Comment /Backslaps All Around, and It's All Courtesy of the OECD

We will be hearing a lot of cheering from senior civil servants and self-congratulations from politicians over the coming days. One can assume that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also doubles as acting finance minister, will not miss a chance to win a half point or so in public opinion. This is the general reaction to the invitation this week from the Organization of Economic Development asking Israel to become a member. It took 13 years of intensive lobbying for this to become true.

Here is the response of Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer: "The OECD's invitation reflects the strong economic standing of the Israeli economy and will help to further integrate the Israeli economy into the global economy." Fischer said ,"The Bank of Israel would like to thank the work and cooperation of all the relevant parties - this includes the Prime Minister's Office, the Finance Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, and the Justice Ministry and others - in their efforts to promote Israel's membership in the OECD."

The OECD is a leading economic organization, but unlike the United Nations or the World Monetary Fund, it has no formal authorities or powers to enforce. The organization has a reputation, it has an office campus in Paris and its people conduct global economic studies, some of them important. Members of the organization, senior public servants of member countries, hold meetings on important economic issues, and occasionally publicize policy recommendations. But after the celebrations, who benefits from this new development? And what precisely does joining the OECD mean to the public?

There is no argument about one thing: the immediate beneficiaries are a rather long series of public officials and politicians, who will now start frequenting the Paris-Tel Aviv air route to participate in the organization's activities, and Paris is certainly a pleasant place to hold discussions on global economic policies.

Other than that, not everyone agrees about what will happen. In the opinion of David Klein, former Bank of Israel governor, joining the organization will result in no improvement in economic conditions. Klein may be speaking cynically, but he is not alone.

The Finance Ministry says the results will be indirect "because the organization requires its members to operate according to high standards, [and] Israel will also be obliged." A good example of this is the issue of intellectual property: the OECD is among the leading proponents of public awareness of this issue, and Israel will be required to take a more decisive stand on protection of intellectual property. Other economists with a fine grasp of what membership in a prestigious club can do for one's reputation, say membership in the OECD will draw foreign investors to Israel, and it may even result in reduced costs of raising capital in international markets for the state and for Israeli companies.

Had Israel been accepted in 2002, or a decade ago, it would have been real news. Then, Israel's image of an attractive investment environment needed legitimization. This is less the case today. Israel is already flooded with investors and foreign capital, and it is sufficient to note the falling dollar to understand that no one is waiting for the OECD's approval to invest in Israel.