Netanyahu trumpets his innocence as investigations against him proceed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed his innocence Wednesday night in a video posted on social media, while at the same time acknowledging local media reports that police are set to recommend his indictment in an ongoing graft probe.

Addressing the investigation into him, Netanyahu said, “Qualified legal experts will arrive at one conclusion of the simple truth. There is nothing.”

This latest dismissal of the accusations against him, which have seen him questioned at least seven times in the investigation, echo his oft-repeated statement: “There will be nothing because there is nothing.”

Referencing the media reports, broadcast on Israeli television Wednesday evening, of an imminent police recommendation to indict, the Prime Minister sought to reassure his Facebook fans that he knew exactly how things would unfold: “The recommendations will come. Signs that read ‘Netanyahu is guilty until proven innocent’ will come. There will be improper pressure; that will also come.”

Dismissing the chance that he would step down if police recommend an indictment, Netanyahu said, “half the recommendations from police end in nothing.’

Case 1000 and 2000

Netanyahu, currently serving his fourth term as Prime Minister, has been named as a suspect in two separate criminal investigations, known as Case 1000 and Case 2000. The cases involve allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, according to police.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of having received gifts from businessmen overseas, including cigars for himself and champagne for his wife, Sara. The case has focused primarily on Netanyahu’s relationship with billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, though the investigation has expanded to include other wealthy businessmen with ties to Netanyahu.

In Case 2000, police have been investigating conversations Netanyahu had with Arnon Mozes, the owner of one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth, which is regularly critical of the Prime Minister.

In the conversations, transcripts of which have been leaked in the Israeli media, Netanyahu allegedly discusses limiting the circulation of Yedioth Ahronot’s major competitor in favor of more favorable coverage. Both Netanyahu and Mozes have said they were not serious discussions; rather, they each claim they were trying to expose the other’s lack of trustworthiness.

A third case, known as Case 3000, has entangled many in Netanyahu’s inner circle, but the Prime Minister has not been named a suspect in the case, which involves Israel’s purchase of submarines from Germany.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Netanyahu came last summer when his former chief of staff, American-born Ari Harow, agreed to testify against him. Harow, who served under the Prime Minister when he was elected in 2009, agreed to provide evidence in both cases. As part of the deal, Harow agreed to plead guilty of committing fraud and breach of trust in an entirely separate case.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, has been accused of dragging his feet on the investigations. Mandelblit has insisted they will progress at their own pace, free from outside influence. Anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv have become more common, and thousands of demonstrators have called on Netanyahu to step down.

As well as regularly protesting his innocence, the Prime Minister has frequently gone on the attack, railing against the media, police, the courts and his political opponents on the left, accusing them all of trying to topple the government because, he says, they can’t beat him in an election.

Decision rests with attorney general

Even after police issue any possible recommendation to indict, it will be up to Attorney General Mandelblit to decide whether to follow that recommendation.

In Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister in the late ’90s, police issued a recommendation to indict in two different graft probes. In both cases, the attorney general at the time decided there was not sufficient evidence for an indictment.

Netanyahu has predicted the same outcome this time.

Even if the attorney general does eventually choose to indict, Netanyahu would not need to step down under Israeli law. Only if he is convicted — and once any such conviction is upheld throughout the appeals process — would Netanyahu be forced to resign. However, he could face tremendous public and political pressure to step down long before that.

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German workers win right to 28-hour week

Millions of German workers are winning the fight for a 28-hour work week.

Labor union IG Metall secured an unprecedented deal this week to give a large portion of its 2.3 million members more flexible working hours and a big pay raise.

From next year, workers at many of Germany’s top engineering firms — such as Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler — can opt to work 28 hours a week for up to two years, before returning to the standard 35-hour week.

The deal was negotiated with representatives of more than 700 companies in southwest Germany. It is expected to have ripple effects across German industry.

“This sets the standard for everyone else,” said Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife Asset Management.

IG Metall said the flexibility would help employees who want to care for children or relatives. Pay will be reduced to reflect the shorter working week. The deal also gives workers the option to work 40 hours to earn more.

German workers are taking advantage of low unemployment and strong economic growth to flex their muscles.

“You can expect similar deals to come in other sectors and regions soon,” said Famke Krumbmüller, a partner at OpenCitiz, a political risk consultancy.

And non-unionized workers could also benefit from the agreement as firms that employ IG Metall workers offer the same terms to their wider workforce.

Daimler said it would offer the new flexible hours to all its employees starting in 2019, but noted it already offered many flexible working options.

Bosch, which employs 138,000 people in Germany, said it would offer the same pay rises and perks to the majority of its German workers. It said the flexible hours wouldn’t be disruptive.

“Bosch already has about 100 different working hour models to ensure an optimum work-life balance,” said Simon Schmitt, a company spokesperson.

But other companies may find it harder to swallow. Südwestmetall — the employers’ association that agreed the deal — said it was a compromise with some “painful elements.” It would be “hard to bear for many firms,” it added.

Südwestmetall spokesperson Volker Steinmaier said the shorter working week could lead to labor shortages. However, most workers are likely to want to work extra hours to make more money, he said.

“A couple of companies [already] give their employees a choice to work 30, 35 and 40 [hours]. Most of the employees choose to work longer and earn more,” he said.

Germany’s surging economy could be the ultimate winner as workers covered by the deal go out and spend more.

IG Metall said its members would get a 4.3% raise, starting in April. That equates to a rise of about 3.5% on average in 2018, according to Florian Hense, an economist at Berenberg bank.

“This is good for workers,” said Hense. “They [will] see their pay rise by far more than inflation. This raises their disposable income and spending power.”

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Saudi women join workforce as country reforms

Not many women in Saudi Arabia have day similar to that of Manal Ghazwan and her two colleagues.

Ghazwan, 30, who has a master’s degree in food safety management, is the manager of a Starbucks branch located in the Riyadh head office of Alshaya Company, which operates the franchise of the American brand in the Middle East.

“Both the girls in my team have bachelor’s degrees, but they were drawn to the challenge and opportunity that working for a multinational company like Starbucks offers,” Ghazwan says.

They are among the trendsetting Saudis moving away from lucrative government jobs to compete for posts in the private sector, and challenging gender roles along the way.

“Implicit” acceptance of gender mixing

For years labor laws in Saudi Arabia prevented gender mixing in the workplace. But Ghazwan and her team are unique, in that they serve a clientele of both men and women.

“Lately, there has been an implicit and unofficial acceptance of gender mixing in the work environment here,” says Bader Aljalajel, who opened his coffee shop, 12 Cups, in one of Riyadh’s new glitzy boulevards in 2016.

The shop is manned by five male Saudi baristas and some expats. Aljalajel now plans to open a second shop, this time staffed by female baristas.

“Women who sent us their applications know that they will deal with men at work,” says Aljalajel. “Those who have an issue with that will become the black sheep.”

The laws have been trending in this direction for years. In 2011, a law was passed that all shops selling women-related products, such as lingerie, should only have female sales representatives. In 2016, drug stores and optics shops could request permits to hire Saudi women, too, so long as the female staff remained separate from male workers and customers.

The Saudi Vision 2030 strategy, set by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, aims to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% now to 30% in all sectors in 2030.

“There are now 600,000 Saudi women working for the private sector, 30,000 of whom joined the market last September and October,” says Khaled Abalkhail, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. “This figure stood at 90,000 Saudi women only back in 2011.”

Shifts in a young society

It is not just Saudi women who are joining the private sector workplace — men are, too.

With the unemployment rate in the kingdom at 12.8%, according to official government figures, the Crown Prince in 2016 unveiled an ambitious set of reforms that includes creating private sector jobs for thousands of Saudis with the goal of lowering the jobless rate to 7% by the year 2030.

“When I joined university around 10 years ago, I asked my father for permission to get a part-time job as a barista for $530 per month,” says Aljalajel. “He felt it was socially embarrassing to have his son serving coffee, and offered instead to pay me the same amount of money as a monthly allowance in return (for me) focusing on my studies.”

The resistance wasn’t just on the part of potential employees’ families. For a long time, Saudi nationals were not an attractive option to employers who could hire expats often willing to work six days a week for a fraction of the salary that a Saudi employee requests.

For example, a Saudi working as a full-time barista at 12 Cups makes about $1,600 per month, says Aljalajel. A full-time expat barista at the same shop takes home $533 per month.

The average monthly wage per Saudi stands at $2,670, according to Saudi’s General Authority for Statistics.

In 2017, in an attempt to deter companies from hiring expats, the government imposed a monthly tax on each non-Saudi employee. Companies now pay as much as $107 for each foreign employee, with that levy set to rise each year.  

Women no longer a burden

While more Saudi women are entering the private sector, the challenge is persuading them to stay there.

“From our experience, four out of 10 women leave the jobs that we secure for them a few months after joining because their families’ asked them to,” says Redwan Aljelwah, who in 2016 founded Riyadh-based recruitment consultancy, Mada, which operates in the retail, F&B, and IT sectors.

Furthermore, Aljelwah says that demand for female employees remains much lower than for males. The unemployment rate for Saudi women in the third quarter of 2016, the most recent figures available, was 34.5%

“All sectors are open to Saudi women, provided that they secure them a safe working environment,” says Abalkhail. He added that the Ministry of Labor and Social Development runs courses to teach Saudi women soft and hard professional skills to help them find jobs.

“When women work, they are no longer looked upon as burdens that their families have to bear until they get married.” adds Aljalajel, “They have the option to become independent.”

Ghazwan and her team of baristas agree.

“Many of the women and men that we serve coffee come to us and say: ‘We are proud of what you are doing.'”

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Tillerson’s tour raises possibility of embargo on Venezuela, cuts to ‘war on drugs’ aid

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour in Latin America has raised the possibility of a U.S. embargo on Venezuela and cuts on the aid the U.S. sends to strategic partners in the U.S. government’s war on drugs. 

President Donald Trump said he wanted to stop aid for counter-narcotics programs to countries that didn’t stem the flow of cocaine to the U.S. Most of the cocaine that makes it to the hands of U.S. consumers is coming from Colombia and Peru.

“I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them and we send them massive aid, and they are pouring drugs into our country and they are laughing at us,” Trump said Friday.  

After visits to Mexico, Panama and Argentina last week, Tillerson is in Peru Monday, and he plans to visit Colombia on Tuesday and Jamaica, a growing cocaine trafficking hub, on Wednesday before returning to Washington, D.C. 

Tillerson told reporters in Buenos Aires Sunday that the U.S. could also ban Venezuelan oil imports and restrict exports. Authorities believe the oil-rich country’s military has been protecting the transit of Colombian cocaine on its way to the U.S.

“One of the aspects of considering sanctioning oil is what effect will it have on the Venezuelan people, and is it a step that might bring this to an end, because not doing anything, to not bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time,” Tillerson said during a news conference with his Argentine counterpart.

An embargo on Venezuela could hurt U.S. oil refiners. Cuban officials referred to Tillerson’s comments as arrogant and dismissive. Russia and China continue to expand their presence in Cuba and Venezuela. Tillerson has labeled them both as “imperial powers.”

Tillerson said former U.S. President James Monroe’s 1823 statement forewarning imperial powers against interfering in the affairs of Latin American states and U.S. expansion “is as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” 

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry chief for U.S. Affairs, Josefina Vidal, condemned Tillerson’s adoption of  The Monroe Doctrine, which remains a tenet of U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. position on Venezuela.  Trump’s administration has already issued individual sanctions to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a list of his allies asking them “to return to the constitution.” 

Venezuelans who have found refuge in South Florida have asked U.S. officials to pressure Maduro to step down and allow multiparty elections.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, continues to accuse the U.S. of attacking his Socialist government and exiled Venezuelans in South Florida of plotting against him.  He is campaigning for another term in office after the Constituent Assembly — made up of only Socialist Party members who support him — called for elections in April. 

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iPhone X now costs $1,700 in India

Apple has raised the prices of iPhones in India.

The price hikes, effective immediately, come less than a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said it was increasing import duties on mobile phones. Tariffs on some parts and accessories are also going up.

India is already one of the most expensive places in the world to buy an iPhone, and 14 of Apple’s latest models — from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone X — will now cost about 3 percent more.

The 256 GB version of the iPhone X, for example, will cost 109,000 rupees ($1,700) — an increase of $50. The same version in the U.S. costs $1,149.

The price increases were first reported by the Economic Times newspaper. Apple confirmed the new prices but declined further comment on the government’s decision.

The increased tariffs are meant to encourage smartphone companies trying to cash in on India’s lucrative market to manufacture their products in the country.

But they also contrast sharply with Modi’s speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos last month, where he decried the rise of protectionism around the world.

The dangers of tariffs and trade barriers, Modi said then, “are no less significant than the threats posed by climate change and terrorism.”

While the change will impact other smartphone brands as well, top rivals such as Samsung and Xiaomi already make most of their Indian phones locally. Apple imports an estimated 90 percent of its devices.

The Silicon Valley giant began making lower-end iPhone SE models at a plant in Bangalore last year, trying to get around manufacturing regulations that have prevented it from opening stores in India.

As a result, the price of an iPhone SE in India remains unchanged despite the higher import tariffs.

The price of an Apple Watch, however, has gone up by almost 8 percent, to around $520.

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Kim Cattrall’s brother found dead in Canada

Actress Kim Cattrall, known for her role on “Sex and the City,” took to social media early Sunday to ask her fans for help in searching for her missing brother, Christopher Cattrall.

Less than 24 hours later, Canadian police announced he had been found dead.

“It is with great sadness that myself and my family announce the unexpected passing of our son and brother, Chris Cattrall,” Kim Cattrall posted on Twitter Sunday afternoon.

 

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Corporal Chris Warren, media relations representative with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said officers found Christopher Cattrall, 55, on his rural property in Blackfalds, Alberta.

Warren did not provide a cause of death, but said the death was not suspicious.

Authorities did not give specifics of how or when Chris Cattrall’s body was found, nor did they say why the death was not considered suspicious.

Kim Cattrall said that her brother had been missing since last Tuesday.

In her post, Cattrall said her brother left his keys, cell phone and wallet on the table of his home, and his front door unlocked. “This is not like Chris,” she wrote. “He he would never leave his unlocked home without those items nor his 7 beloved dogs.”

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