Photo: Omer Messinger/ZUMA
Millions of Israelis are voting today to elect a new parliament and potentially a new prime minister in a tightly fought election that has become a referendum on incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for a fourth term. Late polls show center-left opponent Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, with a slight advantage over “Bibi.”
- Netanyahu, however, made several attempts to attract right-wing voters and consolidate his Likud base in the late hours of the campaign. In a last-minute speech Monday, he said there would be no Palestinian state if he were reelected, disavowing a 2009 speech in which he supported a two-state solution, Haaretz reports.
- The Likud party admitted to forging a recording of the Kulanu party leader promising to support Netanyahu, according to a Kulanu spokesman quoted by The Jerusalem Post.
- Late surveys showed about 15% of voters were undecided going into today’s election.
- Voting ends at 10 p.m. local time, and the first results are expected to be published immediately afterwards.
- Although the formation of the new parliament, the Knesset, could be set by Wednesday, it could take weeks to determine the next prime minister, as negotiations to form the required coalition governmental could be difficult.
ON THIS DAY
On this day in 1969, Israel elected Golda Meir. Time for your 57-second shot of history.
ALLEGED SYRIAN GAS ATTACK KILLS 6
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed six people — a man, his wife and their three children — in an alleged poison gas attack Monday in the village of Sarmin, in the Idlib province. Medical sources said they died as a result of what was likely chlorine released from barrel bombs dropped by government helicopters, the Syrian monitor group added. Reuters quoted a Syrian military source as saying these claims were propaganda. “We confirm that we would not use this type of weapon, and we don't need to use it.”
At least 115 civilians, including 14 children, were killed in a series of “ruthless airstrikes” on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, between Nov. 11 and 29 last year, a new Amnesty International report says. The human rights group added that some of these strikes gave “every indication of being war crimes.” Several non-military targets, including a busy market, a mosque and a transport hub, were also hit. Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, said that “Syrian government forces have shown flagrant disregard for the rules of war.”
As Clarin’s Miguel Jurado reports, buildings, tarmac and air conditioning are turning many cities into fetid, airless saunas. Experts urge more trees and grass to mitigate the heat of increasingly hot cement jungles. “Certainly there is global warming and we all suffer it, but in cities like Buenos Aires, insufficient greenery, buildings and tarmac make it much hotter than surrounding regions,” the journalist writes. “Our founder Pedro de Mendoza wasn’t wrong to plan the city facing a river, but because everything we build now blocks its pleasant breeze, we can see how Buenos Aires has become overheated and its air polluted.”
Read the full article, Scorching Cities Like Buenos Aires Are Not Just About Global Warming.
IRAN-U.S. NUCLEAR TALKS INTENSIFY
U.S. and Iranian delegations resumed talks on Iran’s nuclear program today in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the talks aim to reach a political agreement by the end of the month, the Swiss daily Le Matin reports. But Western officials warn that tough issues remained unresolved. "We are trying to get there, but quite frankly we still do not know if we will be able to," a senior U.S. official told reporters. "Iran still has to make some very tough and necessary choices to address the significant concerns that remain about its nuclear program."
“There is no occupation of Crimea,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a press conference today. The statement confirms Russia’s refusal to return Crimea to Ukraine, despite U.S. and European warnings that they would not drop sanctions over the peninsula’s annexation last year, Reuters reports. “Crimea is a region of the Russian Federation and of course the subject of our regions is not up for discussion,” Peskov added.
- Meanwhile, reports of heavy fighting near the rebel-held city of Donetsk emerged this morning, according to The Moscow Times. According to pro-Russian separatists, fighting has been ongoing since the Minsk ceasefire brokered in February by France and Germany. “Not a single day has been quiet here since the deal,” a rebel fighter told the Russian daily. “One of our guys got killed here today and we have lost nine in total since the deal.”
CYCLONE DEATH TOLL LOWERED
Rescue teams are still trying to reach the many Vanuatu islands hit by Cyclone Pam over the weekend. But it appears that on the island of Tanna, which received the full force of the storm, most of the population survived by sheltering in schools, churches and other resistant buildings, Reuters reports. The official United Nations death toll was revised down from its earlier figure of 24 to 11. But the figure is expected to rise again once rescue teams reach the archipelago’s outer islands.
MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD
MYANMAR MEN JAILED FOR BUDDHA “INSULTS”
A court sentenced a bar manager from New Zealand and two local Myanmar colleagues to two and a half years in jail today for “insulting” religion by using a psychedelic image of Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Philip Blackwood, 32, Tun Thurein, 40, and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, were arrested Dec. 10 after the image caused outrage on social media, The New Zealand Herald reports. Myanmar law says anyone who insults, destroys or damages any religion can be punished with two years behind bars. Blackwood’s relatives claimed the act was unintentional, and the bar managers quickly took the picture down and apologized.
After two-year-old footage of Greece’s new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis sticking up his middle finger at Germany emerged and shocked the country, a Berlin-based newspaper is giving him a taste of his own medicine. Take a look at Tageszeitung’s front page in our 4 Corners blog.
TURNING A PAGE
Forensic scientists say they have found the tomb of Spain’s “Prince of Letters” and father of the modern novel Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, nearly 400 years after his death.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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