Thursday, January 03, 2002

Hard Times

As proof positive that there's a cease-fire on this week, the politicians immediately dove into sectarian squabbling. The first issue to fight over was the budget. As the Israeli economy takes a nose dive, the budget had to be amended to reflect the lower revenues for 2002. Every ministry, including defence, has to cut back expenditures by 9%, and of course nobody wants to. The country has started another year without a budget.
Earlier in the week, Arafat, who has been holed up in Ramallah for the last few weeks, wanted to go to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. The cabinet ordered that he not be allowed to go unless he hand over the two killers of the recently assassinated tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi. He refused, so it came to a showdown and Sharon didn't let him go. The United States was very understanding on the issue, and it had virtually no political fallout.
Later in the week, President Moshe Katzav announced that a former Arab Member of Knesset (MK) had suggested that he stand in front of the Palestinian Assembly and announce a year-long cease fire. The President, who is with the right-wing Likkud party, is usually only called upon for ceremonial functions, so it was quite a surprising idea. When Foreign Minister Peres got wind of the plan, he immediately moved to crush it, fearing that someone other than him might get credit for making peace. Sharon deemed it to be against his policy of not negotiating with Arafat, so he nixed it. The logic goes that if Arafat stops shooting, then there's a cease fire, so there's no need to announce one.
Meanwhile, the Knesset was running out of things to argue about, so they decided to write the "Shabbat Law." The law seeks to sort out what is permissible and what is not on Shabbat according to the State of Israel. The religious parties agreed that places of entertainment would be allowed to remain open, but that places of business and stores would stay closed for the duration of the Sabbath. If the bill were to pass, it would be yet another self-defeating move by the religious parties attempting to impose Shabbat on people, which will result in a further backlash against the religious and a further distancing of Israelis from their religion.
Now that the secular new year has come and gone, everybody seems to be lamenting over the problems and horrors of the previous year. We all knew that 2001 was going to be one of those years we try to forget but just can't. The headlines of today look pretty much the same as the Jerusalem Post Headlines from January 1, 2000: Twenty wounded in Netanya bomb attack; Stones and Firebombs Close Ramallah Tunnel Road; Calls for Calm after Kahane Slayings, etc. The government is cranking out year's end statistics for 2001 including everything from terror to pollution.
This year, 181 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks, 86 of them in the territories, 101 of them in pre-1967 Israel. Seven foreign citizens were also killed by Palestinians. 455 Palestinians were killed in the territories and 10 in Israel pre-1967 Israel by the Israeli Defense Forces.
556 Israelis were killed and 40,000 were wounded in road accidents. Environment Minister Tzahi Hanegbi announced, "1,000 people die every year because of air pollution in Israel's large cities."
And never mind the economic tailspin. On January first, a dollar cost 4.04 shekels, today it costs 4.47. In the last two weeks, I've been watching the shekel to dollar rate rise from 4.21 to 4.48. This is supposedly a natural reaction to the decrease in interest rates aimed at spurring the economy, but in the end it all works out the same: the little money I actually have is worth even less now.
Israel has entered its first recession since 1953, with negative GDP growth of 0.5%. Israel's major industries; technology, defense, and tourism, all took a major beating. The dot com to dot bomb disaster in the states is hurting the tech sector, with 20% of tech startups closing, and electronics sales down by 20%. Tourism is also hurting, down 50%, although Jewish tourism is actually up 3% because of all of the solidarity missions coming from abroad. According to most accounts, the intifada has had almost zero effect on the economy, except for tourism, which would be down anyway because of the recession and the 9-11 attack in America. Meanwhile, unemployment of Arabs in Gaza is at about 80%. Israel had replaced the Palestinians with foreign workers from Thailand and Romania for security concerns. Now, the government has decided to try to start getting rid of the foreign workers to drive up the price of labor and help keep what money there is within the local economy.
But, there is always good news. The enormous GDP growth rate of 6% in 2000 is expected to help the country through the recession, and the lower shekel is going to help manufacturing and exporting, although that doesn't help me much.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are getting ready for a war, and, as usual, somebody always makes a profit from somebody else's disaster. In this case, it's Israel, which happens to be one of India's major suppliers of weaponry. The economic collapse of Argentina is also helping Israel, which is gearing up for a wave of immigration from Argentina's 200,000 strong Jewish community. Immigration is the life blood of this country, bringing in foreign expertise and helping to build the economy. 44,000 people made aliyah (immigrated) last year, mostly from Russia. However, half of those people are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Israel's definition of a Jew is somebody with one Jewish grandparent or someone married to a Jew, is different from Judaism's definition whereby a Jew is anyone whose mother is Jewish or went through an Orthodox conversion. The sectarian conflicts of twenty years from today are brewing even now. Israel's population now stands at 6.5 million, with 5.3 million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs.
With the ever increasing population, the Army is experiencing a manpower glut. There are two types of soldiers in the Israeli Army: combat soldiers and jobniks. Combat soldiers are mostly volunteer and do all of the fighting. Jobniks are either clerks and broom-pushers or technical people. Non-technical Jobniks are considered dead weight in the Army, so they are not particularly wanted. This prompted a move by the army to allow combat soldiers to extend their service by one year and in exchange receive full pay (most soldiers are given enough money during their three year mandatory service for a bus ride home and a coca cola.) This is hoped to take the burden off the reservists and save money for the army in the long run. I suspect that Israel, with its ever increasing population, is gradually moving closer to a more professional, volunteer army.
There has also been a significant reduction in the acts of violence, with the average time between suicide and armed attacks on Israeli civilians decreasing from once every one hour and twenty minutes to once every two hours ten minutes. American General Zinni landed in Israel a few hours ago and he's supposed to start pressuring people to move towards an official cease-fire. I wish him luck, but I don't think he'll have any. It has been nice, through, to go a few weeks without any major bombings.

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