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Israel-UAE: Last Days of the Old Middle East

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By Gwynne Dyer

The ‘two-state solution’ is still dead. The deal to open diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced by Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, opens no new vistas for a ‘just peace’ between the Israelis and the Arabs. It just repackages the existing reality.

There wasn’t any possibility of an independent Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories before last week, and there still isn’t now. There was only a very small chance that Netanyahu would annex the occupied territories to Israel before the Israeli-UAE deal was announced (although he talked about it a lot), and there’s even less chance of it now.

No real change on the international front either. Israel and the Arab countries are already at peace, with the partial exceptions of Syria and Lebanon, although few people in the region would call it a ‘just peace’. And the UAE has already been doing business quietly with Israel on everything from trade to defence planning (against Iran) for years.

Egypt and Jordan have had formal diplomatic relations with Israel for decades, and the other Gulf states will soon follow the UAE’s example, perhaps with Saudi Arabia bringing up the rear. The Palestinians, mostly living under Israeli occupation, understandably complain that they are being abandoned by their Arab brothers, but that really happened long ago.

So what actually changed last Thursday? Very little, although Donald Trump naturally tweeted that it was a “HUGE breakthrough” and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner promised that the deal would bring “massive change” and “make the Middle East safer.”

Rubbish. The last Arab-Israeli war was 47 years ago, and it’s been decades since either side even had serious plans for one. The only plausible risk of a major cross-border in the Middle East these days is between Iran on one side and the Arab Gulf states (with or without Israel) on the other.

That’s not really a big risk either, but the Arab Gulf states in particular worry aloud about it, and to some extent they have convinced themselves that it truly is a threat. They hope that they would have Israel’s support in such a war, since in military terms Israel is the region’s dwarf superpower.

Netanyahu’s government hates and says it fears Iran, so it probably would help the Arabs in the end. However, it would be a much more convincing deterrent to Iran if these putative Arab and Israeli allies were actually seen together in public occasionally. That’s the main reason for the Gulf states to go beyond the furtive relationship they have hitherto had with Israel.

What’s in it for Netanyahu? A peace treaty with another Arab state is a feather in the cap of any Israeli prime minister, but this deal also neatly gets him out of the promise he made to right-wing Israeli voters in the last election to annex much or all of the occupied territories.

Annexation would be purely symbolic, since Israel has already ruled all that land for the past 53 years, but he still needed an excuse to renege on his promise. The UAE deal is the perfect excuse: he can say he had to cancel annexing the Palestinian territories because Israel’s new partners in the Gulf would be so upset that they’d walk away from the deal.

Netanyahu insists that annexation is only postponed, assuring Israelis that it is “still on the table.” Donald Trump says “they agreed not to do it. This is a very smart concession by Israel. It is off the table now.” ‘Long-term’ for both of them is reckoned in months, so they have no idea how irrelevant all this diplomatic fine-tuning will seem in retrospect.

The old Middle East is living through its final years. Across the Arab world every power relationship has been defined by oil wealth for the past two generations, and now the wealth is fading fast. Eight years ago the Arab oil-producing states were making a trillion dollars a year from their exports. Today their oil revenue is down by two-thirds ($300 billion), and it will fall further.

The coronavirus has accelerated this decline, but demand and prices have both been trending down for quite a while, and the growing unpopularity of fossil fuels in a rapidly warming world guarantees there will be no reversal of the trend.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE still have large reserves of cash, but some of the smaller oil-states are running out of money right now. Economic devastation will be followed by political collapse: even the map of the Middle East may look quite different in ten or twenty years’ time.

And who will emerge from the wreckage as the sole big powers of the Middle East? Only the two countries with fully modern and diversified economies and little dependence on oil revenues: Israel and Turkey.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

 

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Disturbing Sinharaja’s natural  balance: a layperson’s viewpoint

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by Gnana Moonesinghe

This is written as a tribute to my friend Dr Upen de Zylva who passed away a few days ago and who throughout his life had an abiding interest in nature – in all things related to flora and fauna. He was greatly disturbed by the human invasion into the natural habitat of heritage sites such as the Sinharaja forest reserve.

There have lately been several references to elephant attacks and those of other wild animals such as packs of wild fox on villagers as well as the unpredictable climate changes   making life difficult in the rural countryside. In long gone times, though within the recall of older people,  nature played out her course unhampered by human interference.  

The recent revival of interest  in  eco balance  in  Sri Lanka arose as a consequence of the government’s move to construct a  road through the Sinharaja  Forest Reserve. Back in 2013 the then Government began to construct a road inside the protected area. This was short lived consequent to legal action by the Centre for Environmental and Nature Protection.  However, in August 2020 the project was recommenced by the newly installed government and the construction assigned to the military.   Environmentalists and lay people  are greatly disturbed by this project which entails the movement of heavy machinery and the felling of trees within the Reserve for construction of the road which would both disturb the environment.  

The unique position of the Sinharaja is that UNESCO  has declared it to be the ‘last viable primary rain forest’ here while it is also referred to as the ‘icon of biodiversity conservation’ in Sri Lanka. The Sinharaja forest is located in the south west in the district of Sabaragamuwa and the Southern Province. Around 60% of the trees found here are endemic and many of them are considered rare. Many species of wildlife is endemic to this place. It gains its unique position among forest reserves as it is home to over half of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies and many kinds of insects, reptiles and amphibians. Many endangered and rare species are found here including leopard, Indian elephant, endemic purple faced langur, wood pigeon, green billed coucal, SL white headed starling, SL blue magpie, ash headed baller and SL’s broad  billed roller.

It is essential that encroachment of the forest for cultivation like tea plantations, settlements and disturbance to the environment due to road construction should not be permitted because it will affect its unique situation as a forest reserve. Does not this Reserve require protection from the authorities  in order to secure its bio diversity?

At present, the consternation is over the road  construction from Lankagama to Neluwa, expected to be completed in 90 days without ‘harming the environment.’ Is this a realistic expectation? Experts claim that there is no way that this road can be constructed  without disturbing much of the environment in the reserve. That it is necessary to preserve the biodiversity in the reserve for healthy development and for dealing with climate change is a given and beyond question.  The government should consider alternatives  to help those living on the fringe of the reserve without affecting its balance which benefits the entire region as well as the rest of the world. Is it possible or feasible to seek alternatives to support the villages already in the Reserve?

These issues are raised not on a confrontational note but to elicit information on what is considered a matter of great concern to the mass of people living in this country (and planet) for reasons I hope have been convincingly presented above. May the Right to Information Act be invoked to the maximum to elicit information on this invasive action that is popularly considered  a disturbance to the peace of the Reserve.  

We expect no less than a frank response from this popularly elected government which will clear the air between the UNESCO authorities and the Lankan government as well as respond to the numerous  rumors that are circulating at the moment.  An urgent response from the Presidential Secretariat is in order.

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National Skills Passport spurs long term skills planning

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– A gateway to find suitable jobs, the newly launched National Skills Passport facilitates easier matching of skills for future employment while promoting Sri Lanka as a skills destination.

By Randima Attygalle

A project between the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Colombo Office, the ‘National Skills Passport’ (NSP) was launched recently. It is a new and a progressive concept introduced locally by means of a smart card (similar to a passport) issued to a skilled person having NVQ (The National Vocational Qualifications) along with at least one year of confirmed related employment experience.

The card is connected to a dedicated online portal (www.nsp.gov.lk ) which links up multiple stakeholders including employees, employers, qualification body and labour market intermediaries by collating the passport holder’s skills, expertise and experience. The NSP is expected to serve a long standing issue of recognition of skilled workmanship with certified experience through a central web-based online database.  The NSP smart card carries a QR code for convenient search online.

Essentially a ‘gateway’ to find suitable jobs, accessing reskilling and upskilling opportunities locally and internationally, NSP is an extension of the NVQ qualification awarded by NAITA, (National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority) says the Director General (Actg.), TVEC, Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations, Janaka Jayalath.

“Those who are already holding NVQ, returning migrants and those who have been serving various industries with no formal paper qualifications can reap benefits of the NSP. Those seeking what is known as the ‘mature candidate route’ (people with ten or more years of work/industry experience without formal qualification) can also access NSP,” explains Jayalath.

While candidates who are already equipped with NVQ, irrespective of the level of NVQ can directly apply for NSP, other categories are required to first obtain NVQ through Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) pathway.

“A candidate can apply to obtain relevant NVQ from a basket of around 500 National Competency Standards (NCS) packages listed in the TVEC website (www.tvec.gov.lk) and we are currently working towards introducing NCS for traditional Sri Lankan industries which do not fall within this basket as means of giving more muscle to the rural economy by recognizing the traditional Sri Lankan skills,” he notes.

A ‘virtual document’ which records the knowledge, skills and attitudes of a worker through the TVEC’s online portal (www.nsp.gov.lk) , the system enables the job seekers to create a comprehensive portfolio of skills and qualifications, along with their references and experience, ensuring compatibility with various skills assessment frameworks. It also serves the purpose of creating an online standard CV which is a more detailed synopsis than a normal resume giving clear, concise and up-to-date information with current employment and educational information.  The CV system in the NSP is benchmarked with the ‘Euro Pass’, an online CV tool for EU countries. The local initiative of the NSP is a trendsetter in the region which we can take pride in.

Recognizing the informally acquired knowledge, skills and competencies, the NSP also becomes a catalyst in helping the retuning migrants to reintegrate themselves to the local work force. The returning migrants, as Jayalath explains, can seek recognition of their prior learning and obtain NVQ through NAITA which is the prerequisite for NSP.

“The NSP is a vehicle to serve the needs of migrant returnee jobseekers such as construction workers, auto-mechanics, beauticians, cooks etc. This initiative will also help attract migrant returnee workers to industries such as construction, which are currently facing a high demand, with inadequate local workers to bridge the gap.”

Other categories of migrant workers such as automobile mechanics who wish to start their own small/micro enterprises can also benefit by NSP as valid proof of their competencies and thereby help obtain bank loans and build credibility among the customers. Self-employed persons in different skill related occupations can prove their qualifications and experience by producing this smart card and employers or the service recipients could verify those competencies through this system.

The NSP also spares the employers of the hassle of searching for a talent pool with certified skills and authenticated experience which in turn saves the time and cost spent on recruitment. Moreover, it unlocks access to workers with international exposure as well. “Employers could eventually identify the up-skilling and re-skilling requirements of an employee which will help career progression and also labour mobility,” says Jayalath who notes that TVEC takes the full responsibility for the candidates registered with them via the NSP.

The initiative also supports the Government’s long-term skills planning for the economy and facilitates easier matching of skills base for future employment creation.  The system also supports to track the employability of the NVQ holders with up-to-date database.   In a move to create awareness at community level on the new initiative, TVEC has galvanized its network of Skills Development Assistants, regional industrial forums and District Coordinating Committees (DCC) at District Secretariats.

The ‘skills passport’ which is a concept proposed by the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC), is an important means to empower all Lankans irrespective of whether they work locally or overseas says the EFC’s Director General, Kanishka Weerasinghe. “The EFC will firmly support state policies implemented through the Ministries of Education and Skills Development and the relevant institutions that function thereunder in order to establish and sustain the National Skills Database. This will finally enable us to promote our country as a skills destination, doing justice to our people and their status as being highly literate and educated. In fact, the ultimate common objective is to ensure that every citizen entering the workforce, at least by 2035, to be certified in their skills and be registered in the database.”

Aside from establishing a reliable means of understanding and addressing the relentless issues relating to dearth of skills, the country could focus on aligning the domestic education policies to create more opportunities in ‘growth industries’ to spur the economy including those which are nationally important such as agriculture, Weerasinghe further says. “It is hoped that certification of skills including the recognition of prior learning will be a boon to workers of all ages, particularly to young job seekers. Similarly, we hope that the ‘mutual recognition’ aspect of the ‘skills passport’ will also enable our people to be recognized in their skills when they seek overseas employment and ensure that they are placed to obtain better status and terms by their overseas employers.”

The EFC’s DG goes on to note that as responsible employers they are mindful of the schemes that link skills to wages, which will also lead to sustainable outcomes for employers such as availability of skilled employees locally and be a solution to issues such as those associated with low productivity. Moreover, standardization of education in terms of NVQ will be a win-win to those aspiring to enter the workforce as well as educational institutions, maintains Weerasinghe.

Remarking that developing people’s skills is a core area of ILOs work, the ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Simrin Singh notes, “Skills Passport is an innovative endeavour to not only develop but to recognize people’s skills. The ILO is delighted to have supported the development of the Skills Passport from the very onset; now fully owned and driven by local employers and government constituents”.

The first-ever National Skills Passport (NSP) programme in the plantations industry was initiated by the Hayleys Plantations Sector, setting a new benchmark for human resource development. Hundred field officers representing Talawakelle Tea Estates (TTEL), Kelani Valley Plantations (KVPL) and Horana Plantations (HPL) were selected for the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) which is the gateway to the NSP.

“When skills development is combined with technology, we are able to create powerful new opportunities. As an organization that has won global acclaim for our efforts to raise the quality of living for our employees, Hayleys Plantations is proud to have been the first to support our employees in joining a digitally empowered workforce and helping innovate new solutions to resolve long-standing challenges in our industry and the national economy as a whole,” Managing Director of Hayleys Plantations, Dr. Roshan Rajadurai says.

Field officers selected for the scheme possess a minimum of one year of experience in the field and are evaluated by NAITA for both theoretical and practical aspects in preliminary and final evaluation rounds. Once the evaluation process is complete, the respective staff member is issued a digital Skills Passport, which is a smart card with a QR code facilitating the convenient search of their skills online. 

“By producing field officers with NVQ qualifications, which is strengthened by them being awarded the first-ever Skills Passports, our innovative training and development drive recognized by several global and HR platforms is given more muscle,” HR and Corporate Sustainability General Manager of Kelani Valley Plantations, Anuruddha Gamage remarks.

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Vesak Sirisara – Buddhist Annual 2564/2020

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The first article in this annual is by Ven Siri Vajiraramaye Nanasiha Thera on ‘Taming the Animal Within’. He cites the Buddha in a sermon directed at a misbehaving monk when he compares unrestrained behaviour in man to six untamed animals and very effectively and succinctly points out that man’s six senses, if allowed to run unchecked, will surely cause untold damage to the man himself and to society in general. One of the strongest senses in a human, akin to animal instincts, is the sexual urge. It is necessary to gratify it for procreation and judiciously, but not by any means in an unrestrained manner. Of the six senses, the most difficult to hold in check is the mental faculty, identified by the Buddha as the forerunner of all good and evil.

K H J Wijedasa’s

‘Buddha Dhamma and Human Health’ is particularly apt in this time of raging infection. The article starts thus: “Even though the fundamental objective of Buddha Dhamma is to proclaim to humanity the way to release from the woes of Samsara, Buddha’s teachings include a multitude of guidelines that enable them to lead their mundane lives….”

Buddha declared “Arogya Parama Labha” and in its context guidelines for the preservation of environmental, physical and mental health were laid down, which are effective even at present. He enunciated ways to good health to those living monastic lives and to lay persons. The writer deals in detail on advice in the Buddha Dhamma on environmental health and physical and mental health of man. He mentions the benefit and power of meditation and ends with Kisa Gotami and how Buddha was a kind and concerned psychiatrist to her.

The other erudite articles you can choose from are:

‘Nature of Arahath’ by Prof N A de S Amaratunge; ‘Living the Dhamma’ by Asoka Jayasinghe; W A S Perera’s exposition of the Dhammachakkappvattana Sutta including a short biography of Kondanna Thera. More pragmatic are: ‘The importance of practicing generosity’ by Ven Ayagama Suseela Thera; ‘Be your own guru’ by Dr Susunage Weerapperuma; ‘The social service concept in Buddhist texts’ by Dr Leel Gunasaekera; and ‘Living the Dhamma’ by Asoka Mahinda Jayasinha. ‘Material phenomena and the mind’ by Dr Mass R Usuf; and ‘Pattica Samuppaada’ by Palitha Manchanayake are more in-depth studies of profound subject areas. Dr Usuf also contributed the concluding poem, which begins and ends with the cryptic:

“I know not …who am I!”

Chandra Wickramasinghe poetically explains the passing away of earthly glory headed by a Latin dictum: ‘Transit Gloria Mundi’ in which he poetically describes a cremation with flowers strewn from above. The inherent message is that all is unsubstantial; all end in death. This poem is somewhat different to most of Chandra’s poems with their allusions to the ancient classics and encapsulation of much into single words and phrases. The language here is simple.

Claudia Weeraperuma deals with Samatha –Tranquility in her poem.

Thus is seen the range of topics dealt with; and the balance of philosophical or esoteric in thought provoking articles along with the practical: translating Buddha’s advice on good lives and living graciously, striving to shorten samsaric existence.

Vesak Sirisara/ Buddhist Annual 2020 is in its 64th year of publication and free distribution, by the Government Services Buddhist Association whose current Editor is Neville Piyadigama; Assistant editor P Weerahandi. It is very commendable that a prestigious journal such as the Vesak Sirisara has continued its publication through the years with invaluable articles on Buddhism, by well known persons. This edition is dedicated to the memory of late Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda Nayake Maha Thera of Malaysia.

The tranquility inducing beautiful cover design in soft shades of beige against a darker background is by Deepal Jayawardena who writes that it is a Ghandara statue of the first century BC; where the head of the Buddha shows Greek influence. The back cover carries a clear picture of the Dewanagala Raja Maha Viharaya in Mawanella.

N P Wanasundera

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