Signs of the Times (12/31/16)

Kerry Defends U.N. Resolution Against Israel

Secretary of State John Kerry’s much-anticipated Middle East speech brought together four giant personalities representing two radically divergent worldviews in one momentous clash, reports the New York Times. On one side was Mr. Kerry, venting years of frustration on behalf of President Obama and himself at what they consider Israeli intransigence. On the other were Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump, firing back at what they deemed a hypocritical betrayal of America’s closest friend in the Middle East. The departing administration intended for the speech to lay out a path to peace that they had tried to take, hoping to salvage some scrap of a legacy on the issue. The incoming administration and its Israeli ally were busy counting the days until the old team will be swept from the stage and a new Israeli-American alignment redefines the politics of the region. Amid the harsh exchanges was the increasing sense that the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict favored by much of the world no longer seems plausible, at least for now.

  • The two-state solution which would divide Jerusalem and the West Bank would hand the keys to enemies who continue to call for the complete annihilation of Israel

Obama Rushing to Cement Legacy Before Trump Takes Over

With the finish line in view, President Barack Obama has scaled up his executive power moves in a bid to solidify some of his legacy items before Donald Trump takes office. Many of his actions won’t be easily reversed. Obama vowed to respond to Moscow for its cyber-meddling in the U.S. election, and 35 Russian diplomats have been ordered to leave the country, and two Russian compounds are being closed under Thursday’s actions. Those efforts could include new sanctions against six Russian individuals and five Russian entities as well. In addition, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security announced last week it was dismantling a Bush-era program that was used to track mostly Muslim and Arab men in the United States. Dormant since 2011, the program, known as NSEERS, could have provided the basis for a Muslim registry that Trump has promised. He could still set one up, but the existing framework is no longer in place. The President has also advised lawmakers of plans to transfer almost one-third of the remaining population at Guantanamo Bay to other countries before he leaves. Of the 59 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, 22 are currently eligible for transfer.

Obama Designates Two New National Monuments, Outrage Ensues

President Obama designated two national monuments in Utah and Nevada Wednesday as part of the outgoing president’s efforts to secure and expand his environmental legacy. The White House announced that The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region. The move is a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists for whom the land is considered sacred, but sparked intense opposition from Republicans. “This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., tweeted. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said his office is planning a lawsuit over the issue, saying the declaration undid years of work toward a more balanced solution. The president also announced a 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas that will protect an ecologically fragile area that includes rock art, artifacts and fossils. Obama’s latest environmental move is the latest in a series of actions to nail down his legacy before Trump is inaugurated. Trump has pledged to remove many environmental regulations to drilling and other energy mining, and has promised to undo much of Obama’s environmental agenda.

Russia Won’t Respond in Kind to Diplomatic Expulsions

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow will not expel American diplomats in response to U.S. sanctions against Russia for alleged hacking. Putin said he would not pursue “irresponsible diplomacy” and would instead attempt to rebuild relations with Washington after the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump. “Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policies carried out by the administration of President Trump,” a Kremlin statement said. However, Putin said that Russia reserved the right to respond to the new U.S. sanctions, depending on how things go with the new administration.

Russia Allegedly Hacks Vermont Electric Utility

Programming code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by Homeland Security has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials. While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations, the discovery underscores the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electrical grid. Officials in government and the utility industry regularly monitor the grid because it is highly computerized and any disruptions can have disastrous implications for the country’s medical and emergency services. Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected the malware code that was used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems.

U.S. Appeals Court Revives Clinton Email Suit

In a new legal development on the controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, an appeals court on Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling and said two U.S. government agencies should have done more to recover the emails. The ruling from Judge Stephen Williams, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, revives one of a number of legal challenges involving Clinton’s handling of government emails when she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. She handed over 55,000 emails to U.S. officials probing that system, but did not release about 30,000 she said were personal and not work related. While the State Department and National Archives took steps to recover the emails from Clinton’s tenure, they did not ask the U.S. attorney general to take enforcement action. Two conservative groups filed lawsuits to force their hand. A district judge in January ruled the suits brought by Judicial Watch and Cause of Action moot, saying State and the National Archives made a “sustained effort” to recover and preserve Clinton’s records. But Williams said the two agencies should have done more. Since the agencies neither asked the attorney general for help nor showed such enforcement action could not uncover new emails, the case was not moot.

Immigration News

A Mexican man accused of raping a 13-year-old girl on a Greyhound bus that traveled through Kansas had been deported 10 times and voluntarily removed from the U.S. another nine times since 2003, records obtained by The Associated Press show. Three U.S. Republican senators — including Kansas’ Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts — demanded this month that the Department of Homeland Security provide immigration records for 38-year-old Tomas Martinez-Maldonado. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, from Iowa and chairman of the judiciary committee, co-signed a Dec. 9 letter with Moran and Roberts to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, calling it “an extremely disturbing case” and questioning how Martinez-Maldonado was able to re-enter and remain in the country.

  • Just one example of many that shows how porous our border with Mexico is and how poorly our justice system deals with criminal immigrants

Economic News

The Conference Board said Tuesday that its consumer confidence index climbed to 113.7 in December, up from 109.4 in November. It’s the highest level since the confidence index reached 114 in August 2001. The index measures consumers’ assessment of current conditions and their expectations for the future. Director of economic indicators at the Conference Board Lynn Franco said the “post-election surge in optimism” was strongest among Americans who were older. The U.S. economy grew at a 3.5 percent annual pace from July to September, fastest in two years. Unemployment is at a nine-year low of 4.6 percent. Employers have added 180,000 jobs a month this year, down from an average 229,000 in 2015 but still solid.

The number of food stamps recipients went up by 10.7 million people, a 32 percent jump, since President Obama took office in 2009, according to data released by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2009, 33,490,000 people received food stamp benefits. As of October 2016, the last month reported for FY 2016, 44,219,123 people received food stamp benefits, an increase of about 10,728,877. The U.S. population as of October 1, 2016, was 324,607,826, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.  Therefore, the 44,219,123 people on food stamps represented 13.6 percent of the population. The cost of food stamps to taxpayers also increased over the time Obama was in office.  As of 2009, all food stamp recipients received up to $50.3 billion in benefits.  As of 2016, that number has increased to $66.6 billion, an increase of $16.3 billion or 32.4%.

Contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes fell in November to their lowest level in nearly a year, a sign rising interest rates could be weighing on the housing market, the National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday. The group said its pending home sales index, based on contracts signed in November, dropped 2.5 percent. “The brisk upswing in mortgage rates and not enough inventory dispirited some would-be buyers,” the NAR said in a statement accompanying the figures.

President-elect Donald Trump is claiming another victory jobs victory: Sprint will bring back 5,000 jobs to the U.S. “They’re taking them from other countries. They’re bringing them back to the United States,” Trump said Wednesday. Sprint confirmed the news in a statement saying it would “create or bring back to America” 5,000 jobs, mostly in customer care and sales.

From crashing oil prices that fueled Wall Street’s worst-ever start to a year, to unpredictable political events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the year in stocks wasn’t for the faint of heart. Those who held on were rewarded handsomely: The resilient Dow closed 2016 more than 4,300 points above its January low of 15,451. A post-election surge, built around Trump’s stimulus promises, has carried the Dow almost to 20,000 for the first time.

2016 has been a roller coaster financial year, and currency markets are no exception. A few countries have fared well, but others have seen the value of their currencies fall dramatically against the U.S. dollar. The Egyptian pound has dropped 59%; Nigeria’s naira is down 37%; Turkey’s lira is off 18%; the British pound, Mexican peso and Argentinian peso are down 17%.

Islamic State

In a historic setback for the Islamic State in Mosul, a coalition airstrike reportedly cut off the city’s last functioning bridge — a span that ISIS showed off in a propaganda video this month. Some of the civilian men and women who remain trapped in Mosul told The Associated Press the strike that took out the bridge unfolded at dawn Monday. The strike took out the last crossing ISIS fighters could use to transport weapons in and out of the eastern part of the city, where the fighting has peaked.

Syria

A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight Thursday, was holding Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has shredded high-level peace initiatives for over five years. The Syrian government and opposition rebels agreed to terms for a ceasefire in the country’s long-running civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday. The two sides also agreed to enter peace talks to end the conflict that has raged for nearly six years. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that Russia and Turkey would be guarantors to the agreement. A successful nationwide ceasefire hinges on many fighting factions laying down arms — groups from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon are also fighting. Turkey and Russia have effectively sidelined the United States, which has led an international coalition to fight ISIS in Syria and has vehemently opposed any attempt to keep Assad in power.

Iraq

A pair of bomb blasts targeting a market in central Baghdad Saturday killed at least 28 people and wounded at least 54. The attacks took place early Saturday morning in al-Sinak, a busy market selling car accessories, food and clothes as well as agricultural seeds and machinery. Police concluded that the carnage was the work of a pair of suicide bombers. The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency.

Myanmar

The Rohingyas are a persecuted, stateless people who, rights group say, are being systematically eliminated by the Myanmar military. The allegations are horrifying: Troops set entire villages on fire, use helicopter gunships to rain down bullets and rape women and children on a mass scale. The Buddhist-majority Myanmar denies the ethnic cleansing, even as its state-run media calls the Rohingyas, who are Muslims, “detestable human fleas” who have “to be removed.” All of this is happening under Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch. Suu Kyi is the Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent her life fighting for an end to military rule in Myanmar. Now, she’s the nation’s defacto head but, like the military leaders before her, she has remained conspicuously silent on the atrocities.

Philippines

Philippines authorities have made the biggest drug seizure in the country’s history, confiscating 2,000 pounds (890 kilograms) of methamphetamine worth $120 million in a series of raids this month. Another 290 gallons (1,110 liters) of the drug in its liquid form were confiscated. The operation was the result of a four-month probe by the country’s National Bureau of Investigation after receiving a tip about a Chinese organization manufacturing and distributing illegal drugs. Three Chinese nationals and seven Filipinos were arrested in the raids.

North Korea

North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in 2016, one in January and another, its most powerful ever, in September. Add that to a string of missile tests, both land- and sea-launched, and the world has plenty of reason for worry. “Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for disaster,” Adm. Harry Harris, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, said in a December speech. Political uncertainty in the United States and in South Korea could give North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “an apt time” to develop nuclear weapons “at all costs by the end of 2017,” a high-profile North Korean diplomat who recently defected to South Korea said Tuesday. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has killed hundreds of government officials since taking office five years ago, Korean media reported Thursday. In all, he has killed 340 North Korean officials while defending his control over the reclusive nation.

Environment

The carcasses of thousands of sea creatures have mysteriously washed up on the western coast of Nova Scotia. As many as 20,000 fish, lobsters, starfish, scallops, crabs and other animals have turned up dead at Savory Park, Canadian authorities said. And they have no idea why. Environmental officials are testing the water for pesticides and oxygen levels for possible clues. Most fish kills are attributed to low concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As a precaution, they’re warning local consumers to only buy seafood from authorized vendors.

Volcanoes

A volcano on a remote island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain has erupted for the fifth time in three weeks prompting another aviation alert. The Alaska Volcano Observatory issued its highest alert level for aircraft after the Bogoslof volcano sent an ash plume about 20,000 feet in the air. During an eruption of the volcano last week, the Federal Aviation Administration said flights were rerouted around the plume which reached 30,000 feet. The week before, the volcano erupted three times, with one ash cloud reaching up to 35,000 feet.

Earthquakes

Two earthquakes struck early Wednesday near Lake Tahoe, and their rumblings were felt across areas of two states. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage. The U.S. Geological Surveys says the two magnitude 5.7 temblors were both centered in a remote area of Nevada near the California line, about 70 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe. The moderate quakes, which struck at 12:18 a.m. PST and then four minutes later, were followed by a series of smaller aftershocks. The quakes apparently triggered burglar alarms at two businesses, and caused a rock slide near a highway.

Weather

Thousands of people in the Northeast woke up without power Friday morning, after a deadly sinter Storm delivered strong winds and over two feet of snow to portions of the Northeast. Very heavy snow and strong winds struck Thursday night into Friday, with snowfall rates of 4 to 6 inches per hour in portions of Maine. Thunder-snow was also reported in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. At least one death is being blamed on the storm. In Vermont, a vehicle slid off a road and into a tree, killing the driver.

Globally, 2016 is expected to be the hottest on record — breaking the record set in 2015, which broke the record from the year before that. Nowhere are the consequences more apparent than in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In mid-November, temperatures across the far north were up to 35 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, shocking scientists. On December 22, the North Pole was a stunning 50 degrees above average. In August, a 560-person village voted to relocate because their barrier island is melting. The permafrost is thawing out from beneath homes, and huge chunks of the coast are crumbling.

2016 was the year when — for the first time — climate change forced Americans to move elsewhere. It’s first “climate refugees” are residents of the tiny Louisiana island of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost 98% of its land since 1955. The marsh off Louisiana’s fragile coast is disappearing at the rate of a football field of land per hour. The Mississippi River has been strangled with so many dams and levees that it doesn’t deliver the soil that’s needed to rebuild the island’s marshes. Oil and gas canals and pipelines, meanwhile, have carved up what’s left of the marsh, making it more vulnerable to collapse. Global warming delivers the knockout punch, because as the marsh crumbles, the seas rise from melting ice sheets, reports CNN.

  • The end-times are prophesied to have extreme weather including ‘scorching’ heat (Daniel 9:26b, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:8,11)

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