Israel Pulse

Is it 'business as usual' for Israel's tourism?

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to great lengths to promote a strong Israeli tourism industry, but not everything is as it seems.

Thousands of words have been written about the all-out war Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waging against the media. Countless articles have analyzed his scheme to control public broadcasting, a war that recently resulted in a new structure for the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC), scheduled to be launched by the end of April. Accordingly, a news division will no longer be part of the corporation, but will instead operate independently.

Amateur psychologists have explained that the prime minister’s extreme interest in the corporation stems from his obsession with the media. Political analysts insist that the appointment of Geula Even-Saar, the wife of senior Likud member and former Minister Gideon Saar, as IPBC's senior host, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They believe the appointment of the spouse of Netanyahu's political rival drove the prime minister to persist in his fight to close the IPBC before its launch. On April 3, Netanyahu seasoned his Passover greeting with a complaint that the media “does not reflect the feelings of the public” and proclaimed, “There’s a gloom industry here.”

In the rest of his festive speech, Netanyahu cited the products of the alleged “gloom industry,” which sees darkness in places illuminated by the brightest light. Instead of full employment, the media sees unemployment. Instead of a flourishing economy, it sees a wrecked economy. Instead of interchanges, trains and bridges, it sees traffic jams. Instead of resoluteness and power, it produces hesitation and insecurity. Instead of a world power, it conjures a collapsing and crumbling state. “Leaders who come here every day,” Netanyahu closed his indictment of the killjoys, “see us as a global tech powerhouse, a world power in security, intelligence, technology.”

Still, this speech seemed to be missing a line that had appeared in one version or another of his many addresses over the past few years. It goes something along the lines of, “Instead of the leftist media who see an occupation that makes Israel into a leprous state, I, Netanyahu, see a flourishing Eden on the liberated land of our fathers.” One shouldn't, however, worry about the missing part. Netanyahu supplied that resoundingly on April 9 in the form of a government decision to allocate 10 million shekels ($2.7 million) for 50th anniversary celebrations of the “liberation of Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights” in the 1967 Six-Day War. By the way, why are the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula not included in the celebration? Were they not “liberated” in June 1967? With this decision and statement, Netanyahu, again, demonstrated his stance that the occupation does not hurt the state of Israel. On the contrary, Israel is flourishing.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, on the same day Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu confidant, announced “a record number of foreign tourists visiting Israel.” What more does one need to prove that the occupation, sorry … liberation, doesn’t scare away tourists who come to check out firsthand the global security powerhouse, to speed down its highways and to try out the Tel Aviv subway? Levin asserted, “Israel is an attractive tourism destination. … We’ve shown that if we do it right, we can bring many tourists here.” What he meant was we shouldn’t confuse them by mentioning the occupation and terrorism. We’ve lived with both, and even flourished, why shouldn’t we live and flourish with them another 50 years?

Indeed, according to data published on the same day, in March 293,000 tourists entered Israel, an increase of 22% compared to March 2016 figures. In the first three months of the year, 739,000 tourists visited Israel, an increase of 24% compared to the first quarter of 2016. Do these encouraging numbers testify to business as usual, regardless of the bloody conflict, diplomatic stagnation and deepening occupation?

The answer, interestingly enough, can be found in a document compiled by interdepartmental staff headed by Tourism Ministry Director Amir Halevi after Operation Protective Edge in 2014. This document pulls the rug out from under the “business as usual” propaganda on tourism, revealing monetary damage to the tourism industry of at least 2 billion shekels ($546 million). The report states, “The serious damage to tourism, especially foreign tourism, because of the flight of tourists during the war and the cancellation of future reservations in significant numbers were a grave economic hit that the tourism industry cannot withstand without receiving aid and compensation from the government.”

Indeed, the state, that is, the citizens of Israel, established a marketing fund that year at a cost of 15 million shekels ($4.1 million) to participate in the marketing efforts of foreign tourism organizers. It is doubtful whether this aid would encourage students at the University of Birmingham in England — the alma mater of Hannah Baldon, the brilliant student murdered in an attack in Jerusalem on April 14 at the age of 21 — to now come to Zion. In light of the security situation in Judea and Samaria, the government allocated 5 million shekels ($1.3 million) last year to build inexpensive hostels for tourists in the occupied, uh, sorry, liberated, territories.

Economist Avichai Snir of Netanya Academic College and the Infinity Investment House told Al-Monitor, “We had three lost years [in the tourism industry], and now the record, as it were, that they’re talking about, is just a return to where things were before Protective Edge.” Snir added, “It certainly says something about how quiet contributes to tourism.”

A study conducted in 2014 by Ran Sharabany, an economist with the Bank of Israel, clearly points to the connection between the diplomatic-security situation and the motivation of foreigners to visit Israel and to boost the tourism industry. The study concluded that Israel's “gloom industry” has no connection to Israel’s force of attraction. “Unlike elsewhere in the world, where economic factors set the tone in determining tourists’ demands,” Sharabany wrote, “in Israel the security situation has the most impact.”

The effort to take over the media and rewrite reality through the use of language, such as replacing the term “occupation” with “liberation,” painfully recalls George Orwell’s “1984.” The Newspeak that Big Brother used in Oceania was meant to eliminate terms like “freedom,” to rewrite history to the will of the ruler and to replace depressing news with sweet tidings of growth in chocolate production.

Found in: media, israeli occupation, benjamin netanyahu, terrorism, 1967 war, tourism

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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