Editor’s Notes: The reckoning

By David Horovitz October 10, 2008

An end-of-year follow-up shows what happened next, and what didn’t, in 10 areas covered by this column. Some of them are relatively inconsequential. Other are anything but…

1. Deepening poverty

In July, when I visited the headquarters of the Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network in Jerusalem, Avraham Yisrael, the founder and guiding force, told me it provides 4,000 main meals a day to locals, and another 10,000 such hot meals from dozens of distribution points nationwide.

Hazon Yeshaya’s Jerusalem clientele did not look destitute. They were clean and sensibly dressed. They were overwhelmingly but not solely elderly. Only a few were ultra-Orthodox. Most were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some were veteran Israelis. And they were all too poor to feed themselves adequately.

Acknowledging the true nature of poverty in Israel is still taboo, Yisrael said. It’s not the image that Israel’s authorities want to circulate prominently among Diaspora philanthropists, he said. ‘But the problem is right here. It’s acute. And not talking about it isn’t going to make it go away.’

Contacted again on the eve of Yom Kippur, Yisrael said he fears a dire situation is getting worse. New demands on his organization now see him providing meals to the vocational department of the Jewish Institute for the Blind, gearing up to open a Hazon Yeshaya branch in Karmiel, and receiving more and more pleas for assistance from schools.

His current prime concern, though, is that the repercussions of the global financial crisis, when they inevitably hit Israel harder than they have to date, will send other strata of society over the edge into that unmentionable poverty.

As he’d told me in July, he insists on feeding only those who are classified by the state as genuinely needy – to ensure that his limited funds are put to the best use, that the availability of free food does not exacerbate the crisis, that he is not fostering helplessness. ‘They are all ‘zaka’ut alef,” he said of the hungry people all around us, showing me some of the paperwork. ‘There’s no lower classification. After that, it’s ‘zero’ – you know, under the ground.’

(The ‘P’ word, July 4, 2008.)

2. Economic essentials

Apropos the financial crisis, comments made by Stanley Fischer in an April 18 interview here make for particularly significant reading today. Fischer stressed that economic growth is vital to our very survival – crucial to the funding of our defense – and must be maintained come what may.

The Bank of Israel governor was then asked by my colleague Sharon Wrobel, in those relatively innocent times just six months ago, how Israel might be affected by a possible global recession following the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. ‘We will grow,’ he said robustly. But later he added a caveat: ‘If the political system keeps its nerve, if the Bank of Israel keeps its nerve, if our businessmen keep their nerves and consumers do the same, we can grow at a reasonable rate.’

Over the last few irrational days, those ifs have started to look a whole lot bigger.

In that same interview, Fischer acknowledged a degree of corruption in public life – ‘There are a lot of things going on that are very questionable,’ he said. ‘You read about them in the newspapers, and unfortunately many of the accusations turn out to be true.’ But he also noted that ‘sometimes the accusations that hit the media with a great amount of noise aren’t borne out. These unfounded charges and the attendant publicity damage our reputation.’

A month earlier, the country’s departing accountant-general, Yaron Zelekha, had sounded a rather different note: ‘We’re the most corrupt country in the Western world,’ he declared, basing himself on the previous year’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index,’ compiled by the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International, which measures perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries and draws on surveys of businesses and experts. Israel had come in at a dismal 30th – ‘ranked between Uruguay and Jordan,’ as Zelekha noted.

Two weeks ago, Transparency International published its 2008 index. Israel, which had ranked as high as 16th just seven years ago, has slipped further – to 33rd place – tied with the Dominican Republic, behind Chile and Uruguay, and again behind the rest of the West.

(‘Economic growth, or else,’ April 18, 2008; ‘High noon with Marshal Zelekha,’ March 28, 2008.)

3. Who bought the Sycamores?

In March, I wrote about the imminent sale of Reuven Rubin’s 1920s painting, ‘Old Sycamore Trees,’ which had held pride of place on a wall of its own in the Rubin Museum, in the painter’s former home on Tel Aviv’s Bialik Street, for some 20 years.

Never part of the museum’s permanent collection, it had been displayed on a unique semi-permanent loan arrangement ever since it was brought in by an Israeli woman who had purchased it in Jaffa flea market. It had apparently been unloaded there by the thieves who stole it en route back to Israel from a 1982 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. After a highly convoluted and protracted legal process, the work – immense elastic trees almost dancing across the canvas, blocking out much of the sky, dwarfing an Arab and his camel in the foreground and overwhelming the small white houses at the left-hand edge – became the property of the US government.

Ahead of the sale on April 27, Carmela Rubin, the museum’s director and the painter’s daughter-in-law, expressed the plaintive hope that a private benefactor might want to step forward and secure the painting for Tel Aviv and for its home of the past two decades. ‘Tel Aviv is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year,’ she reminded me, ‘and this is an emblematic Tel Aviv painting’ – of trees on King George Street, some of which remain to this day in part thanks to Reuven Rubin’s own campaigning. ‘Why should a painting like this end up in London or New York?’ Carmela asked. ‘It’s almost unthinkable.’

Christie’s had estimated a sale price of $250,000 to $350,000. Rubin said she thought it might bring more, since a similar work went for $450,000 at auction a few years ago.

In the event, ‘Old Sycamore Trees’ sold for $623,400. Almost six months later, Christie’s was still resolute this week that it is not permitted to say who bought it, nor even whether it has remained in the country.

(‘Save the sycamores,’ March 13, 2008.)

4. Must try harder

In marked contrast to last year, when high school students lost two months of lessons to strike action, classes have been in session this time around (albeit with a sprinkling of warning stoppages).

Interviews for a column I wrote last October underlined that the strike then was much more than a familiar demand for raised salaries, and had to be seen, rather, as a howl of outrage at a collapsing system.

The latest annual education report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, released last month, only confirmed the crisis. It ranked Israel near the bottom of 57 Westernized countries – on the basis of our underpaid teachers, packed classrooms and dismal exam results in math and science.

Still, that ranking is based on statistics from 2006. The Education Ministry insists that reforms introduced in the wake of last year’s protracted dispute will produce real improvement in time. This country depends on its brainpower. They had better.

(‘Listen up, class, this is important,’ October 19, 2007.)

5. Paul lets it be.

The Israeli promoters had been hoping George Michael might play a late-summer concert here to culminate a season in which rock and pop stars began to return to Israel after years of security related avoidance. When Michael pulled out, things looked bleak… until Paul McCartney stepped in.

Defying a run-up that featured Islamist threats and sneering assertions that his late songwriting partner John Lennon would never have legitimated today’s ‘apartheid Israel’ by playing here, McCartney vowed days before the concert that he wouldn’t let a discordant ‘voice in a crowd’ determine his agenda. ‘You have to realize that any high-profile event brings with it some worries,’ he said down the phone during a break in his rehearsals. ‘I think that most people understand that I’m quite apolitical and that my message is a global one and that it is a peaceful one. So I just have faith in that aspect of what I do.’

In a careful gesture of goodwill, McCartney made time for a trip to Bethlehem, where he sat in on classes at a Palestinian music school. He also learned some Hebrew – enough, at his uplifting Yarkon Park show, to touchingly dedicate the song ‘My Love’ to his late wife Linda, who was Jewish, in our native tongue.

‘Don’t let me down,’ McCartney had harmonized (to Lennon’s lead vocal) on The Beatles’ final album, released in 1970. In 2008, he didn’t.

(‘Speaking words of wisdom,’ September 21, 2008.)

6. Open wounds

The Jerusalem teen stabbed three times by fellow Jerusalem youngsters as he left a Hapoel Jerusalem youth basketball practice at the Denmark School one evening in January has recovered from the wounds to his back, lower stomach and upper chest.

His assailants, however, have never been identified. Jerusalem’s police spokesman Shlomo Ben-Ruby was able to detail the entire context of the attack at the time: the blameless youngster had been stabbed as he tried to protect a friend of his, who had been set upon in a premeditated revenge assault that stemmed from an earlier minor scuffle. And the police quickly located several people for questioning. But although four suspects were arrested, they were then released, and the case remains unresolved nine months later.

Hardly reassuring for the victim and his friends. And hardly a deterrent to what Ben-Ruby described as the widespread phenomenon of Jewish teens carrying knives for what they cynically call ‘self-defense’ in Jerusalem, and what he called the ‘high level of violence’ among Israeli youth nationwide.

(‘Self-inflicted wounds,’ January 11, 2008.)

7. Liberate Jerusalem

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the light rail project from hell that has all-but closed off central Jerusalem to the public. To walk along the central Jaffa Road artery and its environs, as the bulldozers batter ponderously, the traffic steams and the shopkeepers despair, is to witness a capital offense unfolding in pitiful slow-motion. Stores are closing down. The buses cannot get through, and surrounding streets are hopelessly blocked by the overspill. In some places, there is insufficient room even for pedestrians to make their way through our city center.

This week saw the closing date for candidates to run Jerusalem, and a quartet of would-be mayors registered: Darkest horse Dan Birron of the Green Leaf (Aleh Yarok) faction, billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, and front-runners Nir Barkat (who has led the city council opposition since losing the race in 2003) and Meir Porush (ultra-Orthodox Knesset member from United Torah Judaism).

Interviewed separately by Jerusalem Post reporters recently, Porush said vaguely that the light rail was taking too long; Gaydamak backed it in principle but said Moscow had handled its mass transport infrastructure far more efficiently and that he was horrified by the city’s paralysis and the absence of round-the-clock work to get the job done; and Barkat branded the entire project a mistake, suggested he might consider cancelling it if the economics of doing so made sense, and extolled the virtues of big buses that can carry up to 250 people.

On November 11, Jerusalemites face a fateful election choice – one which will, most importantly, impact the demographics of a capital increasingly dominated by the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors. But that’s a familiar issue, and it didn’t bring out the non-haredi voters in their masses last time. Perhaps the city’s transport paralysis will galvanize them.

(‘Capital comparisons,’ September 5.)

8. Introspection.

In May, amid the swirl of corruption allegations, this column urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to ‘look into your heart, and act with honorÉ If your conduct was blameless, then you must refute the allegations against you, and must be enabled to do so quickly. The legal means must be found for an expedited process of investigation that does not subvert the democratic process that brought you to power. But if your conduct was wrongÉ do not torture us and paralyze us and fritter away precious time by clinging on.’

I greatly doubt that this particular appeal was decisive, but I do believe Olmert did the right thing, belatedly, when he submitted his resignation on September 21.

Not because I believe him to be guilty; I have no means of establishing a conclusion either way. And certainly not because I contest his guiding prime ministerial policy assertion that Israel’s interests require an accommodation with the Palestinians, though his shared assessment with President Bush that such a deal could quickly be done with Mahmoud Abbas was always untenable. But, rather, because he should have resigned in the aftermath of the war against Hizbullah in 2006 – an incompetently managed conflict over which Olmert was savaged by the committee of inquiry he had himself appointed to investigate it. His legal woes only complicated the demands on a prime minister who had, at terrible cost, already proved inadequate.

For all our sakes, may his successor flourish.

(‘Look into your heart, Mr. Olmert,’ May 9, 2008.)

9. Five minutes to midnight

On September 27, 2007, five days after last Yom Kippur, I wrote about that year’s appearance by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations General Assembly: Ahmadinejad ‘sketched out a vision not merely of a world without Israel, but of a world without democracy,’ the article concluded. ‘He came to the headquarters of an organization established to prevent war and promote equality and tolerance around the world, and he challenged its leadership to end its ‘obedience to Satan’ or face calamity. Then he headed off, job well done, to continue the effort to translate that threat into action.’

Dismally, at the close of another Jewish year, Ahmadinejad has just been permitted by the genuflecting UN to put in another of his annual appearances. This time, he used the platform to misrepresent his regime’s nuclear program as peaceful and transparent, gloated, as ever, at the ostensible imminent demises of the Zionist regime and the American empire, and revived the classic anti-Semitic libel of a shadowy Zionist cabal manipulating the finances and the politics of the innocent, trusting global masses.

In May, George Bush assured this writer that, ‘all options’ remained on the table when it came to challenging Iran’s nuclear drive, but twice avoided an unequivocal answer when I asked him whether the program would be thwarted by the time he stepped down. The best he could manage was to declare that ‘what definitely will be done’ before the end of his presidency was to put in place ‘a structure on how to deal with this – to try to resolve this diplomatically; in other words, sanctions, pressures, financial sanctions; a history of pressure that will serve as a framework to make sure other countries are involved.’

But as the Bush Administration enters its final weeks, no such viable structure is in place, and Iran is steadily progressing toward its nuclear weapons goal. One of Bush’s would-be successors, John McCain, whom I interviewed together with Herb Keinon when he visited Israel in March, caustically dismissed the UN’s sanctions package against Iran as ‘remarkable in its weakness’ and concluded that China and Russia would clearly go on blocking more ‘meaningful’ pressures. He suggested ratcheting up the pressure through concerted action by a ‘League of Democracies’ – countries that ‘share our values, our principles, our philosophy and our appreciation of the challenge that Iran poses to stability in the Middle East.’

The other would-be next president, Barack Obama, interviewed during his Israel visit in July, believed Russia and China could yet be galvanized into more robust action if the US made it sufficiently clear to them that ‘this is not just a game that we’re playing… this is a top priority.’ At the same time, Obama advocated tough diplomacy with Iran, in which the US would have to be ‘very clear and direct in our goals.’ If the Iranians failed to respond, he told me, ‘we’ve stripped away whatever excuses they may have, [and] whatever rationales may exist in the international community for not ratcheting up sanctions and taking serious action.’

Plainly, the need to ensure that a regime inciting genocide against Israel is prevented from obtaining the means to achieve its declared aim has become ever-more pressing this past year, as the Iranians have closed in on the bomb and the international community has failed to deter them. Dismally, unthinkably, if the next year sees similar footdragging, it may be too late.

(‘McCain: The nature of the enemy is hydra-headed,’ March 21, 2008; ‘In the Oval Office, the sun is shining’; May 26; ‘Obama’s presidential vision for Israel,’ July 25.)

10. Harnessing the sun

And finally, moving out of the heavy nuclear shadow into the sun, solar energy trailblazer Arnold Goldman, 65, has raised well over $100 million in operating capital for his Brightsource company, and is currently testing new, more efficient solar panels in the Negev for a major installation in California. Rising oil prices, and his resurrected firm’s more sophisticated technologies, have combined to give the remarkable Goldman, US-born and Israel-based for 30 years, a second chance at leading the Israeli equivalent of Sweden’s Volvo or Finland’s Nokia – the manufacturer of a product of such earth-shaking impact as to become its home country’s dominant, trademark firm. Except that, with his product, energy from the sun, the sky truly is the limit, the potential as close to infinite as makes no difference.

I interviewed Goldman in this column two years ago, when he was re-gathering much of the team from his first bid to energetically connect the celestial resources and the earth in the company he’d biblically named Luz (for the city where Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven).

Two decades ago, he recalled, Luz International was producing a staggering 90 percent of the solar energy-generated electricity in the world. At its height, it was employing 500 people in Israel and 2,500 in the US. Between 1984 and 1990 it built nine Solar Electrical Generating Systems in southern California, and was producing 2% of the area’s energy needs with the reasonable ambition to raise that to 10%. But to be competitive with conventional energy suppliers, it needed its solar fields to be exempt from property taxes, and California doomed Luz by suspending those exemptions at the turn of the 1990s. By the time they were reinstated, Luz had run out of money.

‘The failure was shattering – financially, and personally,’ Goldman acknowledged, and ‘I’ve spent 20 years analyzing what went wrong.’ He added, with typical self-deprecation, that he was ‘probably wrong again’ with the new venture, ‘but I hope it won’t collapse again. I had no choice, on a personal level, but to give it another try.’

Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an upbeat article on Goldman, entitled ‘Reclaiming His Place in the Sun,’ detailing his latest Israel-California venture.

‘If we reach our potential,’ Goldman had told me, ‘we can produce energy in proportions never before visualized.’ Here’s hoping he dazzles us in 5769.

(‘The sun shines, again, on Luz,’ July 6, 2006.) [RETURN TO RESULTS] [NEW QUERY]

(With reporting by Linda Amar)

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