How Israel Could Wind Up Following the Lemmings of Greece Over the Cliff

Five years of sweet talk by demagogues has pushed Greece over the precipice, and Israel risks the same with its gas industry.

Bloomberg

The sight of Greeks celebrating their “no” vote this week is akin to the first lemmings to reach the precipice being proud they beat their fellow rodents in the race to the edge.

Actually, contrary to popular myth, lemmings don’t periodically commit mass suicide. They have a two-year lifespan, brains the size of a pea and live a solitary existence, which doesn’t give them time for dashed hopes, the ability to think critically about their existence or saddle them with many romantic troubles. Yet, when population pressures grow, they go en masse in search of new territory - and often overestimate their ability to ford rivers.

So it is with the Greeks. They aren’t trying to commit mass suicide. But they have overplayed their hand and now risk economic suicide.

Unlike lemmings, Greeks should have been able to reason their way out their problems without causing self-inflicted death to their economy. Instead, they have gone the road of demagoguery.

They’re not the only ones. Argentinians have been smitten by the promises of demagogues since the days of Juan and Evita Peron and have paid for it in long-term economic decline. Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to be suffering the same ills these days and is now in an economic shambles, despite its vast natural resources. And now Israel has succumbed to it now in the debate over natural gas.

Lemmings don't commit suicide. They're just not good at fording rivers. (Photo: Dreamstime)

Who, me talk rubbish?

Demagoguery isn’t always easy to identify. Neither the politicians and media figures who engage in it will ever own up to what they’re doing. They’re fighting for the people. The recipients won’t admit to it either. The message the demagogues offer is too seductive.

Identifying demagoguery is hard because it often starts innocently enough, in the form of populism.

Populism in Israel has gotten itself a bad name in recent years, which is unfair. It has honorable origins as a push-back against the wealthy and connected. But it comes in the form of broad public discontent that is usually inchoate and uninformed, especially when it comes to matters involving economics. That makes it easy for smooth-talking politicians and media figures to hijack it.

The demagogue and the gas

But it can be spotted. Here are four easy tests to spot demagoguery.

1)  Is the message you’re hearing is that the “people” are always right, always wise, always seeking justice -- though often tricked by the rich and powerful?

The demagogues backing the Greek ruling party Syriza hail the innate wisdom of the Greek people for voting overwhelmingly to stick it to the European Union elites this week. But they don’t ask why so many wise Greeks didn’t just put Syriza into power last January, but also voted in sizable numbers for a bunch of loonies like Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi Party that placed third with 6.9% of the vote; the Communists (5.5%); and Independent Greeks, who call for criminal investigations of the politicians who agreed to the European bailout (4.6%).  

In Israel, you might ask the same question of the people vis-a-vis gas. A survey by TheMarker found a sizable 78% thought the government was serving the interest of the gas tycoons first and foremost in formulating policy. But the same survey found that nearly 60% don’t even know a basic fact, like that Israel is already producing gas.

Given the second figure, it’s hard to believe that the 78% who say policy is too pro-tycoon have any idea what the policy is. They just heard a slogan or a headline somewhere, or don’t want to appear nave by saying no to the question. So much for wisdom.

2) Is there a villain of the piece?

That’s a true warning signal. For demagogues, public debate isn’t about issues, it’s about enemies – and the best enemy is a person, the second best a foreign country and the third best an institution.

Focusing rage on an enemy and ascribing to him or her the vilest of motives is a great substitute for debate of the issues, which are boring and complicated. In Greece, Germany has become the whipping boy, with its finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, the focus of particular rage. Posters printed by the “no” camp showed him with the caption “He’s been sucking your blood.”

In Israel, Yitzhak Tshuva and Bibi Netanyahu have been the target of a similar kind of demagogic wrath, portrayed as pirates with eye patches and skull-and-crossbones hats, captioned “Stop the stealing the nation’s treasures.” They don’t have a different point of view, they’re stinkers – end of discussion.

At a demonstration in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu's plan for Israel's gas. Photo: Ofer Vaknin

3) Is the political message filled with loaded vocabulary?

Greece’s prime minister, Alex Tsipras, termed European bailout demands “blackmail and fearmongering,” and his (now ex-) finance minister Yanis Varoufakis called the European demands “terrorism.”

The opponents of the gas-cartel framework haven’t adopted such hard language, but they have come pretty close, crossing a red line over the weekend, when we had the spectacle of Yaron Zelekha, an influential former accountant general, calling for a criminal probe of the officials who auctioned off the gas rights. (In Greece, they’re demanding that the leaders who signed the bailout accords be brought to justice.)

Demanding a criminal investigation of your enemies when no obvious law was violated is a sure sign of demagoguery. Now we’re not talking about a difference of opinion, but a criminal act. All you need now is a people’s court to bring a guilty verdict.

4) Are you being told there are no hard choices, just simple justice?

That is how the debate is Greece is being conducted. The demagogues’ message is that somehow Greece can go back to the good old days of living off the largesse of EU aid and easy credit while retiring early and paying few taxes.  Austerity has caused suffering and its need to end, period. It’s only fair and just.

In Israel, we’re hearing a similar kind of message: The gas belongs to us, not to rich tycoons like Tshuva or foreign companies like Noble Energy. And because it’s ours, we can do whatever we want with it: Take it away, tax it and place all kinds of restrictions on its sale, even retroactively (there are signed agreements for gas that hasn't been extracted yet).  That’s justice for the masses that won’t cost us anything because if Noble doesn’t deliver us the gas, someone else will.

For Greece it’s too late – five years of demagoguery has pushed the nation over the cliff. For Israel, despite all the apocalyptic talk from the Prime Minister’s Office, natural gas is not a be-all, end-all proposition.

It would be a pity if we squandered it by driving away Noble and went back to importing more of our energy. The real fear is that when the demagogues finish with gas, they will go on the attack somewhere, maybe the high-tech sector, risking real damage. Tasting the power of demagoguery only whets the appetite for more.