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Saturday, July 18, 2009

One man's imperative to give

Robert I. Lappin used to be a familiar sight on Lafayette Street in Salem, where he would rollerblade to work from his home in Swampscott. The ponytail made him unmistakable. But Lappin is 87 now, and gave up the skates about a year and a half ago.

The former vacuum cleaner maker now drives a 21-year-old Mercedes to his office in Shetland Park, an old mill he converted into a bustling business center that transformed the Salem waterfront.

This week, Lappin honored a promise. He and his family donated $5 million to restore the retirement savings of about 60 employees of various family enterprises, including the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation. The charity was almost wiped out when the Ponzi scheme run by Bernard Madoff collapsed. Lappin and his family had invested all of their employees’ 401(k) retirement plans with Madoff more than a decade ago.

“I am absolutely thrilled,’’ said Amy Powell, a former publicist for the foundation and one of the employees whose savings were restored. “I really knew in my heart, all my heart, that Mr. Lappin would do all he could do for his em ployees.’’

Lappin had invested so heavily with Madoff that it cost him much of his personal fortune. The foundation lost $8 million when Madoff’s assets were frozen last December, and for a time was forced to shut its doors. Lappin said that now, after Madoff and the payment to employees, his personal net worth is less than $5 million, about a tenth of what it was before the scandal broke.

Yet giving his own money to the employees was simply the right thing to do, he said. “At least from the feedback, they feel very grateful and happy, which makes me feel very happy,’’ said Lappin. “So far no kisses, but I have had some hugs.’’

Family and friends said Lappin feels an imperative to give. Over the years, that led him to sponsor 17 education, interfaith outreach, and family development programs under the umbrella of his namesake foundation. He has given more than $30 million to Jewish causes on the North Shore. After the Madoff scandal, he raised $450,000 to restore the foundation’s Youth To Israel travel program. It sent 82 Jewish teens on pilgrimages to Israel just last Sunday.

“He’s among moral giants,’’ said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Swampscott, director and founder of Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore, which runs Hebrew schools and other programs. Lappin, who helped the rabbi fund his center, “embodies the highest ideals of our traditions,’’ said Lipsker. “He’s a lover of his people. He’s a lover of the land of Israel.’’

Lappin’s story begins in 1910, when his father, John, came to Salem from Jerusalem, where he was studying to be a rabbi. He worked as a peddler, with a pack of goods on his back, stuffing his savings in a mattress. It was all lost in the Great Salem Fire of 1914.

The elder Lappin grew his peddler business in the aftermath of his loss. “He got a horse and wagon,’’ Lappin said, adding he used to hear stories about Queenie, his father’s horse. Later, he said, the senior Lappin went into the wholesale dried goods business in Boston, working until the day he died at age 86.

Lappin himself was born and raised in Salem and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1943. He served in the Navy during World War II and was a member of the fleet that accepted the surrender from the Japanese government. Later, he made floor polishers and vacuum cleaners under the name Shetland - for Shetland Road in Marblehead, where he lived before Swampscott. The brand was noted for television commercials showing how his machine could pick up a bowling ball.

In 1958, Lappin bought the shuttered Pequot Mills on the Salem waterfront, home of what was once the country’s largest manufacturer of sheets and pillowcases. “The feeling was at the time that it would have a serious impact on the economy of the city, because at one time there were thousands of workers that were employed there,’’ said Sam Zoll, a retired state chief justice and former mayor of Salem, who was then a member of the City Council. “Bob Lappin stepped up at a critical time for the city.’’

Lappin turned the old mill into a still-bustling business complex called Shetland Park, now home to enterprises including the Southern Essex County Registry of Deeds and Salem Academy, the city’s first charter school.

In 1968, Lappin sold the vacuum cleaner business, and a few years later, he established his Youth To Israel program. He chose to send Jewish teens on trips to Israel “because of my concern about Jewish continuity, and the realization that an Israel experience changes teenagers’ lives and how they feel about being Jewish like nothing else that they can do. This is the most effective thing that we can do for Jewish teenagers to enhance their Jewish identity,’’ he said.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Lappin started investing with Madoff, after hearing from a group of employees he had sent to New York to interview money managers. He had crossed paths with Madoff in the largely Jewish social scene in Palm Beach, Fla. “I knew him personally because I stayed at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach in the winter, and he had a cabana there,’’ Lappin said. “So I used to see him quite often. I had a nodding acquaintance with him.’’

On Thursday, Dec. 11, Lappin called his son Peter, an executive of Shetland Properties Inc. The elder Lappin and his wife, Marion, were in Palm Beach when they received a call from the company’s portfolio manager. It was the news about Madoff.

“He said Madoff was arrested for fraud, and I immediately asked him how much,’’ said Peter.

Lappin wanted to fly directly home to Salem. His secretary, Lorraine Picano, made the arrangements for the next Monday. “He came right back, because he wanted to be here for us,’’ Picano said. “And then we had to deal with the fallout,’’ which meant months of nervous waiting to see whether they would be able to recover their savings.

Although “I didn’t invest all of our money with Madoff,’’ said Lappin. “I did invest all of the 401(k) plan’s money and all of my charitable foundation’s money with Madoff.’’

Until the scandal broke, Lappin did not suspect anything was wrong with Madoff, who Lappin “used to see every now and then’’ and who was well-regarded in the community they shared. “The last thing I would’ve expected, particularly after eight SEC inspections of Madoff’s operation, is that he would be a fraud,’’ Lappin said. “I just trusted him as an outstanding person - we thought - as a Jewish person, as a businessman, and as a philanthropist.’’

Peter Lappin said the decision to replace the employees’ losses was immediate, and that he, his brother, and his sister all supported their father’s wishes. “You know what? The opportunity to build the wealth back will refund us,’’ he said. “We’ll recover to some extent over time.’’

Lappin said he couldn’t turn his back on his employees. Some had been with him for almost 51 years, as long as he’s owned Shetland Properties.

There’s another gift for which Lappin is known in Salem. At the corner of Essex and Washington streets is a city park named for his parents and built on a site donated by the philanthropist and his brother Stanley. Everybody knows it as the park with the statue of Samantha from “Bewitched,’’ something of a mascot for the Witch City. “I don’t know if there’s a nonprofit organization in our city that hasn’t received attention’’ from Lappin, said Kimberley Driscoll, mayor of Salem. “I think his generosity is boundless.’’

Sean Sposito can be reached at

First movie penned by Hamas strongman shown in Gaza

GAZA, July 18 (Xinhua) -- When lights in the move theater hall of Gaza City's Islamic University were turned off, senior Hamas leaders, bearded men, veiled women and local celebrities began to watch the first feature film produced by Gaza-ruling Islamic Hamas movement.

The two-hour feature film, with the screenplay written by Gaza Hamas strongman Mahmoud al-Zahar, tells the story of Emad Akel, the commander of Hamas movement's armed wing al-Qassam Brigades, who was killed by Israel in 1993.

The film, which costs 200,000 U.S. dollars and was first shown in Gaza on Friday, will be screened this week at cultural centers all over the Gaza Strip which Hamas seized from rival Fatah movement in June 2007.

Fathi Hamad, a Hamas leader and the interior minister of the deposed Hamas government in Gaza, said after the film's premiere on Friday evening that "It is Hamaswood instead of Hollywood."

"We are trying to make better quality of Islamic art that focuses also on resistance, without showing provocative immoral scenes," he said.

Deposed Prime Minister of Hamas Ismail Haneya was also among the audience to watch the movie shot over 10 months on a production lot located in southern Gaza Strip, which Hamas hopes will one day grow into a media city.

With millions of dollars devoted to build its media empire, Hamas already operates a Gaza-based satellite television station, a radio station and a dozen news websites.

It also owns two daily newspapers published in Gaza but banned in the West Bank where Fatah movement loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas holds sway, as well as producing a newsletter and an occasional glossy magazine for its militant wing.

But there are no movie houses in the impoverished Gaza Strip sandwiched between Egypt and Israel as Gaza cinemas were closed down in late 1980s during the first Intifada, or uprising against Israel.

Gaza used to have six major movie houses, but all were shut down because Palestinian activists felt entertainment was inappropriate at a time of struggle. A movie house called al-Nasser was only reopened in 1995 for three months before being burned and destroyed by radical Hamas protestors in Gaza.

The Emad Akel feature film, therefore, will be screened all over Gaza this week mainly at summer camps and cultural centers run by the movement.

The hero of the first Hamas film is the then 22-year-old Emad Akel, who gained fame for his many disguises, including dressing up as a Jewish settler wearing a cipa, or the Jewish skullcap.

In the early 1990s, he was one of the most wanted men by Israel for his alleged role in killing 11 Israeli soldiers, an Israeli civilian and four Palestinian collaborators with Israel.

The film, by building the image of Akel, also talks about how Hamas was founded in 1988 shortly after the first Palestinian Intifada erupted against the Israeli occupation.

Al-Zahar, the screenplay writer of the film, is one of the masterminds who planned the Gaza Strip takeover in mid-June 2007, during which the Fatah-dominated security forces loyal to the Western-backed Abbas were routed. Al-Zahar, a physician, has also written three novels and two screenplays.

"Resistance started from our concept to reject occupation and to reject injustice, and to bless the heroes who are serving the Palestinians and the national interest and who are committed to their religion in order to behave as a symbol," said al-Zahar.

Talking about the film's hero, al-Zahar said "We are in front of a history of a young man, only 22 years old, who sacrificed himself for the sake of Palestine. He sets a good example, and we have many thousands of examples like Emad Akel."

"For this reason we started this movie. We are encouraging others to write, act and play in order to have a culture, the culture of resistance, culture of dignity and culture of moral life," said al-Zahar.

Majed Jendeya, director of the film, said "Emad Akel represents a new military school in the history of Palestinian armed struggle in general. He is a resistance fighter of the top class especially for Hamas. He built the cornerstone for the recent Palestinian armed resistance."

"Through Emad Akel, many high-quality attacks were carried out against Israeli troops, to the extent that the Israeli army became obsessed with his operations. Even (Yitzhak) Rabin (late Israeli premier assassinated in 1995) dreamt of how to end Akel's life," said Jendeya.

Anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Jews Visit Gaza

Representatives of an anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect paid a brief visit to the Gaza Strip on Thursday on a solidarity mission with the area's militantly anti-Israel Hamas leaders.

It was the first time envoys from the Neturei Karta have visited the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized control in June 2007.

The sect denounces Israel's existence and traditionally embraces its enemies — including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Neturei Karta members famously hugged at a Holocaust denial conference in December 2006.

Four sect representatives from the U.S. sat down with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday, after crossing into the territory through Egypt the night before with dozens of other pro-Palestinian activists. Israel, which maintains a strict blockade of Gaza, would not let them cross through its passages with the territory.

"We feel your suffering, we cry your cry," said Rabbi Yisroel Weiss upon arriving Wednesday night. "It is your land, it is occupied, illegitimately and unjustly by people who stole it, kidnapped the name of Judaism and our identity," said Weiss, wearing the black hat, black coat and long side-curls typical of ultra-Orthodox Jews. His delegation left early Thursday.

Hamas seeks the destruction of the state of Israel and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings. Israel, along with the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist group.

During their Thursday meeting, Haniyeh told them he held no grudge against Jews, but against the state of Israel, according to a Hamas web site.

Neturei Karta, Aramaic for "Guardians of the City," was founded some 70 years ago in Jerusalem by Jews who opposed the drive to establish the state of Israel, believing only the Messiah could do that. Estimates of the group's size range from a few hundred to a few thousand.

Representatives of the sect had previously visited Gaza when it was ruled by Fatah, Hamas' more secular rival.

One acted as Yasser Arafat's adviser on Jewish affairs, and a delegation traveled to Paris in 2004 to pray for the Palestinian leader's health as he lay dying in a hospital. Months later, a group participated in a conference in Lebanon with Hamas and Hezbollah militants.

Why Some Israeli Troops Are Disillusioned by Gaza Tactics?

Israeli combatants in the Gaza war against Hamas were told by commanders to minimize their own casualties even if it meant risking the lives of Palestinian civilians, a group of Israeli soldiers have alleged.

On Wednesday, Breaking the Silence published 54 anonymous testimonies from more than two dozen soldiers on its website. The organization, founded for the express purpose of compiling such accounts, accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of sacrificing more rigorous rules of combat engagement for a political end: preventing high Israeli casualty numbers that would have splintered the country's unity over the January war.

During and after the war, Israeli officials often referred to the IDF as "the most moral army in the world."

Israel's army, which received an advance copy of the testimonials on Tuesday – nearly a week after the press – disputed the anonymous accounts as impossible to verify and therefore unreliable.

The soldiers who gave the accounts included both conscripts and reservists active on all four military corridors of invasion into the Gaza Strip, according to the organization. Some said that they were disturbed and disillusioned by what they saw as an erosion of the Israeli army's code of ethics, which requires soldiers avoid deliberate harm to civilians.

"An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform," read one testimonial.

In another account, a soldier described a pep talk by one of his commanders that seemed to contradict that standard.

" 'I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure – shoot. If there is doubt, then there is no doubt," read the testimony. "This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."

"Shoot for the Body," Soldier Says He Was Told

The latest allegations of a policy to use overwhelming force with little regard to identity of the civilians jibes with allegations made by international and Palestinian rights groups. The testimonials also claim to confirm the use of white phosphorous shells in civilian areas, widespread damage to homes, and the use of civilians as human shields.

In 2005, Israel's Supreme Court banned the use of civilian shieids, a widespread practice during the army's 2002 invasion of Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

Breaking the Silence, which was started five years ago by a religious soldier and has since gained the respect of many Israeli human rights groups, held a press briefing July 8 and provided copies of its 112-page report.

M., a combat reserve medic, was the sole soldier present and spoke to reporters about his war experience on condition of anonymity.

M. said that before going into Gaza a rabbi exhorted his unit to "shoot for the body." M.'s reservist unit was sent in to secure territory already under Israeli control in central Gaza, which he said had been emptied of Palestinians. Still, in order to boost security, one of their jobs included "exposure" of buildings. "Exposure is a nice way [of saying] systematic destruction of the area," M. said.

Army Spokeswoman: Anonymity Undermines Credibility

Maj. Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli army spokeswoman, responded that the anonymous nature of the testimonies made them impossible to verify and therefore could not be taken seriously.

"How do you know these people are soldiers? I don't know who they are," she told reporters. "This is not credible and this is not reliable. And this puts under considerable doubt the intention of the organization."

Prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who authored an opinion piece to coincide with the report, says that it is an offense under military regulations to be interviewed without the approval of the IDF spokesperson and notes that soldiers have been put on trial for leaks to the press. In addition, the soldiers' testimonies could incriminate them or their friends.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday night, Major Leibovitch insisted that the army has already conducted an investigation into various claims of misconduct and found that, with few exceptions, Israeli soldiers conducted themselves in keeping with international rules of warfare and with the army's code of warfare. Another 10 or so soldiers are under investigation for war-related charges.

Shortly after the war, other testimonials about misconduct in Gaza came to light when the principal of a military prep school submitted a series of soldiers' anecdotes to the army for investigation. Though the army opened an inquiry, it was swiftly closed on the grounds that none of the charges was based on first-person knowledge of the incidents described.

"The goal [of Breaking the Silence] is part of the overall aim of anti-Israel propaganda," says Gerald Steinberg, who runs NGO Watch, which monitors political activities of Israeli nonprofits. "It's to delegitimize Israel's defense against terror, and to exaggerate in an extreme way the few incidents and soldiers that might violate basic norms."

Clear Victory Needed After 2006 Hezbollah Defeat

What emerges from the testimony is the dissonance between soldiers' fear of and expectations for a tough house-to-house fighting against a determined foe akin to Hezbollah, and the reality of meeting relatively little resistance.

Breaking the Silence testimonials alleged open-fire guidelines didn't take into account civilians, a noticeable switch from the army's stricter rules of engagement in the West Bank. Instead, the soldiers said, any civilian who remained behind in the battlefield was considered a de facto combatant.

Yehuda Shaul, a combat veteran and a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the army needed a victory against Hamas to offset the perception that it lost a month-long battle with Hezbollah 2-1/2 years earlier. Minimizing Israeli casualties was seen as a way to give the army enough time to create an air of victory.

"The story of [Operation] Cast Lead [as the Gaza offensive was called] is the Israeli army's adoption of a different concept. It's the story of: 'In order to get a victory we need minimum casualties, and to do that we won't put our soldiers in danger. We prefer the mistakes to be on their body count and not ours," said Mr. Shaul at the media briefing. "In a way the IDF replaced the meaning of being a civilian with being a soldiers."

Mr. Sfard, the human rights lawyer, wrote that the testimony suggested the army was guilty of failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

"The No. 1 principle in international laws of war is the principle of distinction," he wrote. "Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants."

Obama advisor Lawrence Summers defends $787-billion stimulus plan

Reporting from Washington -- President Obama's chief economic advisor, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, defended the administration's massive program for fighting the recession, saying it was on track and beginning to show results despite continuing bad news on unemployment.

"If we were at the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the year, we have walked some substantial distance back from the abyss," Summers said Friday in remarks at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank.
His argument got some support from an uptick in new-home construction last month that suggests the crucial housing market may be on the path of recovery. And much of the gain was attributed to a provision in the stimulus plan.

Housing starts in June jumped 3.6% from May, the Census Bureau reported, partly the result of contractors hurrying to get homes underway before a government tax credit for first-time buyers that was included in the $787-billion stimulus bill expires Dec. 1.

But a separate report Friday showed that rising levels of unemployment remain a major obstacle for consumers and the broader economy.

The June jobless rate rose in 38 states, with Michigan posting the highest figure, 15.2%, and another 15 states in double digits, according to the Labor Department. The Midwest and the West have seen the sharpest drop in payroll jobs, reflecting the steep decline in manufacturing and housing-related industries.

The national jobless rate last month was 9.5%, and many economists, including Summers, expect it to continue to rise in coming months.

"This is obviously a major area of concern," said Summers, director of the National Economic Council. He alluded to both the economic and political challenges for the Obama administration, which has been criticized by Republicans and has seen a slip in the public's approval rating of the president.

But he contended that the current employment trends do not "provide a basis for concluding that the Recovery Act is falling short of its goals." He told a standing-room crowd at the Peterson Institute that "both administration and independent forecasts predicted that only a very small part of the total job creation expected from the Recovery Act would take place within six months."

In fact, he said, "given lags in spending and hiring, the peak impact of the stimulus on jobs was expected not to be achieved until the end of 2010."

The theme of Summers' talk echoed the Obama administration's efforts in recent days to counter a series of Republican attacks that have sought to portray Obama's stimulus program as ineffective and incurring unacceptably high government debt.

The federal deficit surpassed $1 trillion for the first time this week, adding to the concern of some economists about inflation and possible erosion of the U.S. dollar. But the onetime Treasury secretary under the Clinton administration said that it was important to fix the economy first.

"I think the greatest risk to future U.S. deficits would be uncontrolled economic contraction in the United States," Summers said, responding to a question from the audience about how America would reassure Chinese and other global investors about the safety of investments in the U.S. "Rescuing the economy has to be the first priority."

Bombings, business and the future of Indonesia

Reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia -- For years, James Castle has been Mr. Indonesia, a well-known Western face here promoting the world's most populous Muslim nation as a sensible international investment destination.

The graying, bespectacled American met with presidents and generals, his CastleAsia consulting firm guiding outside investors with advice about

On Friday, as deadly bombs ripped through two luxury Jakarta hotels, Castle saw firsthand the dark side of doing business in a nation torn by political and religious strife.

His firm was holding its weekly breakfast round table at the J.W. Marriott Hotel when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device packed with nails, authorities say. The blast killed one New Zealander attending the breakfast and injured several others, including Castle.

No group has taken responsibility for the twin attacks, which killed at least eight people. The investigation is focusing on Noordin Mohammad Top, a bomb maker and leader of a splinter group of the Jemaah Islamiyah network, which has links to Al Qaeda.

Experts today said it was unlikely that Castle's gathering of foreigners was the target of the explosion.

"This was a terrible coincidence," said Wahyu Muryadi, executive editor of Temple, a weekly business magazine here. "It was a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time."

But others say the attack on the high-rise Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels was designed as a warning to foreigners. The Marriott was the target of a car bomb in 2003 that killed 12.

"It's an iconic landmark that represents American ownership," said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based terrorism expert. "Hitting the Marriott strikes at U.S. business interests."

On today, much remained unclear about the attack. Investigators think the two suicide bombers stayed at the Marriott and carried in the ingredients of their explosives one piece at a time to avoid detection.

The bombs struck at the height of the busy Friday morning business rush, one day before the Manchester United soccer team was scheduled to check in to the hotel.

Asian terrorism experts said it was unclear whether the attackers figured the arrival of the Western soccer team in their calculations. "If it was Noordin Mohammad Top, he is Western-educated and would have seen the significance of the soccer team's arrival," said Maria Ressa, author of the 2003 book "Seeds of Terror," about the search for Al Qaeda hide-outs.

"If it isn't him and is the work of some other operatives, perhaps they're not as in touch with the Western world as we would expect."

Either way, Jones said the bomb still hit its target.

"These attacks are not always about the body count," she said. "These people were successful in grabbing the world's attention."

Jones said the sophisticated feat of detonating a pair of bombs within two minutes of each other despite heightened hotel security no doubt took months of planning.

She discounted reports that the bombings were connected to the hundreds of Jemaah Islamiyah rebels recently released from custody in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

"I'm not sure that group contains a likely group of suspects," she said. "Very few have been directly involved in bombings -- more so peripheral jobs as couriers or hiding fugitives.

"Many former prisoners have been co-opted by police and were not willing to risk the profit of that cooperation. Maybe five or six represented a serious risk of returning to violence, and the authorities had many of those under surveillance."

Whoever was at fault in the attacks, Muryadi said the result was bad news for Indonesia's attraction as an investment destination.

"I think foreigners might think twice now about doing business here anymore," he said. "My reporters have already talked to Australians who couldn't wait to get out of the country."

None of that is good news for Castle, who concentrated his energies on demonstrating the positive of what the nation has to offer.

"He's one of the main cheerleaders of Indonesia," Ressa said of Castle, a former American Chamber of Commerce president here who arrived in Indonesia in 1977.

The breakfast round table, a 10-year-old event, was often held at the Marriott, which is located near Castle's home, Muryadi said.

CastleAsia employee Wiwi Wijayanti said the company's chairman suffered some hearing damage in the blast. Another employee who asked not to be identified said 19 businessmen were at the meeting when the bomb struck. He said Castle was "recovering from shock" and was being closely monitored by doctors.

Jones said she expected foreign investment to resume here.

"There was little impact on the business community following the first Marriott attack in 2003," Jones said. "There will clearly be deep concern and real shock at the fact that some executives were killed in this bombing. But it won't be a critical factor determining whether investment here grows or declines."

Today , businessman Sandi Siswantoro held his 2 1/2 -year-old son, Mika, in his arms outside the Marriott. He said he was trying to teach the boy a lesson.

"I want to show him the ugly work of terrorism," he said, "and make the point that this kind of behavior is not good for Indonesia."

Hondurans set for 'crunch' talks

Rival sides in Honduras's political crisis are to hold talks, which deposed President Manuel Zelaya has said are the last chance for reaching a deal.

The negotiations will be held in Costa Rica, and mediated by the host country's President Oscar Arias.

Mr Zelaya was forced into exile on 28 June. His wife has said he will return home unless a deal to reinstate him is reached by midnight local on Saturday.

The interim government says Mr Zelaya will be arrested if he comes back.

It prevented Mr Zelaya's earlier attempted homecoming on 5 July.

Crunch time

Speaking from Nicaragua on Friday, Mr Zelaya promised to return to Honduras "one way or another" regardless of the outcome of Saturday's negotiations.

His wife, Xiomara Castro, said midnight was "the deadline" for an agreement.

"All the diplomatic avenues are nearly exhausted. We hope there is a decision tomorrow (Saturday)," she said on Friday.

Interim Honduran President Roberto Micheletti heads a military-backed government, which ousted Mr Zelaya amid a dispute with Congress and the courts.

Mr Zelaya had planned to hold a non-binding public consultation to ask people whether they supported moves to change the constitution.

His critics said the move was unconstitutional and aimed to remove the current one-term limit on serving as president and pave the way for his possible re-election.

Obama Reaches Out to Republicans on Health Care

Obama Reaches Out to Republicans on Health Care, but Bipartisan Bill Looking Unlikely

President Obama and some Democratic congressional leaders had pledged to involve Republicans in health care reform negotiations, but it is looking increasingly likely that bipartisanship will be among the casualties of the rush to approve a bill.

Obama told Congress on Friday not to "lose heart" in moving quickly to hammer out legislation that would check rising health care costs and cover millions of uninsured Americans without adding to the federal deficit.

But Republican proposals have gone nowhere in Congress, and the GOP isn't signing on to the Democrats' proposals -- and that didn't stop Obama from heralding "unprecedented progress."

Three of the five congressional committees working on health care legislation passed their versions of the Democratic plan this week without winning over a single Republican vote. The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are still discussing the proposals.

Democrats facing tough re-election bids or representing conservative districts are demanding additional measures to hold down costs. They have been unnerved by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office declaring that the legislation taking shape so far would not prevent federal spending on health care from rising.

Republicans have seized on those remarks as ammunition.

"When are Democrats going to admit that their claims about their government-run plan are pure fiction? Repeating the same disproven myths over and over again will not make them true," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

"Instead, Democrats should scrap their costly, job-destroying proposal and work with Republicans on a real plan to give Americans better access to affordable health care."

Yet Obama is soldiering on in his quest to get members of both political parties on board with his top domestic priority.

So far, he has summoned Republicans and Democrats to the White House. He has used public forums to make a direct pitch to the people. He has turned to his political operation to air campaign-like TV ads.

But it will take a lot to convince Republicans, nearly united in opposing the Democrats' plan.

"It would empower Washington -- not doctors and patients -- to make health care decisions and would impose a new tax on working families during a recession," Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said in the GOP's weekly address. "They propose to pay for this new Washington-run health care system by dramatically raising taxes on small business owners."

Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, said his party's proposed alternatives should be considered.

"These changes do not require government takeover of the health care system, or massive new spending, job-killing taxes or rationing of care," he said, seeking to string together the biggest fears of Obama's plan to challenge the popular president.

Obama rejected such criticism out of hand in his weekly Internet and radio address.

"Now, we know there are those who will oppose reform no matter what," Obama said. "We know the same special interests and their agents in Congress will make the same old arguments and use the same scare tactics that have stopped reform before because they profit from this relentless escalation in health care costs."

Obama must choose at some point whether to make concessions that could attract a few Senate Republican votes -- and anger liberal supporters. The alternative is a bare-knuckled parliamentary tactic that would inflame partisan tensions and probably kill some of the items he wants in the legislation.

On Wednesday he invited four Republican senators to the White House to discuss health care. Three -- Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- are seen by colleagues as highly unlikely to vote for an Obama-backed plan.

The fourth, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is a moderate Republican viewed as a possible supporter, even though she has demanded changes in the Democratic-drafted bills.

Even those who accepted White House invitations said it's hard to imagine that Obama thinks such chats with conservatives will win him any votes.

"I think he's just trying to get a sense as to what the prognosis might be in the Senate," Murkowski said in an interview.

As for Obama's push to get the House and Senate to pass separate bills by August, she said, "I just don't see how it comes together."

Murkowski said the White House is sending a "mixed message" by coupling its Republican outreach with thinly veiled threats to use strong-arm tactics to ram home a health care bill if Republicans insist on too many changes.

Obama adviser David Axelrod is walking that line.

"We want to work with everyone who will work with us, and we want to do it in the spirit of bipartisanship," he said in an interview Thursday. But, he added, "We can't defer reform and we want to move forward. Those who don't, they need to address those Americans struggling with higher premiums and losing their insurance."

Senate Democrats could resort to a parliamentary procedure, known as "reconciliation," that essentially would bar Republicans from using stalling tactics to block a health care bill. But Senate rules would allow opponents to knock some nonbudgetary items from the bill. Those might include the "public option" for insurance, which is dear to many liberals.

"It's obviously better to have it bipartisan," said John Podesta, who headed Obama's transition team and advises on health care. "But there is a considerable amount that could be done, and will be done, with reconciliation" if Republicans don't come on board, he said.

Iran Insider Sees a Chance to Seize Moment

WASHINGTON — During his decades in Iranian politics, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been praised as a pragmatist, criticized as spineless, accused of corruption and dismissed as a has-been.

Now, in assailing the government’s handling of last month’s disputed presidential election, Mr. Rafsanjani, a 75-year-old cleric and former president, has cast himself in a new light: as a player with the authority to interpret the ideals of Iran’s 30-year-old Islamic republic.

Using his perch as a designated prayer leader on Friday to deliver the speech of a lifetime, Mr. Rafsanjani abandoned his customary caution to demand that the government release those arrested in recent weeks, ease restrictions on the media and eradicate the “doubt” the Iranian people have about the election result.

Behind the words was the clear assertion that for the Islamic republic to survive, it must restore its legitimacy and find a formula for governing. And to establish his own legitimacy, Mr. Rafsanjani evoked his long personal and political history, and his current position as leader of two important consultative bodies.

“What you are hearing now is from a person who has been with the revolution second by second from the very beginning of the struggle,” he said, adding, “We are talking about 60 years ago up until today.”

He recalled that his mentor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 revolution, said that the key to success was that the “people’s will” be done, and in this case, the trust of the people had been broken and would not be restored overnight.

In claiming Khomeini’s mantle, Mr. Rafsanjani was challenging the authority of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and most powerful man in Iran, to make decisions on his own without seeking consensus. He was also defying weeks of effort by the government to silence him, in which senior officials issued a stream of personal attacks and barely veiled threats in the state media.

An outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a supporter of the opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, during the campaign, Mr. Rafsanjani at first did not directly question the government’s declaration that Mr. Ahmadinejad had won a landslide electoral victory. But he now is moving closer to Mr. Moussavi as a public symbol of opposition as well as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker.

In delivering his sermon on Friday, Mr. Rafsanjani essentially usurped the institutional role of Ayatollah Khamenei.

“This was a speech Khamenei should have given,” said Farideh Farhi, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii. “That’s his designated role as the spiritual and political guide, to heal rifts, to be above the fray. But Khamenei is probably too insecure and has too much to lose. He took sides. Rafsanjani rose to the occasion and offered a path to national reconciliation.”

Still, it would be wrong to say that Mr. Rafsanjani has suddenly become a proponent of justice, human rights and freedom.

In the summer of 1999, after all, when the government brutally crushed student demonstrations at Tehran University, he delivered a harsh prayer sermon in the same place as he did last Friday. Back then, he blamed the unrest on “enemies of the revolution” and “sources outside the country.” He praised the use of force by the state.

During much of his eight-year presidency, from 1989 to 1997, many Iranians were executed, principally political dissidents, and also drug offenders, Communists, Kurds, Bahais, even clerics.

Politically, Mr. Rafsanjani was humiliated twice: first in 2000 when he ran for Parliament and came in 30th and last place in Tehran (amid charges of ballot fraud in his favor) and again in 2005, when he performed dismally in his bid to regain the presidency.

But unlike many political figures in Iran, and certainly unlike most clerics, Mr. Rafsanjani is the consummate politician. He refuses to abandon the political battlefield in a country in which withdrawal and silence in the face of criticism and defeat is the norm.

He also knows how to shift gears. The photograph for his ad campaign in the 2000 campaign showed him sitting under a tree without his turban. He must have thought that a clerical uniform had become a liability.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s bold public stance is not without risks. Members of his family have been detained briefly during this period of turmoil, and the government could use his own record, and his family’s financial dealings, to discredit him.

For his part, Ayatollah Khamenei delivered his own notable prayer sermon four weeks ago, in which he embraced the victory of Mr. Ahmadinejad, called the election proof of the people’s trust in the Islamic republic system and threatened a violent crackdown if demonstrations continued.

Mr. Rafsanjani used melancholy, and Ayatollah Khamenei used anger to drive home their respective points. Mr. Rafsanjani struggled to woo the center, the ayatollah stuck to his base of support on the right.

Mr. Rafsanjani spoke about the Prophet Muhammad’s style of governing in Medina, with its insistence on listening to the people, and treating them with respect and “Islamic kindness.”

He called for the release of those who have been arrested in recent weeks for pragmatic reasons. “Let’s not allow our enemies to reprimand and laugh at us and hatch plots against us just because a few certain people are in prison,” he said.

Ayatollah Khamenei, by contrast, in his sermon railed about the enemies of the prophet and the foreign enemies both inside and outside Iran today. “The violators,” as he called them, “are not the public or the supporters of the candidates. They are the ill-wishers, mercenaries and agents of the Western intelligence services and the Zionists.”

Ironically, his speech sounded much like the one Mr. Rafsanjani gave after the disturbances a decade ago.

From the early days of the revolution, Mr. Rafsanjani has favored pragmatism over religious absolutism.

During the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Iran’s leaders demanded the return of the exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as a condition of the release of the 52 American hostages. Mr. Rafsanjani had a better idea: “If the Shah dies, that would help,” he said to this reporter in an interview in 1980. (Shortly afterward, the shah died of complications caused by cancer.)

In 1986, after the Reagan administration’s secret American arms sales to Iran with Iraq was disclosed, Mr. Rafsanjani, then the speaker of Parliament, used his Friday prayer sermon to explain why. He said that Iran needed to acquire weapons to fight Iraq, even if it meant dealing with the enemy United States. Later, he was credited with helping to persuade the ayatollah to end the eight-year war.

A state-builder, Mr. Rafsanjani even set aside religion to rehabilitate the image of Persepolis, the site of the 2,500-year-old Persian empire, saying, “Our people must know that they are not without a history.”

This time, he did not lay out his goals. He did not say whether he hopes to get the recently “stolen” election results overturned or merely to convince the country to make peace with those results.

“He doesn’t address the basic problem for the opposition: that they have been dealt with brutally on the streets and that this was a manipulated election,” said Shaul Bakhash, professor of Middle Eastern history at George Mason University.

Yet he remains a wily survivor. In a book about miracles that he wrote in 1963, Mr. Rafsanjani bragged about his escape from an assassin’s bullet. “You were saved,” he said of himself, “with the revolutionary speed with which you travel and punch those who say nonsense.”

Perhaps Mr. Rafsanjani has declared this the moment for the Islamic republic to reaffirm its republican aspects. But given the fluid nature of Iranian politics, it would be a foolish to make predictions about whether he can make miracles.

Clinton on Three-Day Visit to India

MUMBAI, India, July 18 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out to the full spectrum of Indian society Saturday, sharing petits fours with corporate titans, including a man building $1 billion home, and later munching nuts with rural women who embroider clothing for just dollars a day.

Clinton, on her first full day of a three-day tour of India, also participated in a nationally televised town hall discussion on education with Bollywood star Aamir Khan and paid tribute to the 166 victims of a three-day terrorist siege here last November. In a rarity for a secretary of state, she is not due to meet with any Indian officials until the last day of her visit, when she hopes to announce agreements that could lead to military and nuclear deals.

Before leaving Washington, Clinton gave a speech in which she said the United States was seeking to build a "multi-partner world," including contacts with nongovernmental groups and individuals that could make a difference. The trip to India, which she dubbed "a global power," is intended to be a manifestation of that approach.

Clinton, the most senior Obama administration official to visit India, is taking the unusual step of not making a stop in Pakistan, India's antagonist and longtime U.S. ally. Her predecessors almost always balanced a visit to New Delhi with a stop in Islamabad, but the Obama administration wants to demonstrate the relationship with India stands on its own and is no longer tied to Pakistan. Even so, Indian reporters peppered Clinton with questions about Pakistan.

Even flying first to Mumbai, the financial center of India, rather than the capital New Delhi, sent a message. Clinton is spending two nights at the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers hotel, the architectural landmark of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine accents that was one of the targets of the devastating terrorist attack, in what she told an Indian television network was intended as "a rebuke to the terrorists."

Shrugging off security concerns from Mumbai police, Clinton gave a news conference on an outside poolside terrace that was once scattered with bodies. Parts of the hotel are still under reconstruction; Clinton met with the business leaders in a banquet area that had been recently reopened.

Clinton also held a private ceremony with about a dozen staff members from the Taj and another hotel that was attacked, the Oberoi. One of the attendees was Taj General Manager Karambir Kang, who lost his wife and two children during the attack.

"Americans share a solidarity with this city and nation," Clinton wrote in the hotel's memorial book. "Both our people have experienced the senseless and searing effects of violent extremism."

Clinton, making her first overseas since she broke her elbow last month, was lively and animated all day, even during the education event in which she sounded more like a secretary of education. Clinton tossed off statistics, such as the amount of money teachers spend on school supplies, as several of her top aides dozed in the audience.

The nine business leaders were almost evenly divided between women and men, including Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance Holdings, one of the world's richest men who is building a 27-story, 400,000-square-foot home here. In an animated discussion, Clinton and the business executives discussed education, health care, micro credit and cooperation between Indian and American universities.

At one point, Ambani called for setting up joint institutions between the U.S. and India to develop clean technology. He noted that, with an assist, India could emerge at the forefront as rapidly as it embraced mobile phones.

"What we have is exactly what happened in the telecommunication revolution," he said, "because of technology, we are able to leapfrog India to 500 million cellphones in nine years."

Clinton was so delighted with the analogy that she repeated it twice at public events during the day.

The meeting with the rural women, affiliated with the 1.1 million-member Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), was a reunion of sorts for Clinton. She first became aware of the group during a trip to India as first lady in 1995; photos of her are prominently displayed in the shop she visited that sells the women's goods. Guuribden Brahman, one of the women Clinton met 14 years ago, presented Clinton with a deep-red, hand-embroidered runner, an 80-year-old family heirloom that she had received from her mother for her wedding trousseau.

SEWA organizes poor weavers, farmers and craftsmen throughout South Asia, convincing them to save as little as a dime a month, pooled together to build up capital, and providing micro loans for looms and other equipment. Clinton lauded the organization, saying, "We simply will not make progress in our world if we leave women behind."

Nine killed and 50 injured in Jakarta attacks

The Indonesian capital of Jakarta was the target of a terrorist bombing campaign on Friday morning as near simultaneous blasts hit two luxury hotels, killing at least 9 people.

At least nine people were killed and 50 injured in the latest hotel attacks reportedly including tourists from Australia and New Zealand. Casualty figures climbed quickly throughout the morning.

The explosions blew out windows and scattered debris and glass across the street.

South Jakarta police Colonel Firman Bundi earlier said that four of the dead were foreigners.

At the Metropolitan Medical Centre, a list was posted with the names of people wounded. An official at the registration office said 11 were foreigners.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We've got no indications that there are any Britons involved. We've got staff still checking and we're seeking access to the scene and going to the hospitals to check."

A Briton staying at the Marriott said the attack would not stop him visiting Indonesia again. Peter Tuomey told the BBC : "I don't think it will put me off.

"I'll just have to be a little bit more cautious but I certainly won't be deterred."

Suspicion for the blasts immediately focused on Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda inspired group active in Indonesia and neighbouring countries.

"These were high explosive bombs," Widodo Adi Sucipto, a government minister, told reporters at the scene of the blasts.

"Some windows of the Ritz-Carlton building have been shattered, mostly on the lower section," said Myra Junor, an office worker who witnessed the scene. Another witness said she saw smoke rising from the Ritz-Carlton and heard an explosion from the nearby Marriott five minutes later.

Witnesses at the scene told Indonesian Metro TV that the injured were seen being taken away in ambulances.

The Manchester United football team was due to check in to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Saturday evening ahead of an exhibition match early next week. They have already played the first game of their four-match tour of Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

But following the bomb blast, a United spokesman confirmed the team will not by flying to Jakarta tomorrow.

In a statement, the club said: "Following the explosions in Jakarta - one of which was at the hotel the team were due to stay in - and based on advice received, the directors have informed the Indonesian FA that the club cannot fulfil the fixture in Jakarta on the 2009 Asia tour."

The team are now expected to either remain in Malaysia for a few extra days or travel to Seoul for what should have been the third leg of their trip on Friday.

The Australian government immediately issued a warning to its citizens: "We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack."

Indonesia was the scene of several terror attacks in the early years of this decade. The most deadly was the 2002 Bali bombing in which 202 people were killed. There were also attacks on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003, the Australian embassy in 2004 and the again on Bali in 2005.

However the Indonesian authorities made a series of high profile arrests and there have been no major attacks for over three years, leading some analysts to identify the country as a rare success story among Muslim nations confronting a domestic terror threat.

Other experts have cautioned that, although weakened by arrests and internal splits, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) remains a threat, with several militants still at large and determined to carry out further attacks.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, said only on Thursday that JI members or splinter groups could be poised to strike again.

The report claimed that militants released from prison "are gravitating towards hardline groups who continue to advocate al-Qaeda-style attacks against Western targets".

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world and most Indonesians are generally seen as following a moderate interpretation of their religion. The country recently held peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections in which Islamist candidates did not do well.

Shares on the Jakarta stock exchange fell around 1pc after the bombings, but other Asian markets held up on renewed hopes about recovery in the global economy after strong growth figures from China on Thursday. Indonesia's rupiah also fell.