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Israel’s secret weapon

  Published July 2, 2022

IS it some international conspiracy — or perhaps a secret weapon — that allows Israel to lord over the Mid­­dle East? How did a country of nine million — between one-half and one-third of Karachi’s population — manage to subdue 400m Arabs? A country bui­lt on stolen land and the ruins of destroyed Pal­estinian villages is visibly chuckling away as every Arab government, egged on by the khadim-i-haramain sharifain, lines up to recognise it. Economically fragile Pakistan is being lured into following suit. 

Read: 'Great change' — Israeli president says received delegation of Pakistani expats

Conspiracy theorists have long imagined Israel as America’s overgrown watchdog, beefed up and armed to protect American interests in the Middle East. But only a fool can believe that today. Every American president, senator and congressman shamefacedly admits it’s the Israeli tail that wags the American dog. Academics who chide Israel’s annexation policies are labelled anti-Semitic, moving targets without a future. The Israeli-US nexus is there for all to see but, contrary to what is usually thought, it exists for benefiting Israel not America.

It was not always this way. European Jews fleeing Hitler were far less welcome than Muslims are in today’s America. That Jewish refugees posed a serious threat to national security was argued by government officials in the State Department to the FBI as well as president Franklin Roosevelt himself. One of my scientific heroes, Richard Feynman, was rejected in 1935 by Columbia University for being Jewish. Fortunately, MIT accepted him. 

What changed outsiders into insiders was a secret weapon. That weapon was brain power. Regarded as the primary natural resource by Jews inside and outside Israel it is an obsession for parents who, spoon by spoon, zealously ladle knowledge into their children. The state too knows its responsibility: Israel has more museums and libraries per capita than any other country. Children born to Ashkenazi parents are assumed as prime state assets who will start a business, discover some important scientific truth, invent some gadget, create a work of art, or write a book.

Brain power makes teeny-tiny Israel a technological giant before which every Arab country must bow.

In secular Israel, a student’s verbal, mathematical, and scientific aptitude sets his chances of success. By the 10th grade of the secular bagut[?] system, smarter students will be learning calculus and differential equations together with probability, trigonometry and theorem proving. Looking at some past exam papers available on the internet, I wondered how Pakistani university professors with PhDs would fare in Israeli level-5 school exams. Would our national scientific heroes manage a pass? Unsurprisingly, by the time they reach university, Israeli students have bettered their American counterparts academically.

There is a definite historical context to seeking this excellence. For thousands of years, European anti-Semitism made it impossible for Jews to own land or farms, forcing them to seek livelihoods in trading, finance, medicine, science and mathematics. To compete, parents actively tutored their children in these skills. In the 1880s, Zionism’s founders placed their faith solidly in education born out of secular Renaissance and Enlightenment thought. 

But if this is the story of secular Israel, there is also a different Israel with a different story. Ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews were once a tiny minority in Israel’s mostly secular society. But their high birth rate has made them grow to about 10 per cent of the population. Recognisable by their distinctive dress and manners, the Haredim are literally those who “tremble before God”. 

For Haredis, secularism and secular education are anathema. Like Pakistan, Israel too has a single national curriculum with a hefty chunk earmarked for nation-building (read, indoctrination). In the Israeli context, the ideological part seeks to justify dispossession of the Palestinian population. Expectedly, the ‘Jewish madressah’ system accepts this part but rejects the secular part ie that designed to create the modern mind. 

The difference in achievement levels between regular and Haredi schools is widening. While all schools teach Hebrew (the holy language), secular schools stress mastery over English while ‘madressahs’ emphasise Hebrew. According to a Jerusalem Post article, Haredi schools (as well as Arab-Israeli schools) are poor performers with learning outcomes beneath nine of the 10 Muslim countries that participated in the most recent PISA exam. A report says 50pc of Israel’s students are getting a ‘third-world education’. 

The drop in overall standards is causing smarter Israelis to lose sleep. They fear that, as happened in Beirut, over time a less fertile, more educated elite sector of society will be overrun by a more fertile, less-educated religious population. When that happens, Israel will lose its historical advantage. Ironically, Jewish identity created Israel but Jewish orthodoxy is spearheading Israel’s decline. 

There is only one Muslim country that Israel truly fears — Iran. Although its oil resources are modest, its human resources are considerable. 

The revolution of 1979 diminished the quality of Iranian education and caused many of Iran’s best professors to flee. But unlike Afghanistan’s mullahs, the mullahs of Iran were smart enough to keep education going. Although coexistence is uncomfortable, science and religion are mostly allowed to go their own separate ways. Therefore, in spite of suffocating embargos, Iran continues to achieve in nuclear, space, heavy engineering, biotechnology, and the theoretical sciences. Israel trembles.

Read: Raisi threatens to target heart of Israel if it acts against Iran

Spurred by their bitter animosity towards Iran, Arab countries have apparently understood the need of the times and are slowly turning around. Starting this year, religious ideology has been de-emphasised and new subjects are being introduced in Saudi schools. These include digital skills, English for elementary grades, social studies, self-defence and critical thinking. Of course, a change of curriculum means little unless accompanied by a change of outlook. Still, it does look like a beginning.

Israel has shown the effectiveness of its secret weapon; it has also exposed the vulnerability of opponents who don’t have it. There are lessons here for Pakistan and a strong reason to wrest control away from Jamaat-i-Islami ideologues that, from the time of Ziaul Haq onward, have throttled and suffocated our education. The heights were reached under Imran Khan’s Single National Curriculum which yoked ordinary schools to madressahs. But even with Khan’s departure, ideological poisons continue to circulate in the national bloodstream. Until flushed away, Pakistan’s intellectual and material decline will accelerate. 

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2022

Faulty yardstick

  Published July 2, 2022 -

GROSS Domestic Product has been used as the primary yardstick to measure economic growth, income, expenditure and output. It provides a useful overview of the performance and structure of the market economy for the formulation of fiscal and monetary policy. However, as an indicator of national development, GDP focuses only on produced capital and ignores other forms of capital such as human, natural and social capital. In the process, GDP growth is often wrongly equated with national well-being and progress. Poverty, inequality and nature loss in several countries and regions with high GDP rates highlight this fallacy. A rise in GDP does not — on its own — translate into the overall welfare of a society.

The current methodology of GDP is emblematic of a bigger malaise. It encourages the depletion of natural resources at a rate that surpasses the regenerative capacity of the earth. While profiling income, it ignores the impact of production on other determinants of human well-being like clean air or clean water. Secondly, it does not incorporate the contribution of human capital and natural capital (including minerals, water, forests and plants) to human well-being. From a larger perspective, GDP-centred development models do not value nature.

The pursuit of attaining higher GDP at the expense of natural capital remained unnoticed for as long as the demographic pressure on natural resources was manageable. Unfortunately, in the long run, it exacted a heavy toll on the planet. The roots of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, which are undermining efforts for sustainable development, lay beneath the ‘no-limits to growth’ model attached to GDP. As a result, the world has witnessed large-scale ecosystem degradation and increased inequality. Nature’s substantial contribution to the economy remains largely invisible in GDP calculations.

Development models based on GDP do not value nature.

These shortcomings of GDP were not lost on economists and leaders. Robert Kennedy remarked in 1968: “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play”.The European Parliament noted in 2012 that “GDP does not measure environmental sustainability or social integration”, and “stressed the need to develop additional indicators for measuring economic and social progress”. Various alternative models were showcased including the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’.

These efforts were challenged by the lack of broad-based metrics which could measure sustainability and enable countries to monitor progress towards sustainable development comprehensively.

To fill that gap, the United Nations Environment Programme led an initiative to develop an alternate index to the GDP and the Human Development Index. The Inclusive Wealth Index will complement GDP, providing a holistic assessment of produced capital or GDP, human capital and the natural capital of countries. According to UNEP’s environmental economist, Pushpam Kumar, IWI is “capable of measuring not only traditional stocks of wealth but also those less tangible and unseen — such as educational levels, skill sets, healthcare, as well as environmental assets and the functioning of key ecosystem services that form the backbone of human well-being and ultimately set the parameters for sustainable development”. 

UNEP’s Inclusive Wealth Report 2018 showed that out of the 140 countries tracked, 44 suffered a decline in inclusive wealth per capita since 1992, though GDP per capita increased in most. The report indicates that in a combined assessment of produced capital, natural capital and human capital, the growth rate of inclusive wealth is much slower than GDP growth rate. Pakistan’s report (1992-2019) provides an insight into the country’s share of natural capital and encourages policymaking through inclusive wealth estimations.

In a related development in March 2021, the UN Statistical Commission adopted the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting — Economic Accounting, a statistical framework which will enable countries to measure their natural capital and understand the immense contributions of nature to human prosperity.

The UN is moving the needle in the direction of developing a global consensus to go beyond GDP. Last month, at an international meeting in Stockholm, the UN secretary general urged the world to place “true value on the environment and go beyond Gross Domestic Product as a measure of human progress and well-being. Let us not forget that when we destroy a forest, we are creating GDP. When we overfish, we are creating GDP. GDP is not a way to measure richness in the present situation in the world”. 

As a serious planetary crisis risks our survival, we must value nature and protect the ecosystem which supports life on earth. It is time to stop considering mindless environmental destruction as economic progress. It is time to go beyond GDP. 

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2022

Attainability of Indo-Pacific strategy

South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific is enormously significant for all stakeholders

Ahmer ShahzadJuly 02, 2022

“In the past two decades, the United States has been forced to retreat from strategy based on Primacy and Dominance to one of Deterrence.” This was first time admitted in 2018 National Defence Strategy. Succeeding review in 2022 complements this realisation, stating China as ‘most consequential strategic competitor’ or No 1 threat. This strategic shift emerged from wargames run on propagated conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific, in that, most of the simulated scenarios favoured China decisively taking over Taiwan before the US military could factor in.

Indo-Pacific is an important ingredient of ‘China Containment’ scheme. China’s pacing economy is mainly dependent upon oil supplies through the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea in this region. Choking 80% of imported crude oil (239 million metric tons annually) from the Middle East and Africa and 39% of China’s total trade at these bottlenecks can stall its roaring economy, thus impacting its ambitions. 

South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific is enormously significant for all stakeholders. An estimated $3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes through it annually, accounting for a third of global maritime trade. Its seabed is estimated to hold 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. According to US Geological Survey, there could be another 160 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 12 billion barrels of oil undiscovered. The region holds 15% of the world’s fisheries.

Energy and biodiversity-rich South China Sea has been reverberating with territorial disputes involving China, Japan and other South East Asian states since 1970s. China has an uncompromising sovereign claim on large swath of the sea marked by what is called nine-dash-line. China’s claims are contested by Pacific countries and the US that encircle Spratly and Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal, and are related to fishing rights, exploration of oil, natural gas, and strategic control of shipping lanes. 

As China grows in power projection and economic influence, territorial disputes have pushed Asia-Pacific states towards the US for combined security, though Beijing is bilaterally settling oil exploration or fishing rights disputes in the region. China has bolstered diplomatic and economic engagements with Pacific Islands (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia), and has become a major player in the region, troublesome for US military presence over these islands. 

The US political and economic engagement with ASEAN, Pacific Islands, Australia and India preceding ‘Asia-Pivot’ is pretexted on Free & Open Indo-Pacific and security to South East Asian countries amidst territorial disputes. The US has $940 billion FDI and $1.9 trillion mutual trade in the region. A huge portion of US military in the shape of largest air force of the world and sizeable Pacific fleet is deployed under the US Indo-Pacific Command in a number of South East Asian countries, Japan, Australia and Pacific Island states, which help host nations in capabilities buildup. On Taiwan’s defence, the US does not have a formal security commitment, but deals through 1979 Taiwan Relations Act require provision of defensive capabilities to Taiwan only. American posturing towards Taiwan’s defence remains strategically ambiguous. 

To militarily limit China in the Indo-Pacific, the US has fomented regional alliances. Trilateral security pact AUKUS (Australia, UK, and US) would help Australia in nuclear-powered submarines acquisition and military capability enhancements. QUAD (US, India, Australia and Japan) purposed to hedge China’s influence in the region as evident from frequent joint naval curriculum being exercised for two years. 

India, for her large naval force, has been assigned ‘Net Security Provider’ role from West Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, a move to contain China, equally detrimental to maritime security of South Asian states, including Pakistan. To support this, Andaman and Nicobar Tri-Service Command has been set up in the South. Indo-US Strategic defence relationship was formalised in 1995. In 2005, ‘New Framework for India-US Defense’ was signed warranting military engagements, defence technology sharing, and establishment of framework on maritime security cooperation. Same was renewed for 10 years in 2015 with ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’.

In response, China has fielded world’s largest navy that has recently commissioned advanced aircraft carrier Fujian, capable of rivaling US Nimitz class. Also, China has consolidated A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) capability through anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile variants capable of killing aircraft carriers and onshore military installations in the Asia-Pacific. This would certainly inhibit the US in contesting China in her immediate area (Taiwan) and impact US deployments in South East Asian countries and the Pacific Islands. China’s test of nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August 2021 establishes China’s superiority in this regime. 

Militarily, the US is not envisaged to confront China with power parity in the Indo-Pacific, and the economic interdependency. Not the military power alone, China is propelled high because of economic growth poised to place her economy on top by 2028. The China-US trade last year surged by 28.7% to $755.6 billion, and China’s low cost commodities form lifeline of US consumer market. Thriving economy affords China in investing in regional economies and integrating those through BRI, to which CPEC is also a part. Strategically, BRI helps China diversify energy supply and trade routes amidst South China Sea imperatives. 

On Indo-Pacific, the nastiest miscalculation remains India militarily confronting China. Not militarily credible to contain China – evident from the Galwan Valley crisis and aerial skirmishes with Pakistan in 2019 – India has a track record of letting the US down as also witnessed in case of Russian oil import amidst global sanctions. Against the US desire, India would not sacrifice dividends of intertwined economies. The fact that CPEC affords China an opening to Indian Ocean affords India a deceitful narrative of US encirclement by Pakistan and China, and Pakistan being hostile to US interests.

In this part of the Indo-Pacific strategy hinging upon India, while the US is unable to contain China, it would certainly nurture India as regional hegemon soaked in Hindutva blend of radicalism, which is detrimental to the existence of minorities domestically as well as peace and stability in South Asia – exactly what the US ended upon accomplishing earlier. Interestingly, the US would continue to pursue this despite realising its outcome, until postmortems of failures detail losses incurred by affected nations and the US itself, like what happened in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the last two decades.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2022.

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