Weekly Briefing

Israel: friends again

"I think he's willing to take risks for peace," said Barack Obama of his Israeli counterpart, Binyamin Netanyahu. The two leaders met the day after Israel confirmed that it would allow more consumer goods - although it remains unclear exactly what or how much - into the Gaza Strip.

Obama himself seemed rather risk-averse. The public friendliness of the meeting was in stark contrast to a meeting in March, when Obama refused to hold a press conference with Netanyahu and left him to eat dinner alone at the White House. But the conversation didn't touch on issues such as the continued Israeli construction projects in East Jerusalem, which had caused the frostiness between the countries in the first place.

China: economy slows

"Pretty horrific" is how Dariusz Kowalczyk, a China economist for Crédit Agricole in Hong Kong, describes the recent activity on the country's stock exchange. The Shanghai composite index has lost 32 per cent of its value since August, the lowest it has fallen since April 2009.

In fact, this is probably good news for China: the country's economy is still growing, but the frantic, unsustainable pace it had reached is expected to slow to a still-impressive 8 or 9 per cent by the end of the year. By that time, China's economy is likely to have surpassed Japan's to become the second largest in the world.

But while China's premier, Wen Jiabao, seems relaxed about the "expected direction" of his country's economy, there are fears that China's more leisurely pace may drag the world's other, less stable economies further down.

Somalia: extremists

In Somalia, independence day comes on the first, not the fourth, of July, and this year is the 50th since British and Italian colonists shipped out. But most of Somalia wasn't celebrating. Hizbul Islam, one of the Islamist groups that control almost all of the country, had warned that festivities would incur violence. Amid heavy fighting between insurgents and the transitional government, most people avoided the risk.

On 5 July, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed appealed for military and financial aid for the country. He said that Somalia "is in the hands of al-Qaeda and extremist groups", and outlined his ultimate fear: that the country will soon implode altogether.

US: women's rights

After years of discussions, the UN finally has an agency focusing on women's rights. And just in time, too: the deadline for the organisation's Millennium Development Goals is in five years' time, and the progress on goals such as reducing maternal mortality is lagging.

UN Women will bring together the four existing agencies that work for women, with the aim of creating a more influential body to deal with policies and promoting and monitoring international agreements.The new agency is expected to get its first director in September, but she is unlikely to be European or North American - a figure that embodies western feminist values is not expected to get a particularly warm welcome in many countries. Instead, Chile's former president Michelle Bachelet is the current hot tip.

Belgium: dust to dust

"Some Belgians find the idea of being dissolved and partly flushed away disturbing," reports Der Spiegel. The Flemish Association of Undertakers is seeking permission to dispose of the deceased by using caustic potash solution to turn corpses into mineral ash and liquid. The ashes could be buried or scattered in the traditional way but the European Commission is also checking whether the liquid could be flushed into the sewage system.

The process, argues the association, is energy-efficient and, unlike cremation, produces no CO2 emissions. The public and the media have countered with the incisive argument that the whole idea is a bit creepy.