Bush tours Mideast: President Bush began his first trip to Israel this
week to push the peace process he launched last November. It won’t be
easy. In the six weeks since the conference in Annapolis, Md., Palestinians have sharply increased rocket attacks into Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel has announced plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Polls show that 59 percent of Palestinians and 75 percent of Israelis already believe the Annapolis process to be a failure. Bush has backed away slightly from his initial goal of a functioning Palestinian state by the time he leaves office. “The definition of a state can be achieved” by 2009, he said this week. But “the implementation of a state will be subject to a road map. In other words, there’s a lot of work that has to be done.”
Arab illiteracy is rampant: Nearly one-third of Arabs are illiterate, including half of Arab women, the Arab League said in a report this week. And it’s not just the older generation: Three-quarters of the 100 million illiterate people in 21 Arab countries are between the ages of 15 and 45. The Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization urged Arab countries to focus on adult literacy, especially for women, to avoid “a severe threat to the social development of Arab nations.”
The crime of making out: South African teens are protesting a new law that forbids any sexual contact—including kissing—with anyone younger than 16. Authorities said the law, enacted last month, was intended to make it easier to prosecute adult men who have sex with much younger girls. But as the law is written, two 15-year-olds smooching in a movie theater could be arrested. Frances Murray, 14, recently started a Facebook group called “Everybody Against the New Kissing Law,” and it has already attracted more than 14,000 members. A spokesman for South Africa’s Justice Department said the kids need not fear that police would break up their spin-the-bottle parties. “Technically it is illegal,” he said, “but obviously those children are not going to be charged.”
Saakashvili wins reprieve: Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili this week won a second term, preserving the former Soviet republic as a pro-Western bastion. Election officials said Saakashvili won slightlIrny more than 50 percent of the vote, just enough to avoid a runoff against his nearest rival, opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, who took 25 percent. Saakashvili called the election two months ago after massive protests by the opposition, which claims that he has become corrupt and autocratic. Western election monitors said the vote had some irregularities but was valid. Saakashvili first swept to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution. The U.S. has reason to applaud his reelection, as Georgia is the site of an important oil pipeline.
Confrontation with U.S. ships: Five small Iranian gunboats charged toward three U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf this week, sharply elevating tensions between the two countries. U.S. officials said the Iranians dropped objects into the water around the American ships and threatened to blow them up. The U.S. ships were preparing to fire when the Iranians retreated. “It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. The Revolutionary Guard, an elite force loyal to Iran’s hardliners, has command of all Iranian ships in the Gulf. Last March, Revolutionary Guard sailors captured 15 British sailors and held them for nearly two weeks.
Targeting al Qaida in Iraq: U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major, nationwide operation this week to target al Qaida in Iraq and other extremist groups. Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq in recent months, ever since Sunni groups turned against al Qaida in Iraq and instead joined a U.S.-led “Awakening Council” movement. In late December, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape threatening to attack any Sunnis who helped the U.S.; the past two weeks have seen bombings in Sunni neighborhoods as well as the murders of several Awakening Council leaders. But it’s unclear whether bin Laden’s influence in Iraq is operational or merely inspirational.