“When we all thought that Ehud Barak had zigged all the zags possible, he zigged yet another late last night,” began a Jerusalem Post analysis of the departing Israeli prime minister’s latest turnaround. First, on the night of his overwhelming Feb. 6 election defeat, Barak announced his withdrawal from politics. Then he spent the next two weeks negotiating for the job of defense minister in incoming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s national unity government, much to the annoyance of his colleagues in the Labor Party, many of whom felt that after such a drubbing the party needed to find a new leader. Now, Barak has walked away from the defense minister slot. A Ha’aretz editorial declared, “Now that [Barak] has turned his party against him, and has lost the backing of the last of his supporters, he has no other option but to quit. On his way out he leaves behind a trail of political ruins. There is a crumbling party, without leadership or direction, and a large, broad sector of the population left without any real representation in running the country.” The Financial Times said Thursday that the Labor Party will continue to discuss joining the unity government, though with extreme right-wing parties in the coalition, negotiations will be difficult.
Beijing goes for gold: The International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission began its tour of the five cities vying to host the 2008 Olympic Games this week. The expedition began in Beijing, where 1 million people spent last weekend sweeping roads, collecting trash, placing plastic flowers along arterial roads, and building high walls to hide shabby housing. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said, “Newspapers on Wednesday displayed pictures of a mass wedding organised in honour of the Olympic bid, and flagwaving schoolchildren dubbed ‘little Olympic angels’ patrolling the streets to whip up public enthusiasm.” Beijing, which narrowly lost the contest for the 2000 Games, is desperate to host in 2008—according to Britain’s Independent, a Gallup Poll recently showed 94.9 percent of Beijingers support the bid—but China’s human rights record is its biggest impediment, especially after recent crackdowns on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The Daily Telegraph of London quoted a political dissident comparing the spruced-up city to “a cage freshly washed of its blood,” while the SCMP reported that police detained two dissidents before the inspection team’s arrival and posted officers outside the homes of several others.
The Hong Kong iMail agreed that getting the Olympics could “enhance the prospects for political reform” in China, just as happened when South Korea hosted in 1988, and it would force Beijing to address its infrastructure, pollution, and traffic problems. The editorial concluded: “A lot of time and water have passed under the bridge since the Tiananmen Square massacre, and China is changing in many ways. Nevertheless, the continuing crackdown against Falun Gong and dissidents should give the IOC pause for thought. The question is: will the Olympic Games encourage Beijing towards further reforms?”
Will Beijing win? Paris and Istanbul are least likely to get the nod, because of an IOC prejudice against holding consecutive Summer Games on the same continent (the 2004 Games are in Athens). However, the Financial Times pointed out that “Istanbul offers the political attraction of holding the games in a Muslim country for the first time.” Osaka has already staged a successful Olympics, and Toronto is attractive because U.S. broadcasters, “a primary source of IOC funding,” prefer venues in the North American time zones. Still, the FT admitted, “Beijing may have the edge. … However … [a]t some stage, the IOC will have to decide whether China will uphold the Olympic spirit of tolerance and human dignity, or damage the image of the world’s greatest sporting event by official corruption and human rights abuses.”
The devil is in the details: In 1999 when the Russian government introduced tax identification numbers (INN), the application form included a bar code, which, like all bar codes, contained three pairs of parallel strips that serve as separators. According to a story in Wednesday’s Moscow Times, to some “arch-conservative Christian groups” these separator strips look similar to the code used to indicate the number six, leading them to fear that “all computerized accounting is based on the number 666 … the ‘name of the beast.’ ” A mass refusal to use the INN by members of the Russian Orthodox Church has led to a religious crisis: Some churches are refusing to buy Communion wine with a bar code on it; priests who accept INN are being ostracized; and parishioners who decline to sign anti-INN petitions have been thrown out of churches. In other religious numbers news, the Financial Times suggested that Pope John Paul II’s creation of 44 new cardinals—”the largest number ever to have been appointed in a single sitting”—may be decisive in determining his successor. Before Wednesday’s ceremony, more than 50 percent of cardinals were European, “with a large preponderance of Italians”; Latin American cardinals (27) now outnumber Italians (24), and “nearly a quarter of the [135-member] college of cardinals now comes from Latin America or the Iberian peninsula, a group that is certain to form a powerful bloc when the conclave eventually meets” to elect the next pope.