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New king cheese crowned world champion in Wisconsin

March 09, 2018

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A new king cheese has been crowned in Wisconsin. The winner of the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest is a hard sheep’s milk cheese called Esquirrou. The announcement was made Thursday night in Madison.

Esquirrou is made in France at Mauleon Fromagerie by Michel Touyarou and imported by Savencia Cheese USA of New Holland, Pennsylvania. Twenty cheeses out of a record 3,402 entries were finalists for the top prize. The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which hosts the contest , said five of those cheeses were from Wisconsin.

The contest began Tuesday. Judges had to sniff, taste and inspect 121 classes of dairy products, with entries from 26 nations. Two years ago a smear-ripened hard cheese called Grand Cru Surchoix made by Fitchburg, Wisconsin-based Emmi Roth USA won the biennial contest. The cheese is made in Monroe, Wisconsin. The company is a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Emmi Group.


California Democrats reject anti-BDS legislation

March 1, 2018

California Democrats have rejected proposed legislation targeting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, in a further sign of a growing partisan divide in the US over Israel.

The developments were welcomed in a 28 February press release by the Progressive, Arab American and Veterans Caucuses of the California Democratic Party.

On 25 February, at their annual convention in San Diego, California Democrats approved a set of positions on pending legislation that includes opposition to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, “a federal bill that would impose draconian penalties for boycotts regarding Israel under certain circumstances”.

California Democrats also backed a platform that excised a section from an earlier draft that would have had them “join the national Democratic Party in opposing any effort to delegitimise Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement”.

“We hope and believe that…the tide is starting to turn against this concerted effort to stigmatize and suppress a form of nonviolent protest against Israeli government policies that is taking hold around the country,” said Iyad Alfalqa, chair of the Arab American Caucus.

The party also approved a recommendation from the Legislation Committee to support the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., “that would prevent the use of US tax dollars for the Israeli military’s ongoing detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


US plans May opening for embassy in Jerusalem

February 24, 2018

The US plans to open its embassy in Jerusalem in May, the State Department said on Friday. This will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) and the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine.

“We are excited about taking this historic step, and look forward with anticipation to the May opening,” said State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “The embassy will be gradually expanded in existing consular facilities in the Arnona neighborhood, while the search for a permanent site has already begun for a longer-term undertaking.”

Nauert added that the interim embassy will have office space for the ambassador and a small staff. An annex on the Arnona compound will be opened by the end of next year.

Trump administration officials said that Congress has been notified of the impending move. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed off on the security plan for the new embassy on Thursday.

According to Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, though, the US move shows a “determination to violate international law, destroy the two-state solution and provoke the feelings of the Palestinian people as well as of all Arabs, Muslims and Christians around the globe.”

Izzat Al-Reshiq of the Hamas Political Bureau said that this move “needs an urgent and strong Palestinian, Arab and Islamic response.” He called upon the PLO and Arab and Islamic states which recognize Israel “to withdraw their recognition immediately.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Syria’s Kurds push US to stop Turkish assault on key enclave

February 01, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurdish militia is growing frustrated with its patron, the United States, and is pressing it to do more to stop Turkey’s assault on a key stronghold in Syria. The issue reflects a deeper concern among the Kurds over their alliance with the Americans, which proved vital to defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurds fear that ultimately they and their dream of self-rule will be the losers in the big powers’ play over influence in Syria. Already the U.S. is in a tough spot, juggling between the interests of the Kurds, its only ally in war-torn Syria, and its relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.

The Kurdish militia views defending the Kurdish enclave of Afrin as an existential fight to preserve their territory. Afrin has major significance — it’s one of the first Kurdish areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad and back self-rule, a base for senior fighters who pioneered the alliance with the Americans and a key link in their efforts to form a contiguous entity along Turkey’s border. The offensive, which began Jan. 20, has so far killed more than 60 civilians and dozens of fighters on both sides, and displaced thousands.

“How can they stand by and watch?” Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish politician said of the U.S.-led coalition against IS. “They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against terrorism.) We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”

Khalil, one of the architects of the Kurds’ self-administration, and three other senior Kurdish officials told The Associated Press that they have conveyed their frustration over what they consider a lack of decisive action to stop the Afrin assault to U.S. and other Western officials. They said U.S. officials have made confusing statements in public. One of the officials who agreed to discuss private meetings on condition of anonymity said some U.S. comments even amounted to tacit support for the assault.

The fight for Afrin puts Washington in a bind with few good options. The Americans have little leverage and no troops in Afrin, which is located in a pocket of Kurdish control at the western edge of Syria’s border with Turkey and is cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory by a Turkish-held enclave. The area is also crowded with other players. Russian troops were based there to prevent friction with Turkey until they withdrew ahead of the offensive, and the area — home to more than 300,000 civilians — is surrounded by territory held by Syrian government forces or al-Qaida-linked militants.

The Americans’ priority for the YPG — the main Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of forces allied to the U.S. — is for them to govern the large swath of territory wrested from the Islamic State group in northern and eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. Washington wants to prevent IS from resurging and keep Damascus’ ally, Iran, out of the area.

Afrin is not central to those American goals and U.S. officials say it will distract from the war on IS. The U.S-led coalition has distanced itself from the Kurdish forces in Afrin, saying they have not received American training and were not part of the war against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. But it also implicitly criticized the Turkish assault as unhelpful.

“Increased violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. Furthermore, it distracts from efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh and could be exploited by Daesh for resupply and safe haven,” the coalition said in an emailed statement to the AP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

For its part, Turkey views the YPG as an extension of its own Kurdish insurgent groups and has vowed to “purge” them from its borders. While the U.S. may distance itself from the fighting in Afrin, it can’t sit by silently if Turkey goes ahead with its threat to expand the fight to Manbij, a Syrian town to the east where American troops are deployed alongside Kurdish forces that took the town from IS in 2016.

One option is a proposal by the Kurds to persuade Assad to deploy his troops as a buffer between the Kurds and Turks in Afrin. Nobohar Mustafa, a Kurdish envoy to Washington, said the Americans appear open to that proposal. However, so far Assad’s government has refused; they want full control of the area.

Another option could be to seek a compromise with Turkey by withdrawing U.S. and Kurdish forces from Manbij, said Elizabeth Teoman, a Turkey specialist with the Institute for the Study of War. “The Turks may accept that as an intermediate step, but the U.S. will consistently face threats of escalation from Turkey as long as we maintain our partnership with the Syrian Kurdish YPG,” Teoman said.

U.S. officials have reportedly said recently that they have no intention of pulling out of Manbij. Kurdish officials say they don’t expect the Americans to go to war with Turkey or send troops to fight with them in Afrin.

But “this doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have a role in stopping the war on Afrin,” said Mustafa, the Kurdish envoy to Washington. She said Kurdish officials weren’t surprised the Americans have distanced themselves from the Afrin dispute “but we didn’t expect their stance to be that low.”

She and Khalil have lobbied Washington and Europe for a more aggressive stance against Turkey’s advances. Other than the proposal to allow Syrian border guards to deploy, they have suggested international observers along a narrow buffer zone. Mustafa said the U.S. could argue that the YPG presence in northwestern Syria, where al-Qaida-linked militants have their stronghold, is necessary to fight terrorism. Khalil said he has pressed other NATO members to urge Turkey to stop airstrikes.

Meanwhile, a heated media campaign has been launched to “Save Afrin,” while Kurdish supporters in Europe have staged regular protests and a senior YPG official wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. In Washington, U.S. officials rejected the notion that the United States hasn’t tried hard enough to rein in Turkey. In addition to publicly urging Turkey to limit its operation and avoid expanding further east, they noted that President Donald Trump spoke about it directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House said that Trump used that call to urge Turkey to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.”

They say that since Turkey has proceeded, the U.S. has been left with only bad options. Although the U.S. doesn’t want to see Assad’s government return to the area between Afrin and Turkey, it may be the “least worst situation,” said a U.S. official involved in Syria policy.

The United States has less ability to influence negotiations about how to secure the border than Russia, whose forces have long had a strong presence in the area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private diplomatic discussions.

The Trump administration has also quietly acknowledged that ultimately, the Kurds may be disappointed if they are expecting loyalty even on matters where U.S. and Kurdish interests diverge. Turkey, after all, is a NATO ally. Asked recently if Washington had a moral obligation to stick with the Kurds, senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s “America first” doctrine dictated that the U.S. must always prioritize its own interests.

From the Kurdish perspective, “the Americans are missing the whole point. If Erdogan is not stopped at Afrin, he will turn eastward and will not stop until he has destroyed the entire edifice” built by the Kurds in eastern Syria, said Nicholas Heras, of the Center for a New American Security.

“The challenge for the YPG is that it has power only so long as it continues to act as the key, local proxy for the U.S. mission in Syria,” Heras said.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

Medvedeva dominates, but Canada leads team competition

February 11, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Not even a record performance by Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva could put much of a crimp in Team Canada’s pursuit of Olympic gold. Medvedeva’s mesmerizing short program Sunday almost made everything else seem ordinary. Her 81.06 score broke her previous world mark as she virtually floated along the ice, nailing every element with a combination of technical skill and artistry that only she has perfected in recent years.

The 18-year-old two-time world champion smiled broadly as a group of her countrymen chanted “well done” in the stands. Her marks actually seemed a bit low for such an overwhelming routine. “I wasn’t nervous. I was focused, maybe too much,” Medvedeva said. “I have to relax a little bit, maybe.”

Imagine what she might do then. Still, the team gold doesn’t appear in reach for the Russians — officially competing as the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” The team has 39 points heading into Monday’s free skates in the other three disciplines. Canada’s deep and powerful team has 45 points, and will be favored in free dance after two-time Olympic medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir laid down a superb short dance.

Canada also won the pairs free skate Sunday with Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, while Kaetlyn Osmond was third in the women’s short. “That was kind of what we were looking to do in the team competition, to nail a solid, season-best performance, but to have room to do it better next time,” Duhamel said. “If this was absolutely perfect it would be hard to know what to strive for next week (in the individual event).

“But I think we had a great short and a great long where we have room for improvement in both programs.” While Canada, which has stressed the importance of taking home the team gold for nearly four years after finishing second to host Russia in Sochi, the United States has been hopeful of replicating its third-place finish in 2014. That became more difficult Sunday when Italy surged within a single point, 36-35.

The difference between the two nations could come in the men’s event, where the United States appears stronger with Adam Rippon against Matteo Rizzo. “I think we have some really strong performances to come,” said Rippon, who replaced two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen in the free skate. “For me, I just love being out here on the Olympic ice.”

Mirai Nagasu will step in for Bradie Tennell in the women’s event. Tennell was fifth in the short program, which cost the Americans some points because Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the 2014 women’s bronze winner, came in second.

Kostner’s graceful performance was highlighted by a series of exquisite spins. Her artistry can be spellbinding — sort of how figure skating used to be before the current focus on technical elements. She would be considered a favorite to finish ahead of Nagasu in the free skate, although Nagasu has a weapon none of the other skaters carries: a triple axel.

“What is going to happen is just going to add to the love I feel for the sport and the love I want to share with the audience,” said Kostner, 30 and in her fourth games. Her teammates, Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek, were sensational in the pairs free skate to place second, two spots in front of American champs Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim. That really tightened up the bronze race.

Marchei was so thrilled at the end of their routine she let out a scream heard over the cheering crowd. When their 138.44 was posted, Marchei screamed again in delight. Even with those Viva Italia moments, though, the day belonged to Canada. And, of course, to Medvedeva, who will step aside Monday for European champion Alina Zagitova — her training partner who snapped Medvedeva’s two-year winning streak at Euros.

“It’s not like I imagined, much calmer,” Medvedeva said of the Olympic environment, adding she won’t celebrate her record too much because “there’s a lot of work to come.”

US Soccer reboots, elects Carlos Cordeiro president

February 11, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Carlos Cordeiro insists he’s the right choice to lead the U.S. Soccer Federation, which must chart a new course after its men’s national team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup.

The 61-year-old business executive won the governing body’s presidential election Saturday. He succeeds Sunil Gulati, who led the organization since 2006. Cordeiro was Gulati’s right-hand man the past two years. Now, he’s charged, among other things, with running the U.S. end of a bid with Mexico and Canada for the right to host the 2026 World Cup.

Other priorities include the hiring of a general manager for the men’s team, a position Cordeiro said must be filled before launching a coaching search. He reiterated the ultimate goal is to help soccer realize its vast potential in the United States.

“I think we have an opportunity to really transform it into a No. 1 sport. I think the demographics favor that,” Cordeiro said. “There’s a reason why the millennials identify with soccer, so I think that’s very much in our favor. We have to do a number of things ourselves to make it happen, and make it happen more rapidly.”

Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs partner, was elected on the third ballot with 68.6 percent of the vote. The field initially featured eight candidates. Cordeiro pulled away from Kathy Carter, who is on leave as president of Major League Soccer’s marketing arm.

Carter had the backing of MLS Commissioner Don Garber and narrowly trailed Cordeiro on the first ballot. MLS, as well as the National Women’s Soccer League and United Soccer League, shifted their support to Cordeiro after the second ballot.

The other candidates were: former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Kyle Martino and Eric Wynalda, lawyers Steve Gans and Michael Winograd and former U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo. All the challengers to Cordeiro and Carter — both with close ties to Gulati — campaigned for change within the organization. All eight were given five minutes to address delegates before voting began.

“The two establishment candidates, Carlos Cordeiro and Kathy Carter, haven’t just been part of the system, they have created and shaped into what it is today,'” Solo said. “A vote for either one of them is a vote for the status quo.”

Cordeiro, however, said he was the only candidate with the experience and plan to “hit the ground running on day one and deliver the change we need.” “We have made progress, but we need to make more. Today, the status quo is unacceptable,” he said. “U.S. Soccer needs to change, transformational change. This vote comes down to one simple question: Who can actually deliver that change?”

Cordeiro immediately takes over for Gulati, who decided against seeking a fourth four-year term after the U.S. was unable to make the 32-team World Cup field in Russia. Gulati will retain a role as a member of the USSF board and the FIFA executive council, and as chairman of the North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

Carter’s support among delegates attending USSF’s annual general meeting slipped each round — from 34.6 percent to 33.3 on the second ballot, to 10.6 on the third, when the field had shrunk to five. Cordeiro’s percentage increased each round of the body’s first contested election in nearly two decades, rising from 36.3 to 41.8 on the second ballot.

To win election, Cordeiro needed a majority of the weighted vote. Under U.S. law, 20 percent of the vote is from the athletes’ council while the professional, adult and youth councils have 25.8 percent each.

The remaining 2.6 percent represents other constituents, such as board members, life members and fan representatives. Caligiuri withdrew after receiving less than 1 percent on the first ballot. Winograd and Gans bowed out after the second ballot, leaving Wynalda (10.8), Martino (10.2) and Solo (1.5) in the race with Cordeiro and Carter. Martino drew 10.6 percent on the final ballot, while Wynalda and Solo received 8.9 and 1.4, respectively.

“I said winning this election is going to be about building a coalition,” Cordeiro said. “It’s not about any one council. It was the youth, the adult, the athletes and the professionals. No one council has enough votes to get you across the line. You need really a coalition of support. I think my numbers speak to that.”

US issues ‘Putin list’ of Russian politicians, oligarchs

January 30, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration late Monday released a long-awaited list of 114 Russian politicians and 96 “oligarchs” who have flourished during the reign of President Vladimir Putin, fulfilling a demand by Congress that the U.S. punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.

Yet the administration paired that move with a surprising announcement that it had decided not to punish anybody — for now — under new sanctions retaliating for the election-meddling. Some U.S. lawmakers accused President Donald Trump of giving Russia a free pass, fueling further questions about whether the president is unwilling to confront America’s Cold War foe.

Known informally as the “Putin list,” the seven-page unclassified document is a who’s who of politically connected Russians in the country’s elite class. The idea, as envisioned by Congress, is to name-and-shame those believed to be benefiting from Putin’s tenure just as the United States works to isolate his government diplomatically and economically.

Being on the list doesn’t trigger any U.S. sanctions on the individuals, although more than a dozen are already targeted under earlier sanctions. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is among the 114 senior political figures in Russia’s government who made the list, along with 42 of Putin’s aides, Cabinet ministers such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and top officials in Russia’s leading spy agencies, the FSB and GRU. The CEOs of major state-owned companies, including energy giant Rosneft and Sberbank, are also on the list.

So are 96 wealthy Russians deemed “oligarchs” by the Treasury Department, which said each is believed to have assets totaling $1 billion or more. Some are the most famous of wealthy Russians, among them tycoons Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Prokhorov, who challenged Putin in the 2012 election. Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a figure in the Russia investigation over his ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is included.

The Trump administration had until Monday to issue the list under a law passed last year. After declining to answer questions about it throughout the day Monday, the Treasury Department released it with little fanfare 12 minutes before midnight.

Even more names, including those of less-senior politicians or businesspeople worth less than $1 billion, are on a classified version of the list being provided to Congress, officials said. Drawing on U.S. intelligence, Treasury also finalized a list of at least partially state-owned companies in Russia, but that list, too, was classified and sent only to Congress.

There was no immediate comment early Tuesday from the Kremlin or the Russian Embassy in Washington. In the works for months, the list has induced fear among rich Russians who are concerned that it could lead to U.S. sanctions or to being informally blacklisted in the global financial system. It triggered a fierce lobbying campaign, with Russia hawks in Congress pushing the administration to include certain names and lobbyists hired by Russian businessmen urging the administration to keep their clients off.

The list’s release was likely to at least partially diffuse the disappointment from some lawmakers that Trump’s administration opted against targeting anyone with new Russia sanctions that took effect Monday.

Under the same law that authorized the “Putin list,” the government was required to slap sanctions on anyone doing “significant” business with people linked to Russia’s defense and intelligence agencies, using a blacklist the U.S. released in October. But the administration decided it didn’t need to penalize anyone, even though several countries have had multibillion-dollar arms deals with Russia in the works.

State Department officials said the threat of sanctions had been deterrent enough, and that “sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed.” “We estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. She did not provide evidence or cite any examples.

Companies or foreign governments that had been doing business with blacklisted Russian entities had been given a three-month grace period to extricate themselves from transactions, starting in October when the blacklist was published and ending Monday. But only those engaged in “significant transactions” are to be punished, and the United States has never defined that term or given a dollar figure. That ambiguity has made it impossible for the public to know exactly what is and isn’t permissible.

Late last year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said one reason the U.S. was proceeding cautiously was that major U.S. allies have much at stake. Turkey, a NATO ally, has a deal to buy the S-400, Russia’s most advanced air defense missile system. And key security partner Saudi Arabia recently struck an array of deals with Moscow, including contracts for weapons. It was unclear whether either country had since abandoned those deals to avoid running afoul of the U.S. sanctions.

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lambasted the move to punish no one, saying he was “fed up” and that Trump’s administration had chosen to “let Russia off the hook yet again.” He dismissed the State Department’s claim that “the mere threat of sanctions” would stop Moscow from further meddling in America’s elections.

“How do you deter an attack that happened two years ago, and another that’s already underway?” Engel said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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