The Big Mac Index of the Delusion That 'Ariel Is Part of Israel'

Reactions to McDonald’s refusal to open shop in a West Bank town say less about selling hamburgers and more about Israel’s reality-challenged view of the world.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Big Mac Index is the ingenious annual survey conducted by the Economist magazine in which the price of McDonald’s star hamburger sandwich in different cities is used to evaluate foreign currency exchange rates around the world.

Now, thanks to the brouhaha that erupted this week in the wake of McDonald’s refusal to open a restaurant in the West Bank town of Ariel, Israel has its own Big Mac measure. It translates the outrage at the so-called “boycott” of Ariel to a diagnosis of the degree to which Israelis have started to believe in the alternative reality that they have themselves created.

The owner of the mall in which McDonald’s declined to open a branch, discount food king Rami Levy, seemed to be genuinely perplexed. “What are we talking about?” he asked. “About people who are living here, in the State of Israel?”

Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas, went even further. On his Facebook page he promised that he would not only eat the first hamburger grilled by McDonald's Israeli rival, Burger Ranch, but he would also send McDonald's Israel owner Omri Padan “a current map with Israel’s up-to-date borders."

So it’s not clear what should worry us more: that Yishai, who served on Israel’s inner security cabinet in the previous government, knows something we don’t – a secret annexation, possibly? Or that Yishai, who served on Israel’s inner security cabinet in the previous government, truly has no idea that Ariel isn’t, in fact, inside Israel’s recognized borders and doesn’t appear to be so on any reputable map.

In fact, not only is Ariel decidedly NOT a part of Israel, not only does it reside in what even Israel acknowledges are “disputed” territories, but it is even an outlier compared to all the other “settlement blocs” that Israel swears allegiance to in any peace settlement.

Jutting 21 kilometers away from the Green Line and into the heart of Samaria, Ariel could very possibly be the most difficult obstacle on the way to the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. The “finger” of Ariel, as it is called, is so outlandishly far from the 1967 borders that Ariel Sharon – for whom the city was not named, as many believe – originally had no intention of extending the separation fence around it. He thought that would be a bit too much.

Ariel, in a word, is a Jewish settlement. Not in Israel, but in the territories. It’s a big settlement with over 20,000 residents, but in international law, at least, size doesn’t matter. Politicians may swear on their mother’s grave that Ariel will remain Israeli forever, but that remains, at this point, a political promise, not a description of reality.

These facts seem to matter little to McDonald’s detractors, however. “By the same logic,” columnist Elkana Shor wrote in Maariv wrote on Thursday, “another businessman could refuse to open a branch in the [Israeli Arab] towns of Taibeh or Umm al-Fahm.”

First of all Taibeh and Umm al-Fahm are inside the June 1967 borders and are universally recognized as part of Israel, so they actually have very little in common with Ariel, which isn’t part of Israel even by Israel’s own standards. Possibly the writer believes that the fact that Muslims rather than Jews live in these two towns renders their status questionable, like Ariel’s, but let’s not go there.

Secondly, he is absolutely right: any businessman can decide where and when to do business for whatever reasons they see fit. This is becoming less and less clear, admittedly, to Israel’s right-wing, which increasingly sees public and private Israeli entities – governments, NGOs, businesses and citizens – as no more than robotic organs mobilized in the pursuit of the “right” national goals. (A worldview that is traditionally symbolized by the ancient Roman emblem of a bundle of rods tied around an axe.)

“The entire issue of commerce and culture needs to remain outside the political arena,” said Ariel Mayor Eli Shviro, who has obviously succeeded in turning the world upside down so that participating in building up the settlements is somehow apolitical, while declining to do so is a “boycott."

In fact, by opening a store in Ariel, McDonald’s would be actively participating in what is still a highly controversial political act, even though the settlers and most of Israel have succeeded in convincing themselves otherwise. Even if Padan were not the “extreme leftist” that his critics portray, he would still think twice before embroiling his company and its international brand name in a move that would probably yield more trouble than revenues.

Nonetheless, having successfully surmounted a botched boycott of their recently built cultural center and having pushed the sympathetic government to recognize Ariel’s college as a university, despite the objections of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, the settlers have recognized the potent force and negative reactions among most Jews and Israelis to the very concept of “boycott.”

Thus, they would like to persuade you not only that Padan’s position is tantamount to a “boycott," but that a boycott is a boycott is a boycott, whether it is aimed at Jewish settlements in the territories, the existence of Israel itself or – and this is just a matter of time – Jewish shops in Berlin in the 1930s. And that anyone who engages in a boycott, even if it isn’t really a boycott, is, in fact, a defeatist, a self-hating Jew or – and this is also just a matter of time – a full-fledged traitor.

And the sad reality is that even without the benefit of a public opinion poll, one can safely assume, based on past experience, that most Israelis probably agree with them.

P.S. But between us, if you were now a chief executive in McDonald’s international, with hundreds of branches in Europe, the Middle East and the Muslim world, is that what you would be recommending to your Israel branch? To launch a new store in an area that 99% of the world regards as occupied and that is the focal point of a real boycott campaign that is increasingly gathering steam?

Really? You would? Well then – you’ve earned yourself one very Big Mac. Or, if you’ve already joined the settlers’ counter-boycott, a “Triple Ranch” at their competitors' nearest branch.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

A McDonald's branch in Masada, near the Dead Sea.Credit: Emil Salman

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