Default Would Hit the ECB Hard

    01/13/2012 04:58 PM

    Growing Worries in Athens

    A Greek Default Would Hit the ECB Hard

    Hopes that Greece can be saved are dwindling. Athens had hoped to reach a deal with its creditors on a 50 percent debt haircut, but banks have now made it clear that efforts to reach an agreement could fail. Should the country go bankrupt, the European Central Bank stands to lose the most.
    The stakes for Athens are high. The Institute of International Finance is saying the deal on a 50 percent debt haircut for Greece may fail. Time is running out, and a number of key issues remain unresolved. The Greek Finance Ministry, for its part, insists that an agreement could be finalized by the end of next week.

    Amid the confusion, however, one thing is clear: Should private investors not reach an agreement with Athens on debt reduction for Greece -- a step agreed to by European Union leaders at a summit last October -- the country and the entire euro zone face a disaster. An uncontrolled insolvency would be the result. In an effort to forestall that eventuality, euro-zone representatives met on Friday to discuss the debt reduction plans, parallel to the talks in Athens.

    The hectic negotiations reveal that hopes have been dashed once again for an improved situation in Greece. This year things were supposed to be better. The Greek economy was supposed to slowly make its way toward recovery, with austerity measures taking hold and the debt mountain finally showing signs of shrinkage. But the only thing shrinking in Greece right now is hope. It now looks as though Greece, even on the long term, will be unable to free itself from its tremendous debts.

    Indeed, experts have begun doubting whether a default can be avoided for much longer. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), a key player in previous bailout efforts, now has doubts as to whether current plans can in fact be realized. Skepticism is growing in Germany too.

    'Lasting Charity'

    "When it comes to Greece, it's clear that it's hopeless," said Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Munich-based Ifo Institute. "It would be better for the country to finally leave the euro and transform its foreign debts to drachma, than to constantly beg for new aid and set itself up for lasting charity."
    Most economists agree that an exit from the euro zone would go hand-in-hand with a default. "The two things go together," says Hano Beck, economics professor at Pforzheim University. He is convinced that an orderly insolvency is the best solution for Greece. "The country can't continue to be ruined by extreme austerity," Beck says, adding that it's cheaper to save a financial system than it is to save a country.

    But how expensive would a Greek insolvency be for investors -- countries, banks and insurers -- and for the European Central Bank?

    In May 2010, the European Union and the IMF agreed on a rescue package worth €110 billion, which was to be paid out in a series of tranches. Some €73 billion ($93 billion) has already flowed into Greece: €20 billion from the IMF and €53 billion from EU countries. Germany's portion of the amount paid so far amounts to some €15 billion.

    The current conflict, however, centers on the planned second bailout package for Greece, worth €130 billion and agreed to in principle at an EU summit last October. Greece needs the first payment of this fund in March to avoid insolvency. Part of this package is the 50 percent debt haircut for Greece that is now under negotiation. It envisions Greece's private creditors -- primarily banks, insurance companies, investment funds and hedge funds -- voluntarily agreeing to the write downs. Together, they hold some €205 billion in Greek bonds.

    Risks to the ECB

    Creditors have already written off the lion's share of the losses from their balance sheets. German and French banks would thus likely be able to withstand a bankruptcy. It's mainly the Greek institutions that would face serious difficulties. They hold the largest portion of debt among private creditors -- some €50 billion worth -- though they too have already partially adjusted their value.

    Much larger risks are facing the European Central Bank (ECB). Since May 2010, the ECB has purchased sovereign bonds from crisis-stricken euro-zone member states worth €213 billion. An estimated €55 billion of that are Greek bonds. Such widespread bond purchases have resulted in sharp critique from financial experts.

    But the ECB is also carrying much higher risks. They stem from the collateral that banks must post when they borrow money from the ECB. Often, that collateral consists of sovereign bonds from the countries where the banks are located. As such, when Greek banks borrow from the ECB, they post Greek sovereign bonds as collateral. Increasingly, however, they are taking advantage of the ability to issue bonds themselves, which are then guaranteed by the Greek state. Those bonds too are accepted by the ECB as collateral.

    In the last three-and-a-half years, financial institutions from debt-stricken euro-zone countries such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland have borrowed extensively from the ECB. Since the peak of the financial crisis in 2008, the ECB has provided euro-zone banks with unprecedented amounts of liquidity. In December, the ECB flooded European banks with additional capital with unusually long loan periods of three years -- an influx of fully €500 billion. The loans were processed by national central banks in the euro zone.

    The ECB does not publicize official numbers regarding which bank borrowed money, nor do they make amounts public. But Greek banks currently have few options when it comes to accessing fresh liquidity. Other banks have simply stopped lending them money. And Greeks have likewise begun pulling their capital out of Greek banks to deposit it in more secure accounts abroad.

    'Immeasurably Large'

    This phenomenon can be interpreted from so-called TARGET 2 payments. TARGET 2 -- an acronym for the second generation of the Trans-European Automated Real-time Gross Settlement Express Transfer System -- is a system which facilitates payments among national central banks in Europe. When a Greek bank borrows money from the Greek central bank, the central bank in turn must borrow the money from the ECB or from other national central banks that are part of the ECB system. Its balance then shows an account payable.

    Until the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007, the accounts among European central banks were largely even. But in 2008, they began to drift apart significantly. Whereas Germany's Bundesbank, according to current numbers from the end of September 2011, is owed a total of €465 billion by other euro-zone central banks, states such as Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy have huge deficits. The Greek central bank, for example, owes other central banks €101 billion. "In the case of a national bankruptcy, the majority of that money will likely disappear," said economics professor Beck.

    Thus, the ECB's total exposure to Greece is immense. Of course the two numbers -- the €55 billion worth of sovereign bonds and the €101 billion the Greek central bank owes to the European central banking system -- cannot be simply added together. Even if Greece enters insolvency, not all of that money would be gone. Furthermore, the ECB did not, as a rule, pay face value for the Greek sovereign bonds in its portfolio. But the losses would be enormous. In a worst-case scenario, euro-zone countries would have to inject fresh capital into the ECB to stabilize it. Treaties require Germany to pay a 27 percent share of such capital injections.

    The economist Sinn considers this danger to still be "manageable." More difficult to assess is the danger of contagion to larger countries such as Spain and Italy. "Nobody can say how things would develop," Sinn says. "I'm not sure myself."

    Still, he says, it would be better to have Greece withdraw from the monetary union than to continue to amass risks for the balance sheets of the ECB and for euro-zone national budgets. "The only choice we have remaining is that between taking a short-term risk and taking a longer-term risk," Sinn says. "The long-term one is immeasurably large."

    Advance of the Zealots: The Growing Influence of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel

    01/13/2012 11:51 AM

    Advance of the Zealots

    The Growing Influence of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel

    By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

    Veiled women, radical rabbis and gender segregation: Israel is facing a rise in the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their efforts to impose a strictly conservative worldview have led to growing tensions with the country's secular society. A resolution to the conflict is vital for Israel's future.

    Outside is the Judean Wilderness, the Dead Sea shimmers in the distance. Naomi Machfud is sitting inside the self-built house, dreaming about making the world disappear. She wants to cover up her face with a veil, she says, her mouth, her nose and her eyes. A black veil, without even a vision slit, one that swallows every glance and submerges the world in darkness. The veil is the pinnacle of zniut, or modesty, the closest a person can get to God. But, she says with a sigh, "unfortunately I'm not that far yet."

    But Machfud, a 30-year-old woman with six children, has already created an insulating layer of material between herself and the outside world. She is wearing a wool robe, an apron, a blouse, three floor-length corduroy skirts, a black skirt and trousers. She has a piece of black wool material wrapped loosely around her head. Underneath it is a tight, black veil, and underneath that is a pale pink veil. Not a single hair is visible. She is wearing a pair of earrings, but she takes them off when she leaves the house.

    Machfud is a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. They live in a settlement in the West Bank, but she dresses as if she lived in Afghanistan. In Israel, the veiled women are referred to as the "Taliban," while they refer to themselves as women of the shawl. Machfud claims that there are thousands of women like her, but it is more likely that they number in the hundreds. They are usually seen in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Me'ah She'arim neighborhood, black, shapeless figures, holding the hands of their daughters, who look like miniature versions of their mothers.

    One could call these women crazy. Or one could see them as the product of a religious community that is becoming more and more extremist.

    Gender Separation in Public

    The ultra-religious are gaining power throughout the Middle East, including in Israel, where radical rabbis are expanding their influence. This is especially clear when it comes to women. Ironically, it is in Israel, a country that was already being run by a woman, Golda Meïr, in the 1970s, and where women fly fighter jets, that Jewish fundamentalists are trying to bring about gender separation in public -- in elections, on buses and in the street -- all in the name of a morality that is supposedly agreeable to God. Until now, this trend has been most noticeable in Jerusalem, in Beit Shemesh and in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, the country's ultra-orthodox strongholds. But increasingly it is becoming apparent in places where secular Israelis live.

    Even a former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, is now warning that the ultra-orthodox are a bigger threat to the country than the Iranian nuclear program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the conditions in Jerusalem remind her of Iran.

    The odd coexistence of religion and democracy in the Jewish state was long unproblematic. But now the consequences are becoming clear, the signs of fatigue of an overstressed country, a country that is both a democracy and an occupying power, a high-tech nation in which a portion of the population still lives as if it were the 19th century, and a country that accepts immigrants from around the world, provided they are Jews, while at the same time mercilessly deporting refugees. As such, the settlers are, on the one hand, increasingly exhibiting a Messianic nationalism while, on the other hand, the ultra-orthodox pursue a fundamentalism hostile to the state.

    Naomi Machfud says that she feels good in her headscarf and multiple skirts. So good, in fact, that she claims she doesn't even sweat during the summer, at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). She huddles on a worn sofa and tries to explain how it all began, with her and the veil. It is a story consisting of fragments and allusions, and it begins with a Jewish girl from New York who feels empty and spends her time in the streets, until she goes to Israel at 15 to attend an orthodox seminar. She becomes religious and, encouraged by the rabbis, starts wearing more and more clothing.

    'Some Men Don't Like It'

    Her rabbi was supposed to explain why exactly women are doing this, but he cancelled the meeting at the last minute. At the moment, it is not advisable to openly support the Taliban women, because a few of the ultra-orthodox have just imposed a new rule on them, which they announce in wall newspapers: "You may not cover yourself in abnormal and peculiar clothing, including veils, especially if your husband is against it."

    Machfud smiles a Mona Lisa smile. "Some men don't like it," she says. "Suddenly we're more religious than they are." Therefore she is now trying to explain it all herself, and to support her argument she has placed a tattered book on the table. The title is "World of Purity," a bestseller in the ultra-orthodox community. She flips through images of women from past centuries, most of them Jewish, from Yemen, Morocco and Greece, but also of Amish women and Arab women. They all have one thing in common: the large, dark robes they wear, often including a face veil. This is how it was in the past, says Machfud, and it's how it should be again today.

    Orthodox Jewish women wear long-sleeved blouses and skirts, and they cover their hair. But this doesn't go far enough for Machfud. She says that she sees too much fashionable clothing, garments that are too tight, too pretty and too indecent. The women, she says, attract looks that should be reserved for the husband. In her view, this leads to sin, and as long as there is sin, the Messiah cannot appear.

    "Would you wear a diamond in the market? No, you would hide it at home," adds Revital Shapira, 46, a woman with eight children who is sitting next to Machfud, her body covered in black, floor-length skirts, shawls and headscarves.

    Shapira also found religion later than most. She studied literature and only became a Taliban woman after she had given birth to an autistic boy and a girl with heart disease.

    'Little House' Crossed with Saudi Arabia

    As different as they are -- Machfud soft and pretty, Shapira ideological and contrary -- both women want to live in a world in which women do housework, have children and leave their homes as little as possible. They envision a world without computers and washing machines, with organic food and homemade clothing, a mixture of "Little House on the Prairie" and Saudi Arabia.

    "The woman should disappear from public. She should not go out, and she should not speak with strangers on the street," says Shapira. "Unfortunately, the majority of Israelis don't understand this, which is why we are building a parallel system." The two women do not talk to men, and they leave the room when a man comes in. And they are determined to see their daughters follow in their footsteps. "We are building the will in our children to want these things as well," says Machfud.
    "For decades, the male leaders of the ultra-orthodox have talked about nothing but modesty," says Hebrew University sociologist Tamar El Or. "No matter what, women are always being lectured on morality, and even the most devout must listen, morning, noon and night, to how they, with their femininity, bring sin to men."

    The length of skirts became the gold standard, and each additional layer of material was seen as bringing women a step closer to God. "Some women have started going to excessive lengths. It's like anorexia." According to El Or, this obsession with virtue is also a rebellion against husbands and rabbis, with women now choosing to define their bodies and their faith themselves.

    Bruria Keren was a particularly extreme case. In the end she was wearing 27 layers of material. Known in Israel as "Mama Taliban," Keren is one of the leaders of the women of the shawl. Born in a kibbutz and abused by her father, she eventually became religious -- a typical story. As she became more and more obsessed with morality, she beat her children, forced them to pray and cut their hair in punishment, which is why she is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

    Witnessing an 'Extremist Trend'

    "It started with a coat, and then there were three. Then she added trousers and a skirt on top. In the end there were 10 skirts, 10 coats and gloves," says her son, who chooses not to reveal his name. "Eight years ago, she covered her face with a veil, first outside and then at home, and finally she was even wearing it in the shower. I haven't seen her face since then. She set up a tent in the bathroom, so that even the walls couldn't see her naked." Keren also stopped speaking, only communicating with gestures or writing.

    While his mother became more and more chaste, the son was having sex with his sister in the next room. He was 15 and she was 12.

    It was a broken life, says the son, who is now 30 and still hardly dares to go out in public. He works as a laborer during the day and, at night, runs to efface his past. He has become one of the fastest runners in Israel.

    "If my mother hadn't been religious, she would have been committed to an institution right away," he says. Instead, the ultra-orthodox community protected her and no one intervened. The ultra-orthodox prefer to solve their problems on their own, without the government. "And my mother's followers told me that she was a saint."

    Yair Nehorai, the attorney who represented the son in court when he was charged with sexual abuse, has published a book based on his client's story*. Nehorai is not religious, but one of his ancestors was a prominent rabbi, which gives him credibility. He represents almost all of the ultra-orthodox who have problems with the authority of the state. One of his clients was an ultra-orthodox man who recently allegedly berated a female soldier who was sitting with the men in the front of the bus, calling her a "whore." And then there were the Yeshiva students from Beit Shemesh, who made headlines when they spat at female students from a religious girls' school, because their skirts only extended to just below the knee. Nehorai also represented the Sikrikim, self-proclaimed moral police who threw fecal matter at a bookstore until it bowed to their moral dictates.

    Few Dare to Publicly Oppose Them

    Nehorai has never been as busy as he is today. "There is an extremist trend in the ultra-orthodox community," he says. "These radicals were a very small group in the past, but they are becoming more important." Many orthodox Jews are opposed to the moral terror of the zealots, says Nehorai, but very few dare to publicly oppose them.

    Synagogues and religious schools have long been single-sex. But then gender segregation began on buses a few years ago. At first only one bus line was "kosher," but soon the men were sitting in the front and the women in the back on more than 60 routes. The government did nothing, until a women's organization took its case to the Supreme Court. It ruled more than a year ago that the segregated seating arrangement is only permissible if it is voluntary. It is a ruling that reveals the court's unwillingness to take a clear position in the conflict between religious and secular segments of society.

    Increasingly, supermarket checkout lines, hospital waiting rooms and wedding celebrations are segregated in orthodox neighborhoods. This is voluntary, and yet it is also the norm. But gender segregation is beginning to spread beyond the neighborhoods where the Haredim, or god-fearing ones, live.

    Women have disappeared from advertising posters in Jerusalem. Swimming pools at the university have separate hours for men and women. Burial societies forbid women from giving eulogies. In an award ceremony at the Ministry of Health, the female researchers who were being honored were not permitted to walk onto the stage. The deputy health minister is ultra-orthodox.

    There are now campaigns against the so-called Haredization of public life. Women are singing in the streets and refusing to sit at the back of the bus. Several thousand people attended one demonstration against the radicals of Beit Shemesh. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that all of this will reverse the trend.

    Festering Since the Country's Establishment

    At issue is a culture war that has been festering since the country's establishment, because it is still unclear today what exactly Israel is supposed to be: a theocracy for Jews? Or a democratic sovereign state? The orthodox appear to be on the road to winning this fundamental battle of principles.
    Although they are a minority, with only 10 percent of the population, their birth rate is almost three times as high as that of secular Jews. If this remains the case, the Haredim will make up a third of the population in less than 50 years. A quarter of Jewish first-graders are already ultra-orthodox. They also constitute 40 percent of the members of parliament in the coalition government, as well as 40 percent of new army officers and soldiers in combat units. This gives them a disproportionately large amount of influence, which they utilize.

    Even in the army, women are now being assigned to units with ultra-orthodox soldiers with decreasing frequency. A few months ago, religious officer candidates left a party where women were singing, saying that this could lead to impure thoughts. An influential rabbi said afterwards that he would rather stand before a firing squad than listen to a woman singing.

    Since then, members of parliament, generals and rabbis have addressed the issue of women singing. Israel's chief rabbi has released an eight-page religious opinion, in which he argues that the army should prohibit women from singing when religious students are listening. A lawmaker from the "Party of Sephardic Torah Guardians," or Shas, proposed that religious soldiers be provided with earplugs in the future.

    Shas is led by 91-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Josef, who is known for underscoring his comments with slaps in the face. His son, also a rabbi, seriously believes that women should not be allowed to drive. Far from being an outsider, Josef is one of the most powerful men in Israel, and his party has been part of almost every government in the last two decades, including the current government. Prime ministers bow to him when they ask for his approval of decisions involving war and peace.

    Independent of the Government

    In many ways, Israel already resembles Iran more than Europe. It is a country where there is no civil marriage, and where rabbis rule on weddings and divorces. It is also a country where ultra-orthodox schoolchildren learn neither mathematics nor English, where every kindergarten and every military battalion has a rabbi, and where an infrastructure minister wants to place power plants under the supervision of rabbis so that even electricity will be in compliance with religious purity laws.
    All of these things have been around for decades, but now orthodox radicals are increasingly occupying key positions, thereby imposing their stamp on the secular majority.

    For a long time, the politicians did nothing. They were constantly giving their religious coalition partners more money and housing for their ultra-orthodox clientele. Otherwise, they left the orthodox to their own devices -- and to the extremists.

    That's why men like Joelisch Kraus, 38, are now setting the tone. Kraus is one of the Israel haters of Neturei Karta, the ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist group. He lives in Me'ah She'arim, in the middle of Jerusalem -- and yet he is part of a parallel society from the 19th century. He has never watched television, has no identification card and speaks Yiddish. He only takes buses that are not operated by the government-owned transportation company, Egged. Garbage disposal presented a problem to Kraus, but he has solved it by tossing his garbage into his neighbor's garbage can. All of this makes him independent of the government and the government independent of him. He is slowly undermining the government from within by refusing to participate in society. He believes that this is the way it should be, because, as he says, Jews should not rule the Holy Land until God sends the Messiah
    It is early evening, and Kraus has just returned from Torah lessons. His son jumps into his lap and pulls on his sidelocks. His wife is sweeping the two-room apartment with an enormous broom. They have 13 children. Seven of them sleep in their parents' bed, two on the window seat and the rest on the floor.

    Stoning the Buses

    What are a woman's duties? He looks puzzled. "Well, she should be at home and do all the things that have to be done, like having children, raising them and doing the laundry. That's their role," Kraus explains with the gentle amiability of a person who commits crimes out of conviction. "That's all."
    To keep it this way, Kraus is leading a crusade against the modern age, so that women will not want education and jobs one day and thus throw the world of the ultra-orthodox out of balance. It is no accident that the culture war is being waged now, as more and more religious Jews participate in the military and working life, despite all the rabbis' bans.
    Me'ah She'arim today resembles the Gallic village that is defending itself against the Romans, and Joelisch Kraus is Asterix. The Romans are the representatives of the state and the seculars. Kraus and his fellow ultra-orthodox Jews divide up the streets during religious festivals, with one side for women and the other side for men. If they had their way, the same separation would also apply to everyday life. They threw stones at the non-segregated buses passing through Me'ah She'arim until Egged shut down its service in the neighborhood for more than a year. Now the buses are back in operation, but with police escorts.

    "The non-religious Jews have long since lost Jerusalem. They may have a secular mayor, but they just imagine that they are in charge." Kraus laughs. He is familiar with the birth statistics and he knows that time is on his side. "We run Jerusalem," he says.

    * Yair Nehorai; "Thou Shall Be My Mother, My Grave"; Steimatzky/Chamama Sifrutit; in Hebrew.
    Translated from the German from Christopher Sultan

    It's about fucking time: Thousands of US Soldiers Set to Leave Europe

    01/13/2012 01:05 PM

    Military Cutbacks

    Thousands of US Soldiers Set to Leave Europe

    It has long been clear that the US military was going to minimize its presence in Europe. On Thursday, new details emerged, with Washington planning to withdraw two brigades. At least one of those units will be pulled out of Germany.

    Europe's strategic importance for the US military looks to be dwindling. As part of President Barack Obama's recently announced 10-year defense plan to reduce military spending by $487 billion (€325 billion), Washington plans to withdraw half of its brigades from the Continent.

    The US still plans to maintain a strong presence in the region, but will do so through rotating units instead, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the American Forces Press Service on his way to Fort Bliss, Texas on Thursday.

    About 40,000 US soldiers and 100,000 dependents are currently stationed in Europe, with three brigade combat teams in Germany and one in Italy. Brigades typically have between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers.

    US military bases are found in the states of Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate, where surrounding communities are economically dependent on their presence. The new plan to use rotating units would eliminate the presence of dependents, reducing costs for the military.

    'Agile, Deployable and Ready'

    European leaders have reportedly been notified of the withdrawal, defense officials told the press service.
    The defense secretary did not reveal the exact location and dates of withdrawals from Europe, but said that forces would also be rotated in Africa and Latin America. "It will keep the ground forces very meaningful in the future," he said.
    The details emerged after the Pentagon recently announced a new strategy for cutting defense spending over the next decade, as ordered by Congress and Obama. Not only will the US military change its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, but it will also increase cyber warfare efforts and the use of unmanned aircraft.
    Panetta had said earlier that US military operations in Europe would "evolve," according to the Associated Press, but his comments on Thursday were the first confirmation of solid plans.
    "Our budget is basically designed to reinforce the new missions we are talking about and that agile, deployable and ready force that has to move quickly," Panetta said.
    kla -- with wire reports