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BURAK BEKDİL > The Arab-Persian exchange rate

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When Prime Minister Shimon Peres released 1,150 Arab prisoners in 1985 in exchange for three Israeli soldiers that had been captured by the Palestinian Militant Front of Ahmad Jibril in the famous Jibril deal, the exchange rate on the Arab-Israeli prisoner market was: One Israeli soldier for 383.3 jihadist prisoners. In 2011, with the release of Gilat Shalid, the exchange rate moved sharply to: One Israeli soldier for 1,027 jihadist prisoners, making the Arab-Israeli asymmetry even starker.

Like financial markets, the human exchange market in the Middle East creates its own equilibria by the forces of supply and demand. Most recently, the market produced an Arab-Persian exchange rate that naturally produced a Persian-Israeli exchange rate.

Last week, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus and the Sunni jihadists (known euphemistically as “freedom fighters” or the “real Syrian people”) fighting al-Assad reportedly finalized a massive prisoner swap, with the Syrian government releasing 2,130 mostly Syrian captives in exchange for 48 Iranians who had been seized by the jihadists. Of course, there is the usual Middle Eastern touch of mystery here as regards to who’s who in the picture.

According to the official Syrian (and Iranian) account, the Syrian prisoners are terrorists and the Iranian hostages are merely Shia pilgrims passing through Syrian lands. According to the Syrian opposition, the captives are freedom fighters and the pilgrims are Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Again, as is usually accurate in Middle Eastern affairs, the truth is somewhere in the huge massive plateau that lies between the two accounts. Anyone with an elementary knowledge about the Middle East would bet his money on the possibility that not all Syrian prisoners were terrorists and not all Iranian pilgrims were just pilgrims.

But market players are rarely interested in how an exchange rate has appeared. For them, what matters most is what their screen tells them the rate is. Last week’s prisoner swap created a new exchange rate in the market: One Iranian pilgrim (I cannot hide my smile while typing the word ‘pilgrim’) for 44.4 Syrian freedom fighters (and I cannot hide my smile either when typing the words ‘freedom fighters’). To put it more realistically, we can reformulate the new exchange rate as: One Iranian Revolutionary Guard for 44.4 Sunni jihadists.

That simple computation gives us a new exchange rate not yet traded on the market: One Israeli soldier for 23.1 Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Of course, one can always prefer market euphemism and put the rate as one Israeli soldier for 23.1 Iranian pilgrims. None of the chosen wording will change the rates on the market: X = 1,027Y, Z = 44.4Y, therefore X= 23.1Z.

Juts like the introductory theories in economics, scarcity vs. abundance of a commodity may explain the market rates here, since in the whole world there are, roughly speaking, 15 units of X, 80 units of Z and 400 units of Y. If we are talking from a strictly market point of view, the supply side of the picture would explain the exchange rates, but enough with this bad metaphor.

We are talking about human lives, not currencies. Why, for God’s sake, do we have this market of human lives functioning precisely like a currency market functions? Why do we trade human lives like we trade shekels and riyals? And why do the central banks keep on printing human banknotes knowing they would become “junknotes” in heaven? Why are some central banks fully dedicated to the protection of their national currencies while others think they can rule the world by printing billions of junk currencies into junk?

We all know the answers and I will not give up reminding everyone again and again that it is because “they love death more than we love life.”

Is anyone still curious why, according to various polls, over 80 percent of Palestinians prefer Israel’s annihilation to any peace deal, including a two-state solution?

January/16/2013

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