Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Making an offer we can't accept

Meetings of peace activists from Israel, Palestine and Jordan have been recently organized by former prime minister, Abdulsalam Majali. The meetings have been labeled as being simple “call for peace”. However, a number of reports suggest the there are talks about establishing a confederation between Jordan and Palestine, as a way of breaking the impasse in the peace process. According to Jamil Nimri, the idea is to make an agreement without implementing it before Palestinian independence. However, such an agreement prior independence would make the concept of independence mute.

King Hussein decided to disengage from the unity with the West Bank in 1988, after dragging his feet on the issue since 1974, when the Arab leaders, under PLO pressure decided that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. The Palestinians wanted to be able to exercise their national identity without Jordanian hegemony. Since then, the PLO signed the Oslo peace agreement and Jordan signed a peace agreement with the Israelis. The Oslo deal has not gone as hoped, and the situation in the Palestinian lands is going down hill.

The official Jordanian position, stated by the king numerous times, is that no unity agreement with the Palestinians can be contemplated before they set up the independent state. Talk about setting up a confederation before a Palestinian state is established is in direct contradiction with the official Jordanian stand.

Most people were never impressed by Majali’s negotiating abilities, and believe that Jordan was shortchanged with regard to water rights and financial compensation in the agreement with Israel. The mere initiation of the idea by Jordan is a sign of weakness. In this article, a pro Israeli analyst suggests that Jordan is doomed if such a deal is not implemented. Talk about starting off badly. The other parties should be begging us to accept such a deal, rather than us peddling it. Another example of Majali’s negotiating prowess.

Majali defends the peace deal with Israel. The most important aspect, according to him, is that Israel through the agreement has given up on the idea of considering Jordan an alternative homeland to the Palestinian people. Since this is the biggest achievement, why would Jordan want to jeopardize it? What does unity with the Palestinians without Palestine mean? Is it not opening the door for creating an alternative homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan?

Of course, right wing Israeli politicians would love such a development. Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu has said that such a unity would “enhance the peace process”. Specifically, he wants the Jordanian military to ensure security in Palestinian “cities and streets”. In essence, he wants us to do the dirty work in exchange for sovereignty of “cities and streets”. Israeli settlement behavior over the last decades has proven that Israel is not interested in relinquishing control over the West Bank, and thus the idea that there is any willingness to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state or even to withdraw in favor of Jordanian sovereignty is simply misguided.

Given the dire security and economic situation in Palestine, nobody can blame the Palestinians for wanting to break out of the situation they are in. However, I doubt that the consensus needed for smooth transition of power can be brokered. In effect we are being asked to get involved in a Palestinian civil war, which would more likely than not spill over to Jordan if we become a party to it. If the Palestinians want to change their ambitions from establishing a state into becoming citizens of an established state, it is more reasonable to demand that Israel incorporate the land and people into it. They can then build whatever settlements they want in their own territory, and the Palestinians would become full citizens in their ancestral homeland.

In reality, Jordan has nothing to gain from trying to incorporate the Palestinian cities in the West Bank into a confederation. These areas are poor in resources, and rebuilding their infrastructure would cost a fortune. Moreover, the Palestinians are an angry and wounded people. Jordan would become the focus of their anger rather than where this anger truly belongs. Promises of massive financial aid and compensation ring hollow to most everybody, as little was seen by anybody of this aid after the peace treaty in 1994. In short, such a deal requires us to bear the cost of Palestinian turmoil without any obvious advantages. While some columnists have taken upon themselves defending Majali’s vision, most observers firmly reject the idea. The king is right in rejecting any talk of unity before the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Disi project (yet again)

I attended a talk by Abdulkarim Gharaibeh a while back. In it, he reminisced about a meeting he had with the prime minister in 1985. At the time, the prime minister told Gharaibeh and other attendees that the government had two top priorities: exploiting the oil shale in Jordan and pumping water from the Disi aquifer to Amman. At this point, the audience roared with laughter, as 22 years later, the government is still saying the same things.

Last year, the government offered a tender to do the project. Back then, I said that the government was buying time. Sure enough, it is time to announce who won the contract. The government is dallying, and the PM now is suggesting that it will be too expensive. Fahd Khitan (Al Arab Al Yawm) suggests that people with vested interests (powerful people) are fighting against implementation of the project. While this may be a factor, most likely is that the project is too expensive. Can’t they just say it?

I know. They should offer another tender. Surely that government would have changed by the time a new decision has to be made.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Another example of IAF duplicity (as if more evidence was needed)

Last week, Al Rai published a little article saying that IAF secretary general, Zaki Bani Irshaid, met with staff of the National Democratic Institute. He reportedly asked them to help the IAF in the upcoming elections through training courses. He also asked the NDI staff to keep the meeting secret “for fear of affecting the party’s image”

The IAF reacted furiously, issuing a statement attacking the article, calling it “a method by their opponents for abandoning rational national debate and sinking it to low and sleazy levels”. They also suggested that the government is spying on them. They implied that the meeting was to explain the IAF rejection of unjust American policy. No mention of helping with the elections. Later, Bani Irshaid claimed that the meeting was kept secret at a request by the NDI. He also said, as in the statement, that the IAF has no problem with meeting non-governmental groups.

Now, this would carry some credibility if not for the fact that the Islamists are constantly attacking other people who cooperate with non governmental organizations. One commentator on Ammon referred to this article published in the IAF mouthpiece, Al Sabeel. In it, the NDI specifically is attacked, with the newspaper claiming that it has links with the CIA and that it is a tool of US foreign policy.



Friday, May 18, 2007

Losing our faculties

Recently, the Zarqa Private University fired a group of 14 faculty members, including the deputy president to the IAF, Irhail Gharaibeh. The university says the move was made due to “restructuring”.

Actually, the restructuring started a couple of years ago, when a non-Islamist investor purchased control of the majority stake in the university, which had until then been controlled by the Islamists. This change in management meant change in the philosophy of the institution. Another reason why the university may have done this was to lower staff costs.

The main question, to me, is whether universities are similar to massage parlors, grocery stores or gas stations. Can institutions of higher learning be managed as any business? How can intellectual freedom, debate and research be fostered in a climate where faculty members can be dismissed at will? Gharaibeh asks these questions himself today. It goes without saying that ZPU was not exactly a hotbed of challenging debate and free thinking before the change in management.

But the question remains, and goes to the heart of what we perceive the function of a university to be. Do we want diploma mills?

Of course, public universities suffer from the opposite problem. The promotion and tenure system there allow for a lot of dead wood in their teaching staff, and it is impossible to fire even the most demonstrably incompetent and lazy faculty members. Universities have faculty members who have been in their service for over twenty years without obtaining tenure. Tenure decisions usually are made in five or six years in most universities in the west. Even when reaching the top academic rank of professor, many faculty members choose to sit back and do nothing. No supervision of graduate students, no grants and no research or publications. What can be done about them? Under current legislation, practically nothing.

So, we hang between two extremes, with private sector greed and abuse, and public sector mismanagement and complacency. Maybe the candidates to become university presidents might like to debate how to resolve this issue.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

University presidents

The last few weeks have been busy on the university front. It started when a new fracas broke out at Yarmouk University, followed by a visit by the king to the University of Jordan, where he met with the presidents of the public universities in the country. The king told the presidents to prepare a five year plan for the upgrading of their institutions. He also emphasized the need to prevent student violence.

After having treated previous student violence through trivializing the issue, the presidents found that this violence is actually a serious matter. It seems, however, that this new found sincerity is too late.

The buzz is now that a wholesale change in the presidents of the universities is in the cards. Many would agree that change is needed at this stage. However, it should be noted that the current mess has its roots in a similar endeavor three years ago. At the time of prime minister Faisal Fayez, the minister of higher education decided to fire seven university presidents at once. Previously, changes in university administrations had been done on a case-by-case basis. Experience has shown that most of the presidents fired three years ago were much more capable than the ones who replaced them. Three years ago, no question would have ever been raised about the credibility of Jordanian university degrees. Now, such questions are in fact on the table.

Choosing a university president is not an easy task. In the west, the process takes months of deliberations, advertising for candidates, studying CV’s, listening to presentations, conducting interviews, discussing plans until the final decision is made. Note that this is for only one president.

In Jordan, the process is opaque. Certain names with links to certain politicians have an inside track. No CV’s will be examined, no visions presented, and probably no examination that will ascertain that the candidate knows English (which is a requirement to get accepted into a masters’ program, but not a requirement to be a university president).

So now, we are listening to rumors, which change hourly. Soon we will have the new names, and how they managed to get themselves chosen. If we are lucky, the process will produce a group of illustrious academicians with proven track records who can lead the universities towards distinction. Unfortunately, repeating the same experiment of three years ago will most probably yield the same results. I am not optimistic.