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Israel, Land of Milk and Honey – and Now Whiskey?

Israel has been known as the land of milk and honey since Biblical times – but the land of single malt whiskey? One appropriately named distillery is trying to turn Israel into a whiskey powerhouse.

Smooth, honey-brown whiskey is not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Israel. However, at the Milk and Honey Distillery, rows of casks proudly stamped “Tel Aviv” hold liters of the stuff.

The country’s first whiskey distillery is preparing to release Israel’s first single malt whiskey.

 

“It’s a young whiskey,” said Eitan Attir, the distillery’s CEO.

 

Attir says the brew is aged for three years and two months in virgin oak and old bourbon barrels at the company’s renovated former bakery in a rugged industrial area of south Tel Aviv.

 

“It’s complex for its age,” he said. “The taste feels like more than three years, more like seven or eight and again the story is much more important in this case. This is the first ever single malt whiskey that any distillery has released from Israel.”

 

Although wine has been produced in the Holy Land for millennia, and modern Israeli wines have gained international renown in recent years, whiskey production is new to the country.

 

Milk and Honey was founded in 2013 and began distilling small experimental batches of whiskey a year later. One hundred bottles from their first cask of Single Malt are set to be sold at an online auction starting August 11.

 

Whiskey is universally acceptable for religious Jews to consume, Attir says, and Milk and Honey’s drink is “ultra-kosher.”

 

“We don’t work on Saturday, we don’t work on Yom Kippur or Passover,” he said. “And we want to symbolize our being Jewish or Israeli and then we called it the Milk and Honey Distillery.”  

 

Warmer climate more amenable

The single malt was made in Israel from start to finish, according to the company’s website, though the ingredients, barrels and equipment were imported from the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere. The warmer climate in Israel allows for a speedier aging process in the barrel than whiskey made in colder climates, according to Ran Latovicz, an Israeli whiskey connoisseur and bar owner.  

 

“In colder climates like Scotland or Ireland, whiskey usually ages for about seven to 10 to 12 years before it’s even bottled because [it is] just the way, you know, it gets to its full potential,” he said.

 

The distillery believes it is well positioned to ride a wave of growing international interest in new world whiskeys, like rising stars from Taiwan or India, and hopes this initial offering whets the appetites of aficionados everywhere.

“There’s a huge demand nowadays for whiskey from other places around the world – new world whiskey. There’s more than 70 countries now with a minimum of one distillery and one of them is Israel,” Attir said.

 

Gal Kalkshtein, Milk and Honey’s founder and owner, said he hopes that once the whiskey starts getting shipped abroad in 2019, it will create a buzz for Israeli whiskies.

 

“We want to be recognized for our quality, not the gimmick,” he said.

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Oil-state Senators Advise Against US Ban on Venezuela Oil

Four U.S. Senate Republicans from oil-refining states Thursday urged the Trump administration not to block oil shipments from Venezuela as part of U.S. sanctions against the country, saying it could raise costs for U.S. fuel consumers.

The United States sanctioned President Nicolas Maduro and other Venezuelan officials after Maduro established a constituent assembly run by his Socialist Party loyalists and cracked down on widespread opposition. It has not placed sanctions on the OPEC member’s oil industry.

Four senators

Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi said in the letter, which was seen by Reuters, that unilaterally blocking oil exports could harm the U.S. economy and the Venezuelan people.

The United States imports about 740,000 barrels per day of oil from Venezuela.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the letter, which was addressed to President Donald Trump.

“We believe it is critical to consider the role the U.S. energy industry and refining sector play in our economic and national security interest,” the senators wrote. “Blockading imports could inflict great harm on this industry and burden U.S. taxpayers with the cost.”

Effects on Venezuela

The senators said sanctions on shipments of Venezuelan oil to the United States could also increase the likelihood of a disorderly default by Venezuela, given the oil business is its main source of revenue. Creditors could then seize Venezuelan oil assets and cut off the government’s remaining sources of financing.

They also noted that such sanctions could expand the interests of China and Russia in Venezuela’s oil business. Both countries have invested in Venezuela for years.

Sources have said the United States could use heavy crude from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve held in caverns along the Gulf Coast, to relieve any short-term supply pressure if Venezuela’s shipments were blocked. Nearly 680 million barrels of oil are in reserve.

A drilling boom in the United States has allowed the government to store more oil than it needs to meet international spare supply agreements. 

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Cooking Gas Shortages Force Venezuelans to Turn to Firewood

Venezuelan homemaker Carmen Rondon lives in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, but has spent weeks cooking with firewood due to a chronic shortage of home cooking gas – leaving her hoarse from breathing smoke.

Finding domestic gas cylinders has become increasingly difficult, a problem that oil industry analysts attribute to slumping oil output in the OPEC nation – which is struggling under an unraveling socialist economy.

State oil company PDVSA says the problem is due to difficulties in distributing tanks amid four months of anti-government protests in which its trucks have been attacked.

“I’ve spent three weeks cooking with wood and sometimes the food does not even soften properly, I can’t stand it anymore,” said Rondon, as she lined up to buy a cylinder under the scorching sun in the city of San Felix in southern Venezuela.

More than 100 people were ahead of her in line.

Nine out of 10 Venezuelan homes rely on cylinders for home gas usage, with only 10 percent receiving it via pipelines, according to official figures. The government launched a plan 12 years ago to bring some 5 million  households onto the natural gas network but was unable to follow through.

Venezuela’s socialist economy has been in free-fall since the oil price collapse in 2014, creating shortages of everything from diapers to cancer medication and spurring inflation to triple-digit levels.

President Nicolas Maduro says he is the victim of an “economic war” by the opposition, and says violent street protests are part of an effort to overthrow him.

With oil output near 25-year lows, PDVSA has been forced to import liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, which is used to fill natural gas cylinders. Venezuela imported 26,370 barrels per day of LPG in the first half of 2017, according to data seen by Reuters.

PDVSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Long lines to buy cylinders have spurred protests.

Demonstrators in May burned 22 PDVSA trucks in a single day in response to the shortages.

The company says it is now distributing gas cylinders at night and before daybreak due to such protests, which also include roadblocks that prevent free movement of vehicles.

“It’s not fair that a country with so much oil is going through this,” complained Maria Echeverria, a 44-year-old homemaker, who started waiting at dawn to buy a gas cylinder in San Cristobal, near the border with neighboring Colombia.

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US-Africa Trade Talks End With No Decision, Waning Enthusiasm

Talks between African and U.S. officials to review the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) free-trade deal ended Thursday with no decision and a feeling on all sides that it has achieved little since it was set up.

President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert E. Lighthizer, and other U.S. officials have been in the tiny West African nation of Togo over the past two days to discuss the Clinton-era trade pact with sub-Saharan Africa.

Trump’s “America First” campaign has seen him withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threaten to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and seek to renegotiate the U.S.-South Korea free-trade deal. But his administration has said little about Africa, and had not previously mentioned the 2000 AGOA trade agreement.

It is not clear whether the U.S. wants to change the deal before it expires in 2025 or extend it. No decision was made on either count.

AGOA allows tariff-free access for thousands of goods from 38 African nations to U.S. markets.

“The number of countries benefiting from AGOA is very limited, as is the number of sectors,” Peter Barlerin, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said at the forum Wednesday. “We will see if the situation improves in the coming years, but it is also up to the beneficiary countries to enhance their business climate.”

‘Constraints’ on some

Bernadette Legzim-Balouki, Togo’s trade minister, who presided over the meeting, was equally lukewarm on AGOA.

“Not all the countries eligible have benefited from the law,” she said. “We are trying to examine the constraints that prevent some African countries from profiting.”

Legzim-Balouki added that the United States and the nations eligible for AGOA had agreed on some loose aims, including: development of a better plan to take full advantage of the pact; bilateral talks between the U.S. and each eligible country; development of a mechanism to protect African producers from price volatility.

The U.S. trade deficit with the AGOA countries shrank to about $7.9 billion last year from a peak of $64 billion in 2008, as U.S. shale oil production increases have lessened the need for oil imports from major exporters Nigeria and Angola.

“AGOA is an excellent opportunity but we aren’t making the most of it, mainly due to a lack of knowledge about it,” Beninois agribusinessman Sylvain Adewoussi told Reuters.

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Croatia Cuts Import Fees to Avoid Trade War with Balkan Neighbors

Croatia revoked on Thursday its decision to raise import fees on some farm products by 220 percent, avoiding a trade war with its Balkan neighbors who had threatened to hit back with counter-measures.

European Union-member Croatia last month raised its fees for phytosanitary controls — agricultural checks for pests and viruses on fruits and vegetables — at its borders to 2,000 kuna ($317.52) from 90 kuna, citing compliance with EU standards and protection of its consumers.

EU candidates Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as fellow EU aspirant Bosnia, have called on Croatia to withdraw its decision, saying otherwise each of them would take counter-measures it considered adequate to protect its economic interests.

Serbia, which is the only country in the region that operates a trade surplus with its neighbor, has already stepped up phytosanitary controls on all organic produce from Croatia and said it would increase them further.

Croatia’s agriculture ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it cut the import fee for a shipment of one brand of fruits and vegetables to 90 kuna, and that the decision will become effective on Friday.

The ministry also agreed with neighboring countries that agricultural inspections on their borders will go back to normal routine as of Friday, while all other pending issues will be analyzed and discussed, it said in the statement.

Most countries in the region import more than they export to Croatia, except for Serbia. Serbia’s exports to Croatia in 2016 reached 116 million euros ($136.04 million) versus imports worth 79 million euros.

Neighboring countries welcomed Croatia’s move.

“Bringing the prices back at the previous level will contribute to the relaxation of relations among the countries of the region,” said Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.

($1 = 0.8527 euros)

($1 = 6.2989 kuna)

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China to US: Be Prudent on Aluminum Duties

China urged the U.S. government Thursday to act “prudently” to avoid damaging economic relations between the two countries, in a strongly worded response to Washington’s preliminary decision to place anti-dumping duties on Chinese aluminum foil.

In a statement posted on the Ministry of Commerce’s Wechat account, the government said the United States had ignored cooperation offered by Beijing and Chinese companies in making its ruling this week.

The statement, attributed to Wang Hejun, head of the Commerce Ministry’s trade remedy and investigation bureau, was more strongly worded than typical responses to trade disputes with the United States.

The statement said there were no grounds to accuse China’s aluminum producers of benefiting from subsidies.

 

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In the Fight to End Modern Slavery, Machines May Hold Key

More than 20 million people are working as modern slaves, and a technology developer is hoping artificial intelligence can help clean up the world’s supply chains and root out worker abuse.

Developer Padmini Ranganathan said mobile phones, media reports and surveillance cameras can all be mined for real-time data, which can in turn be fed into machines to create artificial intelligence (AI) that helps companies see more clearly what is happening down the line.

“The time to do this now is better than ever before, with so many countries and companies focusing on modern slavery,” she said. “At the start of the decade, the driving force for compliance was fear of being penalized. Now companies are looking at social impact and saying they want to do this.”

​More scrutiny of modern-day slavery

Modern-day slavery has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, putting regulatory and consumer pressure on companies to ensure their supply chains are free from forced labor, child workers and other forms of slavery.

Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), with migrant workers and indigenous people particularly vulnerable.

But Ranganathan said there are new digital ways to stamp out exploitation, given humans have failed to end modern slavery.

“The technology can filter over 1 million articles a day using forced labor specific key words and highlight potential areas of risk in a supply chain,” she said.

Ranganathan works for information technology services company SAP Ariba, which helps companies better manage their procurement processes.

She said a new program could map weak links in corporate supply chains by culling data from a host of sources, from surveillance cameras to non-profits and other agencies.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning can use these huge volumes of data and extract meaningful information,” she said.

Forced labor worth $150 billion

Forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year, according to the ILO.

Ranganathan hopes her new program will curb that market and help create “supply chains with a conscience.”

For instance, she said it could help detect if child labor was used to pollinate cotton, which in turn was used to produce a branded shirt. Or it could help monitor labor conditions on cocoa plantations, giving companies “real-time exposure” so they can purge their supply chains of abuse right away.

“The convergence of technology will make things more transparent and real-time exposure can be created,” she said.

“In the AI world, techniques are being piloted where we could arm the lowest level supplier with a mobile app, ensure hotlines in factories, use of surveillance cameras and make this all a part of the contract.”

Ranganathan conceded that mapping the “last mile” of any supply chain was the hardest part, with many outsourcing work to homeworkers and small units, where data was harder to gather.

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Hard-pedaling Soft Power, China Helps Launch $13B Belt and Road Rail Project in Malaysia

China and Malaysia broke ground on Wednesday on a $13 billion rail project linking peninsular Malaysia’s east and west, the largest such project in the country and a major part of Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure push.

The planned 688-km (430-mile) East Coast Rail Link will connect the South China Sea, large parts of which are claimed by China, at the Thai border in the east with the strategic shipping routes of the Straits of Malacca in the west.

It is among the most prominent projects in China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting the world’s second-largest economy by land corridors to Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia and maritime routes opening up trade with the Middle East and Europe.

“The ECRL is indeed yet another ‘game changer’ and a ‘mindset changer’ for Malaysia as it will significantly cut travel time to and from the east coast of the peninsula,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said at the ceremony halfway along the route in Kuantan, which faces the South China Sea.

For China, the project is another expansion of its soft power in Malaysia, which also lays claim to some disputed South China Sea islands, and is critical for China’s geopolitical and strategic interests.

“The China government has attached great importance to the China-Malaysia relations and has always considered Malaysia a dear neighbor and trustworthy partner who is committed to seeking mutually beneficial cooperation and common development in the country,” Chinese State Councillor Wang Yong said at the ceremony, heading up a 100-strong delegation in Kuantan.

Najib said the project would be financed with an 85 percent loan from China Exim Bank and the balance through a “sukuk” Islamic bond program managed by local investment banks.

The project is being built by China Communications Construction Co. Ltd.

Beijing has repeatedly come to the rescue of Najib over the last year, as he sought foreign investment that would help him pay off a massive debt piled up by scandal-plagued state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Najib has announced a spree of infrastructure projects in the last few months, many funded by China, as he builds up momentum for a general election that he has to call by mid-2018.

A Nomura research report last month said foreign direct investment inflows from China into Malaysia surged by 119 percent in 2016 and continued to grow at 64 percent year on year in the first quarter of 2017.

The growing closeness to China has raised eyebrows among Najib’s opponents who have argued that the country has become too reliant on Chinese funds.

But Najib dismissed the concerns in a speech on Tuesday, saying turning away from Chinese FDI made “no economic sense.”

There have been protests in Sri Lanka and Thailand over the Belt and Road initiative. A planned rail link through Thailand hit some resistance with what critics said were Beijing’s excessive demands and unfavorable financing.

But Thailand’s cabinet last month approved construction of the first phase of a $5.5 billion railway project to link the industrial eastern seaboard with southern China through landlocked Laos.

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US Push for Freer NAFTA e-commerce Meets Growing Resistance

A U.S. proposal for Mexico and Canada to vastly raise the value of online purchases that can be imported duty-free from stores like Amazon.com and eBay is emerging as a flashpoint in an upcoming renegotiation of the NAFTA trade deal.

Vulnerable industries like footwear, textiles and bricks and mortar retail in Mexico and Canada are pushing back hard against the proposal by the U.S. trade representative to raise Mexican and Canadian duty-free import limits for e-commerce to the U.S. level of $800, from current thresholds of $50 and C$20, respectively.

For the Mexicans, the main worry is that such a move could open a back door for cheap imports from Asia and beyond. For Canadian retailers, the fear is that e-commerce companies will undercut their prices.

The U.S. plan was unveiled in July as part of the Trump administration’s goals to renegotiate the 25-year-old treaty.

While Mexico and Canada are still formulating their responses, Mexico City is leaning strongly against the proposal in its current form, and Ottawa may not be far behind.

The proposed $800 level “opens a completely unnecessary door” to imports from outside the NAFTA trading bloc, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said on Thursday on the sidelines of a NAFTA-related event, calling it “a very sensitive topic.”

The growing controversy over how to account for a burgeoning regional e-commerce sector dominated by the United States highlights a rare area where the Trump administration is pushing to liberalize trade rules rather than tightening them.

Much of Trump’s criticism of NAFTA stems from his belief it has decimated U.S. manufacturing as companies shifted production to Mexican factories with cheaper labor, creating a U.S. trade deficit with Mexico worth more than $60 billion.

Top priority

But Mexican and Canadian business leaders fear the rule change could make their industries vulnerable, arguing that unless online retailers can show products are made in North America, they should not be exempted from duties levied on other imports.

“We can’t open the door to inputs from outside the region coming in tax-free when we’re talking about the need to reduce the deficit and create jobs,” said Moises Kalach, who fronts the international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby. “It goes completely against that.”

Guajardo said Mexico’s retail group the National Self-service and Department Store Association, which includes powerful members such as Wal-Mart de Mexico , had visited him last week to express concerns about the proposal.

He said the group’s representative brought to the meeting a $250 jacket bought on the internet as evidence that violations to the existing limit were already threatening members’ businesses.

“Suppose there was an $800 free limit. Can you imagine how many shirts Vietnam could send to Mexico in a packet below that price? They could easily flood us with packets of 100,” he said, while recognizing the need to smooth customs processes.

Complicating efforts to agree on a common set of rules is a tangle of diverging regulations on tax and how the restrictions on imports differ in the region depending on whether they enter by air, sea or land.

Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. declined to comment for this story.

eBay has previously said it supports an increase to Canada’s low-value customs “de minimis” threshold for ecommerce to promote seamless access to the global marketplace.

Increasing the threshold “absolutely” is eBay’s top priority in the NAFTA renegotiation, a person familiar with the matter said.

Canadian opposition is being led by retailers, whose industry association said it was concerned about “the behavioral shift that would inevitably result if shoppers can buy a far wider range and higher value of goods tax-free and duty-free.”

The Retail Council of Canada said in a submission to the government that clothes, books, toys, sporting goods and consumer electronics would be among the items most affected, and expressed confidence Ottawa would fend off such requests.

Not from other nations

“eBay in particular has lead this charge to three different finance ministers in a row — Jim Flaherty, Joe Oliver, and Bill Morneau — and in each case they have failed,” said Karl Littler, a spokesman for the Retail Council of Canada.

“The U.S. raised this quite frequently in the TPP [Trans-Pacific-Partnership trade] round and they also failed to secure this concession,” he added.

There have been hints from Canada’s government about a compromise under which a higher limit would exempt products ordered from e-commerce from duties but not sales taxes.

“When it comes to waiving duties and taxes, we need to carefully consider the impact that would have on Canadians and on Canadian businesses,” said Chloe Luciani-Girouard, a spokeswoman for Morneau.

Mexican firms could accept a higher import limit for goods produced in the NAFTA region — but not from other nations, said Alejandro Gomez Tamez, executive president of the Chamber of Commerce for the footwear industry in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, a hub of textile manufacturing.

“When a product comes in, even if it’s packaged and sent from the United States, if it’s from a third country, it should pay duties,” he said.

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In Croatia, Harvesting Salt the Centuries-old Way

Dozens of glistening pools in a small village on Croatia’s Adriatic coast stand testament to its annual salt harvests from seawater, which use a method largely unchanged for centuries.

The salt works facility in Ston, which says it is the oldest in Europe, consists of 58 pools and covers about 430,000 square meters where the waters of the Adriatic are allowed to seep in and then evaporate, leaving salt behind.

The first of two salt harvests this year kicked off on Tuesday, with around 35 tourists, friends and family of workers raking salt across the pans into gleaming white piles, before transferring to a nearby warehouse by wooden carts.

They expect to harvest some 200 tons of salt in the harvest, with most of it used for industrial purposes while the rest is sold in local markets for use in cooking.