Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences

In my 30+ years of educational administration I saw firsthand how the law of unintended consequences works. People make decisions without fully comprehending all the ramifications. As a result, actions taken to solve one problem lead to more serious problems that were totally unforeseen and unexpected...but that become obvious in hindsight.

So what does this have to do with the Middle East? Simply this. Could the current riots in the Middle East have been caused, in part, by our attempt to become less dependent on Middle East oil? Let me explain. In 2007 the price of oil began a two-year rise that took it from $45 a barrel to $147 a barrel. One reaction to the rise in oil prices was a rush toward biofuels. President Bush and Congress committed to slashing fossil fuel consumption 20% by 2017, in part by generating 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels. America jumped on the biofuel bandwagon, and within two years 25% of all U.S. grain crops were being used to produce ethanol.

Now comes the law of unintended consequences.

The diversion of grain to ethanol resulted in a grain shortage...and a corresponding spike in grain prices. This shortage has been further compounded by weather problems in grain producing countries like Russia, Australia, and the United States over the past few years which reduced the total harvest. Grain production dropped while an ever-higher percentage of the grain that was harvested was used to produce ethanol. And the result has been rising food prices.

We see the impact on our grocery bill as a minor irritation. But for those living in poverty in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran, or Syria these rising prices make life's basic necessities unaffordable.

And that leads to riots!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why Now?

One question has troubled me about the current unrest roiling the Middle East. Why now? Why did the current crisis erupt at this time? The answers being given by the media seem to be a mixture of a spontaneous desire for democracy coupled with rampant unemployment. While both are probably part of the equation, I suspect there are other factors as well. And one of these might be the rise in commodity prices--especially food.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported on a United States Department of Agriculture forecast that global wheat use will exceed production by 19.4 million tons. Similar deficits were also forecast for corn and soybeans. Other commodities, like sugar and cotton, have doubled in price over the past year. And during the last 12 months serious food price increases (and in some cases, food shortages) were reported in Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

Is a global food shortage on the way? And if so, what impact will it have on the countries of the Middle East? I think this is something we need to watch more closely in the coming months.

Freedom...or Firestorm?

Will the current events unfolding in Egypt lead to democracy...or to even greater repression? Right now it's hard to tell, but I'm concerned about the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the uprising. One real danger is that the current situation could by hijacked by this group and used to promote their vision of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state.

While those in the West compare the current events in the Middle East to the fall of the Iron Curtain, I see parallels to the fall of the Shah of Iran and his replacement by an Islamic republic. The revolution in Iran brought repression, not democracy, and it produced a country that has become one of the leading exporters of terrorism worldwide.

Pray for our government leaders and ask God to help them make wise decisions in how they respond the situation. And pray for the believers (national and foreign) in Egypt and in the other troubled areas. Ask God to keep them safe, and ask Him to help them be effective witnesses for Him in a very dark and chaotic time.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Situation in Egypt

Two weeks ago on The Land and the Book we discussed the riots in Tunisia and the impact it could have on the rest of the Middle East. We said several other countries were vulnerable to similar protests, and Egypt was near the top of the list. The events of the past few days show how fragile Mubarak's control over Egypt really is.

Events in Egypt are front-age news, but most of that news seems to be anecdotal. The videos of rioters, police, burning cars, and swirling clouds of teargas make for compelling viewing, but they don't really help us understand whether the government is going to survive or fall. Outside of high-level government agencies, such hard analysis is difficult to obtain.

And that's why I have come to appreciate the work of Stratfor Global Intelligence. They provide as helpful an analysis of these type of situation one can find. While most of their research is only available to subscribers, they do sometimes make their work available to the general public. And they have done this in their most recent Red Alert on the situation in Egypt.

The report is short, time critical...and worth reading!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hysteria and Archaeology

Israel National News
has reported on the restoration of a 2,000-year-old drainage tunnel in Jerusalem. Anywhere else this would be a fascinating piece of historical and archaeological trivia, but in Jerusalem it becomes an international incident.

The drainage tunnel dates back to the time of the Second Temple, and the tunnel extends from just south of the Temple Mount down the Central Valley toward the Pool of Siloam. Part of the tunnel is now open to the public. I actually had an opportunity to walk through a small part of the tunnel while it was still being excavated, and it was amazing.

These excavations shed light on Josephus' description of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70. Josephus wrote that some Jews tried to hide underground but that the Romans broke up the ground to find and kill them (Wars 6.9.4). No doubt this drainage tunnel was one of the underground spots where these Jewish refugees tried to hide, and in places the stone blocks covering the tunnel had been pried up, confirming the thoroughness of the Roman search for survivors. This archaeological dig helps bring that tragic period of history to light.

Sadly, the archaeological significance of the dig might be overshadowed by hysteria spawned by politics. Charges have already been raised that the dig is threatening the Al Aqsa Mosque. Egypt's Ahram Online captures the hysteria in its caption for the story: "Israel's Aqsa mosque dig-project complete."

But does the project threaten the Al Aqsa mosque? Look carefully at the Google Earth photo I've included with this post. I have labeled the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall, and the Davidson Archaeological Center (which is where the northern end of the tunnel is located). I've also traced the approximate route the tunnel takes on its 600-meter journey down the Central Valley toward the Pool of Siloam. Note that the excavations do not extend under the Temple Mount, nor to they threaten the Al Aqsa mosque.

Watch for stories about this discovery in your local news. And if they report the excavations threaten Islamic holy sites, please write or call them to point out their error. Reports containing such false statements can lead others to believe such statements are true...when they are not.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Palileaks--The Palestinian Papers

Al-Jazeera obtained 1,600 documents from the past 11 years of Palestinian/Israeli negotiations. They joined with the Guardian newspaper to verify and then publish the documents, producing in effect a Palestinian version of Wikileaks.

The documents paint an interesting picture of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They show a Palestinian leadership willing to give up far more than they had ever publicly indicated in order to obtain a Palestinian state, including:
--A willingness to agree to land swaps with Israel that would allow Israel to keep most major settlements.
--A willingness to give up control of much (but not all) of East Jerusalem, and to seek a compromise on control of the Temple Mount.
--A willingness to give up the right of return for millions of Palestinians, accepting instead a token return of about 10,000 Palestinians.

The parties had still not reached a common understanding on these issues, but the documents show the gaps were narrowing. So why were these documents released now, and what impact could it have on any future negotiations?

First, the documents are incredibly embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority leadership. The papers show the leadership was willing to give up far more than they were saying publicly to the Palestinian people. It's possible these revelations will result in the collapse of the current government. It certainly makes their hold on power in the West Bank more tenuous. Were the documents leaked now for this very reason? It's hard to tell.

Second, the documents will probably kill any serious negotiations, at least in the near term. Much like the fallout from the Wikileak documents, politicians will be less likely to engage in serious discussions of issues, and to offer possible compromises, if the discussions have the potential of ending up as front page news.

Third, the documents show that any serious attempt to solve the Israel/Palestinian issue will ultimately need to acknowledge that (a) final borders will not match those of 1967, (b) the right of return to Israel will not be granted to all Palestinians, and (c) most major Jewish settlements will become part of Israel with some type of land swap as compensation.

Fourth, the real issue to watch now is how the Palestinian people respond to these revelations. The expectation is that there will be an angry rejection of the compromises made by the PA leaders. If so, there will be no movement toward an agreement. However, perhaps the shock of realizing the kind of compromises required to reach an agreement will produce more realistic expectations for what any future Palestinian state will need to look like. But I'm not optimistic.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Settlements and Boundaries

A draft resolution is circulating in the UN Security Council that would condemn Israel for continuing construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And a group of former U.S. diplomats is urging President Obama not to veto the resolution. The draft resolution, as now written, states that "Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."

On the surface the resolution might not seem ominous, but if the U.S. joins with others in condemning Israel, it will be the first time our country will have allowed such a resolution to go through the Security Council. Israel would indeed be standing alone against the rest of the world.

To me the resolution is hypocritical, since settlement construction is not a major obstacle to lasting peace. Let me explain why I believe this is so.

Since 2000 virtually everyone has recognized that the "1967 borders" will not be the final borders of any future Palestinian state. Such borders are not required by UN Resolution 242, passed after the Six-Day War. And the different peace proposals floated over the past decade have recognized that the final borders will be altered slightly, allowing Israel to incorporate a number of the settlements into its final boundaries and providing borders that are more secure.

But aren't the sheer number of settlements being built creating a major barrier to peace? That is, isn't Israel creating a greater problem by continuing to build throughout the West Bank--making it even more difficult to define final borders? A new study by The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy would suggest that the answer is no. The report, "Imagining the Border: Options for Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Territorial Issue," suggests the settlement problem is not the issue many are making it out to be. Annexing just 4.73% of the pre-1967 West Bank would allow Israel to incorporate 80% of these settlers into the country without forcing them to relocate. And by ceding a comparable amount of land to the Palestinians, Israel could provide opportunity for Palestinian expansion in the crowded Gaza Strip and as well as in other areas of the West Bank. The study provides specific maps detailing three different options that could be the basis for such a settlement.

So instead of pushing to condemn Israel for expanding settlements that will almost certainly become part of Israel anyway, wouldn't it be more sensible for the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations to resolve these final boundary issues? Sadly, in the Middle East decisions don't always follow common sense.

If you want to be better informed on what's possible, I urge you to follow the link above and download the report. You will be impressed by its common-sense approach to the issue of establishing boundaries that could be acceptable to both sides. Other issue wold still remain, but this report represents the kind of approach the Palestinians and Israelis ought to be taking to resolving these issues. Let's hope the UN resolution fails and that negotiations again become an option.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Troubles in the Sea of Galilee

In Deuteronomy 11 Moses stressed the importance of rain for the land of Israel. "The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt...where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven" (11:10-11).

Israel is still dependent on rain, and the past 10 years have seen a prolonged drought in the country. How serious is it? A recent report in the Jerusalem Post highlights the impact of the drought on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea has fallen to its lowest average level since the 1920s. As a result, the fish population in the lake has dropped by 90% over the last decade. Some scientists are raising the specter of the Sea of Galilee becoming a "fish-free lake" if the drop in the water level continues.

Israel has always been dependent on rain, and God said He would send that rain if His people were faithful. "So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul—then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil" (11:13-14). A drought in the land was a sign the people had strayed from God.

Could the current drought be God's way of calling His people back to Himself? It certainly was in the past.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Israel, even baptism can be controversial

When we think of baptismal controversy, things like infant baptism vs believer baptism or sprinkling vs immersion come to mind. But in Israel, the simple act of opening a religious baptismal site causes political controversy.

An article in Ynetnews focused on the clash between Israel's Vice Prime Minister and Tourism Minister over plans to officially open a baptismal site just east of Jericho. But the clash isn't over the opening a Christian baptismal site. Both want it open to tourists. Rather, they are arguing over whether simply to open the site or to have a public ceremony to open it.

Sounds like a petty dispute, but it's actually a very serious subject. Since the baptismal site is in land captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, it is disputed territory. The Tourism Minister is worried that holding a public ceremony will cause an international controversy and damage relations between Israel and the very churches it wants to attract to the site. The Vice Prime Minister (who is also Minister for Regional Development) believes the site will benefit the area, and he wants to use the official opening ceremony to help promote it.

The amazing part to me is that the site is already open to tourists. And, perhaps even more importantly, I'm not sure I would want to conduct a baptism least not one that might involve immersion. By the time the Jordan River reaches this area it is not very clean.

Our groups might stop at the site to take pictures, but we'll still go to Yardenit--just below the Sea of Galilee--to do out baptisms!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

World's oldest winery

Today's Jerusalem Post carried an article on the discovery of the world's oldest winery. It is said to date back 6,000 years and was discovered in Armenia, which is located just to the east of modern-day Turkey.

So why is this important?

First, Armenia near Mount Ararat, which is where the ark landed after the flood. Second, the Bible's internal chronological markers places the flood about 6,000 years ago. In reading the Jerusalem Post story I was reminded of what happened to Noah following the flood. "Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk" (Gen. 9:20-21a).

This is not Noah's winery...but it is a good reminder that archaeological discoveries can help illuminate the Bible!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The vulture that was(n't) a spy

Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

Over the past few days a story has surfaced in the Middle East that is truly bizarre. It seems that officials in Saudi Arabia have "arrested" a vulture for being a spy for Israel. My favorite headline was the one from the BBC--"Saudi Arabia 'detains' Israeli vulture for spying."

The vulture was captured in Saudi Arabia, and authorities discovered a GPS transmitter along with a tag bearing the name "Tel Aviv University." Those who discovered the bird turned it over to security forces, and conspiracy theories soon began circulating in the Saudi media describing how Israel was using these high-flying birds to spy on its Arab neighbors.

Officials from the Tel Aviv University have offered a much simpler explanation. The bird was tagged and released back into the wild to monitor its migratory patterns. Much like wildlife here in the United States, Israel was tracking the bird's migration to look for ways to help protect the species. The GPS device tracked the bird's flight; it wasn't capable of spying.

Over the past two months Israel has been accused of training snakes, sharks, and now vultures for nefarious purposes. Arutz 7 offered an interesting explanation as to how such stories could be accepted as fact. "The incidents may reflect a growing irrational hysteria among Arabs surrounding Israel's military prowess and the efficacy of its intelligence services, possibly fueled by the Stuxnet virus' success."

Still, it's a funny story...except perhaps to are the vulture who is now under arrest!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The price of gasoline in Israel

Americans are again clenching their jaws and gritting their teeth as they pull into their local service station. Fuel prices are edging back up to $3 a gallon, and some are predicting the price could eventually reach as high as $5 a gallon over the next year or so.

We are all feeling the hit to our pocketbook, but let me put the price we pay for fuel in perspective. Israel just raised its price for gasoline by 6.5%. In Israel the price for self-serve is now 7.14 NIS (New Israeli Shekel) per liter.

I see those blank looks on your faces!

As Americans we think of gasoline in terms of gallons, not liters. And few know the exchange rate between the shekel and the dollar. So let me translate the cost someone in Israel pays for fuel into something more familiar to us. It takes 3.78541 liters to make one gallon. And one shekel is worth $.28.

Bottom line: Drivers in Israel are today paying $2 per liter--or $7.57 per gallon--every time they pull up to the pump! Yikes!

It almost makes $3-a-gallon gasoline seem like a bargain! Almost!