Heal the North

Small businesses, forced to remain inactive during the weeks of conflict, are now on the brink of bankruptcy.

nahariya biz 88  298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
nahariya biz 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In his post-cease-fire Knesset address, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took great pains to stress that he wasn't seeking to evade responsibility for the July-August conflict in the North, or for its consequences - however one evaluates the outcome. His announcement on Sunday that he is placing himself at the helm of the effort to rehabilitate Israel's rocket-stricken North is one facet of taking that responsibility. Whether the upshot of the fighting is considered a victory on points, as IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz has asserted, or as a grievous failure, as others in Israel's public discourse claim, the fact is that the northern third of Israel has emerged bruised and battered from over a month of bombardments. Israelis who live outside the Katyusha zone should not underestimate the severity of the beating endured by the North. To judge by Sunday's Dun & Bradstreet Israel assessment, which highlights the likely decline in GDP and a threat of bankruptcy faced by one in four businesses nationwide as a consequence of the war, Olmert's team will face a Herculean task just to bring the northern economy back to where it was in early July. Among the worst hit are the small businesses that were forced to remain inactive during the weeks of conflict, many of which are consequently now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Also high on the worst-off list is farming. Over half of the Israeli agricultural enterprises facing closure are in the North. The bed-and-breakfast business, particularly prolific in the North, is another noteworthy economic casualty. B&B operators are estimated to have lost at least 40 percent of their annual income; summer is their peak season. Suppliers in all sections of the country, who were not paid as scheduled by northern clients during the fighting, are also now feeling the aftershock. Meanwhile, some in the banking hierarchy are suggesting the imposition of a state of emergency regarding "rubber checks;" their prevalence is also, in good part, a direct consequence of the war in the North. To all the above, of course, must be added the substantial damage caused by the Katyusha strikes themselves. Private homes, businesses, industrial plants and public buildings of every conceivable sort took hits, some direct and devastating. Along with the need to repair this damage physically comes the challenge of making good indirect losses, not to mention rebuilding devastated confidence. Such wholesale injury to Israel's civilian infrastructure is unprecedented, even by comparison to past wars. The optimistic rhetoric and expressions of sympathy for the unfortunate victims are merited. But putting right the material destruction and secondary economic damage will require a serious and sustained effort, continuing long after helping the North remains a popular, headline issue. No quick fix will be sufficient here. The sad fact is that, along with the Negev, the North was always neglected. The main Highway 65 thoroughfare between Afula and the Golani junction, an inadequate single-lane in each direction despite enormous increases in traffic, is emblematic of an under-resourcing that would be unthinkable beyond what is known absurdly, in our tiny country, as "the periphery." The corresponding neglect of the populace, much of which suffered in sweltering shelters during the conflict, has meant few Israelis in the past were encouraged to relocate northward, either. Needed now are bold growth strategies, geared not merely to compensate northerners for the trouncing they have just suffered, but also - indeed, primarily - to close the gaps between their region and much of the rest of Israel. Steff Wertheimer's Tefen industrial project is an example of what can be accomplished with foresight and initiative. Going begging to the nation's prosperous patrons is not the answer, however. That it took billionaire Arkady Gaydamak to erect and maintain tent cities for northern refugees was a failure of officialdom. So, too, was the strain placed on private charities, delivering meals under fire to the shelters. These were areas of government responsibility, and though the private sector has a major philanthropic role to play, officialdom must not pass the buck. Hopefully, it is precisely this assertion of responsibility that Olmert was thinking of in his speech, and is acting on in taking personal responsibility for overseeing the strategic rehabilitation of the North.