Arab Spring, Israeli Summer

[eJP note: at the recent Limmud FSU festival in St. Petersburg, philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman spoke about geopolitics in today’s world. Below – translated from the Hebrew – is a paraphrase of his remarks.]

by Nathan Roi

Matthew Bronfman first arrived in Israel under his own steam decades ago without his father, Edgar, and not knowing a soul. Today he is a co-owner of the Israel Discount Bank, a partner in the Supersol food retail group, and local licensee of the Swedish giant, Ikea, among other business interests.

In addition, for the last six years he has been nourishing another ‘baby’- Limmud for Russian speakers which is active in many of the countries of the Former Soviet Union, and in Israel and the United States where there are large quantities of young adults speaking Russian.

For Bronfman, this is the closing of a circle. His grandfather, Samuel, emigrated to North America at the age of six months from the small town of Soroki in Bessarabia, now Moldova, and made a fortune in the liqueur business in Canada where the family settled. Samuel’s son, Edgar, father of Matthew, was Chairman of the World Jewish Congress and was instrumental in the struggle for the right of the Jews of the Soviet Union to emigrate to Israel.

Whenever he is able, Matthew Bronfman attends the various Limmud events wherever they may be. As Chairman of the Limmud International Steering Committee, he is aware of the smallest details of the planning and the needs of the local communities, whether they be full, half or quarter Jewish, who flock to the Limmud festivals. The latest of these was in St. Petersburg, one of the world’s leading centers of Jewish culture prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution. At this Limmud, the 400 or so participants could choose from more than 50 presentations, lectures, workshops and cultural events, during the three days of the festival.

Limmud FSU is flying high: More than 13,000 young Russian-speaking young men and women have taken part in Limmud festivals – participating in the selection of topics and presenters, paying for the privilege and standing in line for the array of events, reluctant to miss even one.

Bronfman and his wife Stacey arrived at the conference site which is 80 kilometers from the city of St. Petersburg and shared the facilities and meals with all the participants prior to delivering a talk. The following is a paraphrase of his remarks:

“Arab Spring, Israeli Summer. Will it be a ‘Winter of Discontent?’”
Matthew Bronfman

The latest Arab Spring is not new as the feeling of unease has been prevalent now for some time. The unrest began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and we did not always grasp what was taking place. In the United States, we assumed initially that it had been caused by lack of food and employment. The price of food was so high that many people were unable to avoid bread. The unrest grew out of the economic depression and not from internal political affairs. I am also referring to the unrest in Turkey World geopolitics embrace the axis USA-Iran-Russia. Turkey is attempting to establish for itself a dominant political position within that axis.

The Americans played a key role in removing Mubarak from the leadership of Egypt but so far they have done nothing with regard to overthrowing Assad in Syria. It is difficult to prophecy what is going to happen in the Middle East although it is likely that there will be geopolitical upheavals. The period before us is going to be very unsettled.

I lunched in Washington recently with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and they analyzed painstakingly the current situation in Egypt. They are professionals and yet they too do not know what is happening within that country. In New York there is an atmosphere of trepidation surrounding the approaching anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 and I am fully aware of this.

Syria is an exceptional case. The country receives material aid from Iran and I fail to understand why the US remains silent when Assad does what he does to his own people. No one knows what will be the nature of Syria and Egypt after the riots have died down. I am convinced that the riots in Syria are also a consequence of the economic situation.

The reasons for the demonstrations in Israel are fully legitimate and there are particularly interesting as Israel currently enjoys one the strongest economic situations in the world. The main reason for the demonstrations, despite the stable economic situation is the gap between the lower and middle-income classes and the wealthy. Two other reasons are the tax burden and the allocation of budgetary resources.

Israel has the lowest rate of unemployment ever in its history, but the cost of food is very high. Among the issues raised is the very high cost of real estate. If we were to purchase a plot today, it could take as long as two to four years before construction can commence. This is, because of the burocracy involved and the fact that any citizen can lodge a protest. These are among the reasons for the high cost of housing.

Another result of the high cost of real estate is the shortage of residential housing. On the one hand, Israel has had 10-15 years of economic growth so that the cost of real estate has grown because of the shortage of dwellings, but income has not grown accordingly. It is therefore ever more difficult to purchase a home in Israel.

Moreover, in Israel there is a levy of 16 percent VAT on foodstuffs. There is no such tax in the United States, for example. The student demonstrations are justified and I believe their demands can be dealt with within government circles as in Israel the rule of law prevails. The government and the treasury are able to deal with the issues by means of the budget: that is the Israeli dynamic by comparison to the Arab states. There are protests in Israel but they are different to those in the Middle East. In Israel the issues and reasons talked about are different to those in the Arab countries. Changes in budgetary priorities can change the whole situation in Israel.

In my opinion, there is a certain lack of leadership in Israel. Moreover, the conflicts between the various political parties make it difficult to find solutions and I say that as a share holder in one of the largest food retailing concerns in the country. There was demand to boycott our products and we joined the students in appealing to the government. My wife thinks it is not reasonable of me to invest in this region but I remain optimistic.

I know that there will be an unsettled winter in the Arab states. I emphasize this because I cannot see stability in these countries. And I see what is happening in Gaza, in Syria where Assad is slaughtering his own people, in Turkey which has lowered its level of representation with Israel and is giving aid to Hamas in Gaza, and in Iran.

I realize that the declaration of a Palestinian state is imminent and I believe in two states for two peoples. However, we know that a declaration by the United Nations will not meet the aspirations of the Palestinian people which can only be achieved by direct talks with Israel. The United States has declared that it will impose a veto if the resolution comes before the Security Council. All the Arab states will support the declaration and that might leave Israel and the United States isolated. This will have a deleterious effect on the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority which will lead to a complicated and problematic situation.

All the issues that I have discussed here are local problems which can be resolved. I do not believe that there is anyone who can foresee the outcome in Egypt. I do not know what will happen to Assad in another year. We do not know what the prime minister of Turkey will do. But we do know that the disturbances arise because of the lack of food and work. And I hope that the relevant governments have the willpower and desire to tackle the problems.

I am now in Russia. There was a government here that for 70 years was inimical to its citizens. I was here in 1990 and the transfer from dictatorship to democracy is fraught with obstacles some of which cannot be foreseen.

It is virtually impossible to foresee what will happen either here in Russia or in the world at large. However, I believe that the next 12 months will be crucial – exciting for the observer but difficult for the participant.

I pray that in Israel and the United States, there are leaders who will be able to guide the ship of state to safe shores. I neither envy Barak Obama nor Benjamin Netanyahu who are leading their respective governments: I wish them on the eve of the coming New Year, good sense and wisdom, for the whole world desperately needs them to have both.