Monday, December 17, 2001

Existential Threats

Part of the stress of living in Israel is the knowledge that the country you live in is faced, 24 hours per day, with a seemingly endless list of threats to its existence. All of these threats are intertwined into one giant, tangled mass called the “Matzav.” The current “security situation,” “low grade war”, or whatever it is being called now, is only the most visible and obvious existential threat. Over the past 15 months, I have watched the title of what I like to think of as the “local” news section in the Yahoo! News service change from “Middle East Peace Process” to “Palestinian-Israeli Crisis.” After the bombing a week ago, it changed again, this time to “Middle East Conflict.” On the surface, Arab terror would not appear to be such an existential threat. After all, the highest cutting-edge technology weapons are invented in Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, while the Palestinians have kalashnikovs, katyushka rockets, and mortars, but not enough to seriously challenge Israel militarily. Israel also has a much larger and well-trained army. The “existential” nature of the threat is that Arafat has thousands of people under his command who actually want to die, and millions of mothers who are proud of dead children. While Israel’s high level of security and policy of killing terrorists has had a major effect in reducing the number of Israeli casualties, as we saw last week, if one gets through, twenty die. Israelis, who do not want to die, and whose mothers weep over dead children rather than celebrate, will decide to leave if things get bad enough, and that is the existential threat. No Jews, no Jewish state.

Everything comes down to Facts On The Ground. Regardless of the UN or international recognition, the basis of the existence of Israel as a democratic state is that it has a Jewish majority. The Arabs know this, and therefore one of their strategies for destroying Israel is based on higher population growth plus “right of return” of all Palestinian refugees, a Palestinian Refugee being defined by the U.N. as any Arab who lived in pre-1948 Israel for a period of two years. According to the CIA world factbook, the Arabs in Gaza have a 4.01% yearly population growth rate, whereas Israel’s is 1.58%. By contrast, the U.S. has a population growth rate of 0.9%. In order to counter the higher Arab birth rate, Israel must also encourage a high birth rate plus immigration. The fastest growing segments of Israeli population, aside from the Arabs, are the Haredim (often referred to as “ultra orthodox”,) and the Russian immigrants. Today, over 10% of the population of Israel is comprised of immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union within the last 10 years. Immigration from Russia has slowed as the former Soviet Union is almost drained of Jews, but the extremely high birthrate among the Haredi population, with young marriages and an average of 7.5 children per family, makes them the fastest growing group in Israel. An off-the-cuff, unconfirmed statistic I heard was that Jerusalem is 25% Haredi, but 69% of the kindergarteners in Jerusalem are from Haredi families. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world with a natural increase in Jewish population, and is expected to replace the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world within the next 10 years.

One of the major points of confrontation between the Haredi sector and the rest of the population is that they are not drafted into the Army. This is a source of enormous social tension, not only between the Haredim and the Secular Israelis, but also between the Haredi and other religious Jews. The Religious Zionists solved the problem by creating a “Hesder” or “Arrangement” system, whereby army service and study in a yeshiva, or religious education program, are interspersed and the religious serve in special non co-ed units in the army. The Haredim, however, to not participate in this system, and there is great resentment at the Haredim among the rest of the population in that they are seen as willing to take from the country and send their fellow Jews out to die to defend them while refusing to take the same risks themselves. The non-Haredi Jews take it as a statement, “Our lives are more precious than yours, so it is OK for you to die, but not us.” As the Haredim continue to increase in percentage of the population and influence in the government, this conflict is bound to come to a head. The resentment of the Haredim also results in a feeling of oppression and shame on their part. The way my Rabbi puts it, “They don’t even see us as human beings.”

Encouraging this growth rate is also very expensive. New immigrants are not usually able to function very well in society, like me, and require subsidies for rent, Hebrew lessons, and job retraining. In order to encourage a high level of growth in the Haredi sector, the government gives monthly allotments for each child on an increasing scale, i.e., the more children you have, the more money you get per child. Because Israel’s laws are non-discriminatory, the payments also apply to Arabs. During the independence war, some Bedouin tribes sided with Israel and some with Egypt. After the war, those who sided with Israel were settled in the Negev, and those who had sided with Egypt were asked to leave. At that time, they were only a few thousand, but because they each have four wives, and each wife has fifteen or sixteen children, families with sixty children are not uncommon. There is no shortage of women as they can bring in wives from Gaza. Around Be’er Sheva, there are several Bedouin villages. On a tour the ruins of Tel Be’er Sheva, now next to a Bedouin village of tens of thousands, the archaeologist remembered back to the mid 1970s, “When I was in college on a dig here, Tel Sheva consisted of three tents.”

Illegal Arab immigration is another often ignored problem. At last report, a few months ago, 50,000 Arabs had illegally entered Israel and settled in the Galilee area. America, of course, experiences the same problem, illegal immigration from Mexico, and for the same reason, people looking for a better life and higher wages. In America, after a generation, the Mexicans add their own spice to the country, and mariachi radio stations and taquerias pop up all over the west. In Israel, the next generation of illegal immigrants learns how to plant roadside bombs, ambush busses, and carry out suicide attacks. Of course, the number who turn to violence against the state and civilians is very small, but even if it is one in a hundred, this still presents a very serious threat to the state and must be dealt with quickly. As one friend euphemized, “It’s difficult to see how the country is going to survive if we don’t start moving people around.”

All of this rapid population growth places enormous strains on the environment. The state was built so quickly, and it was so busy dealing with other existential threats, that the government did not prioritize environmental protection for matters of national security. Today, the major rivers run black and stink, and are banked by barbed-wire fences with skull and crossbones signs. An entire squad of navy commandos who trained at the outlet to the Kishon river came down with different cancers, some with four or five at once. In the Maccabiah bridge disaster, in which a marathon of athletes was passing over a bridge which subsequently collapsed, the victims did not die from the injuries they sustained in the fall but the poisons they were exposed to in the river.

The most serious environmental strain is the water. Israel has always had a chronic water shortage, being a desert country. Recently this problem has become acute. Three years of drought have already depleted the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Israel’s only major reservoir, by six meters. The Kinneret has a surface layer of fresh water and a bottom layer of saline water. If the fresh water is all sucked away, then all that will remain is salt water. The fear is that when water is reintroduced to the lake, it will not reform into layers but mix, permanently poisoning the lake. The water department put a so-called “red line” on the level to which the Kinneret could be pumped, below which any pumping would potentially cause an ecological catastrophe, but that red line was passed a year and a half ago. In order to solve the problem, the government decided to continue lowering the red line. There are also two major aquifers in Israel, the coastal and the mountain aquifer, both of which are severely depleted. The danger to the coastal aquifer is that, if the water table drops to below sea level, seawater will flow into the aquifer and poison it. When Arafat uses his old expression, “Whoever doesn’t like it can drink Gaza seawater!” he is serious. Unrestricted pumping in Gaza has already salinated half of the aquifer in that region. The coastal aquifer is also being poisoned every day by industries along the coast. The mountain aquifer runs under the Palestinian areas. Recently, the Palestinians have begun dumping biological poisons and toxic wastes into the rivers flowing into Israel. This will doubtless reach the aquifers and cause severe problems.

The basis of the shortage is that Israel’s population is increasing so rapidly that consumption now overreaches the rainfall in an average year, let alone a drought. The drought has only accelerated the problem. The government has been scrambling to come up with an alternative, and is building two desalination plants, as well as planning to build one more every five years for the next 25 years. Unfortunately, the first plant is scheduled to come online in 2003, and in the meantime, there is no effective plan. Israel’s ally to the north, Turkey, which has huge amounts of unused water, has offered to sell it to Israel, but there is no way to get it here. There is talk of refitting oil tankers to carry water, which will cost about twice as much as desalinating the water, or of building a pipeline. Any pipeline, however, would have to run through Syria, which is still at war with Israel. The other option was to build a pipeline under the Mediterranean, but this idea seems to have been dropped. The main fear is that Turkey, a Muslim country, will have a coup d’etat and become another Islamic Theocracy and shut off the water to Israel.

In order to alleviate the water shortage, the government has reduced water to farmers by 50%. Agriculture, while only making up about 2% of the Israeli economy, is very important strategically. Israel is under a constant state of siege from its neighbors, and has to be prepared to feed itself. Agriculture is also important because it puts a Jewish presence on the land. There is an old law on the books form the Turkish days that states that if somebody has an olive tree next to his house, then the land is his, no matter who the legal owner was previously. This causes a major problem for the settlements in the south, for when they leave a field fallow, they often come back the next year to find it full of Bedouin with olive trees.

Israel’s diverse and constantly warring factions result in a paralyzed government. Israel does not have a constitution. They tried to write one immediately after independence, but negotiations broke down. Today, many religious parties are afraid to draft a constitution because it might come to be viewed as a replacement for Torah. Meanwhile, in his last days, Barak announced a “secular revolution” to write a constitution and completely expunge Jewish religion and tradition from all government, which led to fears of oppression on the part of the religious and made the religious parties even more suspicious of the idea of a constitution. Due to the divides in Israeli society, Arab-Jew, Secular-Religious, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, Rich-Poor, Haredi-Religious Zionist, Left-Right, as well as the stubborn and uncompromising nature of Israelis, political parties are multiplying like bacteria on a petri-dish. Every time there is a disagreement, a party splits. Every issue results in a party. There are several parties for Russian immigrants, a party for religious people without beards, a party for religious people with beards, a party for religious people with beards and black hats, a party for religious Sephardim with beards and black hats, a party for taxi cab drivers (really!), a party for the legalization of Marijuana, a one-woman party lead by a famous CEO of a cosmetics company, the list goes on. Everybody who has a new idea or philosophy starts his own party. Every party the demands a ministry in the government in order to join the coalition. In order to accommodate all the new parties, Sharon had to increase the number of government ministries to 28, almost ¼ of the entire Knesset. A normal parliamentary government in a more sane country has eight or nine. Because the coalitions are so narrow, each tiny party can then threaten to quit the coalition and collapse the government. Any party with three out of 120 seats in the Knesset can threaten to resign and exert a disproportionate pressure relative to the number of people who actually voted for it.

Meanwhile, since there is no constitution, the Israeli Supreme Court has decided to allocate whatever powers to itself it deems fit. As in America, the Supreme Court declared that it has the power of judicial review, the power to overturn laws which are not constitutional. However, since there is no constitution, the court bases its rulings on the declaration of independence, a vaguely worded document which does not detail the system of government. In response, the Knesset began passing laws which would expressly say that “the Supreme Court can not declare this law unconstitutional,” which the Supreme Court then determined to be unconstitutional themselves. But that’s not all, the Supreme Court took it an extra step and declared that it has the right to overturn a law and then re-write the law itself, and that law then becomes the standing law of the land. Chief Justice Aharon Barak has actually made several appearances in the Knesset trying to convince them to pass certain laws he wanted. The Knesset is now busy trying to form a constitutional court to take the powers of Judicial review away from the Supreme Court. Living in Israel has given me a great appreciation for the value of separation of powers and a two party system.

It is said that Israel is terrible at dealing with day to day life but great with dealing with emergencies. In facing these challenges, it must be remembered what was here one hundred years ago. There were plenty of swamps, deserts, and rocky hillsides, but not a lot of people. In 100 years, this country has transformed from an idea in magazine articles into a modern, high-tech, rapidly growing country. Its people have a western standard of living, its gross domestic product is greater than that of all of the Arab countries combined (minus oil), and its vastly outnumbered armies have defeated its enemies time and time again. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, upon his retirement, gave the country 50-50 odds of surviving into the 21st century. If you could transport one of the early theorists or visionaries of a Jewish state and list off all of the existential threats the country is facing today, he would weep with joy.

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