Don't Go Near the Water - Unless You Pay

There is no free lunch, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told us. But the sea is free - that's the whole idea.

Even if you don't want to study economics, the sea is an excellent lesson in the fruits of privatization. As in many fields, when a premium class is created, the good-old ordinary thing falls from grace.

For example, once when a woman had a baby, the ward was a fine place to recover. Then came the motel next to the hospital, for which you had to pay, and respect for standard hospital rooms declined. Nowadays you almost feel that if you don't pay for the motel, you'll endanger your health.

The same thing happened with the sea. Not only has the Dead Sea become a pool belonging to one family, on the beach from Tel Aviv's Atarim Square to the Dolphinarium, with all the chairs and umbrellas for rent, there's hardly a place to sit for free. Even if you find such an island, it's a risky business to sit there because of the paddleball players.

Geula Beach, the longest strip without easy chairs, has the most dangerous paddleball players - real professionals, wielding a paddle in each hand. Nearby is a black market in paddles. A crafty salesman opens a bag and offers a new model of carbon paddles for NIS 350. "Wood is passe and hurts your hand," he says. "The professionals are going for carbon."

You can save the price of shade by sitting in one of the restaurants and having a cup of coffee. But that will run you about NIS 15 in some places. One place was charging NIS 4 for a glass of tap water. When customers complained, the owner refused to serve tap water at all.

The city, in an attempt to educate the restaurants, has set a maximum price for a small bottle of water at NIS 7. But some establishments have gotten around the rule by selling a bottle half the size for NIS 7.

There is no free lunch, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told us. But the sea is free - that's the whole idea.

Next to the memorial to the Altalena, an artist is painting the sunset, while alongside him stands a pudgy little boy looking at him adoringly. An ugly boat anchors in the water, but the artist turns it into a beautiful vessel.

Near the U.S. Embassy a man and woman are playing with a frisbee that almost slices my head off. They don't even apologize; they're used to it. It's like Israel's defense policy - all the fun is in not apologizing.

But in Tel Aviv things are still good compared to places where people have to pay even to get near the water. This week a protest was held near the Hatzbani Stream in the Hula Valley, where access to the water had been blocked to make people pay an entrance fee. The owner of the nearby kayak business said access had been blocked for security reasons.

Sunset comes, and people are taking pictures of it for some reason. Four African workers collect the rental chairs and pile them up under the watchful eye of their Israeli boss.