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Malaysia’s Najib tones down the bling ahead of 1MDB graft trial | News



Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – While he was prime minister, Najib Razak was often accused of being woefully out of touch with ordinary citizens’ lives.

But now, out of office and facing dozens of criminal charges in connection with an extraordinary multibillion-dollar scandal at Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund, the 65-year-old seems to be reinventing himself as a man of the people.

Gone are the Italian-cut suits with their carefully-coordinated ties and pocket handkerchiefs. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, in her tailor-made traditional silk outfits accessorised with diamond jewellery, is nowhere to be seen.

These days, Najib, rocking a hoodie and kicks, is hanging out with young bikers, riding pillion on the back of a moped.

Every moment is shared on his social media accounts and captioned with the slogan: Apa malu bossku? (What’s there to be ashamed about, boss?). There’s even a range of t-shirts. 

Najib’s new look comes as the prosecution prepares to lay out its case against Najib in the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Tuesday, the first time a Malaysian leader will be in the dock on criminal allegations, including money laundering, bribery and abuse of power.

The United States’ Department of Justice says that $4.5bn was siphoned from 1MDB to fund anything from luxury apartments to expensive jewellery – and even the Hollywood film, Wolf of Wall Street. Some of the money from the sovereign wealth fund, which Najib set up in 2009, is alleged to have ended up in the former prime minister’s personal bank account.

“It’s actually classic populism,” Meredith Weiss, an expert on politics in Southeast Asia at the University of Albany in New York who travels regularly to Malaysia, said of Najib’s public persona in the lead-up to the trial.

“It’s such a contrast from before the election. It’s an effort to make himself look cool. Before, it was really the images of grandeur; playing up the wealth.”

‘Ignorance and vendetta’

The scale of the corruption at 1MDB was one of the reasons for May 2018’s election shock, which propelled the opposition Pakatan Harapan into government – the first defeat for Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional coalition in six decades.

Malaysia: Ex-PM Najib Razak given bail after pleading not guilty (2:34)

Malaysians watched agog last year as the police wheeled out shopping trolleys laden with designer handbags, bags of cash and expensive jewellery from properties linked to Najib and his family.

Investigators later revealed the haul was worth as much as $273m. It took 22 people, six counting machines and three days to count all the cash, which came in 26 different currencies.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme last year, he said he was not aware of what was going on at the fund even though, as the country’s prime minister, he chaired 1MDB’s board of advisers and, as its finance minister, was authorised to sign off on its major financial transactions.

In a song he released over social media in January – a re-working in Malay of The Manhattans soul classic ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye’ – he accused the government of spreading lies and wanting revenge.

“Najib’s defence and strategy will mainly be ignorance and vendetta,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “It will be very difficult for him to argue otherwise.”

Political career

Born in July 1953 in the sleepy, rural town of Kuala Lipis when Malaysia was still Malaya and a British colony, Najib was the first child of Abdul Razak Hussein, the man who would go on to become independent Malaysia’s second prime minister. His uncle would become the third.

Like many children of the country’s elite, then and now, he was sent overseas as a teenager, first attending Malvern College – one of Britain’s most expensive private schools – and later doing a degree in industrial economics at University of Nottingham.

But in 1976, Razak died and Najib was thrust into politics, taking his father’s old seat in Pekan, a small town hugging the banks of the Pahang River on Malaysia’s east coast.

Buoyed by his father’s reputation, Najib’s political rise was assured: the youngest member of the federal parliament soon became, at the state level, the youngest chief minister.

“He came into politics at a very young age – he did quite well as a chief minister even though he was the youngest [and] many people really liked him,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, who worked alongside Najib in UMNO and government before resigning from the party in 2015. 

“You can easily like him. He has very good PR, there’s no doubt about it,” added Saifuddin, who is now Malaysia’s foreign minister.

“This is someone who has been in politics since they were 23,” said Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst who worked with Najib when he first became prime minister. “So there is a sense of entitlement.”

Najib playing golf with then=US President Barack Obama in Hawaii in December 2014 [File: Hugh Gentry/Reuters]

After stints as education minister and defence minister, Najib became deputy prime minister in 2004. He took the top job five years later, vowing to build an economic and politically dynamic Malaysia, and double income per person to $15,000 by 2020.

The plan aimed to diversify the economy beyond natural resources into areas such as green energy and technology, and reduce subsidies. Politically, the focus was supposed to be on the removal of repressive laws that allowed for detention without trial and strengthening democracy.

For Saifuddin, it was the promise of transformation that caught his attention. “He seemed to be saying all the right things,” he told Al Jazeera.

Najib’s urbane manner made him popular on the international stage, and he and Rosmah made frequent foreign trips – rubbing shoulders with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, cosying up the tech titans such as China’s Jack Ma and playing golf with ex-US President Barack Obama.

Domestically, however, support for the long-ruling Barisan continued to sag. In the 2013 election, the coalition lost the popular vote for the first time, although the winner-takes-it-all voting system magnified by the disproportionate influence of its rural heartlands helped Barisan stay in office.

While the reform programme stalled, a goods-and-services tax further undermined support for Najib’s government – but he was about to be faced with an even more serious challenge to his authority.

Scandal-tainted fund

At its launch in 2009, 1MDB was touted as multi-billion dollar investment by a Saudi oil firm PetroSaudi and a remit to target new industries that would create jobs for Malaysians.

Later, there were multibillion dollar deals with the United Arab Emirates to develop the massive Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, as well as bankroll oil and gas projects.

But suspicions about the fund’s investment strategy began to emerge, with critics pointing to ballooning debt and asking questions about the fate of funds raised from earlier bond issues.

There were questions too over Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, and how he had got together the money to make the Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 tale of financial excess and debauchery with Hollywood superstar Leonardo di Caprio as the lead. Suspicions also focused on a young party-loving Malaysian financier who was often seen with Riza and whose name was in the film’s credits: Jho Low, whose whereabouts are currently unknown.

As the story gathered momentum, and pressure mounted, Najib launched an investigation. But then came the bombshell. The campaigning blog Sarawak Report and the Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of millions of dollars had been deposited into Najib’s personal bank account shortly before the 2013 election. 

Najib denied ever receiving money “for personal gain”, saying it was a donation from a Saudi prince that was then returned. 

But on the defensive, the prime minister revealed there was a harder edge to his seemingly charming public image.

In July 2015, he stunned Malaysia by firing the attorney general who had been leading the 1MDB investigation and removing senior ministers who had questioned him over events at the fund.

The Edge, a local business publication that had reported extensively on 1MDB was suspended for three months, while access to Sarawak Report and other critical sources was blocked. Opposition politicians who had raised concerns about 1MDB found themselves prevented from leaving the country and critics found themselves facing charges under the sedition law Najib had earlier promised to repeal.

“His behaviour fits with that broad pattern where you consolidate power at the expense of the ruling elite,” said Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian governments at Australia’s Griffith University. “Then he had this corruption scandal that left him little room for manoeuvre.”

For Oh, the political analyst, Najib could often seem “cold and detached,” but he was also a “good listener” who was comfortable with figures and charts.

He recalls Najib chatting with Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund who was then finance minister in France. “They were throwing economic terms at each other, comparing notes,” he said. “I thought his is someone who knows his portfolio.”

Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, arriving in the Philippines for an ASEAN summit in November 2017 [File: Erik De Castro/Reuters]

Najib insists that when it came to 1MDB, he was not aware of what was going on.

In October 2018, he told Al Jazeera’s 101 East that he was proud of what he had done as prime minister and would be vindicated.

“There was progress in country,” Najib said of his years in power. “There was more wealth in the country when I left, so I’m proud of the record that I achieved at prime minister.”

Najib faces nearly 40 counts; Rosmah around 20. Former allies are also due in court on corruption charges.

With appeals, the cases could take years to grind their way through the courts, keeping Najib in the spotlight even without his regular social media updates.

But history is likely to prove a more demanding judge than the bikers in their “bossku” shirts.

“Najib’s legacy will be the historic loss of Barisan Nasional,” Asrul Hadi said. “He cannot escape that no matter what he says on social media platforms. Unfortunately for Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the name Razak will be associated with Najib and 1MDB for generations to come.”

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Israeli ‘centrism’ and what it means for Palestinians | Israel




With less than two months until Israel holds an election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s ruling Likud party is maintaining a strong lead in the opinion polls.

His main rival – and currently the only plausible threat to another Likud-dominated government – is former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz and his newly-formed party Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience).

In his bid to be prime minister, Gantz – whose party is currently predicted to pick up around 19-24 seats in the 120-seat parliament – is branding himself as a ‘centrist’, hoping to replicate (or better) the success of similar such candidates in recent elections.

‘New centrists’

Edo Konrad, deputy editor of +972 Magazine, an independent blog, told Al Jazeera that the dominant form of Israeli centrism today is found in a group of “new centrists” who emerged in the wake of the 2011 social justice protests, including Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, “and to a certain degree Benny Gantz”.

“They are less keen on dealing with the Palestinian issue and instead want to focus on socioeconomic issues, such as the cost of living,” Konrad added.

Some observers identify a conscious effort by centrist parties and politicians “not to look ‘left’, so they de-emphasise the conflict”, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has advised five national campaigns in Israel.

Gantz is also hoping to take advantage of the “anyone but Netanyahu” sentiment among voters. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, describing Gantz’s maiden speech as a combination of “hawkish militarism…and meaningless platitudes”, pointed out that for many voters, “the one and only measure of a candidate is whether he is theoretically capable of defeating the prime minister”.

For Netanyahu’s critics, as Shalev’s Haaretz colleague Noa Landau pointed out, Gantz’s candidacy is about “a return to statesmanship…the war on corruption, defending state institutions, particularly those dealing with rule of law, defending culture and the media; separation of church and state; and of major importance, modesty and a spirit of optimism instead of foulness and aggressiveness”.

An election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv shows Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump [File: Ariel Schalit/AP]

But what could Gantz’s brand of centrism mean for Palestinians? If his first speech is anything to go by, the answer is a familiar one.

“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border,” Gantz declared. “We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.”

Such a vision – one where Israel remains in effective control of the entirety of the occupied West Bank but without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship – sounds not only similar to the status quo, but also like Netanyahu’s own proposal for a Palestinian “state-minus”.

Differences ‘meaningless for Palestinians’

Gantz’s approach to the Palestinians is also consistent with that of centrist rival Lapid. Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, told Al Jazeera that “from a Palestinian perspective”, the differences between Netanyahu and the likes of Lapid are “meaningless”.

“Lapid is a proponent of a two-state settlement, but his vision of a Palestinian state has little in common with the concept of statehood as generally understood,” Rabbani said, arguing that Lapid sees negotiations with the Palestinians as a “tactical exercise, the purpose of which is to normalise relations with the Arab states”.

Last year, Gantz told an interviewer that West Bank settlements such as the so-called Gush Etzion “bloc”, as well as Ariel, Ofra and Elkana “will remain forever“. On 11 February, Gantz visited Kfar Etzion settlement, hailing it and other colonies as “a strategic, spiritual and settlement asset”.

Gantz’s running mate, former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has already broadcast a campaign video from a settlement, declaring “our right to settle every part of the Land of Israel”.

Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv [File: Oded Balilty/AP]

It comes as no surprise to Palestinian analysts. “If there’s one thing Israeli politicians are agreed on, it is that there will be no independent sovereign Palestinian state,” Nadia Hijab, board president of al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Moreover, the settler movement is so strong that any Israeli seeking power will support it whatever noises they may make about removing settlements,” she added.

‘Permanent control’

For human rights activists in Israel, the politics of Gantz’s “centrism” is a grim reminder of what B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad called “a clear truth”: that “there is an across-the-board consensus for Israel to retain control over its Palestinian subjects in the occupied territories”.

While Gantz’s candidacy is mainly being discussed in terms of his likelihood of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, he may also bring Hosen L’Yisrael into a Likud-led coalition as a senior minister.

According to Scheindlin, such a scenario “is absolutely possible and even likely – Gantz has said as much with his code phrase that he won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu if [subtext: and only if] he is indicted”.

“A new party wants more than anything to enter government, to gain experience and hold ministerial portfolios,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s exactly what Yair Lapid did in 2013 and makes sense – such a party hopes to be the next in line if Likud ever falls, especially since Gantz is consistently polling second place.”

Konrad made reference to the 2016 talks between then-Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu over forming a unity government, but also noted how, for now, Netanyahu has indicated that he is not interested in a coalition with Gantz.

For Rabbani, a government led by someone like Gantz would pose a challenge for the Palestinians. “The West will respond as if he has no history and that his previously espoused positions were not serious statements of intent, and embrace him as the messiah and prince of peace,” he said.

“If the Palestinians decide to play along with this charade until it is exposed,” he continued, “much as they did with other Israeli leaders since the early 1990s, they will get nowhere and once again pull the short end of the stick.”

Indeed, vague remarks by Gantz that Israel does not seek to “rule over others” were greeted by an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with cautious optimism.

“Any attempt by the Palestinian ‘leadership’ to read positive signals on Israeli lips is yet another sign of their bankruptcy,” Hijab told Al Jazeera, “and their powerlessness to achieve their stated goal of an independent Palestinian state.”

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Dutch Palestinians remain disappointed after birthplace ruling | News




The man whose case led to the Netherlands recognising the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces, said he is still dissatisfied because the new ruling avoids the word Palestine and therefore fails to acknowledge his identity.

Emiel de Bruijne, who was born in East Jerusalem in 1992 and has Dutch citizenship, sued the Netherlands and took his case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seeking his right to register as Palestinian-born, instead of Israeli.

On February 9, in a widely celebrated move, the Dutch government announced it would begin to recognise the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces for Palestinians born in the country from May 15, 1948, onwards, after the establishment of Israel when the British Mandate officially ended.

“This decision means that we are no longer registered as being born in Israel. That is a step in the right direction but by avoiding the word Palestine, our identity is still denied,” De Bruijne told Al Jazeera.

Israel opens ‘apartheid road’ in occupied West Bank

In the ruling, published by the Dutch Interior Ministry, a footnote maintains the development “is also in agreement with the Dutch position that Israel has no sovereignty over these territories and its position on the non-recognition of the ‘State of Palestine’.”

Raymond Knops, Interior Ministry state secretary, said the new category reflects the Oslo Peace Accords terms signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s, and later the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

De Bruijne, the son of a Dutch father and Palestinian mother, moved with his family to the Netherlands when he was nine.

He has been trying to change his registration since 2010 to secure his “right to Palestinian identity”.

“Identity is very important to Palestinians. The administrative aspect is, therefore, a key issue. It says something about how we are seen as Palestinians,” he said, adding that he will not be happy until the words “Palestinian Territories” are added to the Dutch civil registry.

“The term is internationally accepted, and various Dutch government websites already use it,” he said.

De Bruijne lost his appeal in 2018 to the Council of State – which advises the Dutch government and serves as a top administrative court – but the Council nonetheless advised the Interior Ministry to amend the registration.

In spite of repeated requests, the registration was not changed, so De Bruijne decided to file the case at the ECHR.

Despite the recent announcement, De Bruijne’s lawyer Tom de Boer told Al Jazeera that he would continue to pursue the case at the ECHR.

Other Dutch Palestinians were also left disappointed.

Ghada Zeidan, De Bruijne’s mother, chairs Palestine Link, an organisation that promotes Palestinian interests in the Netherlands.

Palestinians have fought a decades-long battle for self-determination and recognition [Darren Whiteside/Reuters]

“In our opinion, it’s a bureaucratic solution, completely decoupled from the human interest of the issue. It feels like the Netherlands is setting aside our Palestinian identity,” she said.

She noted that the Netherlands includes other non-recognised areas in the civil registry, such as Western Sahara, Taiwan and the Panama Canal Zone.

Previously, as well as Israel, “unknown” was an option as a birthplace – it was added in 2014 after Palestinians protested against putting “Israel” down.

Dutch activist Ibrahim al-Baz is one of 5,000 Palestinians in Vlaardingen, a city near Rotterdam with the largest Palestinian community.

“My Palestinian nationality means everything to me. It’s my right to self-determination which is now denied,” said al-Baz, a first-generation Palestinian who arrived in the sixties.

More than 130 countries including Bulgaria, India and Nigeria, and the UN General Assembly, recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, but most European Union members do not.

Marcel Brus, professor of public international law at the University of Groningen, said that the Palestinian nationality is still being denied but called the decision to recognise the birthplaces as an “acceptable solution”.

“Although the declaration of the State of Palestine took place in 1989, its recognition as a state according to international law at that time was very controversial. Therefore, I believe that recognising Gaza and the occupied West Bank as birthplace for people born around that time or before it is an acceptable compromise,” he told Al Jazeera.

However, Brus said the recognition of the State of Palestine has advanced since, and that it would be reasonable to give children who are born now the choice to opt for “Palestinian Territories” or “Palestine” as their place of birth.

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Macron condemns anti-Semitic abuse at ‘yellow vest’ protest | News




French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned anti-Semitic abuse directed towards a prominent intellectual by “yellow vest” protesters on Saturday.

“These abuses are the absolute negation of what makes France a great nation. We won’t tolerate them”, Macron said on Twitter.

Alain Finkielkraut was walking on the fringes of a demonstration in central Paris on Saturday when a group of “yellow vests” started insulted him with offensive remarks such as “dirty Zionist” and “France is ours” according to a video broadcast by Yahoo News.

“I felt absolute hatred and, unfortunately, this is not the first time,” the French writer and philosopher told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. He expressed relief that police intervened.

Finkielkraut has expressed his solidarity and sympathy with the “yellow vest” protesters from the outset but in an interview published Saturday in Le Figaro, he criticised the leaders of the movement, saying “arrogance has changed sides”. 

Saturday’s incident triggered a wave of condemnation and messages of support for the philosopher. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said it was “simply intolerable” while the leader of the Republican opposition party, Laurent Wauquiez, denounced the “abject idiots.”

Ian Brossat, chief French Communist Party candidate for the European Parliament, said “We can hate Finkielkraut’s ideas”, but “nothing can justify attacking him as a Jew”. 

Finkielkraut, who is seen as having pro-establishment beliefs, has since January 2016 been a member of the French Academy, the prestigious institution in charge of defining the French language.

Rising anti-semitism in France 

Sebastien Lecornu, the junior foreign minister, pointed the finger at “yellow vest” protesters for the latest offences.

The “yellow vest” protests began three months ago over fuel taxes but quickly grew into a broader anti-government rebellion fuelled by anger at Macron, with some using anti-Semitic tropes to refer to his former job as an investment banker.

“Conspiracy theorists are very present among their ranks,” Lecornu said, before referring to a survey released on Monday.

The Ifop poll said nearly half of the “yellow vests” believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot”, as well as the “Great Replacement” theory, which posits that immigration is being organised deliberately “to replace Europe’s native populations”.

But the rise in anti-Semitic acts in France predates the “yellow vest” demonstrations. A recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti in and around Paris has stoked fresh concerns about an increase in hate crimes against Jews. 

Fourteen political parties on Thursday launched a call for action against anti-Semitism after the interior ministry reported a 74 percent increase in anti-Jewish acts last year.

During the latest episodes, the memorial for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was kidnapped and killed in 2006, was desecrated when a tree planted in his memory was chopped down.

In addition, mailboxes decorated with portraits of the late Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and a European Parliament president who died in 2017, were daubed with swastikas.

The ‘yellow vest’ movement 

The “yellow vests” were protesting for the 14th consecutive Saturday, but according to French media quoting the interior minister, the number of people protesting across the country has decreased.

Around 41,500 protesters nationwide turned out Saturday, some 10,000 less than the previous week, with 5,000 in Paris.

In the capital, tensions mounted as the more than four-hour march ended at Les Invalides, with projectiles thrown at police, some by masked individuals dressed in black, a uniform for the ultra-leftist Black blocs.

Lines of riot police used tear gas and an impressive backup, a special horse brigade and water cannon – apparently not used – to force the agitated crowd to disperse.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said 15 people were detained for questioning, far fewer than the scores detained in earlier, larger demonstrations that degenerated into scattered rioting and destruction.

However, the increasingly divided movement is having trouble maintaining momentum and support from the public that initially massively backed protesters, polls showed.

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