August 15, 2011

Reading the Israel Summer

I am very reluctant, as I have written, to provide any analysis of Israeli domestic politics based on such limited time spent in Israel and an inability to speak Hebrew and thus study the popular and elite discourse.* But if Tom Friedman is going to start writing 842-word newspaper columns explaining each and every popular protest of 2011, I should at least summon the courage to write a blog post on what I was able to observe traveling through Israel last week speaking to everyone from politicians and newspaper editors to the good-natured folks camping out on the Boulevard Rothschild.

Macro-economically, I should start by pointing out, Israel is in a fantastic position. Blessed with strong growth, booming technology and defense industries, and probably the smartest central banker in the world, Israel should be the envy of both its neighbors and most Western countries. Underneath all that, though, a few grievances stand out:

1. There is no consensus on how much Israel should pay to continue to support infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. By one calculation, Israel had spent $79 billion in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 by the mid-1990s and has obviously spent much more since then. Had Israel merely decided to keep a permanent military presence in both territories, by contrast, that would have cost just $10 billion. So a lot of those protesters in Tel Aviv who could care less about Judea and Samaria but care a lot about social services wonder why Israel is spending so much on the former while the latter amounts to less and less despite increasing national wealth. "The people made the state rich, and the state abandoned the people," goes one popular complaint.

2. Israel has poor people. These poor are, predominantly, Arab and Ultra-Orthodox. The former have, in general, limited employment opportunities, while the latter often elect not to work. By one estimate shared with me by an Israeli political scientist, just 36% of Ultra-Orthodox men work. These same men are also far less likely to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. You can see how this annoys people in Tel Aviv who both serve in the military and pay income taxes, right?

3. Imagine the United States in the Robber Baron Era of the 19th Century. Now multiply the degree to which the U.S. economy was dominated by a handful of men by a factor of three and you get a sense for Israel's economy. Many Israelis with whom I spoke are frustrated by the real or at least perceived way in which a handful of 15 or so families controls their entire economy and exerts a tremendous degree of political and economic influence over their daily lives.

Bear in mind, of course, that all of these grievances are, as one Israeli said to me, about "the fruits of success and not the fruits of failure." And also note, as Benny Morris did in this National Interest essay, that an external security threat could yet cripple these protests. But finally, remember that these protesters have yet to make a lot of the hard choices they will need to make if they actually want to see change. Explicitly calling out subsidies for the Ultra-Orthodox or calling for an end to support for settlement infrastructure will not be as popular as complaining about the price of cottage cheese and will require political lines in the sand to be drawn. It remains to be seen whether or not the people of the Boulevard Rothschild have the stomach or the discipline for that.

*So what does an East Tennessean who does not speak Hebrew do when stuck in the middle of a crowd of 250,000 in Tel Aviv? Everytime the crowd began to cheer and chant, I just repeatedly screamed "FREEBIRD!" at the top of my lungs. Obviously.