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Syrian opposition leader proposes peace deal

With more than 80,000 people dead and millions more driven from their homes, can Syria's opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime really negotiate a political settlement?

At least one opposition leader is willing to give it a try. Former Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib presented a 16-point initiative today that would pave the way for a political transition in Syria. It calls for Assad to hand over power to either his vice president or prime minister, and to leave the country with 500 people of his choosing. The Syrian government would then remain in place for 100 days to restructure the security services, after which a transitional authority would replace it. Those fighters who engaged in "legal military action" during the conflict would be granted a pardon -- but Assad and his 500 departing supporters would be provided with no legal protection.

That would be a great deal for the opposition. And given the circumstances, they just aren't going to get it: Assad's forces are on the offensive in several key areas, most notably the western city of Qusayr. Western governments are finally coming to grips with the fact that the regime is more stable than previously believed; German's foreign intelligence agency now believes that the Syrian military can retake large swathes of the country by the end of the year. Khatib's initiative reads like terms of surrender -- Assad isn't going to sign it at a moment when he's winning.

Nevertheless, Khatib's plan is an important indicator of where the Syrian opposition stands on the possibility of a peace deal. He likely released the proposal now because of internal opposition politics, rather than the state of the conflict more broadly: The Syrian National Council launched the beginning of its two-day general assembly in Istanbul today, where it will select a new president. Khatib abruptly resigned the presidency two months ago -- only to immediately try to un-resign, a maneuver thwarted by his rivals in the coalition. Khatib may hope that, by floating his initiative now, he can convince the new opposition leadership to endorse it in the run-up to potential talks with the regime, which will be mediated by the United States and Russia.

The initiative also shows where the opposition disagrees -- and where there is broad consensus -- regarding a negotiated settlement with the regime. Following Khatib's departure, the Syrian National Coalition has been largely dismissive of peace talks, saying that Assad's departure must come first, while Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idris has repeatedly said that the rebels must receive a greater infusion of weaponry before peace talks can begin. But while there is friction between Khatib and other elements of the opposition on opening talks with the regime, they agree on an important point: At the end of the process, Assad must go.

Needless to say, that's not something that Assad is yet willing to contemplate. And until he does, even if peace talks get off the ground, it's doubtful that they will go very far.

DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images

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Retired high-ranking Chinese official asks why Jews are so smart

During a speech on Tuesday in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told his audience that the Jews "have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita," inspiring the New York magazine headline, "Biden Praises Jews, Goes Too Far, Accidentally Thrills Anti-Semites."

But cringe-inducing philo-Semitism is not just a U.S. phenomenon. In a recently published memoir, titled A Collection of Works Written During Leisure Time, Wu Guanzheng, who from 2002 to 2007 was China's top anti-corruption official, reminisces about his time in Israel. "I bought some books on the Jewish people," he writes. One, which he cites later, is written by someone with the name "Abraham" and called --- you guessed it! -- Why Are Jews Intelligent.

Wu notes how Jews "attach extreme importance to study" and how they see scholars "as their spiritual leaders." Somewhat ironically for the man who was once the seventh-highest-ranking figure in an authoritarian system, Wu also praises Jews' ability to "speak truth to power" and "freely express different opinions."

Chinese are notoriously philo-Semitic. Jewish visitors are often greeted with the platitude, "Ah, Jews, you so easily make money" (no joke), and there are dozens of Chinese-language books promising insight into Jewish secrets like raising smart children, succeeding in business, or unlocking the moneymaking secrets of the Talmud.

Wu also tweaks China's conventional wisdom about Judaism. "There are people who say that the world's wealth is in the Jews' pocket," he writes. "Actually, Jews' wealth is in their own brain." (The line works better in Chinese, where Wu uses a word for brain that literally means "brain pocket.")

Many retired Chinese officials publish (or try to publish) books after leaving office. And it is required -- or at least strongly recommended -- that Chinese news outlets covering these memoirs say nice things about them. The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, has applauded Wu's book for exhibiting a "deep and true unaffected emotionality," while Xinhua, China's state news agency, has noted how the book's "sincere and honest" writing style has received attention "from all walks of life," which explains why the publishers issued 300,000 copies the first week after the release. (According to a write-up in China Publishing News Online, the book includes "essays, reflections, jottings, fiction, discussions" and features discursions on the legal system as well as "how to conduct oneself in society.")

The news website for Wu's birthplace, part of the Jiangxi provincial city of Shangrao (a city I'd never heard of before, but which apparently has a population of more than 6.5 million people), published an article titled, "The Party Officials and Ordinary People of the Entire City Have Set Off a Popular Craze of Studying" Wu's book.

The praise from Chinese state media does not necessarily mean the book is filled with drivel -- Southern Weekly, a liberal newspaper that generally publishes less censored news than its competitors, remarked on its "unconventionality" in featuring a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful body, "exposing his inner thoughts."

Wu's inner thoughts include a verdict on Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("excellent"), Bill Gates ("he stepped down to let talented youth take on heavy responsibility"), and retirement ("I look up and observe the universe, I look down and observe all living things -- I feel totally full of vitality.")

And when he does look down and observe all living things, there's apparently a special place in his heart for the Jews.