Galilee gravy train

How can American Jewish donors support a project that operates on no known business model?

galilee green 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
galilee green 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
For 60 years successive Israeli governments have failed to build a rail link that would connect Galilee with the rest country. Instead billions have been wasted on government development projects that have enriched cronies, spawned red tape and crowded out private enterprise. Now the Olmert-Peres government is about to repeat - with the cooperation of the Jewish Agency - this wasteful approach. It has launched a rich gravy train that, under the guise of developing Galilee, will squander millions, retarding, if not halting, Galilee's development. The nobility of the cause and the siren song of Shimon Peres, have regrettably convinced US Jews to donate millions of dollars for yet another political initiative disguised as a development project. It will be the successor of so many previous boondoggles that have cost billions yet failed to stimulate development. I'm amazed that hard-nosed Jewish businessmen in the Diaspora are ready, when it comes to Israel, to suspend their critical judgment and back politically motivated projects managed by notoriously inefficient bureaucracies about which they so bitterly complain when they themselves try to invest in Israel. You would think that American Jewish lay leaders would want to make sure their donor dollars were being well spent. KNOWING ISRAEL'S political reality I would expect that some donated funds might find their way to help Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres buy political support. They'll need to pump cash into local authorities, regional political machines, the cabal of building contractors and businessmen that all grow rich on cushy government and Jewish Agency contracts. Patronage is the name of the game. Just listen to Shlomo Buhbut, mayor of Ma'alot and a successful political operator. Appearing on TV, Buhbut challenged angry critics who accused the government of the total abandonment of Galilee population, especially those of little means. "What are they talking about?" he exclaimed. "The government sent Galilee 150,000 sandwiches. It gave me all the money I needed… it is going to give us lots more! I have assembled over 20 Galilee mayors and we are going to organize a victory parade for the government…." He will probably also plant a victory forest in its name, to compensate for the many forests that were burned by Hizbullah rockets that the government failed to stop. ANOTHER TELLING indication of how the government is going to develop Galilee is the kind of person it appoints to head the effort. Ex-officio Shimon Peres, who holds the Galilee and Negev Development portfolio, is the responsible person. He would also seem the natural candidate, since Peres is a famous man of vision, who has been pushing Galilee, and especially Negev, development since time immemorial. But there is the rub. Peres has had many opportunities to implement his vision. He and the many governments he has served in tried. They've spent billions in various efforts designed to achieve the development of the Negev and Galilee. The results? Arguably worse than at the starting point. We can see why, by watching how Peres operates. He first raises huge amounts of money without a really concrete plan on how to spend it. Then, to spearhead the project, he appoints one of his loyalists, in this case the charming young Efrat Duvdevani, director-general of the Vice Premier's Office for economic and infrastructure projects in Galilee. Duvdevani is apparently very capable. She graduated with honors in international relations and English, an achievement not many political operatives can boast about. She was first recruited by Yitzhak Rabin when she was 24 years old, planning and executing his hinterland political tours. Peres spotted her after Rabin's murder, and she soon became his confidante. She headed his International Regional Cooperation Center, one of Peres's amorphous creations with no record that would enable us to assess her capabilities. But whatever they are, it is hard to imagine that any of the major contributors to the Peres initiative would appoint her as manager of one of their own mega-projects. Nor can we imagine that they would emulate her modus operandi, which was to first tour Galilee to canvass mayors and other public figures about their wishes and demands, vowing "not to promise what cannot be delivered" but nevertheless making loud noises about restoring trust (in the politicians, of course) and about "enabling and even fortifying and tripling our strength." This should be achieved by employing "preferential action, pooling of resources, the creation of a Golden Triangle, anchor projects, projects that stimulate turnabouts, leveraging" and an assortment of other "strategies" emanating from Peres's fertile imagination, the kind of initiatives that government is known to excel in. Significantly Duvdevani did not meet a single businessman. Asked by a cheeky reporter how she could guarantee that the moneys collected for Galilee reconstruction will not end up like the development funds given to the Palestinian Authority, Duvdevani answered that if the funds will not accomplish their stated purpose no more funds will be forthcoming from donors. Sadly, in this she may be wrong too. The writer heads the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a pro-market think tank.