World

US change on West Bank. Samoa’s measles epidemic. The New York Times publishes leaked China documents. First debate of British election. By Jonathan Pearlman.

British election candidates draw laughs

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to his supporters after giving an election campaign speech last month.
Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Israel: On Monday, the United States declared it no longer views Israel’s settlements on the West Bank to be a violation of international law, reversing the legal position held by the US State Department since 1978.

In a rare press conference, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said that describing the settlements as unlawful – which is the position of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the bulk of the international community – had not “advanced the cause of peace”. The change of policy prompted questions about whether it was timed to assist Benjamin Netanyahu, who is battling to save his position as Israel’s prime minister.

Earlier this year Donald Trump, a close ally of Netanyahu, revealed plans to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which, like the West Bank, was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. That intention was tweeted during an Israeli election campaign. Netanyahu later named a new settlement in the Golan Heights after Trump.

Pompeo’s press conference this week came as Netanyahu’s political rival Benny Gantz, a former military chief, had just three days left to try to form a government.

Gantz, like Netanyahu, welcomed the new US stance. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, accused the White House of “changing the rules of the game”, saying the Palestinians would not attend further talks involving the US.

Most of the proposed peace deals between the Israelis and Palestinians have envisaged land swaps, in which Israel would keep some settlement blocs and give other territory to the Palestinians. Trump has appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to broker an agreement to resolve the conflict, promising to achieve the “ultimate deal”. Few details have yet emerged.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Samoa: On Tuesday, Tuivale Puelua Luamanuvae, who runs a market stall in Samoa, buried his 14-month-old son – the third of his five children to die in a fortnight. All were victims of a measles epidemic that is devastating the island nation, infecting about 1200 of its 200,000 residents.

Tuivale told the Samoa Observer: “I thought that my son would survive when the other two passed away. But I guess measles was too strong.”

The outbreak has left 16 people dead – 15 children and an adult – and brought the country to a standstill. Samoa’s government has declared a 30-day state of emergency, shut schools, restricted travel and ordered every person in the country to be vaccinated. Children younger than 17 have been ordered to stay away from public gatherings.

Samoa’s immunisation rate has been plummeting, partly due to an incident last year in which two one-year-old children died after a vaccine was mixed with the wrong liquid.

But measles cases have been increasing around the world. The Samoa outbreak is believed to have originated in New Zealand. Recent outbreaks have also been reported in Fiji, Tonga and Queensland and Western Australia.

Samoan health authorities have been struggling to respond to the crisis, warning that “the worst [is] to come”. The country has three physicians per 10,000 people – Australia has 36.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: In April 2014, Xi Jinping spent four days in the north-west province of Xinjiang, shortly after an attack in which 31 people were stabbed to death at a train station in Yunnan Province, allegedly by Uygur separatists. Three weeks after Xi’s visit, an attack at a vegetable market in Xinjiang killed at least 39 people.

Xi has not been back to Xinjiang. But, after these attacks, he began to formulate a new approach, which would lead to the detention of about a million Uygur Muslims and other minorities to try to turn them into loyal supporters of the Chinese Communist Party.

This week, the sinister mechanics of this secret program – and the role of the Chinese president – were revealed following an extraordinary leak of documents to The New York Times.

The documents included a series of speeches by Xi in which he developed a “fixation”, as the Times put it, with stifling dissent among the region’s religious minorities. He called for an ideological solution, likening Islamic extremism to a drug that would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment”.

“We must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy,” he said.

The documents also included a script in which officials were told how to respond if university students returning to the province asked about missing family members. If students asked why relatives had been detained, officials were instructed to say they had not committed a crime. “It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts,” the script said.

Responding to the leak, China’s Foreign Ministry did not dispute the veracity of the documents but said the Times had been “blind to the facts”.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the revelations were “concerning”. This seemed muted, but went further than most countries, which remained noticeably silent.

SPOTLIGHT: British elections

On Tuesday night, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn appeared in the first debate of the British election campaign. The event produced no game-changing blows, but the most telling moments were several occasions where the studio audience of 200 people greeted the candidates’ serious responses with unconstrained laughter.

“Does the truth matter in this election?” the moderator, Julie Etchingham, asked Johnson.

“I think it does,” he replied, at which the audience erupted.

Elsewhere, Corbyn was asked about his stance on Brexit.

“I’ve made my position clear,” he said, prompting another eruption.

The responses reflect the weaknesses of both candidates. Johnson has shifted positions on Brexit and has been sacked for lying as both a journalist and a frontbencher. Corbyn has argued for a second Brexit referendum but has been reluctant to say whether he would campaign to stay in or leave the European Union.

Tracking polls show the Conservatives are set to win 41 per cent of the vote, compared with 29 per cent for Labour, 15 per cent for the Liberal Democrats and 7 per cent for the Brexit Party. In late October, a poll showed Corbyn had the lowest personal approval ratings of any leader in polling history, with a net satisfaction rating of minus 60 per cent. He has struggled to deal with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and to establish a clear position on Brexit.

Johnson’s record is also patchy. He appeared to settle on his current hardline approach to Brexit, including a promise to pull Britain out of the EU by January 31, out of political opportunism. Like Corbyn, he has prompted a series of insurrections in his party, which has changed leaders twice in three years.

Aside from pushing for Brexit, Johnson has abandoned his party’s austerity measures and promised to lift public spending. Corbyn has pledged far-reaching measures to reshape Britain, including nationalising the water and energy grids and providing free broadband by 2030.

The public cynicism is understandable. But the poll, on December 12, is widely being described, arguably without exaggeration, as the most consequential for Britain since World War II.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Candidates a serious cause for laughter".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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