My Word: Guarding our assets

A popular trend at the moment – instead of having products Made in China, there are more and more things Made in Israel for the Chinese.

PM Netanyahu reading the Jerusalem Post (photo credit: GPO)
PM Netanyahu reading the Jerusalem Post
(photo credit: GPO)
The more I think about it, the most successful Purim prank I ever pulled seems less funny. Sometime in the 1990s, during a massive privatization campaign, I wrote a piece for The Jerusalem Post’s Purim pages (Motto: “All the news that fits, we print”) describing a plan to sell off Eilat and run the Red Sea resort as a separate commercial venture.
I don’t remember the details of the piece, but whatever they were, they must have been convincing. The Environment Ministry spokeswoman, who had received the clipping of the article without the pertinent information that it had appeared in the Post’s Purim section, panicked. She wanted to know where I’d got the information from.
I suspect the piece was partly influenced by the fight over the Dead Sea Concession Law, which gave an unprecedented amount of freedom to the Dead Sea Works company to develop the area with less deference to environmental considerations. This was at a time when it was not yet fashionable to be Green and nature protection was seen as a luxury, not something essential. Sustainability was not yet a catchword even in English, and its Hebrew equivalent (kayamut) had barely reached Israeli tongues.
Protesters, mainly from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, rallied against t he law with memorable only-in-Israel slogans like “Even Lot’s wife never saw such a scandal” and “In Sodom breaking the law is legal.”
Later the company, part of Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL), was sold to the Ofer Group, and it is now likely to be sold to a Chinese company, which partly explains its current massive advertising and public relations campaign.
That’s a popular trend at the moment – instead of having products Made in China, there are more and more things Made in Israel for the Chinese. It is a phenomenon I have warned against over the years, not because of a fear of China – I received a BA in Chinese years before Israel established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic – but because I believe there has to be a redline protecting the country’s strategic assets and I fear we might already have crossed it.
National assets and natural resources should remain that – resources to provide for the coming generations. Once they fall into private hands, they can be handed over to different owners for the highest bid, and that’s it: The country’s assets “going, going, gone.”
Strangely, the massive privatization in Israel first got off the ground under Yitzhak Rabin’s ostensibly socialist government before being adopted with a vengeance by Binyamin Netanyahu. That officially Communist China with its increasingly capitalist economy is the prime buyer is another irony.
Tnuva, the country’s largest dairy corporation, which was sold to the British Apax group in 2006, is now up for resale to the Chinese state-owned Bright Foods company.
I wasn’t happy about a major food supplier passing out of Israeli hands in the first place – so much for Tnuva’s slogan “Growing up at home” – and the call this week by the newly elected head of the British Veterinary Association for a ban on shechita did nothing to calm my fears, despite the friendly tones of visiting Prime Minister David Cameron.
Tnuva workers, like ICL employees, are now also actively fighting the sale – fearful for their jobs or their work conditions as part of a Chinese-run industry.
Allowing foreign control over the company that plays the biggest role in the country’s food production seems risky. Eight million Israelis are not many people by Chinese standards but that’s all we’ve got, and I’d like to be sure that we still have the main say and means of providing them with food, no matter what is going on elsewhere in the world.
I appreciate – and even encourage – developing better commercial ties with China.
But such ties need to be handled with caution.
While China is doing good business with Israel (and vice versa), it is still supporting many of our worst enemies, including Iran. Even some of the weapons on the intercepted Klos-C could reportedly be traced back to China.
Business interests abroad should not blind us to certain home truths. Any foreign company could decide to simply move its operations elsewhere or close them down completely.
We could complain all we want, but there’s no saying the cows would come home.
THE DEAD SEA sale protests came back to mind recently for other reasons. One was the photo of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ostensibly relaxing with PBS travel show host Peter Greenberg, a copy of The Jerusalem Post in their hands, as they floated and chatted as part of the broadcast Israel: The Royal Tour.
There’s been a lot of floating and refloating of ideas concerning the Israel Broadcasting Authority lately. In 1996, when Netanyahu was busy privatizing anything that didn’t move, I covered demonstrations in which protesters chanted slogans like “The press is the watchdog of democracy, don’t pull out its teeth.” At the time, the IBA seemed to be next up for sale.
Today it is Communications Minister Gilad Erdan who has pitted himself against the IBA. As environment minister in the last government Erdan has been praised for his role in what some called a Green Revolution, which included attempts to save the dying Dead Sea. But Erdan is determined to implement the report of the Landes Committee, the latest of at least a dozen committees that reviewed the IBA. The report, in effect, calls for the broadcasting authority to be completely shut down before creating a new state-run body to replace it.
His plan calls for the popular abolition of the compulsory TV license fee but will also cost the jobs of some 1,000 staffers.
As a board member of the Jerusalem Journalists Association I have sat through numerous discussions on the sorry state of the IBA (the internal politics are more baffling and bitter than those of the Knesset).
I have also seen a proposed reform accepted and now rejected which – while not perfect – would have solved many of the problems.
As Yediot Aharonot’s Nechama Duek summed up in a column this week: “In short, the IBA is a sick body. But you treat the sick. You don’t bury them while they’re still alive and hope that something new will be born in their wake. A small kid, cute, slim, smart, cheap and obedient. It is often said that to save the body, sometimes an arm or a leg must be amputated, but not the head, which kills it.
“In the democratic world, public broadcasting is a value, a necessity. It is the only way to ensure quality that is not dependent on sponsorship, commercials and ratings.
For that, there are commercial channels.”
Eliminating the license fee will not free the public from paying for state television – it just increases the chance of politicization.
If the operating costs depend on the budget of this or that ministry, then this or that minister is going to have greater control unless a set sum (of taxpayers’ money) is allocated to it.
And firing the dedicated reporters, producers and numerous hardworking staff, only to rehire them under worse conditions, is not going to improve the quality of the service.
Destroy the IBA and you also silence the Voice of Israel abroad – literally. Israel Radio’s broadcasts in many languages would also disappear.
Public broadcasting – not always trendy and not always cool – is nonetheless a national asset, in times of war and peace. (Netanyahu, after all, did not object to giving PBS the Royal Tour of Israel.) And I’m not the first person to note that since it has taken the Knesset nearly six months to appoint a head to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee due to infighting, it is unlikely to be able to speedily agree on how to establish a new broadcasting authority and who should head and fund it. In the meantime, the sound waves would remain deader than the Dead Sea. Unless, of course, someone is thinking of outsourcing the Voice of Israel to China – something I don’t want to even joke about this Purim.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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