It's mid-summer. Lots of people in Israel and other countries are on holiday. Leaders of most Arab countries are either dealing with domestic problems or worrying when the unrest will land on them. The recent humor was news that the Syrian government has joined the ranks of those recognizing Palestine in the 1967 boundaries with its capital in Jerusalem. At the same time were reports about the numbers killed on the same day in Syrian cities, and western governments pulling their diplomats out of Damascus, damning Assad for brutality, and cozying up to Syrian ex patriots claiming to represent the opposition. All of that amounts to de-recognition of Syria with its capital in Damascus.
There is no war on our horizon. The latest flotilla to Gaza that was looming a month ago has crumbled to one remaining boat, called a yacht rather than a ship. The Israeli navy took control without anything that should require attention of the United Nations.
The September session of the United Nations will still demand work from Israeli diplomats. However, they have already done enough so that a sizable number of western governments are telling the Palestinians to cool it. Even if Palestinians win a vote in the General Assembly, the appropriate response will be, "So what?"
Politics must fill the vacuum. In a country where the serious politics usually focuses on national security and the tactics of negotiating with Palestinians and other Arabs, our summer has been filled first with demonstrations about the price of cottage cheese and now housing. Young people are setting up tents in several cities, and claiming they must live there due to the high prices for buying or renting apartments. Politicians are moving from cottage cheese to housing, and competing with expressions of concern and detailed plans, some of which seem to have been formulated while moving from car to microphone.
If one bothers to plow through the populistic verbiage of politicians and media personalities, and looks past the well-padded students who are prominent in the housing protests, it is possible to find some serious issues.
Cottage cheese comes mostly from two firms, which buy their raw material from an agricultural sector well protected from competition. Enough said. Reports are that cottage cheese and other prepared foods are considerably more expensive than in the United States or Western Europe. Some may feel that Israeli cottage cheese is tastier, but not by that much.
Housing is more complex. It reflects a sector squeezed between public land ownership, with a government bureaucracy having its own criteria for deciding what to lease for which purposes, three levels of planning authorities that may object to the details of what will be built after the planners of the Lands Authority have had their turn, plus taxes that take account of a building's location, its use, how many apartments are owned by each taxpayer, as well as whether an apartment will be rented, purchased by the occupant, or used for something other than a residence.
Israel has been moving from socialism to free enterprise over the course of several decades, but housing still has a way to go. There has been no great immigration like that from the former Soviet Union that produced a significant shortage in the supply of housing 20 years ago. However, young people continue to leave their parents' home, couple-up, and look for a place of their own.
Some of the professionals in the Finance Ministry who decide about these things along with professionals in the Ministry of Housing and Construction, the Lands Authority, and municipal governments may remember what happened in the United States, and spilled over to other countries, when politicians did what they could to make it easier for poor people to buy homes.
Reports are that the long period of work sanctions by physicians is approaching resolution. However, segments of the profession not happy with what they hear from negotiators are threatening to walk of their jobs.
In these relatively dull days of an Israeli summer without the immediate threat of war, it is appropriate to reveal what appears to be one of the country's secrets: Jerusalem's has world class weather. I will reproduce the averages for temperature maximums and minimums, and monthly rainfall. I'll even report them in Fahrenheit and inches for my American readers.
My international searches for moderate summers and winters, low humidity, plus modest and concentrated rain found few places as good as Jerusalem. Northern California is a competitor, but its politics make it unattractive for someone like me.
Why the secret? Probably because it is limited to Jerusalem and a few other spots in the mountains. The coast is ghastly in the summer although decent in the winter, and the south is more like Arizona than any place inhabitable.
Jerusalem is not perfect. Midday in its summer is one of the former colonial places that spawned the observation that only mad dogs and Englishmen can be found outside. The city has suffered from the out migration of Jewish residents since records began to be assembled. A prominent reason is economic. There are more jobs in the center of the country that attract people who place weather lower than income in their preferences. Another reason is variously described as aesthetic, social, or cultural. Read than as antipathy to Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, who together comprise a majority of the city's population.
I have no intention of migrating, either for economic or other reasons. I report what I hear, often from well-educated and appropriately leftist friends and colleagues on their way to suburbs with few Arabs or ultra-Orthodox.
There is one population group that I find offensive, and it brings us back to the shortage of housing. They are well off absentees, typically from France or the United States, who aspire to own a home in Israel which they visit during the holiday periods from Rosh Hashana through Succot, and again for Pesach. They have the resources to attract the efforts of building contractors, and have produced areas that are largely empty for much of the year. Locals who own apartments in buildings along with them have the problems of deciding and managing upkeep while the absentees do little more than complain about what was not done, or why it wasn't done like they do it in Paris or on Long Island.
These are grumbles of an aging political scientist who stays active by pondering the problems of a place often at the center of controversy. As a pensioner, he can stay inside between early morning and evening all summer long, except when there is something he really wants to do.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at July 19, 2011 02:41 AM