Archive for February 2009

Israel’s economy – future prospects

February 25, 2009

A stream of bad economic data has been released in Jerusalem in the past few days. GDP shrank by 0.5% in 4Q08. 18% fewer tourist nights were recorded in January 09 compared to 12 months previously. Intel announced a sharp drop in exports.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently updated its predictions for 2009. The current forecast highlights a 1.9% real drop in global GDP. Taking the USA as an example, it explained that:

The US economy is in freefall. The 3.8% contraction in fourth-quarter GDP was the worst showing since the opening months of 1982, when the economy contracted by more than 6%. Business spending dropped by a stunning 19.1% at an annual rate in the three months to December.

So Israel is better placed? Well, I have long argued that Israel entered the recession with numerous structural positives, which are still true today. Naturally, that does not make the country immune, especially when the political system is neutered due to post-election coalition gamesmanship.

There is one stunning major bonus, clearly identifiable on the horizon. About a month ago, commercial quantities of gas were discovered in the Tamar field just off Israel’s coastline. This week, two hugely important pieces of information were released to the press.

First, it is very likely that the find is larger than initially thought. Second, spurred on by the American partner, Noble, the gas will brought to the market within 3 years, and not 5 as originally thought.

The knock on effect here – increased revenue for the treasury, employment, export possibilities, etc – will have a substantial and positive effect on the Israeli economy.

The Economist concluded its report with a “subdued outlook for the global economy in 2011- 2013”. Israel has a chance to be a special exception to that forecast.

Anti-semitism disguised as anti-semitism

February 22, 2009

Over 25 years ago, I attended a play at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Titled “Not Quite Jerusalem”, it revolved around the lives of foreign students working on a kibbutz. It was humourous while poignant, but had little to do with Israel per se.

In those days, the Royal Court was a fun place to visit. You were guaranteed an evening of entertainment, which made you think. It was an important part of the world of expressive fringe theatre.

Jump forward to 2009 and the theatre is hosting a 10 minute short play by Caryl Churchill, called Seven Jewish Children. Churchill is an established author, who unashamedly tests accepted norms. Provoked by recent events in Gaza, she has taken 7 historical themes important to Jews and questioned them.

Anything wrong in that? Not, in theory. Anything wrong in criticising Israel? Not, in theory.

Michael Billington is a respected critic. He notes that by using conversation with children as a backdrop, Churchill accuses Israel of using security to justify massacres. Anything wrong in that? Yes, plenty, lots of plenty.

There were no massacres in Gaza. And as a parent of three children attending Israeli schools, I can testify that Israel does not officially or unofficially teach or preach massacres. To claim or imply otherwise is a libel.

And neither are children taught about the “otherness” of Palestinians, as Billington has observed.

My children study Arabic. They learn about Muslim culture. Their geography books contain references to the pre 1967 borders. And they are taught about Christianity, the Crusades and European history.

I cannot find similar curricula in Palestinian schools. In fact, many have argued that the new Palestinian textbooks published since 2000 would fail any critical analysis by UNESCO.

But I digress. Churchill has denied that her play is anti-semitic. Yet she writes about Jews. She uses Jewish themes. She inserts them in a deliberately provacative way. She causes wide spread revulsion amongst most  British Jews.

Is her play about Israel? Well, sort of, but Jews are the central theme., and thus makes people question if Jews possess acceptable values and ethics.

To my way of thinking, the play is a libel. It is anti-semitic.

Amazingly, in this woeful episode of British culture, there is still something yet more pathetic; the feeble actions of the Royal Court management. Its spokesman has urged people to see the play before they judge it. “It is possible to criticise the actions of Israel without being anti-Semitic,” he says.

In other words, they will show what the hell they want in the name of free speech. But apparently Ramin Gray, the theatre’s associate director, has admitted that the Royal Court would be hesitant to stage a play critical of Islam.

This is hypocrisy, out right hypocrisy. Double standards exposed mega time. It is this abuse of free speech, which allows the Churchills of this world a stage and platform for their hatred.

Remember the Protestant priest, Rev Martin Niemoller? In 1945, he recalled how nobody had protested that Jews, Communists and Catholics had been rounded up. So when they arrested him, there was nobody left to object.

Similarly, it is time for the UK to wake up. Most criticism of Israel has often bordered on the anti-semitic. In Churchill’s case, she has crossed the boundaries of the acceptable with a Bob Beamen leap. Her work is disgusting, aimed at sowing hatred and mistrust, that and nothing else.

Protectors of free speech should see her words for what they are, and then replace them vociferously…….before the thought-police put them next to Niemoller.

Gaza’s economy and the feeding of Hamas

February 20, 2009

The Western media has concluded that Israel’s air force and artillery flattened the Gaza Strip. Many are homeless. And Hamas, yes they are naughty for firing rockets at Israel, but it needs to be helped in order that the population at large does not suffer further.

According to a debate in the British Parliament, “the Muslim community in Blackburn raised £150,000 for a Palestinian charity in just one week.” Praiseworthy indeed, and let us hope that transparency has improved since the days when the Arafat and Dahlan team pocketed much of such donations.

In the past few months, there has been growing evidence to suggest that Hamas is in fact far wealthier than it wants to admit.

1) Khaled Abu Toameh is one of a rare breed. An investigative Palestinian journalist, he has eyes and ears in many parts of the territories. In a recent interview, he noted that:

Hamas could not have taken control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 had it not been for support from Iran and Syria. They had logistical and financial support, which means weapons. Most of the weapons coming into Gaza are being financed by Iran and facilitated by Syria.

2) Hamas is also not burdened with having to provide over a million people with education and welfare. Much of that role has been taken on by UNRWA. In a recent report,  UNRWA was slammed for becoming a political institution, managed by Palestinians for Palestinians, even open to abuse by terrorists. Ironically, on at least 3 separate occasions since early January, Hamas members have stolen UN property, including UNRWA supplies.  

3) It is the smuggling tunnels that have historically been the financial lifeblood of Hamas. Speak to any journalist, like Matt Rees, who has covered the Gaza Strip over the years. During the Intifada, cease fires with Israel were broken because gangs could not bring in their contraband. Toameh notes that the tunnels have existed for decades.

 And new evidence is emerging that Hamas has actively encouraged the tunnel industry since 2007. The tunnels provided a way to bring in weapons and raw materials. Hamas sold “licenses” for the building of some tunnels, raking in a fortune in undisclosed taxes in a poor economy. Individuals made a fortune out of commissions, just like Dahlan of Fatah in the past.

To quote Hamas Finance Minister Ziyad Thatha:

A number of investors collected millions of dollars in a way that is against sharia (Islamic law) and we will operate against them.

At least now we know why Muslims around the world have to collect money for their brothers and sisters in Gaza. No wonder, national appeals have been started for them. it will be interesting to see if that includes donations from governemnt ministries.  

Economic news from the Holy Land

February 19, 2009

On the surface, Israel’s economy is heading the same way as America, the UK and others.

Initial figures show unemployment doubling to 20,000 people between October 2008 to February 2009. The two largest banks, Hapoalim and Leumi, have reported large losses. In fact, Leumi’s share price has now lost over half its value. High tech companies are looking at a 4-day working week.

And yet, as I keep stressing, Israel does not need to panic. For the moment, I am not alone in that view, as reflected by the stock market, still on the up in fits and starts.

Just as encouraging is the latest report from the IMF on Israel. It predicts a small but positive growth of 0.5% for 2009. This is down from its previous analysis but still higher than the 0.2% as suggested by the Bank of Israel.

The IMF went on to praise the monetary and fiscal policies of Israel. It did find that there was room for selected budget stimulus and an even lower interest rate. However, the general picture is encouraging, hopefully leading to a major pick up in 2010.

That was the week that was for women, in Israel

February 15, 2009

Last week, Israeli women gave a global lesson in equality.

Let’s start with the general election Like her or not, and whatever the final make up of the new government, most commentators accept that Foreign Minister, Ms Tzipi Livni, ran the best campaign. She came from behind in the polls to become the largest party. She looked comfortable slipping into jeans and boogying at a disco. She was the lady to fear.

And as for Avigdor Lieberman, he may be the enemy of the foreign press, but of his electoral list, 4 are counted as former models. And one of those is the daughter of a former deputy Prime Minister. Yup, women did well in the polling booths.

But the successes do not stop there. Bar Raphaeli, Israel’s best-looking export and long-time partner of Leonardo DiCaprio, made the front cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. This is a lady who is proud to acknowledge her own natural beauty in tandem with that of her homeland.

Possibly even more sensational was the triumph of Hila Plitman. Growing up near the centre of modern Jerusalem, this soprano picked up a Grammy award. She received the attribute as in the category of best classical vocal performance.

Israel may be locked in to much of the culture of the Middle East, but she continues to offer pluralism and democarcy,  In fact, a female duo has been chosen to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, a Jewess and a Muslim. 

Curiously, Saudi Arabia has just appointed its first female deputy minister. Yet another case of Israel showing others in the region the benefits of her open society.

Israeli economy and general elections

February 12, 2009

Israel has voted. The results are in. And the financiers reacted by causing a 2.6% drop in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE). They don’t like change, especially when political uncertainty remains in the air.

Now look again.

Despite the fall, the TASE has still risen 5.36% since the beginning of the year. And there was a war going on as well for much of the time.

Some of the Israeli companies listed overseas are also being sought after. In the healthcare sector, Teva’s continuing success is well documented. Card Guard is located in Rehovot and has a strong reputation for devising remote patient monitoring systems. 

On the internet front, Michael Eisenberg recently identified 3 Israeli companies that may be well positioned to take off financially; Incredimail (MAIL), Answers.com (ANSW) and Babylon (traded on TASE: BBYL).

On more fundamental issues, the local papers remain full of pessimistic news about high tech companies going on to a 4-day working week. Yet on a rainy election day itself, most of the shopping malls were packed. Many reported a 200 – 400% increase in normal trading volumes. That spending power came from somewhere.

I don’t hold positions in the companies mentioned. I was not shopping on election day. Yet, while I recognise that 2009 will not be a pretty year for everyone commercially, there is still a lot of business out there in Israel.

Israeli Democracy vs Palestinian Human Rights

February 10, 2009

Israel goes to the polls today. 33 parties to choose from – green, Jewish religious, Arab, pensioners and the usual lot – they are all there competing on the basis of strict proportional representation.

Each election throws up its own irony. This year, when the winter rains have been almost non-existant, it is puring down as I write. Maybe this will put off a few people.

The non-Jewish voter is never short of choices. For example, the Druze are represented on many of the lists of the major parties. The Balad group and others, openly and consistently critical of Israeli governments, are trying to encourage their supporters to turn up and vote.

What is undisputed is that everyone has a right to one vote and cast is freely.

Palestinians can look on with wonder. , Hamas continues is rule by threat and violence. The Palestinian-run Independent Commission for Human Rights reported in a press release on February 8th that yet another Palestinian has been tortured to death by Hamas in a Gaza hospital.  Jameel Shafiq Shaqqura was 51, and heralded from Khan Yunis. In a separate incident, UNRWA has finally convinced Hamas to return supplies that were stolen in broad daylight.

No doubt, the result of the election will produce yet another coalition government. Weak or strong, right or left, whatever its formation, today confirms yet again that Israel resides firmly in the camp of pluralistic, democratic societies.