Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Gaza Seven

It's hardly the most important issue in the region, but this business of the Gaza Seven is really the sort of thing where a bit of effort on everyone's part should push the Bush administration to push Israel to let those students use the fellowships they have earned:
"The American State Department has withdrawn all Fulbright grants to Palestinian students in Gaza hoping to pursue advanced degrees at American institutions this fall because Israel has not granted them permission to leave.

"Israel has isolated this coastal strip, which is run by the militant group Hamas. Given that policy, the United States Consulate in Jerusalem said the grant money had been “redirected” to students elsewhere out of concern that it would go to waste if the Palestinian students were forced to remain in Gaza.

"A letter was sent by e-mail to the students on Thursday telling them of the cancellation. Abdulrahman Abdullah, 30, who had been hoping to study for an M.B.A. at one of several American universities on his Fulbright, was in shock when he read it."

Israel's stance toward these students under its authority is indefensible, and the apparent American acquiesence cowardly.

UPDATE: The scholarships have been reinstated. On the American end of things, this sounds like it was bureaucracies on automatic creating a problem rather than conscious decision-making.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Water for Peace

This is interesting:
"On May 29 Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan publicly denied newspaper reports that Ankara had offered water to Syria in return for engaging in indirect peace negotiations with Israel (CNNTurk, May 30)...

"At least some of the speculation, however, appears to be coming out of Israel rather than domestic opposition parties inside Turkey. On May 26 the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran a report quoting Alon Li’el, the former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, as claiming that in the event of a comprehensive peace settlement, Syria would be prepared to allow Israel to continue to use water from the Golan Heights in return for Turkish water...

"'Only recently, the Syrians officially told the Turks that they are prepared to let Israel continue to use the water sources on the Golan Heights after a withdrawal on condition that the Turks compensate them with water supplies and assistance in setting up desalination plants,' Ma’ariv quoted Li’el as saying. 'I visited Turkey a few weeks ago, and I know from my talks with senior officials there that the subject is on the agenda. In question would be a significant increase in Turkey's water supply to Syria and a Turkish readiness to sell us a large quantity of water as well' (Ma’ariv, May 26).

"There has even been speculation that Turkey could revive its plans for a 'Peace Canal.' When they were first discussed in early 1990s, the plans envisaged the transportation of Turkish water to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the territory currently administered by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and perhaps even Saudi Arabia (Ma’ariv, May 26). More recently, in 2004, Turkey and Israel signed an agreement under which Israel would import 50 million cubic meters of water per year from Turkey for a period of 20 years. Implementation of the agreement was indefinitely postponed in 2006, however, not least because it would be cheaper for Israel simply to build more desalination plants (see EDM, April 4).

"Regardless of whether Li’el’s claims are true, there is no doubt that Syria is eager to receive more water from Turkey, particularly from the Euphrates, which rises in Anatolia before flowing through Syria and Iraq. Under an agreement signed in 1987, Turkey guarantees a water flow of 500 cubic meters a second to Syria. However, Damascus has long argued that it needs more water in order to support its growing population."

Turkey, however, is facing a water shortage of its own.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Minimum Wage

Is concern over this the real reason for this? See here for some suspicious history.

The style of this post is based on this person.

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Olmert Falling

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might actually be falling from power this time, as Tzipi Livni says Kadima should get ready for early elections just a day after Ehud Barak threatened to quit the coalition if Olmert continues to lead it. Although Kadima, Labor, and the Pensioners would all be devastated by new elections, Shas would hold steady, and they can bring down the coalition by themselves. Of the non-Arab parties, only Meretz would have an interest in propping it up, and they don't have the numbers.

Kadima led by Livni might still come out on top, and would have enhanced credibility, though far less room to manuever on peace process issues. Likud, however, is probably still the favorite, and would spell the end of real negotiations now just like they did in the late 1990's. Daniel Levy notes that Morris Talansky, the key witness against Olmert, may be motivated by opposition to his former associate's new politics. Al-Jazeera reported earlier that these charges were pushed by people from the rightest group that was around Olmert in is days as mayor.

I do think, however, that Levy gives Olmert too much credit for his stands on peace negotiations. For one thing, I've still never been fully convinced by Olmert's line that he wasn't negotiating with Syria due to pressure from the Bush administration. It's certainly possible that negotiating now is just an attempt to make him a hero on the left, as his critics claim. As for his statements about Israel not being able to hold the Occupied Territories, I'm not sure many even in Likud think Israel can hold onto all the West Bank in perpetuity, and read his tenure as prime minister in the context of Israel coming over time to accept the need for a Palestinian state, a sharp leftward shift over the past 15-20 years that will probably continue regardless of what any individual prime minister says or does.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bangladeshis Banned

Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior has stopped issuing work visas to Bangladeshis. The reason is that guest workers of that nationality have been involved in crimes against Bahrainis, and despite the protests of human rights organizations, I suspect national prejudice is running high. This may also be an excuse to dump workers from democratic nations, something regular readers know I've been concerned about.

UPDATE: See also Mahmood al-Yousif


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Standard Model

Turkmenistan continues to develop into a more standard dictatorship than the bizarro model it suffered under in the time of the late Saparmurat Niyazov:
"Turkmenistan is planning rare amendments to its constitution that signal the leadership's desire to present at least a veneer of change in Central Asia's most isolated country.

"A constitutional commission will draft the changes at the request of the State Commission for Constitutional Reforms, which is headed by President Gurbanguly Burdymukhammedov.

"Expected amendments include lengthening the presidential term and otherwise enhancing the already-powerful presidency, as well as scrapping a rubberstamp superlegislature known as the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in favor of a more transparent but long-marginalized parliament, the Mejlis.

"The overhaul could make Turkmenistan's political landscape less inscrutable for the country's 5 million residents and foreigners alike, but most observers are likely to withhold judgment until the particulars are in place."


Women's Only Mosques

Some women in Egypt are not seeking segregated mosques:
"Theologians and secularists in Egypt are up in arms over a request from women to have their own mosques.

"The clergy was quick to dismiss the demand as a fad but secularists warned against turning down the proposal, saying it would strengthen the hand of religious leaders in matters of the state.

"An official at the Egyptian Ministry of Waqf (Religious Endowments) said women's groups have sought a licence for female-only mosques. 'We are studying the legality from the Islamic perspective,' said Abdul Gafar Helal, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.

"But theologians are firm in their opposition. 'There is no evidence in Islamic history that shows mosques were designated for women,' said Mustafa Al Shaka, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, an arm of Al Azhar."

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Saudi Labor Policy

Gulf News reports that Saudi Arabia is going to start penalizing employers that mistreat guest workers:
"In a major move to curb the mistreatment of foreign workers by their sponsors, the Saudi authorities have taken a landmark decision to take punitive measures against errant employers.

"The National Recruitment Committee at the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry decided on Sunday to furnish the Ministry of Labour with a detailed list of Saudi sponsors who have mistreated their workers.

"Sa'ad Al Badah, chairman of the committee, told reporters that the initiative was the result of a lack of cooperation on the part of some employers regarding furnishing recruitment offices with clarifications sought by the committees."

I have no idea if this is significant or just a slap on the wrist. The whole situation does, however, highlight the selectiveness of what the country's religious establishment chooses to focus on. Do the religious police ever interest themselves in this issue? I'm pretty sure Islam has a lot to say about the matter.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Best Books, 2007-08

For those interested in things to read, here is my annual list of the best books I've read for the first time this past year.

Literary Fiction

The Brothers Karamazov (Feodor Dostoyevsky)

The best book I read last academic year was Dostoyevsky's masterpiece, a literary argument for the path of all-encompassing love and humility cast amidst a vision of redemptive suffering in a corrupt world searching for answers. Its hundreds of pages move quickly through sharp character portrayals, family conflict, romantic entanglements, and crime and courtroom drama. Who was responsible for the death of Fyodor Karamazov? To some extent, each of his sons, including the saintly Alyosha, bears some of the blame, though only one committed the murder and another stands trial.

The Lover (A.B. Yehoshua)

This may be the Great Israeli Novel. Most non-Israelis will read it as a means of trying to understand Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict from a literary perspective. Yehoshua, however, shows the personal depths of the divisions within Israeli society, as few of his characters actually know each other. At the same time, he points toward reaching out and forming personal connection as a means of healing the individuals who come from the different social and cultural blocs. Even if the setting in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War is particular, the author's vision makes this a work of timeless import.

Shahnama (Hakim Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi)

You don't need to appreciate archaic literary forms to enjoy Iran's national epic. Characters, for example, are much more developed than in Homer, and heavenly powers are much more removed from the action. It is not a single story, but rather a weaving together of tales of Iran's mythical origins to the fall of the Sasanians, tales which have entertained generations and inspired countless works of art and adaptations from the time it was written right up to the present. Here you can read about the the blacksmith Kaveh's revolt against the dragon king Zohak, the heroic exploits of Rustam and his tragic duel with his son Sohrab, the invention of chess and its introduction into Iran, and the love story of Khusrau and Shirin, among many others.

Love in Exile (Bahaa Taher)

Bahaa Taher is one of the greatest living Arabic writers. This book, about a committed Nasserist effectively exiled to Europe and his struggles to deal with his own personal feelings and the tumultuous world around him. In addition to the theme which provides its title, this novel works as an interesting tour of many contemporary issues, from the rise of Islamism to the world of well-meaning NGO's and whether or not they actually do the good they intend.

Emma (Jane Austen)

Austen once wrote that she didn't think people would like this works title character and heroine, but perhaps because times have definitely changed since then, I liked her. Emma Woodhouse is a prideful but well-meaning young woman, capable of both irrational jealousy and soul-searching repentance. She needs to start a charity or, perhaps, in modern terms, go work for a well-meaning NGO. Her plans don't always work, and the fact the reader figures out where things are headed well before she does adds a comic element, but in the end she falls in love with the right man, as Austen heroines are wont to do, and we wish her well.

Popular Fiction

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)

In this most anticipated book of the year, J.K. Rowling showed off her story-telling genius not only by telling a great tale that provides a satisfying conclusion to her series, but going in a direction few, if any, expected. I understand the debate about the final scene, but that should not detract from just what Rowling accomplished here, with the excitement and suspense racheted up to new levels and the exploration of new mysteries both deeply personal for the characters and unanticipated for everyone.


Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories (Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar)

My time in Jerusalem brought home to me just how insidious Israel's West Bank settlements are, and how obsctructive they are to achieving a lasting peace. This work compiles the story little known in the United States, and even among many Israelis, of how a movement of committed religious fanatics have appealed to Israeli fears and nationalist nostalgia to advance their agenda of ensuring that Israel one day extends from the river to the sea, and how the State of Israel continues to support them even against its official policies. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lebanon's Doha Deal

Qatar has successfully brokered a deal to end the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. Two important elements are the election of Michel Suleiman as a compromise presidential candidate and the allotment of just over one-third of the Cabinet to the Hizbullah-led opposition. The latter will allow them to veto government decisions, such as the one to dismantle Hizbullah's phone network which was the spark for the recent spike in unrest. It will also play into future discussions of possibly disarming Hizbullah. Over at Joshua Landis's site, Qifa Nabki notes that there will also be changes to Beirut electoral districts, though I don't know anything more about that.

Most of the commentary I've read focuses on the international implications of this agreement. Yes, Hizbullah will have enhanced influence, which also subtly increases the reach of its Syrian and Iranian allies. (Did anticipation of a deal like this persuade Israel to open the Syrian negotiating track?) Hizbullah's most important supporters, however, are not foreign powers, but Lebanese Shi'ites who are disenfranchised under Lebanon's electoral system. Now, through Hizbullah, they will have enhanced power at the national level, though still not quite up to their weight in the population. As far as I can see, this deal won't create lasting peace because nothing can create lasting peace except for foreign domination or a complete overhaul of Lebanon's political system, which is both fed by and helps deepen jealousies among Lebanon's primary religious groups which are effectively forced to compete for influence and resources as blocks.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I have just accepted a one-year position as Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. This is a great institution and a great opportunity I'm looking forward to taking advantage of.


The Syrian Track

Today, Israel and Syria confirmed their plans to begin indirect negotiations under Turkish auspices. I suspect the success of these negotiations rests primarily on the survival of Olmert's government and his ability to hold together some sort of coalition. This could be easier, as the Golan lacks the religious significance of the West Bank, despite its strategic importance. I also think Israel really is committed to both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks, as Olmert's ambitions extend to his place in history, and one of his goals as articulated in the 2006 elections was to set Israel's final borders.

One thing that went unmentioned in the article is the Swiss track that was begun under Ariel Sharon and aborted in 2006, perhaps under American pressure. The key innovation in the non-paper produced by those discussion was the Golan "Peace Park" under Syrian sovereignty but open to both countries. Such ideas almost have to play a role in the negotiations announced today.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Yemen's Divisions

Jamestown Foundation reports on north-south tensions in Yemen:
"Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the socialist south, known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was faced with a failed economy and little external support. It had also never recovered from a brutal internecine war of its own during the 1980s. So it turned toward the north, and unification with the Yemen Arab Republic.

"Speeches of brotherhood were given; promises were made. But the speeches never translated into reality, as Saleh squeezed out southern politicians and attempted to make the south part of his extended patronage network. Eventually, in 1994, civil war broke out. Saleh used his superior army and, more importantly, veterans of the Afghan jihad to crush the godless south. Aden, which had been an open and secular city—where mini-skirts were far more popular than the hijab—fell under the harsh rule of victorious jihadis. It would be an exaggeration to say that Shari’a had been implemented, but the typical southern way of life had been disrupted [1].

"Beside the difficulties of the new way of life, the south chafed in other ways. Its economy never improved and many blamed the north for lack of interest in helping out its rival. The influence of the jihadis was felt. Though it seems insignificant, the destruction of the city brewery marked a dramatic change of daily rhythm, and the buildings became cold and gray concrete hulks. More strikingly, terrorism began to hit the south, with both the al-Qaeda variety and homegrown groups such as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army influenced by returning jihadis."


Monday, May 19, 2008

Kuwait's Elections

Kuwait's new parliament will not be friendly toward economic reforms:
"In Saturday's vote, tribal MPs took 23 seats in the assembly, hard-line Islamists won 11 seats, liberals took 11 seats, and Shiite candidates won five seats...

"Islamist and tribal MPs have traditionally rejected government proposals for economic reform, preferring instead to perpetuate a cradle-to-grave welfare system. For example, in the last parliament, tribal and Islamist MPs supported a proposal to forgive Kuwaiti citizens personal debt estimated at more than 4.6 billion dinars (about $17 billion). The government balked at the plan but later agreed to set up a fund to help debt-ridden Kuwaitis, many of whom face jail terms when they default on loans...

"The oil-rich country's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah dissolved parliament in March, the second time in two years, after a series of political crises in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' (OPEC) fourth-largest oil producer. Since the June 2006 elections, four cabinets have resigned, several ministers have been reshuffled or have resigned in order to avoid questioning by parliament or face a vote of no confidence."

(I reordered these paragraphs to make for smoother reading.)


Wednesday, May 14, 2008


My dissertation is now defended and deposited, and all forms have been filled out and fees paid. I will say that for the first time, I understand how some people can insist on always using their Ph.D. title, as it feels like an accomplishment and it's rather cool to hear and know it's actually true. This will presumably pass in a week or two.

I'm also guaranteed employment for next year. I should be able to say more early next week.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

More Olmert

I can't find its Arabic equivalent, but the al-Jazeera story attributing to Israeli government sources the information that Olmert may temporarily suspend himself is here. It doesn't seem any different that some of the anonymous speculation found in the Israeli media itself, except for the claim that the allegations against Olmert were originally pushed by right-wing allies from his days as mayor now dismayed over the peace process. The Associated Press, has more information about Morris Talansky:
"Talansky, a former trustee of Yeshiva University who has made charitable donations to a variety of Jewish charities, is CEO of Global Resources Group, a financial investment firm that he operates out of his multimillion-dollar Long Island mansion.

"Talansky is also the U.S. contact for the New Jerusalem Foundation, an organization founded by Olmert while he was Jerusalem's mayor. It took some heat in 1999 when it raised $4.5 million before it registered as a nonprofit organization and opened its books to the public.

"Its stated goal is to support educational, cultural, social welfare and beautification projects throughout Jerusalem."


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Olmert's Woes

Over the past few days, Israel has suddenly become awash with rumors that the end may be near for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. At issue are allegations that he accepted bribes from American businessman Morris Talansky during his days as Jerusalem mayor. Israel is under a tight gag order that even Reuters is forced to follow, so we rely on the New York Post to explain this development that could end what remains of the Annapolis peace process. Of course, it's not actually clear to me why this might force Olmert out when nothing else has.

Olmert's coalition is actually at least temporarily down to 64 after three MK's left the Pensioners to form a new Social Justice party linked to Russian billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak. However, they are interested in joining the coalition. Gaydamak has previously been rumored to have his sights on becoming Jerusalem's mayor himself, and even toyed with making a supermarket chain he acquired kosher to appeal to the city's religious voters.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Cultural Comparisons

Arabist links to a New York Times article with this ridiculous, if predictable, conclusion:
"Clearly, this is a debate of importance not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims as well, and for a Westerner listening in, the best way to understand it may be to translate it into the language of European history. Irshad Manji sees herself as moving Islam into the 16th century; Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants to move it into the 18th. It’s as if Luther and Voltaire were living at the same time."

Comparisons like this are horrid even as a teaching tool. That cultures can't be compared with each other in this way has been known since Franz Boas.

Has "The West" developed its Confucius yet, by any chance?



One reason blogging is slow is that I leave Israel May 10 and defend my dissertation May 12. While my work has been defensible for some time, I still feel compelled to keep at it, not only because it's less work I'll have to do later, but because I know a few people in the field are actually interested in reading my dissertation, and I want to make sure it's as useful as possible.

It was thus with personal interest that I followed this link to David Sirota's comments on pre-publication anxiety. The marketplace isn't a factor, but as the one who probably knows the most about the subject, I see the flaws in my own work, and expect others will find flaws from their own perspectives. Because I've put so much work into it, telling myself that it's a dissertation and not a book seems like a cop-out.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Professional Statement

If any prospective employers are reading this, know that if hired, I promise not to sue my students for disagreeing with me.