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Human rights groups protest new $49 million Guantánamo prison

If ever there was a sign that the military prison in Guantánamo Bay isn't closing any time soon, it came Thursday when the United States Southern Command asked Congress for $49 million to construct a new prison building on top of other renovations to the military compound Barack Obama promised to shut down during his first week in office.

The request increases the potential taxpayer bill for renovating Guantánamo Bay to an estimated $195.7 million, a development that is angering human rights groups who want to see the prison closed, not expanded.

"These are more U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent on the pointless and damaging policy of keeping Guantánamo open," Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. "In Obama's own words, Guantánamo weakens U.S. national security. The U.S. should either prosecute those detained at Guantánamo against whom it has any credible evidence or release them to home or third countries."

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, expressed similar disappointment in an interview with FP. "This is just absurd," she said. "Here's the president -- who campaigned on closing Guantánamo Bay -- extending and renovating it. What he needs to do is renovate his current policy and release the people who've been cleared for release, shut down the prison, and bring the rest of the prisoners to the United States for trial."

The human rights advocates emphasized that only six of the 166 detainees in Guantánamo face formal charges and that many have been cleared for release. "The administration should focus on the underlying policies as much as the infrastructure that supports them," Raha Wala of Human Rights First told FP. "There are 86 cleared detainees that can be transferred if the administration invests the political capital to do so." 

Of course, efforts to scale back the controversial prison have also been hampered by Congress, which passed legislation in December 2010 effectively banning the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States for their day in court. The bill prevents the Pentagon from spending funds on the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States for any reason. "It also says the Pentagon can't spend money on any U.S. facility aimed at housing detainees moved from Guantanamo, in a slap at the administration's study of building such a facility in Illinois," reported the Wall Street Journal at the time.

The latest test of the administration's will to prosecute terror suspects in civilian courts came with the arrest of former al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Earlier this month, Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill Americans in federal court in New York City. At the time, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the administration for not sending Abu Ghaith to Guantánamo.

"The extradition of senior al Qaeida member and spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, to the United States to stand trial in criminal court underscores a dangerous desire to return to treating al Qaeda as a law enforcement problem, not a national security issue," wrote Rogers in a column for U.S. News and World Report. "Throughout the 1990s, America responded to al Qaeda by treating its members like common criminals. The 9/11 attacks showed the devastating results of that approach."

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The problem with Obama's appeal to Israeli youth: they're the least likely to believe in peace

In his forceful speech before a youthful, applause-happy crowd in Jerusalem on Thursday, President Obama directed his remarks on the moribund peace process at young Israelis. "You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future," he declared, in calling for an "independent and viable Palestine" alongside a "Jewish and democratic state." Obama continued:

I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who've not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who've learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward. 

But here's the catch: Many surveys show that young Israelis are actually more cynical and conservative about the peace process -- and particularly Obama's preferred two-state solution -- than their elders. Ahead of the president's visit this week, for example, the Israel Democracy Institute released a poll showing that a staggering 71 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 do not believe in Obama's ability to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks -- a percentage that steadily decreased as the respondents got older.

A Smith Research/Jerusalem Post poll in December found that only 42 percent of Israeli Jews aged 18 to 29 supported a two-state solution, compared with 63 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 69 percent of those aged 50 and over. In analyzing another survey around the same time, the Israeli organization Blue White Future highlighted the "more right-leading tendencies amongst younger voters" -- who, for example, were much more likely than older generations to support Israel annexing the West Bank (a position championed by rising star Naftali Bennett in Israel's recent elections) without offering its Arab residents civil rights. It's a trend that has been taking shape for several years now.

What explains the younger generation's skepticism? The Los Angeles Times provided some helpful background earlier this week:

Reared on suicide bombings, failed peace initiatives and segregation from Palestinians, Israel's younger generation is generally more conservative, more religious, less tolerant and less supportive of a two-state plan than their parents or grandparents.

That stands in marked contrast to the United States, where young people tend to be relatively liberal and where Obama enjoys his strongest support among those younger than 30.

"In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years - some would say, several lifetimes," Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote on Thursday, in reference to Israel's "world-weary," post-Oslo, post-Rabin generation. "They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents."

Still, Burston argued that Obama's address this week -- one that "radically redefined centrism in Israel" -- could change minds. "This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear," he maintained.

To his credit, Obama made a glancing reference to young Israelis' disillusionment on Thursday, noting that he understood "why too many Israelis -- maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today -- are skeptical that [peace] can be achieved." But he insisted that "as we face the twilight of Israel's founding generation, you -- the young people of Israel -- must now claim its future."

The question is: Did the president make any progress this week in persuading young Israelis to buy into the future he envisions? 

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images