Monday, December 27, 2004

Living the Middle Class Dream

After some excursions into politics, this one is once more about the daily madness of life in Israel, about the urge of every Israeli to own a house, to be precise.

Even more so than in Germany, in Israel owning a flat or a house is a basic fabric of life. Although economically nonsense (at least as long as you have to take out a mortgage), you have to do it in order to be accepted by family and friends as a reasonably responsible adult. People that live in rent are either unstable or just plain poor.

Once you have accepted those ground rules the questions, which remain are: Where, what and when. When? As soon as possible. Where? As close to the center (=Tel Aviv) as possible. And what? A house with a garden for the kids to play in, of course. Never mind that you can play in the garden only two months a year, because in the summer it is just too hot and in the winter just too wet. A house with a garden is the ultimate middle class fulfillment.

Once you have settled on the type of property and the timing, you are now about to realize that "as close as possible to the center" probably means pretty far away, at least in terms of commuting time during the Tel Aviv rush hours. In our case we made to within 20 kilometers of the TA city limits, which translates to about one hour commute. Now here comes the crazy part: None of us actually works in TA. We both work in the opposite direction and haven't seen a traffic jam in 4 years of daily drive to work. So why not live further away from the center, where we could afford a respectable plot of land and a nice single family home, instead of a cottage with barely enough space around it to park two cars next to the entrance and still be able to put two shopping bags on the ground on our side of the fence?

Well, basically because just a few hundred meters further south of here starts the province. The province is where people don't take bar exams, they bath their kids only once a week and they watch Reality TV every night. In the province people drink Turkish coffee and eat Falaffel, while in the center we drink Moccacino and eat goat-cheese-on-sun-dried-tomato sandwiches.

Lucky us, we made it into the center, outskirts and barely, but center it is. House on the ground it is too, and the small garden has advantages: The kids can't get lost in it and always will make it back for dinner in time.

All difficult questions settled, now starts the fun part. Plan and build your dream house. We soon realized that we neither have enough spare time to plan the house properly, nor does an architect fit into our budget, so we went for a turn-key project with one of the more respected Israeli development companies. This would also free us from the hassle of managing the project ourselfs and struggeling almost daily with the contractors. Little did we know how smart a decision this would prove to be...

All things decided, we signed a contract in December 2003, took out a mortgage, paid up and waited for things to happen. We passed by the plot almost every day in order not to miss any action, but nothing happend for over four months. The development company didn't send us the signed contract despite several reminders, it appeared to have been lost! The companies' lawyer didn't send receipts for tax and registration payments we made to them, and not a single worker ever showed up. Just when we started to suspect that the whole deal was a hoax to relief us of our life savings, the first tractor magically appeared one day in early May to clear the plot.

From then on things happend at the speed of light. We had to meet with all the suppliers of the development company, to choose among a limited list of options for kitchen cabinets, tiles, doors, electrical outlets and most importantly pay for every deviation from the holy list. All in all hundreds of big and small decisions, and everything had to happen in about one week - although the completion of the house was still months away.

Just when we thought that the worst is behind us and from now on it is about watching how everything falls into place, things started to go south, but this time for real.

To be continued...

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Arafat Principle

These days it is opportune to think about the positive effects Mr. Arafat had on his people and entire Middle East. I'd like to join this honorable cause and offer an entirely new view point on Mr. Arafat's achievements.

I think Arafat's life symbolizes a deep principle, which could be an inspiration to a lot of desperate people out there:

No matter how ugly you are, you can still be rich ($800 Million, all stolen, but who cares....) and famous (Peace Nobel Price, tricked, but who cares...), if you really want to and if you are willing to pay the prize (lie, cheat, steal, torture, kill and whatever else is needed, who cares...). You can even expect to get a reasonably good looking woman enough excited to marry you, although you missed most of your dentist appointments.

The advantage of being extremely unattractive in the diplomatic field may seem counter intuitive at first. But here is a reconstructed meeting between a French government official and Mr. Arafat.

Arafat: "I need more money now to wipe out the Zionist cancer that has befallen my beloved Palestine!"
Frenchman (thinks): "Gee, I feel like kicking your butt, but then again, you are so freaking ugly, that would be like hitting a cripple. Well, so the least I can do is to ease your pain a little bit."
Frenchman (says): "Well, I think we can allocate some more money for infrastructure and education... Would 300 Million Euro do for today?"
Arafat smiles the broadest smile he can muster, and thinks: "Education, my ass!"
Frenchman (thinks): "And please use some of it for a cosmetic surgeon, if you will."

Seriously, can there be any other explanation for the continuous stream of European money into the black hole called the Palestinian Authority?

I would like to suggest calling this newly discovered principle the "Arafat Principle" of living a highly successful life.

What will Steven Covey say about this?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Historic Moment?

Yesterday the Knesset passed the so-called "Disengagement Bill", which foresees the removal of all settlements in Gaza and some in the northern West Bank. The landmark bill passed by a large majority made up by the center part of the governing coalition (the split went right through the middle of Ariel Sharon's Likud party) and most of the opposition. Surveys say that more than 60% of the general population support the bill, as does practically the whole rest of the world, as one can see in the major newspapers of today. Described outside of Israel mostly as a hawk and war criminal, Ariel Sharon got for the first time world-wide so high approval ratings, that his best buddy George in Washington must have become green from jealousy.

So far the good news. But is this bill really so great as most of the world seems to believe? Here comes in one of my well tested principals: If something is believed by almost everybody, including those which know nothing about the subject matter, it is probably wrong. And it could well be that this test is going to go in the same direction, although I haven't made up my mind entirely. Let's look at the two most often quoted angles:

The peace camp says this is Oslo II, finally there is movement in the Israeli government in the direction of a settlement with the Palestinians. The withdrawal from Gaza will prove to the Palestinians and the World that we are willing to compromise and will ultimately make us safer, even if maybe in the short run we will suffer more Qasam rockets fired from northern Gaza into Israeli cities. It is one first step to end the occupation and return Israel into the circle of civilized nations, and as such well worth the risk.

The other side (I don't want to call them the anti-peace camp, because in the end 90% of the people here do want nothing but peace, one way or another) say yes, this is Oslo once more, only much worse than the first, which was a total failure in it's own right and led us into the catastrophe we are living with today.

When we started Oslo I at least there seemed to be a partner for peace, although this partner was actually imported into the territories by the Israelis from Tunis without asking anybody on the ground there beforehand. Unfortunately the miraculously emerged partner neither had any intention to honor any of the numerous agreements he signed, nor did he want to build a truly democratic and self supporting Palestine, as we know today.

But this time there can be no illusions. We know from the very beginning that there is no partner for peace at this time. There is no one group anywhere to be seen that wants peace with Israel and has the power to control the groups which refuse to even consider a deal. So in effect we are giving up territory that has been under Israeli administration for 20 to 30 years (Kfar Darom was even founded already in 1946) and we get absolutely nothing in return. We only loose the little suppressing power we have over the Qasam launch teams, we'll loose extremely valuable intelligence by not actually being there and we'll also loose the ability to openly or covertly support an eventually emerging Palestinian partner against the Hamas, Jihad and so on extremists. Meanwhile Hamas & Co. can smuggle in and stockpile more and better weapons than ever, turn more children into potential bombs by systematic brain wash, and suppress any remaining moderate and secular groups. To remove this threat will eventually make a military intervention necessary that pales anything we have seen in the last four years of Intifada.

The only thing we will gain is the appreciation of the World for our efforts. But, as history has shown time and again, the World doesn't care about our well-being (just consider the European weapon embargoes at times which Israel was actually at war), with the notable exception of the USA. So what the heck, we can do without the World!

So far the view points of the two main camps. Where do I stand? Well, here is one more angle.

I have always supported the annexation of territory occupied in a defensive (or preventive) war. As such I am totally at peace with the Golan Heights being and remaining an integral part of Israel since the war of 1967, and I would never support a move to return them to Syria for a peace treaty. Who needs a treaty with that screwed up regime anyway?

The same holds true for the West Bank and Gaza - but: They were never annexed. Israel's truly democratic system would have had to deal with the political weight of too many hostile Arabs within it's own borders, so full annexation was not an option. Total withdrawal and return of the old regimes in those areas was not an option either, simply from a security point of view. The additional territorial buffer was thought to be crucial for the next military confrontation. Therefore the concept of ex-territorial settlements was invented and quickly implemented. This is the very source of the mess we are facing today.

It must be obvious to even the most steadfast supporters of the settlement idea: This concept has served us well for 30 something years, but now it is falling apart and something else has to replace it.

So here is finally my 1-2-3 solution for one of the World's thorniest problems:

  1. Israel has to make a simple choice, square meter for square meter: Annex or leave.
  2. Criteria are: Present population distributions, strategic importance for Israel's defense, practical connectivity to Israel proper, economic and administrative viability of the abandoned areas as an independent entity (ultimately a Palestinian state), and then some.
  3. In the absence of a functional Palestinian administration, the decision rests with Israel only and the new borders have to be drawn up unilaterally.
As for Gaza, I am not sure if annexation of the settlement areas is a viable choice in that respect. But I am convinced that this should be the main factor in Ariel Sharon's mind, not the World's opinion, not the pain of the potentially uprooted settlers and not the short term gains for any one party.

And somehow I have the feeling that he knows what he is doing. May the Force be with you, Arik!

Monday, July 26, 2004

Herzl Street at Night

2 AM in a town of 30,000 souls – doesn’t sound all that exciting, right? Well, in my hometown the "central artery" – like the main street in every Israeli town called either Weizmann or Herzl Street – is bustling with life any summer night.

People sit outside, around tables sponsored by the never ending row of junk food shops along both sides of the street, with ample supply of pistachio, sun flower seeds and other bird’s food (after ten years in Israel I still don’t manage to open a sun flower seed with my front teeth only in a split second and take the seed out with the tip of my tongue, but at least I do succeed to spit the peel silently onto the pavement), watch other people walking by, or stare with empty glares at the TV inside the nearest shop. The girls bitch about the competition, which the guys admire, if they are not preoccupied with the next Honda-Civic-turned-Starship-Enterprise, roaring down Weizmann (or Herzl, depends) Street.

The average age at these hours is around 19 for the men, and not more than 16 for the girls. Without checking the ID you can’t tell here if a girl is 14 or 22, there are no limits with regard to the minimum covered body surface, make-up and hair-do. Anything goes, the hotter, the better, remember: Taste is subjective.

The most interesting place is the central junction. Here is where the mating rituals take place. Four to six boys crammed into anything from a disintegrating wreck to the latest 4x4, try to get the attention of the apparently totally bored girls, which happen to be at this junction purely by accident. The challenge is to overcome the brutal volume of the car stereo (yes, true, I love Sarid Hadad, I have confessed to this one already) with shouts relaying deep wisdom and a deep tone. Can be difficult when you are 16, so better turn the volume up a little more. What happens when the mating calls are unexpectedly met by an inviting response?  Nothing, of course. How could you pack six girls into a 1986 Fiat Punto, which already is collapsing under six hopeful heavy weights? So here is my tip for the boys on Weizmann (or Herzl) Street: Walk!

As a father of two boys and one girl I have made the following resolutions after witnessing the local scene:

  • No driver license allowed under the age of 25.
  • Summer curfew is 8 PM for now, 10 PM for ages 16 and up. This is in our garden, outside take 2 hours off.
  • Pop’s and Mom’s cars are out of order after 8 PM.
  • No muscles shirts, no mini skirts and no barely visible blouses in my vicinity. (No platform shoes either, but this one is for another time, too.) .

I guess you are asking yourself now: Since neither his age (for sure) nor his dress code (presumably), actually not even his driving style (hopefully) is appropriate for that kind of nightlife, what is he doing outside at those hours?

Well, I’ll get back to this topic in one of the next stories, when I will tell you something about the not-so-nice sides of small town night-life in crazy Israel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Another Wall, 15 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Now this one is especially interesting from a German point-of-view.
I have lived next to the fortified border between East and West Germany for 25 years, so it was kind of obvious to me that
a) one can build a border that is cheap yet almost impossible to overcome, and therefore
b) I suggested already in 1995 in several letters to the Israeli media to hire the unemployed East German border engineers for a year or two to separate Israel proper from the territories, at least as long as it is necessary to cool the fighting parties down.
As we have seen in Germany, such a border must not be permanent and is no contradiction to a negotiated settlement.  Well, somehow I was not taken all that serious at the time, but here I am, 9 years later, deeply satisfied that finally an Israeli government has the guts to do the sensible thing and separate us from the lowtech terrorism emerging on a daily bases from the PA territory.  
Is the wall, or rather fence - because that is what it is for 90% of the total length - legal or fair? Does it bring hardship upon part of the Palestinian population? Complicated questions with a simple answer: I couldn't care less, at this point in time.
The only relevant question from this side of the fence is: Does it save lives? And here the answer is a crystal clear YES! And, believe it or not, it saves both Israeli and Palestinian lives. Israelis are not being blown up in busses and restaurants, while the Palestinian suicide bombers have a hard time to find a worthy target to blow up, so they stay alive and their families don't suffer Israeli retaliation for another day, and another one, and another one. And maybe one day they'll wake up and realize that there are better career moves than to explode at the entrance to a disco.
Not many people know this, but there are at any given moment about 300 Palestinian volunteers willing to turn themselves into living bombs. The fence may save most of them eventually.   So this is what the fence is all about: It buys all of us, on both sides of it, time to stay alive, day after day, one at a time. Welcome to Middle Eastern realities.
In that context it is no wonder that nobody here gives a damn about the absurd recommendation of the International Court of Justice. From the Israeli perspective the fence is a must, like it or not.  And from the Palestinian perspective, too, although not too many Palestinians see it that way, I have to admit - yet. Once the fence is completed, things will settle down and when things settle down, blood returns from the muscles to the brain, and so maybe finally we can start talking business again. 
Since I promised to write about the daily life here, I want to add something you haven't read in the international press. Besides the already very clear impact on the security situation in large parts of the country, the fence has another very significant effect: It reduces incidents of car theft, break-in into homes and businesses by over 40% overall, and even more so in the parts of the country where construction has been finished.
The explanation is obvious. Most of those stolen cars disappeared in the West Bank. The new ones were turned into official PA vehicles (especially fancy 4x4 very appreciated by PA security and police (!) officials of all sorts), or sold at 5-10% of the real value to whoever can afford it. The not so new ones were disassembled and sold as spare parts back to Israel, where many cheap garages used those parts. During the happy times of the Oslo accords, when the border to the PA areas had more holes than a same-sized Swiss cheese, close to 46,000 vehicles were stolen in Israel in the record year of 1997! (See for official police statistics.)  
This unbelievable situation could only exist, because the Israeli government decided not to do anything meaningful against it, officially because there were not enough resources for that - there never are, by the way. Essentially the common Israeli financed the complete PA car pool indirectly via his or her extremely high car insurance payments. It was not only my impression that our politicians didn't want to step onto PA toes and rather tolerate the illegal flow of wealth into the PA coffers. You can maybe call this an indirect peace tax.  
What has happened since? Well, the silk gloves are off, the fence is progressing and car theft was down to 25,000 cars in 2003. Still very, very high by any standard, but there can be no doubt about the trend, can there?  
By the way, I lived five years in Hong Kong, which has a population just like Israel, about 6 Million people. Believe me, had there been 46,000 car thefts in that city in any one year, the world would have witnessed an uprising of the local Chinese masses. Which only serves to prove the point - you have to be a little mad to live in Israel...

Monday, July 05, 2004

Why mad, and why in Israel?

Am I mad? Didn't think so for the better part of my life, but recently I have come to reconsider. Let's start with some facts, so you'll see where I am heading.

First of all, having been born and educated in Germany, I could be living a peaceful, if somewhat dull life right there, or better yet, in Switzerland, Norway, or some other Eurodisney. Which place did I choose? A small town near Tel Aviv, Israel. Relatively quiet, but not quite as dull as, say, Trondheim. Not quite as clean either, but we'll leave that aside for the moment.

So how come? Why did I leave a perfectly sane place to live behind and settled in crazy Israel? Because I am a Zionist? Well, maybe a little, by now, but that was not the original motivation. Because I am a Jew? Nope, I am actually a Roman Catholic, although I have forgotten all about it. Actually, I haven't entered a church for reasons other than architectural curiosity in the last 30-something years, so I am not living here because I consider it the Holy Land either.

We have by now exhausted the range of acceptable explanations and enter the realm of the irrational. To make it short, I live in Israel because of love. I came here by accident and met a wonderful girl, which in the end agreed to marry me. Took some convincing, believe me, but this one is for later, too.

Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Yes, but I can say with the authority of almost 10 years living in Israel, the doorstep of our house is where the romance ends. Outside of that tiny bubble of ours Israel is a pretty crazy place. It’ll make you mad in the end, even if you started out perfectly normal. And I love it.

I will try to give you a glimpse of the daily life in Israel, from my very own perspective of a German immigrant. There will be some funny stories and some astonishing ones, but many will be sad or upsetting, because this is what life is all about in the Holy Land. It is about the basics, not the sterile, all cushioned version I grew up with.

See for yourself. If you have specific questions let me know.