PERISCOPE

Israel: Yea or Nay on Gaza?

Why does Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fear a referendum on his controversial Gaza plan? With his move to evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip next year sparking talk of a civil war in Israel, some of Sharon's deputies are pushing for a nationwide vote that would give the withdrawal more legitimacy than the parliamentary vote scheduled for Oct. 26, which Sharon is expected to win. Proponents of the referendum--most vocally Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--believe the political risk is minor, with polls showing two out of three Israelis supporting the move. And many settlers who would otherwise stay and fight promise to go quietly if a majority of Israelis approve the plan.

Sharon refuses to gamble, observers say, because as their former political godfather, he knows just how unrelenting the settlers can be. According to details of their battle plan, Gaza settlers would mobilize thousands of activists to lobby hundreds of thousands of swing voters face-to-face. Part of the campaign would involve influential rabbis' issuing rulings against the withdrawal. At the same time, a team of 70 lawyers would challenge the legality of the plan in court. "We're planning the most sophisticated campaign in Israel's history," says Rafi Seri, the firebrand settler who heads the anti-withdrawal campaign.

On the other side of the political map, there's no guarantee that Israeli-Arabs would vote for the withdrawal plan. Arab citizens of Israel make up 18 percent of the population. They're almost unanimously against Jewish settlements--and suspicious of Sharon's ultimate intentions. Indeed, many of them have begun speaking out against the withdrawal. "Evacuating settlements is a good thing," says Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Arab member of Israel's Parliament. "But Sharon's plan spells out in writing how he also intends to expand West Bank settlements. How can he expect Israeli-Arabs to vote for something like that?" He may not.

Russia: More Money Leads to More Problems

More than 350,000 angry teachers and doctors picketed in cities across Russia last week, demanding better pay. The one-day strike recalled the chaotic 1990s, when millions of unpaid government workers routinely took to the streets. But this is Vladimir Putin's Russia, flush this year alone with $18 billion in unanticipated revenues from soaring oil prices. "They've got the money to pay us, but they don't," says demonstrator Denis Shishigin, a $150-a-month special-education teacher in Moscow who started work in September.

The problem, says a World Bank study, is that people like Shishigin should never have been hired in the first place. Hoping to use rising oil revenues to soak up unemployment, the Kremlin is packing schools and medical clinics with unneeded, low-paid workers who would otherwise be jobless. The practice is especially out of control in some Siberian regions, where as much as a third of the work force owes their jobs to this new variation on old Soviet-style full-employment policy.

The question: will it backfire? Sooner or later, oil prices will drop. Meanwhile, older Russians are outraged at recent moves cutting social benefits and plans to raise the retirement age--all in the spirit of economic reform. Something, ultimately, will have to give.

Libya: Muammar's Motives

Libya is still on the U.S. State Department list of state "sponsors" of terrorism, and sources tell NEWSWEEK the country is likely to remain there. The reason: mounting evidence that, even while they were bargaining with the United States over the country's nuclear program, Muammar Kaddafi and his top aides were financing a bizarre plot to assassinate Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah by attacking his motorcade with RPGs. When reports of the alleged plot surfaced last spring, U.S. officials downplayed the story. But corroboration--including a documented trail of Libyan payments to the alleged plotters--forced the CIA to "put the lifting of the [designation] on indefinite hold," says one U.S. official.

As recently as last September, court papers show, an unnamed top Libyan official personally arranged for the delivery of $500,000 in cash to pay two Saudi dissidents in London for the plot. The identity of that official is especially awkward for the White House. It is, sources tell NEWSWEEK, Musa Kusa, the chief of Libyan intel who was once a suspect in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing but who last year became the prime negotiator with State Department and CIA officials about improving U.S.-Libya relations. Libyan officials have denied the plot, but, confronted last month by State Department envoy William Burns, offered no explanation for the payments.

Intel: Something to Hide

The CIA is keeping the lid on a hard-hitting report about agency officials who might be held accountable for 9/11 intel failures. The report identifies a host of current and former officials who could be candidates for possible disciplinary procedures imposed by a special CIA Accountability Board, sources familiar with the document tell NEWSWEEK. The report by the agency's inspector general's office was completed last June, but it has not been made public or sent to the two congressional oversight committees that first asked for the review more than two years ago. Officially, the agency's position is that more work needs to be done. In a recent private letter to CIA Director Porter Goss, House intelligence committee chairman Peter Hoekstra and ranking Democrat Jane Harman contrasted the CIA's failure to turn over the report with the Pentagon's ability to provide an exhaustive investigative report on the far more recent Abu Ghraib scandal. But Goss shows no inclination to release the document anytime soon. When an account of the suppressed report surfaced on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page last week, NEWSWEEK has learned, Goss's top aide ordered the agency's Office of Security to conduct a leak investigation. "Everybody feels it will be better off if this hits the fan after the election," said one agency official.

That also seems to be true of two Senate intelligence committee investigations--into whether the White House misused intelligence about the prewar threat from Iraq and whether a special Pentagon unit manipulated intel about Iraq-Al Qaeda links. They won't be finished until the end of the year at the earliest, say committee sources.

Burma: 'Mini-Coup'

Western observers warned last week that the removal of Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt--a relative moderate in the hard-line regime--would further isolate the Southeast Asian nation. But other than refuse to attend a 2006 ASEAN summit in Rangoon, there's not much the United States can do; years of sanctions have failed to force democratic reforms.

What could have more of an impact is the dismay of Thai businessmen--who along with the Chinese are among the biggest investors in Burma. Since he took power in August 2003, Khin Nyunt had been responsible for opening up fishing waters and bringing in some $244 million in loans from the Thai Import and Export Bank. Half of that sum has been extended to finance infrastructure projects in Burma, while the other is earmarked to buy Thai goods. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra personally approved the loans; Khin Nyunt's son was a key negotiator on a $15 million satellite deal with his family business, Shin Corp.

Thai officials dismissed the change as a "mini-coup." Thaksin even assured Thais that "we didn't lend to an individual prime minister." Still, executives fear the new leader, Lt. Gen. Soe Win--a close ally of Than Shwe's, head of a military establishment riddled with corruption--might put the country back on the "Burmese road to socialism." That's a path sure to alienate its few remaining partners.

Vaccines: Flower Power Your mother (we hope) told you to eat your vegetables, but someday soon moms may be nagging their little ones to eat their petunias. That's the hope, at least, of Philadelphia-based INB Biotechnologies, which has been experimenting with petunias to develop a nontoxic anthrax vaccine. In conjunction with the U.S. Navy and pending FDA approval, the company will test the vaccine on 30 Navy volunteers next June. The rush to study plant-based vaccines, which are cheaper and could also be used in Third World countries to prevent plague and cholera, comes just as U.S. vaccine readiness is tested with the flu debacle, complaints that Homeland Security's Bioshield program is ineffective and reports of a dubious anthrax vaccine tested on the military during the gulf war. "We could potentially immunize large groups without injections," says INB's Orn Adalsteinsson. "Plants are very compatible with humans." Scientists inject a genetically modified virus into a plant, which causes the plant to make new proteins. When that plant is eaten, the body reacts to the new proteins as if infected, and makes new antibodies. Because oral vaccines can be self-administered, large groups can be treated quickly in the event of a bioterror attack. And what kid wouldn't favor a petunia over a needle?

--Eve Conant Exhibits: The Art of Illusion

Art is not only a matter of taste but also one of optical illusion--tricks of light and shadow and deft touches of the paintbrush fool us into believing there's a reality behind the canvas. So why not devote an entire show to illusions themselves? London's Hayward Gallery is currently doing just that with "Eyes, Lies & Illusions," a new exhibit running through January that investigates the history of visual perception from the Renaissance up to the modern day. Revolving around the personal collection of German experimental filmmaker (and curator of this exhibit) Werner Nekes, the splendid examples of antique periscopes, prisms, shadowboxes and puzzle pictures take the viewer on a complex yet accessible tour of the artist's eye. Also included are contour-distorting mirrors from the 1840s--which were originally housed in the waiting rooms of a Belgian dentist's office in order to keep his patients' minds off their molars--and walking sticks that reveal cleverly hidden faces and shapes when casting shadows. For the more sophisticated art lover, Nekes offers up back-lit, partially perforated lithographs that present new ways of observing lighting and dimensions; meanwhile, children will love the challenge of finding silhouettes in otherwise innocuous drawings. "Eyes, Lies & Illusions" even delves into the science and psychology behind what one actually sees with the naked eye and how one's brain comprehends the imagery. Quite an eyeful.

Books: Botero's Big Vision

Over the past five decades Fernando Botero has drawn a large global following with his paintings and sculptures of, well, large women. Now the 72-year-old Colombian artist from Medellin is putting his works on the coffee table via two new books. The first, titled "Women," beautifully reproduces Botero's famous portly women in various states of undress. These full-bodied images are particularly resonant in today's low-carb society, but Botero says his love of corpulent lasses was never meant as social critique. "I think part of the sensuality in art comes from volume," he says. "[It is] an element in art that has almost disappeared."

The other Botero book out this fall is social commentary at its most blunt. Simply titled "Botero in the Museo Nacional de Colombia," it features a collection of Botero's paintings that depict the decades-long Colombian civil war. In works like "Kidnapping Victim" and "Slaughter of the Innocents," Botero doesn't stray from his rotund subjects. But he shows them riddled with bullets, starkly displaying the brutality and futility of war. Every last one of the book's 50 paintings is in the process of being donated to the Bogota museum after which the book is named, because "they belong there," says Botero, who has lived mainly in Europe since the 1970s. "I can't make a profit out of the drama of my own country." Botero knows the paintings will not stop the violence. But he hopes that the book might inspire reflection on how "absurd" the violence in Colombia has become. So do we.

Music: Pop for Dummies

Even as pop groups go, Duran Duran was always fluffy. Remember the seductively silly synth-rock of "Rio"? Or the empty-headed erotica of "Girls on Film"? Back when greed was good, these British lads from Birmingham fit the zeitgeist like a sleek leather glove, delivering exactly what the decade demanded--namely, suspect style over substance. The original quintet rose to pinup status on the strength of their flashy videos and trashy tunes, then split in 1985, shortly after the patchy "Seven and the Ragged Tiger" hit the record racks.

Now that bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers have reheated Reagan-era rock for a fresh batch of hipsters--and Duran Duran, in absentia, has become the epitome of 1980s retro cool--they've decided to make a long-awaited comeback. But can the reunited popsters update their dim-witted dance music for 21st-century ears? Yes, if their new album "Astronaut," is anything to go by. Although times have changed, Duran Duran's signature cocktail of craft and daft remains intoxicating. On the aptly titled "Finest Hour," Simon LeBon, who turns 46 on Oct. 27, wraps his lithe, somehow youthful vocals around the group's most indelible melody yet. And the disc's first single, "(Reach Up for the) Sunrise" is just the sort of stadium-ready stomper that made these guys famous. "Astronaut" has its fair share of crash landings--"Bedroom Toys," a limp rap, is abysmal --but when LeBon & Co. stick to glittering, up-tempo pop, they soar. We're with stupid.

Q&A: Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall has done it all. Movies, Broadway, best-selling books, teaching Bogie how to whistle. Now costarring with Nicole Kidman in "Birth," the legend talked to NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin.

"Birth" is about reincarnation. Do you believe in it?

I would like to believe in it, but I'm afraid I don't quite.

You come across on screen as one who doesn't suffer fools gladly. Are you like that in real life?

I'm not sure I would describe myself in any particular way. I have no patience with people who lie, with pretension, with real meanness.

You're 80. You look fabulous. You seeing anyone?

Well, I'm talking to you and I'm looking out the window and I'm waiting for my dog to come back from her walk. She's the one I see the most of and I'm very happy with that.

No male companions?

Do you know of any?

It's hard. Guys your age can date 50-year-olds.

I'm not interested in guys my age anyway. I don't think there are any men left. I don't know what is with a lot of men. They're just so insecure and self-involved. The best of them are taken, I'm afraid.

You were in the news recently for saying Nicole Kidman is too young to be a legend.

That's not what I said. A reporter said to me, "You're an icon and Nicole Kidman is an icon. How do you feel about that?" And I said, "I think it's ridiculous. She's 37 years old. She has an entire career and life ahead of her. Why on earth does she have to have a label?"

So what's the age minimum to be an icon?

I don't believe in that stuff. According to some of the terrible magazines, the world is full of icons so it doesn't mean anything. It's like there are so many award shows, so to get an award doesn't mean a damn thing.

So you wouldn't want an Oscar?

Well, I don't think that's about to happen. In Europe, people in the arts are appreciated for the work they have done, and once they are devoted to you, they remain devoted. Unfortunately, in America that is not the case.

So can you explain France's love for Jerry Lewis?

[Laughs] No, I can't. But it's their right.

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