Monday, February 8, 2010

Avatar dethroned by new challenger

Never underestimate the power of teenage girls. This weekend, the sleeper hit Dear John managed to sneak in and steal the box office crown from Avatar (which just passed Titanic as the all-time box office champion). Based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, the film's weekend figures were far north of what the suits were predicting, pulling in an impressive $32.4 million despite weak reviews and no marquee names. Word-of-mouth and good timing obviously did wonders here.

As for Avatar, anything at this point is just icing on the cake. In its eighth weekend in release, James Cameron's sci-fi epic tacked on another cool $23.6 million on top of its $2 billion and counting worldwide tally. This is history in the making, folks, and a sequel is all but guaranteed at this point.

Elsewhere, John Travolta's latest offering as a bald bad guy didn't prove so hot this time as From Paris with Love only eeked out $8.1 million. Compared to his last effort at over-the-top villainy in last summer's hit The Taking of Pelham 123, this one pales in comparison.

Another aging movie star, Mel Gibson, can't be too happy either. His comeback vehicle Edge of Darkness earned a paltry $7 million to push its accumulative total after 2 weeks to just $29 million. That's a huge percentage drop from last weekend. Looks like Mel will have to count on DVD grosses to push this flick into the black.

However, in more positive news, the Oscar nominations announced this past Tuesday morning did help out some smaller releases, particularly Jeff Bridges' Oscar-nominated turn as an alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart. Still in limited release, the story of Bad Blake and his road to redemption burst into the top 10 with $3.6 million. As it rolls out slowly in the weeks to come, look for this little gem from first-time writer-director Scott Cooper to gain traction and do great business.

Meanwhile, The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington as an apocalyptic road warrior, has quietly climbed its way toward $100 million in the month it has been out in theaters. This is good news for the Hughes brothers, as their last effort was the Johnny Depp flop From Hell. It should be no news for Denzel, who continues to be one of the most rock solid movie stars in America.

Looking forward to next weekend, expect the uniquely-titled Valentine's Day starring a slew of pretty Hollywood faces to cash in on the holiday the same way a new Saw molests every Halloween. Also, expect Dear John to hold over well next weekend as well, as the gooey Nicholas Sparks love story should do solid business. For those looking for an alternative to the sap, Universal's The Wolfman should suffice as a backup option. Benicio del Toro stars in an inspired bit of casting alongside Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt in the classic monster tale of weirdo Lawrence Talbot and his shape-shifting ways. Looks classy.

Rounding out the top 10 was Sherlock Holmes, adding $2.6 million to the till en route to a cumulative gross of just over $200 million. Between this and the much anticipated Iron Man sequel coming this May, it appears that Robert Downey, Jr. is back on top. Kudos.



Moody: This is just like watching Avatar

So what's the nobel winning US president going to do? They're not stopping with uranium enrichment, the sanctions are not working, but all that dialogue keeps on flowing. So what's to stop them other than a long intense bombing campaign that blows deep craters into the ground where nuke facilities now stand? KGS

TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran will begin enriching uranium to 20 percent from Tuesday, the Islamic republic's atomic chief announced on Sunday just hours after being told to do so by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The decision raises the stakes in a dispute with the West less than a week after Iran had appeared to accept a UN-drafted nuclear deal on the supply of fuel for a research nuclear reactor in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad's move drew fire from Britain and the United States, and analysts said it was a bid to exert pressure on Washington and drive a wedge between the six powers over attempts to impose new sanctions on Tehran.

"We will inform the IAEA in a letter tomorrow (Monday) of our intention to enrich uranium to 20 percent," Ali Akbar Salehi told the Arabic-language Al-Alam television, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"The higher enrichment will begin at the Natanz plant from the day after tomorrow (Tuesday)," he added. Natanz is in the central province of Isfahan.

Is The Rapper Jay-Z Having Money Problems?

Bossip is reporting that the rapper Jay-Z owes Highland Capital Management LP $52 million dollars in loan guarantees, and that the Jigga man hasn't been paying as expected. The loan was allegedly used to purchase property in Manhattan for a hotel.

Jay-Z has reportedly filed a complaint against Highland Capital, claiming that the company was seeking funds in excess of the amount owed. He has requested $3.7 million in compensation. Bossip is also reporting that Jay-Z was sued by his attorney last year for unpaid legal fees. It seems that everyone in this story has something to say, and I hardly expect that this means that Jay-Z is going broke. At the same time, things may not always be what they seem.

Here are some quick thoughts on the alleged financial problems of Jay-Z.

1) There is nothing all that uncommon about Jay-Z's actions:
Wealthy men and women set up small corporations regularly that get sued for non-payment or even go bankrupt. Donald Trump is notorious for it. The reason is that when you engage in any business venture, you should be incorporated so that your assets are protected from losses of the venture. I am sure that Jay-Z's expensive lawyers set him up for all that good stuff.

2) It's not inconceivable for a seemingly wealthy entertainer to have liquidity problems: Many rappers are stuck in the nasty trap of having to brag about how much money they make. When you do that, you are setting yourself up for embarrassment if the world finds out that you're not rolling in the cheddar like you claimed you were. For those of us who are not rappers, I recommend slowing down on the status symbols, such as fancy cars, big spending or expensive clothes, since that stuff only makes you a target for people looking to borrow money. Eventually, the world thinks that you're made of money, and feels disappointed when you hit hard financial times.

3) Remember Nicolas Cage and MC Hammer: Nicolas Cage seems to be in a blockbuster film every month. But he himself was in serious financial trouble with the IRS and had to sell several of his mansions around the world (the words "several" and "mansions" shouldn't be in the same sentence, should they?). MC Hammer earned over $25 million dollars during the year he declared bankruptcy and still has not recovered from the financial devastation which occurred nearly 20 years ago. Making a lot of money doesn't mean you can't go broke, especially if you're spending more than you make. The actor Will Smith often discusses his bankruptcy 20 years ago, when he spent the money for his second album before it had even been released. My cousin T-Boz from the group TLC (yes, she is my cousin - she's a Watkins too) did an interesting documentary about how she and the other women in her group were forced into bankruptcy, even though their first album sold millions of copies. It's good that they "weren't too proud to beg," since they were on the verge of having to beg for money in spite of being the hottest musical artists in American that year. Americans are addicted to living beyond their means, and that includes both rich celebs and regular people.

4) There's a difference between wealth and liquidity: Most businesses fail because of a lack of cash, not profitability. Many wealthy Americans own a lot of stuff, but they don't have the cash necessary to maintain that stuff. Managing liquidity can be just as important as finding profitable investment opportunities. I presume that Jay-Z has enough liquidity to run his business ventures, but make no mistake about it: the liquidity needed to run his business is like the amount of water needed to operate a Water World amusement park. I hope his financial team is qualified, since it's easy to believe that earning $35 million dollars in a year will instantly make all of your financial problems go away. But remember Michael Jackson's crazy spending habits? The poor man needed over $10 million dollars a month just to keep up with outgoing cash.

I'm not sure if Jay-Z is broke or not, but I suspect that he's going to be just fine. The truth, however, is that the stock market's disappointing performance in 2008 and early 2009 wiped out a lot of wealth, and I expect that Jay-Z was not immune to that. Hopefully, he took the advice of Warren Buffet and invested heavily during the downturn. That was an opportunity to make some serious dough. Jay-Z is a smart brother and I am sure he will be OK.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition.

Florida: Highway Trooper Busted For Writing Fake Tickets

Florida Highway Patrol trooper accused of faking traffic citations to meet a ticket quota.

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper was charged Tuesday with issuing traffic tickets against motorists who had done nothing wrong. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle charged Trooper Paul C. Lawrence, a twelve-year veteran, with twenty-two counts of official misconduct, a third-degree felony.

Lawrence allegedly made up the violations and filed citations in the computer system between November and January. The victims never received a copy. Like most states facing budget troubles, trooper performance in Florida is measured primarily by the number of citations issued while on duty. Florida is unique in providing a direct financial incentive for individual police officers to issue tickets. The state taxes insurance premiums to fund police pensions. For example, an individual who pays a thousand dollars to insure his vehicle would pay $8.50 into the police fund annually. This premium, and the subsequent contribution to police, skyrockets after the motorist receives a traffic ticket. This in turn increases the take home pay of police officers by decreasing their contributions to the fund accordingly.

Lawrence's plot to boost his statistics unraveled when motorists began to have their licenses suspended for failure to pay the faux citations. Their complaints led to an investigation which determined that an unusual number of his traffic tickets were not signed by the alleged offenders. Many of the ticketed drivers could also prove that they were elsewhere at the time and date of the incident claimed on the citation.

"We all know that honesty and integrity are the central values of every effective police agency," Rundle said in a statement. "When an officer lies, he damages the reputation of his department and every one of his fellow officers. In Mr. Lawrence's case, he has also committed a crime. Now we all must work to undo the damage Mr. Lawrence created."

Rundle asked the county court to dismiss 85 traffic tickets that Lawrence had written over the past several months, many of which were issued to individuals had Hispanic surnames. The FHP is reviewing all of the citations that Lawrence has issued.

Sarah Palin Lays Into Obama, Uses Crib Notes, Says Nothing of Substance

Sarah Palin gave the keynote address at last night's National Tea Party convention in Nashville.

Offering no policy alternatives, but winking often, the former Governor of Alaska assailed Barack Obama and the current administration. Regarding his plummeting poll numbers and the election of Scott Brown to the Senate, Palin taunted:

"How's that hope-y, change-y stuff workin' out for you? You'd better stop lecturing and start listening."

Asked how she would handle terrorism, she said simply: "We win. They lose."

Right. Thanks for playing, Sarah.

In case she forgot the key points with which she'd rile up the crowd, yet not actually deal with in any rational manner, Palin made like a middle school student and scribbled them on her hand:

Other than general conservative principles - such as lower taxes (which Obama has done) - the speech was bereft of Palin's own ideas, an indication that she may not run for President in 2012 or has no ideas. Possibly both.

If the Republicans take back the House later this year, Palin was asked the top three items that should be on their agenda. Her response:

1.Reign in spending.
2.Devote resources to coal and oil as sources for energy.
3.Focus on divine intervention for the country.
Seriously. Those were her top three policy initiatives on her list.

She wasn't asked how much cash she pocketed for posing with daughter Bristol on the cover of a supermarket tabloid.

Using her speech to incite a crowd that already thinks Obama is a tyrant socialist - an awfully ineffective one, if so, as he's given billions to the banks - Palin implored: "America is ready for another revolution!"

It's unclear what this actually means, except that Palin knows how to draw applause from an auditorium full of misguided citizens that may mean well... but possess no grasp on reality.

While she didn't comment on any plans for the White House, the crowd stood and cheered at one point:"Run, Sarah, Run!"

Soldier reportedly ‘waterboards’ daughter for failing to recite alphabet

A 27-year-old Washington state soldier allegedly admitted Sunday to having held his daughter's head in a bowl of water because she couldn't recite the alphabet.

British newspapers labeled the technique "waterboarding," in reference to the CIA torture measure the Bush Administration employed against terror suspects, though in actuality, waterboarding technically involves covering the individual's face with fabric and pouring water over the nose and mouth to simulate drowning.

The soldier, Joshua Tabor, reportedly told police that he "submerged her face three or four times until the water was lapping around her forehead and jawline."

He allegedly told police he'd chosen a water-based technique because his daughter was terrified of water.

Tabor was arrested after being seen in his neighborhood in a Tacoma suburb wearing a Kevlar helmet and threatening to break windows.

His girlfriend told police that the girl had been found in a closer with bruising on her back and scratch marks on her neck and throat.

In reply to a question of how she got the scratches, the girl purportedly replied: 'Daddy did it.'

Tabor had recently won custody of his four-year-old daughter. Her birth mother lives in Kansas. The daughter's name was not released.

Ill-fated Conn. power plant owned by PE fund

The private equity firm that owns the majority stake of the natural gas plant in Connecticut that blew up on Sunday says it is fully cooperating with authorities investigating the fatal explosion.
According to reports, Energy Investors Funds recently acquired 80% of the Kleen Energy plant In Middletown, Conn. Construction on the the plant, which was 95% complete, began in February 2008 and was expected to be finished this spring.

Indeed, employees at the facility were doing what's known as a 'blow down' -- clearing air from the gas lines -- when the deadly explosion occurred. The investigation into the exact cause of the blast is expected to begin today.

The explosion occurred at around 11:17, leveling parts of the facility. Residents in towns forty miles were said to have felt the shock waves from the explosion.

Officials say at least five people were killed in the blast, with dozens of other workers still unaccounted for. Reports indicated that at least 100 workers were in the plant on Sunday before the disaster struck.

In a statement, Energy Investors Funds offered sympathy and concern. It said it would release more information on the explosion as it becomes available.

The firm was founded in 1987, and claims to be the first group to invest private equity for institutional investors in the U.S. electric power sector. Since that time, EIF has raised more than $4 billion in equity capital for its power focused private equity funds.

EIF's funds have made over 100 diversified investments, and the firm owns power facilities in 30 states.

In June 2008, the company announced it had raised construction financing for the Kleen Energy project. The funding consisted of $985 million of senior secured bank loans and a revolving credit facility. EIF is the majority owner of the project, with the balance owned by the developer group, White Rock Holdings Associates, LLC.

According to the firm's web site, the Middletown plant was being built by O&G Industries, a Torrington, Conn-based company. The project was to be operated by North American Energy Services.

In April, EIF's United States Power Fund II acquired another Connecticut power project. This one, Watertown Renewable Power, from Tamarack Energy, is a 30MW biomass power project in Watertown, which is not far from Middletown.

One of Energy Investors Funds' founding partners, Herbert Magid, was previously

a senior investment officer at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company. Several of the company's top executives came from investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, which was absorbed by Commerzbank in September.

Real estate businesses helped move Sept. 11 trials

New York City's real estate businesses were instrumental in persuading political leaders to move Sept. 11-related trials somewhere else.

Stephen Spinella remembers the moment. The president of the New York Real Estate Board attended a meeting at which the police commissioner outlined the frozen zones and rooftop sniper plans to secure a Khalid Sheik Mohammed trial in lower Manhattan.

He says the frozen zones for the trial would have shut many businesses off from their customers.

Spinella says he raised the economic issue with the White House deputy chief of staff in November.

The decision to have the trials elsewhere is said to have been made, but has not been announced.

How Leno, Letterman Linked Up

The most surprising Super Bowl ad featured David Letterman and Jay Leno on a couch with Oprah, plugging the Late Show. How did it come together? After receiving permission from NBC exec Jeff Zucker to do the ad, Leno took NBC’s private jet to New York and showed up at Letterman’s studio in a hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses, and a fake mustache. According to Late Show producer Rob Burnett, “It was very friendly, very professional, totally cordial. You could tell these were two guys who have known each other for a long time.”

Capitol remains abuzz about rumors surrounding governor

The speculation about a supposed "bombshell" NY Times story about Governor David Paterson has been percolating since last week. Now, the Business Insider offers, "We've now heard from a single source familiar with the goings on at the Governor's office that the story will likely drop on Monday, and that the governor's resignation will follow."

Previously, the Daily News had reported that he was spotted "nuzzling" with a married woman (not his wife) at a NJ restaurant and the Post claimed a State Trooper found him and a woman (not his wife) fully clothed in a Governor's Mansion utility closet. When Paterson became Governor after Hookergate, he and his wife had a weird press conference where they admitted extramarital affairs—and he later admitted using cocaine.

Paterson's approval numbers are very low and has been trailing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the polls. Still, in spite of low funds, Paterson has insisted he's running for governor this year.

Lucas at Large: Did Peyton Manning morph into Brett Favre?


We can now take a roll call of Super Bowl ring bearers who have came up short against the New Orleans Saints.

Eli Manning? Check.

Tom Brady? Check.

Kurt Warner? Check.

Brett Favre? Check.

Peyton Manning? Checkmate.

Now check out Drew Brees vs. the aforementioned field.

Brees (23-30-369, 4 TDs) vs. E. Manning (14-31-178, 1 TD, 1 Int.)

Brees (18-23-317, 5 TDs) vs. Brady (21-36-237, 2 Int.)

Brees (23-32-247, 3 TDs) vs. Warner (17-26-205, 1 Int.)

Brees (17-31-197, 3 TDs) vs. Favre (28-46-310, 1 TD, 2 Int.)

Brees (32-39-288, 2 TDs) vs. P. Manning (31-45-333, 1 TD, 1 Int.)

Brees played five games against these elite quarterbacks, each of whom has won at least one Super Bowl. Brady has won three.

In these five games, Brees threw 17 TD passes.

In these five games, Brees did not throw an interception.

In these five games, Brees became an elite quarterback.

There's no question that Brees has elevated his profile.

But here's the question du jour: How did Sunday's loss in Super Bowl XLIV impact Peyton Manning's legacy, if it did at all?

This much we know: Manning is a .500 quarterback in the postseason. As opposed to Brady, who's 14-4.

This much we know: Manning's allegedly defining postseason moment, to this point, was winning a Super Bowl over the Bears.

This much we know: If Favre threw the same lame pass that Manning threw -- the pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter in the fourth quarter -- the national pundits would be killing Favre today for the mistake.

Make no mistake, either, it was a huge faux pas on the part of Manning, who was driving the Colts into position to tie the game. Unlike Favre, who was also picked off by Porter after he made the cardinal sin of throwing late across his body, Manning seemingly had a clear passing lane to his intended wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

Granted, you can make the case that Wayne stopped on the route and quit on the play. So it appeared. Wayne, at the very least, should have done a better job of preventing Porter from stepping in front of that pass. You can also make the case that Manning morphed into Favre at the most inopportune time of the game.

If you're going to kill Favre for his careless blunders, then, you have to put this ill-advised pass by Manning in the same dubious category. Especially since Manning's meltdown took place on the biggest stage of all, the Super Bowl. (In truth, maybe Manning morphed into Neil O'Donnell, the former Steeler journeyman who was picked off twice by Dallas' Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX.)

Maybe none of this matters. Peyton Manning, after all, is destined for the Hall of Fame based on his regular-season numbers alone. But obviously he did nothing Sunday to enhance his postseason resume, which has been ordinary to below-average (sort of like the uninspiring lineup of commercials for Super Bowl XLIV), save the lone championship entry against the Rex Grossman Bears.

Manning will always be in the discussion of Greatest Quarterbacks Ever. But until he wins another Super Bowl, he will be well down the list. Particularly since Brees has drawn even with both Mannings. Interestingly, Brees not only owns a super victory over Peyton Manning, but he has one over Peyton Manning's caddy, too.

Who dat?

In 2000, Brees threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns in Purdue's 30-24 overtime victory over the University of Wisconsin football team at Camp Randall Stadium. The UW starter was lanky Jim Sorgi, who hit on 21-of-29 throws for 243 yards. He was sacked seven times.

Sorgi, who was in street clothes Sunday because of an injury, has been Peyton Manning's faithful understudy in Indianapolis.

"It's obvious that he does a great job with pre-snap reads,'' the opposing coach was saying. "He reads what the coverage is, what you're trying to do on defense, and he knows where to go with the football. And he's very hard to sack. First of all, he's mobile, more so than you think. Secondly, he's going to get rid of the ball quickly.''

This is what everybody has been saying ad nauseam about Peyton Manning. Except in this case the speaker was former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez and he was talking about Brees.

"I never had a whole lot of confidence in myself playing football,'' Brees said prior to playing the Badgers in 1998. As a 12-year-old, he was the No. 1 ranked tennis player in his age group in Texas. Football was then an afterthought -- after tennis and baseball.

"I was the fourth-string quarterback of my freshman class,'' Brees said. "It's really odd how things worked out. I wound up being second-string my junior varisty year. I even considered giving it up and going straight to baseball. But the starter got injured my sophomore year and I wound up playing.'' And winning.

And winning, and winning, and winning.

I will remember two things about Super Bowl XLIV: the Manning interception and the picture of Drew Brees holding his young son in his arms on the awards platform. Baylen was wearing headphones to block out some of the noise (a recommended accessory for anyone who's forced to listen to Jim Nantz broadcast football. But that's another blog for another day).

Iran to step up uranium enrichment

Iran is set to begin enriching uranium and plans to build 10 new facilities over the next year where enrichment can be carried out, the head of the country's atomic energy organisation has said.

Speaking to al-Alam, Iran's Arabic-language state television station, Ali Akbar Salehi said that Iran would begin enriching uranium to a level of 20 per cent by Tuesday.

"We will hand over an official letter to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] tomorrow, informing the agency that we will start making 20 per cent enriched fuel from Tuesday at the Natanz plant," he said.

The announcement is likely to cause friction with the US and its allies who accuse Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear programme is for purely civilian purposes.

Iran had announced plans to build 10 new enrichment plants in a major expansion of its atomic programme in November, but at the time did not specify the timeframe.

Difficult change

Alireza Ronaghi, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Tehran, said: "It's a new phase in Iran's nuclear achievement, but it is not going to happen over night.

"A very difficult design process will have to take place. They'll need to change the existing capacity that consists of 4,000 - 5,000 centrifugal machines.

"It will also infringe upon Iran's current capacity for enriching uranium to a level of 3.5 - 4 per cent, which is necessary for it's current nuclear programme.

"Regardless, these are the things that many conservatives in Iran think will make the country's hand stronger in negotiations with the West."

Salehi's statements follow instructions from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, on Sunday that he start the production of higher-grade nuclear reactor fuel.

But Salehi has also suggested that production would be halted if Iran received fuel enriched to 20 per cent from abroad.

Swap compliance

Iran has expressed readiness to exchange its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade fuel, but has demanded amendments to the UN-drafted IAEA plan, under which Iran would export its low-enriched uranium abroad for enrichment.

"Iran would halt its enrichment process for the Tehran research reactor any time it receives the necessary fuel for it," Salehi said.

The UN plan was drawn up in early October in a meeting in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers - the UK, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany - and later refined at a meeting in Vienna.

The Vienna talks came up with a draft proposal that would take 70 per cent of Iran's low-enriched uranium to reduce its stockpile of material that could be enriched to a higher level, and possibly be used to make nuclear weapons.

That uranium would be returned about a year later as refined fuel rods, which can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material.

Ahmadinejad had last week appeared to support the deal in an interview on state television, but on Sunday he blamed the West for the stalemate over the deal.

Hamas leader holds talks in Moscow

Following heavy international pressure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to the U.S. proposal to hold talks with Israel - in the format of indirect negotiations conducted by U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell.

Senior Palestinian sources confirmed Sunday that Abbas has agreed in principle to the U.S. proposal for indirect talks. According to the same sources, Abbas intends to ask for a number of clarifications with the U.S. administration and will consult with Arab leaders prior to giving Washington his final response.

Abbas is inclined to respond positively to the American proposal, as a refusal would shed negative light on the Palestinian position.

Senior Israeli officials noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the talks will begin in late February and will result in the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The proposal relayed to Israel and the Palestinians during Mitchell's last visit to the region, about two weeks ago, involved the indirect negotiations beginning with American mediation. The format will be similar to the indirect talks Israel held with Syria in Turkey, with Mitchell relaying messages to the negotiating teams sitting in separate rooms.

Major step backward

The start of the indirect negotiations will mark the first time the Palestinians will hold political exchanges with Israel since Netanyahu became prime minister a year ago. However, it is a major step backward in terms of the contacts between Israel and the Palestinians, as it marks the first time in 16 years that talks held between the two will not be direct.

The talks will initially be held at low levels, in an effort to map out the two sides' positions and establish an agenda of topics to be discussed if the talks are upgraded into full-fledged political negotiations.

It remains unclear how exactly the indirect talks will be held and whether they will take place in Jerusalem or Washington. Heading the Palestinian team will be Saeb Erekat, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiations team. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Molcho will likely lead the team, along with Brigadier General Mike Herzog, adviser to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and possibly National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.

Abbas returned last week from a trip to Europe, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The two European leaders, who had coordinated their stance with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, relayed a clear message to Abbas: that they expected him to resume negotiations with Israel as soon as possible.

During a meeting with visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in Ramallah last week, Abbas said he would soon announce his agreement to the U.S. proposal to resume political talks with Israel, but added that these will only be indirect talks.

Senior sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau noted that Netanyahu had received similar messages from Europe and Washington, even if no official Palestinian response was forthcoming.

The prime minister stressed to the U.S. administration that the indirect talks be limited in terms of length of time, not exceeding two to three weeks.

"I want to reach direct talks with the Palestinians," Netanyahu said during his meeting with Moratinos last week. "I have no problem with proximity talks or indirect negotiations. I look at this as a ladder that will enable the Palestinians to climb down from the tree, and as a corridor that will lead to high-level talks."