Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Land of Refuge

Rockets continue to fall on Israel as outgoing Prime Minister Olmert says that the final talks on a negotiated “lull” are to be linked to the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas for nearly three years.

Israel continues to bomb the smuggling tunnels in the Philadelphi route in response to the missiles fired from Gaza into Israel. On Monday two rockets fell in the Negev causing no damage or injury. Israel responded by bombing tunnels in Gaza.

Egyptian negotiators, brokering the deal between Hamas and Israel, are reportedly miffed at Israel’s apparent backtracking on what Egypt thought was a finalized peace deal. Egypt has insisted that Shalit not linked to the “lull” agreement. But Olmert yesterday blew that deal out of the water. Late reports on Tuesday state that Hamas has agreed to link Shalit to the deal if the release of 1,000 Hamas prisoners is included.

Unfortunately, the life of the kidnapped soldier is a chip in these negotiations. Israel reportedly fears that Hamas will continue to dangle Shalit like a carrot in front of Israel, dragging out his release for years to come.

Confusion in the press as to who did or didn’t link Shalit to the peace deal. Haaretz had two conflicting reports in the morning newspaper. One said that Olmert had originally wanted Shalit left out of the negotiations, while Barak wanted him linked to the ‘lull’ but another report said that it was Barak who wanted Shalit out of the agreement and Olmert wanted him in. Olmert reminded the public yesterday that he was against politicians using Shalit as part of their election platform. This was a clear reference to Ehud Barak who mentioned the Shalit deal during the election campaign.

Pundits say that Olmert is positioning himself for a comeback with these statements, thinking of how he will return to political leadership once he puts his legal problems behind him. On Friday the police called Olmert in for questioning for the 14th time.

Press reports state that Labor party leader and Defense Minister Barak hasn’t appeared in public since the embarrassing defeat at the polls, when Labor barely reached 12 seats in the Knesset. Barak is reportedly packing his bags at the Ministry of Defense. Pundits say Labor didn’t get enough seats in the elections to insure Barak of the Defense post.

Coalition talks are still on going. According to the media Likud’s Netanyahu believes he will be the next Prime Minister. Analysts say that the possibility of Netanyahu and Kadima’s Tzipi Livni forming a Likud-Kadima coalition is the likely outcome. However together the two parties do not make up a majority in the Knesset’s 120 seats, since Likud received only 27 seats, and Kadima 28. They are still six votes short.

The likely third party to this coalition is Avigdor Leiberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, with 16 seats. But Leiberman is demanding one of the big three cabinet posts, Defense, Foreign Ministry, or Finance. The latter is a problem since Leiberman has been under investigation for over a decade for corruption and breach of public trust.

Leiberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties are bitter rivals. Leiberman demanded five things from both Livni and Netanyahu before he would join a coalition. Three major demands were met by Livni. He demanded that conversions other than ultra-Orthodox be recognized and allowed in Israel. He demanded that civil marriages be allowed. He demanded the destruction of Hamas.

Netanyahu has kept his options open, since the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, Leiberman’s bitter rival, with 10 seats would be one likely partner in a Likud-Kadima partnership. However Shas has proven itself to be quite demanding both in cabinet posts and budget allocations, and Livni and Netanyahu would rather do without them.

The parties are expected to meet with President Shimon Peres on Wednesday to recommend who they think can form a coalition. It will be up to Peres then to determine who is best able to form a government.

A recent lecture by Pinchas Landau, a financial columnist who studied at the London School of Economics and writes for a variety of publications, including the Globes financial journal and the Jerusalem Post, was enough to drive a listener to drink.

Landau claims that the current economic crises is as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and is going to get worse. According to Landau the current stimulus package is not going to do the trick. He believes that all it does is “pour money into a black hole.”

He subscribes to the view of Nuriel Roubani, the Harvard economist, and others who believe that the financial wizards who caused the mess are the same ones trying to come up with solutions, and failing, mainly out of incompetence and “in the box” thinking. Landau believed to solve the problems ‘out of the box’ thinking was necessary, but that was not Washington’s current approach.

Landau thought that E. and W. Europe would be the hardest hit. He said that the level of unemployment would grow resulting in riots, and shaky governments. Those countries facing internal crises will look to place the blame on outside scapegoats. He predicted that anti-Semitism would rise, as it always did in a bad economy, and that some of the more radical states, like Iran and perhaps Syria, and others, would strike out at Israel to divert their citizen’s attention from their own internal problems.

According to Landau a slow recovery would begin in about 18 months than take up to a decade before the world is back on solid ground. “We are in a new age,” he said. “You can forget everything that happened up until 2008. That was a different time in history. Things have now changed forever.”

The surprise upside of this dire prediction, said Landau, was that Israel would come out the winner. He believes that the downturn in the economies of E. and W. Europe will result in an increase in Aliya. That immigration will be the engine to push the Israeli economy into overdrive, since it would require housing, food, clothing, and other basics.
As of now, according to Landau, the housing market is so limited that a mass immigration would be a repeat of the early 1990’s when nearly 1,000,000 Jews, or partial Jews, from the Former Soviet Union poured into Israel seeking shelter, and food, in greater supply than the FSU could provide.

He also said that Orthodox Jews from North America may also immigrate seeking cheaper “Jewish” education for their children. In Israel “Jewish” education is free, whereas in the USA it can sometimes cost up to $10,000 a year per child.

According to Landau, Israel will once again become a land of refuge for those seeking a better more secure life. He said that immigrants poured into Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, even as missiles rained down on Tel Aviv. He didn’t think that the Iranian threat would stop immigrants in search of a better life.

Landau says he is a follower of economists like Roubani the guy who predicted the collapse of 2008, and who now says that US banks are bankrupt.

How much of what Landau says might happen will only be clear as time goes by.

Stay tuned.