Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

The longer I live here, the more I understand how different Israel is from my former home, the USA.

There are elements of Middle East culture, unsurprising since about half of all Jewish Israelis are descended from immigrants from the Jewish communities of the Mideast and North Africa. The more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia are beginning to have an influence. Social intercourse between Jews and Arabs is strong in some places and weak in others, but one out of every five Israeli citizens is an Arab (I suspect the Arabs are more influenced by the Jews, but that’s another story). And there are more than a few remnants of the Eastern and Central European origins of the founders of the state.

The founders were primarily socialists (and they worked very hard to keep non-socialists from gaining influence in the new state). They left us with the somewhat contrary traditions of a strong central government that tends to behave coercively – Israel still has media censorship (which is often bypassed by social media), people accused of crimes have far fewer rights than in the US, and there is no jury trial. Another tradition is excessive and self-serving bureaucracy, both in government and private businesses.

Over the years an economy dominated by government-owned enterprises has been replaced by one that is mostly private; this has greatly improved the economic performance of the country (but also has created a small class of super-rich Israelis with excessive economic and political clout).

Americans care very much – or at least they used to care – about freedom of speech. There’s less emphasis on that here. What we have as a gift from our founders, who continued to believe very strongly in the right of the proletariat to strike and demonstrate even after they became the bosses, is an obsession with the right to protest. Sometimes it seems that Israelis believe that democracy means the right to block traffic. Haredim, disabled people, Ethiopians, and others have taken to the streets and junctions in recent months to press their demands. Workers in government-subsidized or regulated industries who have a dispute with the Treasury often express their frustrations by torturing ordinary citizens who have absolutely no influence on the government.

In a way, this is understandable, because despite what seems like an excess of democracy (an election every few months), the behavior of our politicians and their bureaucracy is very little influenced by the wishes of the people. Hence demonstrations.

For at least a month there have been nightly demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem; recently they started demonstrating in front of his home in Caesarea as well. Before his indictment on corruption charges, there were daily demonstrations in front of the home of the Attorney General, demanding his indictment. Recently there have been violent clashes between pro- and anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, and between demonstrators and the police.

There are several different groups involved. With the advent of Corona and the limitations that the government has placed on some industries, independent business owners and tradespeople, who are not eligible for unemployment compensation, took a big hit (my son is one of them). There are also artists and performers, also independent, whose venues have been shut down. There is the ridiculously exaggerated wedding and events industry – that’s worth another blog post – which employs many, also shut down by the limitations on the number of people who can gather in one place. There is everything to do with tourism. Their frustrations are real, and they are demanding that the government remove restrictions or compensate them in some way.
But the “independents” were joined by the radically anti-Bibi crowd, who – despite the fact that he is legally allowed to remain in his position until he is convicted of a serious crime – insist that he must step down immediately. And there are some anarchists and hard-left people for whom chaos is their bread and butter, as well as those who are non-political but enjoy the excitement and danger of borderline violence (and the possibility that a woman might take off her shirt). It’s ironic that the complaint of those who want to depose the PM by force of demonstrations is that he is “destroying democracy.”

As usual, the overheated atmosphere is fed by social media. Recently, the PM complained to the police about a Facebook post from an account named “Dana Ron” which called for his removal by a “bullet to the head.” In a country which has the murder of a Prime Minister in its recent memory, this is pouring gasoline on the flames that are already too high. Facebook responded that the profile was “fake” and removed it; the police cybercrimes unit determined that the account belonged to an Israeli woman living abroad. The anti-Netanyahu people claim that the threats were actually posted by Netanyahu’s media advisors. Interestingly, other fake profiles that posted pro-Netanyahu content were found that were connected with this one.
Would Bibi be dumb enough to fake a threat on Facebook? Certainly not. Would he hire someone dumb enough to do that? Very possible. Tune in tomorrow.

***

On Tuesday there was a massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon. It seems – and there will probably be more information available by the time this article is posted tomorrow – that a warehouse containing some 2750 tons of a nitrate compound exploded. Before the main blast, there were smaller explosions that may have been fireworks or small arms ammunition. There was speculation that the explosive material was some form of rocket fuel, but now it seems that the material was ammonium nitrate that had been left there by a Georgian ship that broke down in 2013 on its way to Mozambique. What set it off is still not clear. More details about this event are here.

Naturally, the usual suspects are blaming Israel. Israeli officials said that we had no connection to it. It would be very surprising if we did, because Israel bends over backwards to avoid hurting civilians (sometimes excessively, in my opinion). Really, the only thing that might tempt Israel to do that kind of damage would be the presence of a nuclear weapon – and even then, I believe the IDF would have found some other way to destroy it.

This comes after several incidents in which Hezbollah has attempted to get even for Israel’s killing one of their operatives in Syria.

Lebanon is in the worst financial condition in its history, and a good part of the reason is Hezbollah. First the Corona, and now this explosion (which, incidentally, wrecked the structure in which 80% of Lebanon’s grain was stored) may push the country completely over the edge. I don’t know what is likely to happen now, but the best option – for Lebanon, for Israel, and for world peace – would be for Hezbollah to be pushed out. It is absolutely criminal that the resources of the country are squandered on being the point of the spear for the Iranian war on Israel. But how do you get out from under the thumb of a terrorist organization that has more military capability than your official army?

If the story about the ammonium nitrate is correct, then the government officials who allowed it to sit for years in a dilapidated warehouse near a highly populated area are guilty of criminal negligence. What brought Lebanon to the state it was in before the explosion was the less dramatic, but equally criminal, failure of those in whom the inhabitants of the country placed their trust.

Now let us come back to Israel, where there hasn’t been a cataclysmic explosion, but where a bloated, selfish, childish, and venal political establishment is failing to carry out its responsibilities to the public. Can we get our house in order before we find ourselves in a place similar to that of our northern neighbor?



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