Israel One-Percenters Target for Econ Wonks Turned TV Stars

  • Creators contend government is mishandling economic policy
  • Activists urged to pressure officials to bring prices down

A wonkish TV show on Israel’s economy has struck a nerve in a country that usually reserves its fervor for debates about war and peace, giving new ammunition to opponents of government policies.

In the midst of flaring violence with the Palestinians, about one in eight Israelis tuned in to the three-part Silver Platter program, testimony to the depth of the discontent with the economy. The show’s main focus -- the evils of concentrating too much financial power in a small number of hands -- is a theme Israelis can warm to. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it’s helped to send the cost of living higher than the average in developed countries.

“Most people don’t understand the economy here but they know something is wrong,” said Liad Gez, a 23-year-old waiter in Tel Aviv who carried a sign reading “We’re all Silver Platter” at a protest this month that drew more than 10,000 critics of the country’s natural gas monopoly. “This show gave us some tools to understand how they’re screwing us over.”

What the show’s creators want to do is rekindle the activism that sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets in the summer of 2011, pressuring the government to bring down prices. The program on Hot Channel 8 cable TV has found an afterlife on YouTube and Facebook, where followers are urged to bring that same kind of pressure to bear.

Not Enough

The protests four years ago empowered social-minded politicians such as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who opened the mobile-phone industry to competition in 2012. They also helped to spur the kind of legislation parliament passed last week to bring down food prices. But the buzz Silver Platter has generated suggests that many people think the government hasn’t done enough to cut steep food and housing costs, said Yuval Dror, dean of the media school at the College of Management Academic Studies outside Tel Aviv.

“It’s not the most sexy issue in the world. It revolves around three middle-aged men lecturing a classroom about economics,” Dror said. “Yet it’s had a big impact” because it’s got ordinary people saying, “THIS is why my life here is so hard,” he said.

While cable TV shows don’t publish their ratings, Dror estimated 1 million viewers watched the show on TV and on YouTube, where it’s drawn at least 800,000 views so far.

That Silver Platter has emerged as a cultural reference became evident during Netanyahu’s White House visit this month. The prime minister was asked about the program at a briefing, and said he hadn’t watched it, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported on Twitter. The program, with its charts, ominous music and dire warnings about economic disaster, also received a nod from Israel’s top satire show, which parodied one of its stars.

The show’s title, aside from its common meaning of easy wealth, jabs further. Israeli poet Nathan Alterman’s 1940s work by that name on the sacrifices made for Israel’s independence is part of the country’s Memorial Day canon.

Bad Economics

Critics accuse the show’s stars -- Guy Rolnik, the editor of TheMarker business daily, former Finance Ministry official Yaron Zelekha and Daniel Gutwein, a University of Haifa history professor -- of being populist. Omer Moav, an economics professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya near Tel Aviv,  said the program was riddled with inaccuracies, including its suggestion that low interest rates were solely to blame for the surge in housing prices.

“People are unhappy for good reasons, we have a government that basically does nothing,” Moav said. “But blaming the housing bubble on the central bank is just not sound economics.”

Israel’s economic growth surpassed that of the U.S. and the European Union in the past five years and the country weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than they did.

On the other hand, the cost of living has outpaced wage increases, with home prices rising 41 percent in the past five years as salaries gained 7.5 percent, according to a study parliament published this month. Detractors, including Silver Platter, say the government’s proposed program for developing its natural gas resources is liable to send consumer gas costs above the average in the developed world.

“Netanyahu has turned Israel into the country with the most expensive housing in the West, the country with the most expensive cars in the West, the country with the most expensive food in the West,” Zelekha, a former Finance Ministry accountant-general, told demonstrators at the gas protest this month.

Now he’s turning it “into the country with the most expensive gas in the West” and “plundering the greatest national resource ever discovered here,” he said.

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