Israel is holding national elections on Jan. 22, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already upended the country's political establishment by announcing the merger of his Likud Party with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. Formalizing the alliance with the pro-settlement party means that Netanyahu's government seems unlikely to prioritize peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, is facing condemnation from his more hard-line rivals for recent comments suggesting he might be willing to give up on the Palestinian right of return.
The latest report from the North Korea rumor mill is that Kim Jong Un is having senior generals executed by mortar fire. Whether or not that's completely true, it's clear that the young leader is working to consolidate his power and eliminate potential rivals from within the country's powerful military establishment. Early hopes that Kim might put his isolated country on the path to economic reform appear to have been premature. The frontrunner in South Korea's presidential election, conservative Park Geun-Hye, has promised to restart talks with Pyongyang if elected. South Korean police recently blocked activists from sending balloons carrying anti-communist leaflets across the border after the North had threatened military retaliation.
Disappointing those who hoped the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy and key U.S. ally might liberalize its political culture in the wake of last year's Arab Spring protests, Bahrain announced on Oct. 30 that it was banning all public protest. The government says the ban is temporary and is meant to "calm things down" after recent protests resulted in the deaths of protesters and police officers. On Nov. 5, five bombs exploded in the capital, Manama, killing two people.
While rumors swirl over President Vladimir Putin's whereabouts and health, the political situation continues to grow tense. Prominent opposition activists have been arrested and fined under new laws giving the government sweeping powers to punish disturbances of public order. A new Internet law, which is ostensibly aimed at protecting children from pornography but which activists fear could be use to smother political speech, went into effect at the end of October. On Nov. 4, Russian ultranationalists took to the streets of Moscow to protest what they see as Putin's accommodating policies toward immigrants. Meanwhile, the jailed members of the now world-famous political punk band Pussy Riot have been moved to remote prison camps.
The country is still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, but recent political reforms are making waves as well. Raúl Castro's government recently announced that it would welcome back those who fled the country after 1994. It has also announced a new plan to make it easier for Cubans to leave and return to the country. The reform comes at a time when the number of Cubans seeking to reach the United States has sharply increased. As for former leader Fidel Castro, he's apparently still around, having recently published a newspaper op-ed scoffing at reports that he is near death.