As Israel’s Dependence on U.S. Shrinks, So Does U.S. Leverage

Israel, a small country surrounded by adversaries and locked in conflict with the Palestinians, depends absolutely on American diplomatic and military support. By giving it, the United States safeguards Israel and wields significant leverage over its actions.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. For decades, it was true: Israeli leaders and voters alike treated Washington as essential to their country’s survival.

But that dependence may be ending. While Israel still benefits greatly from American assistance, security experts and political analysts say that the country has quietly cultivated, and may have achieved, effective autonomy from the United States.

“We’re seeing much more Israeli independence,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who has studied Israeli strategy.

nearly $4 billion, it was closer to one percent.

Washington underscored its own declining relevance to the conflict last week, calling for a cease-fire only after an Egyptian-brokered agreement was nearing completion, and which Israeli leaders said they agreed to because they had completed their military objectives in a ten day conflict with Gaza. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken will visit the region this week, though he said he does not intend to restart formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Democrats and left-wing activists, outraged over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and bombing of Gaza, are challenging Washington’s long-held consensus on Israel.

Yet significant, if shrinking, numbers of Americans express support for Israel, and Democratic politicians have resisted their voters’ growing support for the Palestinians.

The United States still has leverage, as it does with every country where it provides arms and diplomatic support. But that leverage may be declining past the point at which Israel is able and willing to do as it wishes, bipartisan consensus or not.

When Americans think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many still picture the period known as the Second Intifada, when Israeli tanks crashed through Palestinian towns and Palestinian bombs detonated in Israeli cafes and buses.

But that was 15 years ago. Since then, Israel has re-engineered the conflict in ways that Israeli voters and leaders largely find bearable.

Violence against Israelis in the occupied West Bank is rarer and lower-level, rarer still in Israel proper. Though fighting has erupted several times between Israel and Gaza-based groups, Israeli forces have succeeded in pushing the burden overwhelmingly on Gazans. Conflict deaths, once three-to-one Palestinian-to-Israeli, are now closer to 20-to-one.

At the same time, Israeli disaffection with the peace process has left many feeling that periodic fighting is the least bad option. The occupation, though a crushing and ever-present force for Palestinians, is, on most days and for most Jewish Israelis, ignorable.

missile defense technology that is made and maintained largely at home — a feat that hints at the tenacity of Israel’s drive for self-sufficiency.

“If you had told me five years ago,” said Mr. Narang, the M.I.T. scholar, “that the Israelis would have a layered missile defense system against short-range rockets and short-range ballistic missiles, and it was going to be 90 percent effective, I would have said, ‘I would love what you’re smoking.’”

mixed, and tend starkly negative in Muslim-majority societies, Israel has cultivated ties in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Even nearby Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, once among its greatest enemies, now seek peace, while others have eased hostilities. Last year, the so-called Abraham Accords, brokered under President Trump, saw Israel normalize ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Israel subsequently normalized ties with Morocco and reached a diplomatic agreement with Sudan.

“We used to talk about a diplomatic tsunami that was on its way. But it never materialized,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster.

polls show, and growing numbers consider it a low priority, given a status quo that much of the Israeli public sees as tolerable.

“That changes the nature of the relationship to the U.S.,” Ms. Mizrahi-Arnaud said.

Because Israeli leaders no longer feel domestic pressure to engage in the peace process, which runs through Washington, they do not need to persuade the Americans that they are seeking peace in good faith.

If anything, leaders face declining pressure to please the Americans and rising demands to defy them with policies like expanding settlements in the West Bank, even annexing it outright.

Israel is hardly the first small state to seek independence from a great-power patron. But this case is unusual in one way: It was the Americans who built up Israel’s military and diplomatic independence, eroding their own influence.

Now, after nearly 50 years of not quite wielding that leverage to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may soon be gone for good, if it isn’t already.

“Israel feels that they can get away with more,” said Ms. Mizrahi-Arnaud, adding, to underscore her point, “When exactly is the last time that the United States pressured Israel?”

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How the Coming Population Bust Will Transform the World

All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.

spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.

schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.

even iPhones.

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.

municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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New Political Pressures Push US, Europe to Stop Israel-Gaza Conflict

BRUSSELS — A diplomatic flurry from the White House and Europe added pressure on Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday to halt their 10-day-old conflict before it turned into a war entangling more of the Middle East.

President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — their second phone call in three days — telling the Israeli leader he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” administration officials said. Although they portrayed the call as consistent with what Mr. Biden had been saying, his decision to set a deadline was an escalation.

And in Europe, France and Germany, both strong allies of Israel that had initially held back from pressuring Mr. Netanyahu in the early days of the conflict, intensified their push for a cease-fire.

French diplomats sought to advance their proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would call on the antagonists to stop fighting and to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza. It remained unclear on Wednesday if the United States, which has blocked all Security Council attempts to even issue a statement condemning the violence, would go along with the French resolution.

Twitter post afterward, he said, “I especially appreciate the support of our friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense.”

confronted Mr. Biden during his trip to a Ford plant, and pleaded with him to address the growing violence in the region and protect Palestinian lives.

Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who witnessed that interaction, said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s reluctance to negotiate a cease-fire had made it harder for Democrats across the political spectrum to defend Israel’s actions.

Some saw the second phone call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu as messaging to placate domestic constituents.

Democrats have been pushing Mr. Biden “to take a tougher line and this was his opportunity to demonstrate that he is doing so,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington group that supports Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. He also said Mr. Netanyahu “does not want to give the impression that he’s been told to end this conflict before it’s the right time to do so.”

For European nations, the intensified push for a cease-fire also is based partly on political calculations.

pro-Palestinian demonstrations have sometimes turned into anti-Israeli protests and anti-Semitic attacks, including assaults on synagogues. Governments fear such protests and internal violence will worsen the longer the conflict lasts.

France is on alert for acts of Islamist terrorism, often from French-born Muslims outraged by events in the Middle East. Germany, which welcomed a million mostly Muslim migrants in 2015, is struggling to contain their anger about Israel.

At the same time, the election of Mr. Trump in 2016 also encouraged a right-wing European populism that is anti-immigration and often anti-Islamic, with a clear political identification with “Judeo-Christian values” and strong support for Israel. That is clear in France, with the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, as well as in Germany, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Up until now at least, there also had been a gradual de-emphasis of the Palestinian issue by governments, said Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

She attributed that de-emphasis partly to Israel’s shelved plans to annex the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of their own ambitions for an independent state, and to the 2020 Abraham Accords, Israel’s normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, all big defenders of Palestinian rights. Ms. Kausch said there had been a sense that “the Palestinian cause can be put on the back burner, that Arab countries and people don’t care anymore.”

But this new outbreak, Ms. Kausch said, had shown “that the Palestinian cause is alive and kicking.” And no longer ignorable, at least for a while.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the beginning of this conflict, he said, the United States and Europe had been “largely sympathetic to the Israeli narrative, willing to give them some space to accomplish their military ambitions.”

similar two-page resolution passed by the Security Council during another fierce Gaza war in January 2009, and on which the United States abstained.

The draft resolution seeks a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to Gaza, the condemnation of the rocket barrages and any incitement to violence, the official said.

In Germany, traditional support for Israel and patience with its military campaign appears to be waning.

After speaking with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel “sharply condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and assured the prime minister of the German government’s solidarity,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

But given the many civilian lives lost “on both sides,” Mr. Seibert said, “the chancellor expressed her hope that the fighting will end as soon as possible.”

Mr. Maas, the German foreign minister, said on Tuesday that “ending the violence in the Middle East is the first priority,” followed by political negotiations. But he also blamed Hamas for the escalation.

He appeared to be responding to domestic criticism that the government has been too lenient in the face of pro-Palestinian and sometimes anti-Semitic protests.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that Germany should “concentrate on internal affairs and reflect that the ‘welcome culture’ extended to refugees was astoundingly naïve when it came to anti-Semitism.”

The question for Germany now, the paper said, “is how do we teach those for whom a hatred of Israel is in their DNA that Israel’s security is part of their adopted homeland’s raison d’être?”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Jim Tankersley and Katie Rogers from Washington. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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New Political Pressures Push U.S. and Europe to Stop Israel-Gaza Conflict

BRUSSELS — A diplomatic flurry from the White House and Europe added pressure on Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday to halt their 10-day-old conflict before it turned into a war entangling more of the Middle East.

President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel — their second phone call in three days — telling the Israeli leader he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” administration officials said. Although they portrayed the call as consistent with what Mr. Biden had been saying, his decision to set a deadline was an escalation. .

And in Europe, France and Germany, both strong allies of Israel that had initially held back from pressuring Mr. Netanyahu in the early days of the conflict, intensified their push for a cease-fire.

French diplomats sought to advance their proposed United Nations Security Council resolution that would call on the antagonists to stop fighting and to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza. It remained unclear on Wednesday if the United States, which has blocked all Security Council attempts to even issue a statement condemning the violence, would go along with the French resolution.

Twitter post afterward, he said “I especially appreciate the support of our friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense.”

confronted Mr. Biden during his trip to a Ford plant, and pleaded with him to address the growing violence in the region and protect Palestinian lives.

Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who witnessed that interaction, said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s reluctance to negotiate a cease-fire had made it harder for Democrats across the political spectrum to defend Israel’s actions.

Some saw the second phone call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu as messaging to placate domestic constituents.

Democrats have been pushing Mr. Biden “to take a tougher line and this was his opportunity to demonstrate that he is doing so,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington group that supports Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. He also said Mr. Netanyahu “does not want to give the impression that he’s been told to end this conflict before it’s the right time to do so.”

For European nations, the intensified push for a cease-fire also is based partly on political calculations.

pro-Palestinian demonstrations have sometimes turned into anti-Israeli protests, including attacks on synagogues. Governments fear such protests and internal violence will worsen the longer the conflict lasts.

France is on alert for acts of Islamist terrorism, often from French-born Muslims outraged by events in the Middle East. Germany, which welcomed a million mostly Muslim migrants in 2005, is struggling to contain their anger about Israel.

At the same time, the election of Mr. Trump in 2016 also encouraged a right-wing European populism that is anti-immigration and often anti-Islamic, with a clear political identification with “Judeo-Christian values’’ and strong support for Israel. That is clear in France, with the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, as well as in Germany, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Up until now at least, there also had been a gradual de-emphasis of the Palestinian issue by governments, said Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

She attributed that de-emphasis partly to Israel’s shelved plans to annex the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of their own ambitions for an independent state, and to the 2020 Abraham Accords, Israel’s normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, all big defenders of Palestinian rights. Ms. Kausch said there had been a sense that “the Palestinian cause can be put on the back burner, that Arab countries and people don’t care anymore.”

But this new outbreak, Ms. Kausch said, had shown “that the Palestinian cause is alive and kicking.’’ And no longer ignorable, at least for a while.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At the beginning of this conflict, he said, the United States and Europe had been “largely sympathetic to the Israeli narrative, willing to give them some space to accomplish their military ambitions.’’

similar two-page resolution passed by the Security Council during another fierce Gaza war in January 2009, and on which the United States abstained.

The draft resolution seeks a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to Gaza, the condemnation of the rocket barrages and any incitement to violence, the official said.

In Germany, traditional support for Israel and patience with its military campaign appears to be waning.

After speaking with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel “sharply condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and assured the prime minister of the German government’s solidarity,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

But given the many civilian lives lost “on both sides,” Mr. Seibert said, “the chancellor expressed her hope that the fighting will end as soon as possible.”

Mr. Maas, the German foreign minister, said on Tuesday that “ending the violence in the Middle East is the first priority,’’ followed by political negotiations. But he also blamed Hamas for the escalation.

He appeared to be responding to domestic criticism that the government has been too lenient in the face of pro-Palestinian and sometimes anti-Semitic protests.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that Germany should “concentrate on internal affairs and reflect that the ‘welcome culture’ extended to refugees was astoundingly naïve when it came to anti-Semitism.’’

The question for Germany now, the paper said, “is how do we teach those for whom a hatred of Israel is in their DNA that Israel’s security is part of their adopted homeland’s raison d’être?”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Jim Tankersley and Katie Rogers from Washington. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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Gaza War Deepens a Long-Running Humanitarian Crisis

GAZA CITY — The nine-day battle between Hamas militants and the Israeli military has damaged 17 hospitals and clinics in Gaza, wrecked its only coronavirus test laboratory, sent fetid wastewater into its streets and broke water pipes serving at least 800,000 people, setting off a humanitarian crisis that is touching nearly every civilian in the crowded enclave of about two million people.

Sewage systems inside Gaza have been destroyed. A desalination plant that helped provide fresh water to 250,000 people in the territory is offline. Dozens of schools have been damaged or closed, forcing some 600,000 students to miss classes. Some 72,000 Gazans have been forced to flee their homes. And at least 213 Palestinians have been killed, including dozens of children.

The level of destruction and loss of life in Gaza has underlined the humanitarian challenge in the enclave, already suffering under the weight of an indefinite blockade by Israel and Egypt even before the latest conflict.

demonstrations began peacefully but led to clashes in some places in the West Bank Outside Ramallah, a group of Palestinians who had gathered separately from the protesters set fires on a major thoroughfare and later exchanged gunfire with Israeli soldiers, officials said. Three Palestinians were killed.

Rocket fire from Palestinian militants has also harmed Israeli infrastructure, damaging a gas pipeline and pausing operations at a gas rig and at two major Israeli airports.

But the damage was incomparable to that in Gaza.

Until Monday evening, Al Rimal health clinic in central Gaza City housed Gaza’s only coronavirus test laboratory. Doctors and nurses there administered hundreds of vaccinations, prescriptions and screenings a day to more than 3,000 patients.

But on Monday night an Israeli airstrike hit the street outside, sending shrapnel into the clinic, shattering windows, shredding doors, furniture and computers, caking rooms in debris and wrecking the virus lab.

adherence to the international laws of war, which bar the targeting of purely civilian sites and limit acceptable collateral damage to that which is proportionate to any military advantage.

according to a report last year by the United Nations, have left Gaza with “the world’s highest unemployment rate” and more than half of its population living below the poverty line.

By Monday, Israeli bombs had destroyed 132 residential buildings and rendered 316 housing units uninhabitable, according to Gaza’s Housing Ministry.

One airstrike essentially destroyed the Hala al Shawa clinic in northern Gaza which also provides primary health-care services and vaccinations, while another damaged four ambulances nearby, the Health Ministry said.

The blast from a third airstrike broke windows in operating rooms, forcing the clinic to transfer surgery patients to other hospitals, said Abdelsalam Sabah, the ministry’s hospitals director. A separate airstrike caused some structural damage to the nearby Indonesian hospital, he added. A piece of shrapnel flew into the emergency room at the Gaza Eye Hospital, nearly wounding a nurse, he said.

The strike on Al Rimal clinic in Gaza City also damaged the administrative offices of the Hamas-run Health Ministry, said Dr. Majdi Dhair, director of the ministry’s preventive medicine department.

One ministry employee was hospitalized and in serious condition after shrapnel struck him in the head, Dr. Dhair said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

“This attack was barbaric,” he said. “There’s no way to justify it.”

Reporting was contributed by Patrick Kingsley and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Tzur Hadassah.

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Europe Calls for Immediate Cease-Fire in Israel-Palestinian Fighting

BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers overwhelmingly called for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, according to the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles.

All of the member states except Hungary backed a statement that condemned rocket attacks by Hamas and supported Israel’s right to self-defense but also cautioned that it had “to be done in a proportional manner and respecting international humanitarian law,’’ Mr. Borrell said at a news conference.

He said that the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, “including a high number of women and children,’’ was “unacceptable.’’ And he said that the European Union, as part of the quartet with the United States, Russia and the United Nations that seeks peace in the Middle East, would push to restart a serious diplomatic process.

“The priority is the immediate cessation of all violence and the implementation of a cease-fire,” Mr. Borrell said. Foreign policy in the European Union works by unanimity, so Mr. Borrell’s comments, despite Hungary’s opposition, were an effort, he said, “to reflect the overall agreement.”

evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

“The representatives of the European public, the ministers of foreign affairs in this case, are trying very hard to deal with the situation and find the best possible contribution by the E.U. to de-escalate and stop the violence,” he said. “And I think that’s it. I can only repeat that of course the casualties are unacceptable.”

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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Criminal or Martyr? A Prisoner Poses a Political Dilemma For Spain

BARCELONA — Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization known in Spain as much for its literary prizes as for its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.

But its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be found: For the last three and a half years, he has lived in a prison cell.

To the Spanish authorities, Mr. Cuixart is a dangerous criminal, convicted of sedition for leading a rally at a time when he and other separatist leaders were seeking to set up a breakaway state in the northeastern region of Catalonia. Yet to his supporters, and in the eyes of many foreign countries, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.

“They want us to change our ideals,” Mr. Cuixart said, speaking through a thick pane of glass in the prison visitors’ section on a recent afternoon.

Mr. Cuixart and eight other men jailed for sedition are now martyrs who, according to human rights groups, are being held for nothing more than voicing and acting on their political views.

For the Spanish government — and for Europe as a whole — they have also become a diplomatic headache, raising accusations of hypocrisy against a region known for demanding greater democratic freedoms around the world.

Russia this year cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the release of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and calls their jailing a form of political intimidation.

holding Hungary and Poland accountable to E.U. rule-of-law standards, some European parliamentarians noted a double standard: Spain, they said, held political prisoners.

a regional independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish courts. The national government in Madrid sent in riot squads, which seized ballot boxes and even beat some of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, despite the fact that more than half of voters did not cast ballots and polls showed that Catalonia was split on independence.

Defiant, the Parliament in Catalonia went ahead and declared independence anyway — only to suspend its own declaration before being dissolved by the Spanish government. By that time, Mr. Cuixart had already been arrested and other separatist leaders fled for Belgium.

In 2019, the courts sentenced Mr. Cuixart and eight others to between nine and 13 years in prison after convicting them of sedition.

“He is in jail simply for exercising his right to express himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish office of Amnesty International, said of Mr. Cuixart.

the terrorist group ETA, which fought for decades for the independence of the northern Basque region.

“They aren’t political prisoners. These are politicians that have broken the law,” Ms. González Laya said in an interview.

“The question is, do you have in Spain the ability to express a different opinion? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide that you break up the country? No,” she added.

But David Bondia, an international law professor in Barcelona, said that the Spanish government was considering an overhaul that would weaken its sedition laws, something he sees as an admission that there had been a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.

Mr. Cuixart’s case was even more problematic from a legal view. He was the head of a cultural group, yet his sedition trial was conducted under a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr. Bondia said, raising due-process questions.

For Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the situation recalls the days of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in fear of persecution.

“For us, this has hit hard and brought us to the past,” he said.

Mr. Puigdemont, who is also wanted on sedition charges, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, where he serves in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was removed in March, allowing for him to be extradited.

approved by voters and the regional Parliament. The move brought widespread anger and separatist flags became common in the countryside.

Soon, Parliament was discussing a move to declare an independent state, long considered a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had become the president of Omnium, was sometimes conflicted that his group had also joined the independence push — it was a cultural organization after all, not a political one. But in the end, he said that not joining would have been standing on the wrong side of history.

The crucial day came for Mr. Cuixart on Sept. 20, 2017, when the Spanish police, trying to stop the independence referendum from taking place, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry building on suspicions that plans for the vote were being organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the location.

Mr. Cuixart and a pro-independence leader, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They set up pathways through the crowd for officers to enter the building and made announcements that anyone considering violence was a “traitor.”

As the night wore on, Mr. Cuixart said that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he is seen on top of a vehicle calling for the crowd to disperse. Despite jeers from the protesters, most left and Mr. Cuixart said that he then went to bed.

The vote was held amid the crackdown the next month. But Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there were no consequences after he dodged a military draft as a young man. He thought he had little to fear this time around.

But then the charges came: sedition, one of the highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian charges for activity at a protest surprised even legal experts who said that the sedition laws — which cover crimes less serious than full-out rebellion — had been rarely used in a country.

“I had to look up what ‘sedition’ even was,” Mr. Cuixart said.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days at the Lledoners prison, a penitentiary built for about 1,000 inmates, and home to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He said he spends his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is against Catalan independence, said he felt little pity for Mr. Cuixart’s situation because the separatists brought it on themselves.

“I don’t forgive them because they’ve broken our society,” Mr. Cañas said, adding that the independence push still divided Spanish homes. “I have friends I no longer speak to over this.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his part, said he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it all over again, he said. It was Spain that needed to change, he said, not him.

“At some point, Spain is going to have to reflect and ask themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he said. “Eliminate me? They can’t.”

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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Russian Attempts to Expand Sputnik Vaccine Sets Off Discord in Europe

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — When Slovakia’s prime minister welcomed a military aircraft carrying 200,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia in March, he posed proudly for photographs on the tarmac in front of crates stuffed with what he expected to be his country’s medical salvation.

Slovakia at the time had the world’s highest per-capita death rate from Covid-19, and the arrival of the Russian vaccine offered a rare glimmer of hope. For Russia it offered big benefits, too: a small but symbolically important new market for its product in the European Union, which has so far declined to register the vaccine and urged member states to hold off on orders until approval is granted.

But the effort by the Slovakian leader, Igor Matovic, soon blew up in his face, costing him his job and almost toppling the whole government — just three months after it adopted a new security strategy rooted in unequivocal support for NATO and wariness of Russia.

The strongly pro-Western Slovak government, torn between its commitment to abide by European rules and desperation for a way out of the health crisis, spasmed in crisis for weeks.

Sputnik V, the world’s first registered vaccine, is the medical breakthrough proclaimed last summer by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, but it has already proved itself to be remarkably effective in spreading disarray and division in Europe.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron talked to Mr. Putin recently about possible deliveries of Sputnik, which Mr. Macron’s own foreign minister derided as a “propaganda tool.” The Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, furious that European regulators have been slow in approving Sputnik, has clashed with Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, over the bloc’s vaccination program, which so far involves only Western vaccines.

But Slovakia provides the most concrete example of how Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has had side effects that can be highly toxic.

The decision by Mr. Matovic, then the Slovakian prime minister, to order two million doses of Sputnik V set the country at odds with the European Union and brought one of Eastern Europe’s most stoutly pro-Western governments to the brink of collapse as junior partners in a fractious governing coalition, outraged by the import of Sputnik, defected.

said in a tweet in February that Mr. Putin offered Sputnik V to the world as a “weapon to divide and rule.” And Poland said it was considering buying Chinese vaccines, despite similar concerns about it, but would definitely not order Sputnik V.

A recent survey by the Globsec research group found that, among those willing to be vaccinated, only 1 percent of Poles and Romanians and 2 percent of Lithuanians would choose Sputnik over American and European brands. Even in Hungary, the lone European Union member to start inoculating its citizens with Russia’s product, only 4 percent want Sputnik V.

But in Slovakia, around 15 percent of those willing to be vaccinated expressed a preference for the Russian vaccine, offering Moscow an opportunity to break out of the quarantine imposed by deep suspicion elsewhere.

That Russia targeted Slovakia as a place to widen Sputnik’s narrow beachhead in Europe was evident long before Mr. Matovic decided to order the vaccine.

video on Facebook in January saying that he was ready to help broker a deal with Moscow for the delivery of Sputnik.

His pitch appealed to the generally Russia-friendly sentiments of many ordinary Slovaks, particularly those of an anti-establishment bent.

Martin Smatana, a former Health Ministry official in Bratislava, said he had been amazed by how many of his friends want the Russian vaccine and say, “Screw the system, use Sputnik.”

a report this past week, the European Union’s foreign service said that Russia’s drive to promote Sputnik abroad was aimed at “sowing distrust” in Europe’s medicines regulator and stoking divisions.

In response, the Russian state investment agency spearheading Sputnik’s export drive lamented that the vaccine, which it hails as a “vaccine for all mankind,” has fallen victim to “unfortunate daily information attacks.” On Friday, after Brazil raised concerns about Sputnik, complaining of inadequate data, the vaccine’s developer in Moscow, the Gamaleya Institute, issued an angry statement complaining that “unethical forces continuously attack the Sputnik V vaccine for competitive and political reasons.”

The testy arguments in Slovakia over the vaccine reached a peak in April when the country’s drug regulatory agency claimed that Mr. Matovic had fallen for a Russian bait-and-switch. It said the vaccine doses sent to Slovakia at a cost of around $2 million differed from the Sputnik V reviewed favorably in a peer-reviewed February article in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

The Slovak claim, denounced by Moscow as “sabotage,” cast doubt on Sputnik’s main selling point: a proven efficacy rate of over 90 percent against Covid-19. The Lancet gave the vaccine 91.6 percent efficacy in February, and Russian scientists have since claimed a “real world” rate 97.6 percent.

But the main issue with Sputnik has never been whether it works — most experts believe it does — but Russia’s repeated failure to follow procedure and provide all the data needed by foreign regulators to assess safety. Slovakia’s regulator made its damning statement not because it had discovered any specific problems with Sputnik but “due to the lack of data from the manufacturer, inconsistencies in dosage forms and inability to compare the batches used in different studies and countries.”

The 200,000 doses that Russia delivered in March were still all unused at a pharmaceutical company in eastern Slovakia as of last week. But Mr. Matovic said Russia had already returned the money paid by Slovakia.

Pavol Babos, a political analyst in Bratislava, said Mr. Matovic was “never pro-Russian” but “very naïve.” Desperate for a way to slow the pandemic and lift his own slumping ratings, the prime minister, Mr. Babos added, “fell into a trap set by Russian propaganda.”

But Mr. Matovic scoffed at accusations that Moscow had played him to promote its own geopolitical agenda. The Russians, he said, “wanted to help, but instead of thanking them we said, ‘You are stupid, and you are cheating people around the world.’”

Most at fault, Mr. Matovic said, was the State Institute for Drug Control, which asserted that the Sputnik V batches Russia sent to Slovakia did “not have the same characteristics and properties” as the version V reviewed by The Lancet. This, he said, “was an extremely incorrect political statement.”

Zuzana Batova, the institute’s director, who has received death threats from aggressive Sputnik fans, declined to be interviewed, saying she did not want to pour oil on the fire.

The head of the Biomedical Research Center, which carried out a series of 14 tests in Slovakia on the Russian vaccine, said she had no concerns over whether Sputnik V works but was troubled by Russia’s lack of transparency.

While the potential side effects of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been documented in detail publicly, the center’s chief, Silvia Pastorekova, said, “We know nothing about Sputnik’s side effects.”

The Russian vaccine, she said, passed all of her team’s tests but failed to win approval from the state regulator because more than three-quarters of the documents required to meet European norms had either not been submitted or were incomplete.

“We are part of the European family and we should accept the rules of the family,” Ms. Pastorekova said.

Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels, and Kristina Hamarova from Bratislava.

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