Opinion

Is Israel Starting to Kill Business With Ideology?

The cancelled friendly soccer match with Argentina and the gratuitous ban on Indonesian tourism are signs that Israel's vital interests are being sacrificed to politics

Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 17, 2018.
Haim Zach / GPO

The Netanyahu administration has long observed a Chinese wall between the government that rants and raves at “hostile” forces like the European Union, and the government that continues to do business with supposedly implacable enemies of the Jewish State.

The government has usually stayed coldly pragmatic when it came to trade, investment and business. But the last couple of weeks have seen some worrying developments.

In one, Argentina canceled a friendly soccer match with Israel  because the sports minister insisted that the game be played in Jerusalem rather than Haifa, as originally arranged. The change in venue had nothing to do with sports or business considerations: it was part of a campaign of ramming Jerusalem-as-Israel’s-eternal-capital down everyone’s throat.

The result is the game won’t be played at all. The organizers are out millions of dollars and the only publicity Israel gets out of it is a humiliating setback.

The second development was the decision by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to bar Indonesian tourists from Israel after Jakarta barred Israeli tourists to protest the killings in Gaza. Though Israel and Indonesia have no diplomatic relations, about 30,000 Christian Indonesians make pilgrimages to Israel each year. The local tourism industry was appalled.

In barring the Indonesian tourists, Israel again bowed before the  nationalist agenda that doesn’t allow the smallest perceived insult to go unanswered, even at the cost of the tourism business. It also leaves a bad feeling among the very Indonesians who would be natural supporters of the Jewish State.

Gold medal or nothing

Neither incident amounted to a body blow to the Israeli economy. The lost business probably amounted to no more than a few millions of dollars in business in each case.

But they are worrying developments for Israeli business just the same. Both developments resulted from decisions by the Israeli government that put the narrowest preoccupations of the ideological right – which is the settlers, Jerusalem, and humiliating the Palestinians, though not necessarily in that order – ahead of Israel's economic interests.

Now the same idiotic demands could cost Israel the pleasure of hosting the 2019 Eurovision, which it's supposed to do after winning this year's contest. The Eurovision is even bigger business event than a soccer match or Indonesian tourism.

From the right’s point of view, Israel wins by putting its foot down, even if it shoots itself in the foot at the same time. It’s all about symbols, defiance, anger and revenge.

No one honestly thinks that international sports can ever be divorced from politics. Hosting the Olympics or the World Cup is regarded as such an important point of prestige that countries are willing to lose lots of money in the process. Defying common sense, many governments regard accumulating medals as a national priority.

But at least they understand that the issue is to hold the event and win medals. In Israel’s case that wasn’t good enough: If we couldn’t win a gold, then we would accept nothing at all and the hell with you all.

Greasy pole dancing

The most worrying thing about these decisions was that they were made by party stalwarts who are presently quite low in rank, but who are rising stars in Likud: Miri Regev and Tzipi Hotovely, respectively the culture and sports minister and deputy foreign minister.

With their relatively minor portfolios in the government today, their ability to wreak havoc is limited. But both have career aspirations and if they continue to through the ranks of the Likud, which seems likely – they would become candidates for heavyweight jobs, like finance minister.

It could be that as they climb the greasy pole of politics, they will shed the hardest edges of their ideology. But we live in the age of Trump, where pragmatic politics and ordinary business interests are no longer in style. Just look at Trump at the G-7 conference over the weekend, threatening allies with tariffs and trade wars, and insulting their leaders as if he were still running for office.

Miri Regev’s response to her mistake in unilaterally deciding to move the game to Jerusalem wasn’t to own up to her error.She blamed the whole thing on Argentina’s caving into to Palestinian threats, or “terrorism” as she bombastically called it. In case anyone were to mistakenly detect any sign of remorse on her part, she vowed to pursue the same all-or-nothing strategy vis-à-vis the Eurovision.

Bibi is a rightist, too, but he knows where to draw the line.

When Israel faced the dilemma over whether to sign on to the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, with the prospects of hundreds of millions of euro in money, the government seriously considered rejecting it for no other reason than that the EU insisted the money couldn’t go to institutions and businesses based in the settlements. In the end, business and commonsense won out.

The next generation of Likudniks hasn’t shown the same balance.

Imagine Intel seeking government aid to upgrade and expand its Israeli semiconductor plant, as it will probably be doing in 2023, and it faces a government that says, yes -- but only on condition that the plant be moved to Jerusalem, or maybe over the Green Line. Would a future Finance Minister Miri Regev stick to her demands at all costs and then blame Palestinian “terrorism” for the lost jobs?