By John Ballard
Is it my imagination or have the major news outlets been skimming past some of the most conspicuous events of the last several days? I'm seeing more air time devoted to local and national weather, traffic accidents and puffed-up "human interest" stories than the Syrian massacres, riots in London or an outpouring of frustration in Israel.
Are they waiting for footage of blood in the streets? (There is plenty coming out of Syria, by the way, but I guess it's not suitable for the dinner hour. Shades of Vietnam! We've had war in the background so long it's not much of a story any more...)
Here are a few links that may shine some light on what's happening there.
One of the most impressive aspects of the J14 movement is how quickly it is snowballing, drawing more and more groups and communities into a torrent of discontent. Pouring out into the streets is everything that Israelis, of all national identities, creeds and most classes complained about for years: The climbing rents, the rising prices on fuel, the parenting costs, the free-fall in the quality of public education, the overworked, unsustainable healthcare system, the complete and utter detachment of most politicians, on most levels, from most of the nation.
All this has been obfuscated for decades by the conflict, by a perpetual state of emergency; one of the benefits from leaving the occupation outside the protests, for now, was to neutralise the entire discourse of militarist fear-mongering. Contrary to what Dahlia and Joseph wrote last week, the government so far utterly failed to convince the people military needs must come before social justice; Iran has largely vanished from the news pages, and attempts to scare Israelis with references to a possible escalation with Lebanon or the Palestinian are relegated to third, fourth and fifth places in the headlines, with the texts often written in a sarcastic tone rarely employed in Israeli media on �serious� military matters.
Over the past week, though, the Palestinians themselves have begun gaining presence in the protests; not as an external threat or exclusively as monolithic victims of a monolithic Israel, but as a part and parcel of the protest movement, with their demands to rectify injustices unique to the Palestinians organically integrating with demands made by the protests on behalf of all Israelis.
Largely shielded from the European and American financial crises, the Israeli economy has been growing at an astonishing rate over the past five years: 4.7 per cent in 2010 alone. But the wealth isn�t evenly distributed: most Israelis living inside the 1967 borders struggle to make ends meet because of the high cost of living and relatively high taxes, which are largely spent on security and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Last month, a group of Tel Aviv residents in their twenties set up camp in the centre of Rothschild Boulevard to protest against housing costs in the city. They didn�t have a serious plan for political change, but the protest tapped into nationwide discontent. Within a few days, hundreds more people had joined them. The momentum spread quickly through the country, with camps appearing everywhere from Eilat on the Red Sea to Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border.
On Saturday, 250,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv and 10,000 marched to the prime minister�s residence in Jerusalem, demanding �social justice�. Netanyahu, the main target of the demonstrators� placards, was quick to paint the protests as a misdirected reincarnation of the �radical left�. But this stale tactic didn�t stop an overwhelming majority of Israelis supporting the protests. According to recent opinion polls, 87 per cent see the demands for economic reform as legitimate
The protest as a whole will soon be forced to confront the question of the occupation. Last week the military announced that it will initiate a massive call up of reserves ahead of the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood in September. Most of the protesters, young men and woman with reserve duty obligations, will have to decide whether to increase the pressure on the government by refusing to serve, or abandon their protest without having made any concrete gains. At the moment, the latter course seems more likely.
?The Controversy Over Israel's Business Elite
By David Wainer and Calev Ben-David
With a few business owners controlling a huge part of the economy, cries for reform are getting louder
Israel's economy is widely seen as a high-tech success story. Yet to many Israelis the real players in their economy are not programmers or venture capitalists. Rather, they are the 20 or so Israeli families who control banks, supermarkets, telecoms, real estate, gas stations, and utilities�businesses that underpin much of daily life.
Advocates of reform cite several examples of the tycoons' behavior as evidence they must be curbed. When Israeli importers wanted to buy cement from Turkey to compete with Nochi Dankner's Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises, then-Trade Minister Ehud Olmert levied duties of almost $6 a ton on the imports, claiming that otherwise the cement would be dumped at rock-bottom prices. That decision ensured that Nesher would keep its 90 percent control of the industry. The government says it reached an agreement with Turkey to drop the duty on those producers who agreed not to dump.
According to a July report from the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, a think tank, units of the Ofers' Israel Corp. get a major chunk of the government grants and tax breaks earmarked for manufacturers and exporters�which in turn makes Israel Corp., and by extension the Ofer family, even more powerful. The report recommends that the government abolish the grants, since its authors say the grants bestow unfair advantages on the largest holding groups. A spokesman for Israel Corp. says the company has acted in accordance with the law.
What also endangers the economy, say critics, is the families' control of many financial institutions. "Influential businessmen such as Nochi Dankner, through Clal Insurance, or Shari Arison, through Bank Hapoalim, can gain clout in other industries by the sheer influence they exercise with their large holdings in the relatively small financial industry," says Miki Rosenthal, a documentary maker whose film on the Ofer family's influence on the government was screened on television only after a legal battle with the family.
On the flip side, an oligarch's woes can turn into Israel's woes. Lev Leviev, a wealthy diamond merchant and developer, borrowed about $2 billion from financial institutions in Israel to acquire property from Russia to Manhattan, including the old New York Times building. Last year he dragged the entire Tel Aviv Stock Exchange down 2.3 percent when he told investors he couldn't pay off the debt on time. Investors feared a default by his Africa Israel Investments would damage every major institutional investor in Israel and eventually hurt the economy. Although Africa Israel restructured its debt and the market has recouped its losses, regulators are still concerned by the damage that one large group can inflict on the rest of the economy.
One more thing about the tycoons disturbs Israelis. It's called hon v'shilton, literally translated as capital and government, an expression Israelis use to describe the rich's influence on government. The top families have been accused by government watchdogs of dishing out well-paid private sector jobs to government officials who eventually end up dealing with their ex-colleagues in the ministries. Nir Gilad, the former accountant general at the Finance Ministry, now works for the Ofer family as chief executive officer of Israel Corp. and as a board member of other Ofer-controlled companies. Arie Mientkavich, who in the 1990s served as chairman of the board of the Israel Securities Authority, the Israeli equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission, joined Dankner's company Elron as chairman in January 2007. Yoram Turbowicz, chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, works for Isaac Tshuva as chairman of Delek Energy Systems. "These tycoons hold more power than the government," Shelly Yacimovich, a member of the Labor party known for her populist outbursts, said at a conference in Tel Aviv in July. "We urgently need to act."
Okay, I cheated. Thais last Bloomberg link came from another source. But that's not important. What is important is the common denominators lacing together economic problems world-wide. In America we see what happens when corporations get treated like persons (although I'm still waiting to see a corporation serving prison time -- seems like they always have enough money to escape with a fine or penalty. Just another journal entry for the bean-counters and legal team to handle...) In Israel the culprits may be actual people, but the dynamic is the same.
Where have we seen this before? Or maybe I should ask, will we ever see anything else?