Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Money Pit

Casualties be damned—the war in Gaza may be all about economics

Etgar Keret
January 08, 2009

In the morning, the number of bombing casualties had reached 300. There’s something strange about a number like that—you can’t really get your brain around it. One dead person is something you can experience. Loss, longing, and grief are feelings that anyone living in the Middle East knows well. But just how can you multiply that by 300?

“Honestly?” I say to my friend Uzi as we drink our morning coffee. “That bombing in Gaza got to me a lot more than I thought it would.”

“It got to me too, at first,” Uzi admits, “when I thought it would crash the market. But, except for corporate bonds, the market’s acting more or less normal, so I calmed down.”

“When I said it got to me, I wasn’t talking about the stock market,” I say. “I meant all those people dying.”

“I know,” Uzi says, nodding, “and it makes perfect sense. You’re a moral, bleeding-heart writer who makes a pretty good living at it. I’m a modest day trader who manages to squeak by on the market. Each of us reacts to things according to his occupation.”

“Come on,” I object, “even you have to admit that there is something called ‘morality,’ ‘human solidarity,’ or ‘compassion,’ and that something is a little bigger than how much the market fell this morning.”

“There used to be something called ‘human solidarity,’” Uzi says, chewing his chocolate croissant. “But if I remember correctly, that whole business collapsed along with Lehman. Sure, there’ll always be some market for brotherhood but when times get tough it’s the first thing crossed off the shopping list. This is the year of economics, there’s no denying it. Talking politics in a year like this is more retro than growing an iguana or eating frozen yogurt. Everything that’s happening in the world now is just a result of the economic situation. The economic crisis is the engine and everything else is dragged along behind it. Why do you think we’ve got this mess in Gaza now?”

“So in your opinion, this conflict in the south is a sort of economic maneuver?” I ask, not backing down. “Just how did that happen? The Israeli government shorted Hamas stock?”

“No. But look, this situation where Hamas fires rockets on southern towns and refuses to stop, it’s a classic lose-lose situation for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. So why did they refuse to stop firing?”

“Because of corporate bonds?”

“No,” Uzi replies, so deep in his theory that he doesn’t even notice the sarcasm. “It’s because of the price of oil. Iran, whose economy is also in the toilet, is screwed now that the price of oil went down. The opposition to Ahmadinejad is using that as a reason to demand the head of the leader who is a lot better at jihads than he is at managing a decent economy, so he needs a diversion. Something that’ll push the shitty economic headlines off the front page and maybe boost the price of oil up by a couple of dollars. So he pressures Hamas to keep firing because he knows that Israel won’t be able to restrain itself.”

“But even if Israel didn’t restrain itself, it could have reacted with a little more moderation,” I counter.

“Fine,” Uzi says. “Except the problem is that Israel has elections in February and the thing people here care about the most is, you guessed it, the economy. And when it comes to the economy, there’s pretty much a consensus that Netanyahu kicks Livni’s ass. The guy may be a wack job, but there’s one thing no one will argue about: he was the best treasury minister in the past 20 years. So along come Kadima and Barak and say, ‘Let’s bomb a little more than we need to. We’ll kick this conflict up a notch, from an operation to a mini-war and change the public agenda.’ And what do you know, it works. At least on people like you.”

“I always knew you were a cynic,” I tell Uzi, “but that you’re a neo-Marxist with paranoid tendencies is news to me.”

“I’m not a Marxist,” Uzi objects. “And anyway, with all due respect to Karl, I never believed in people who invent economic theories and die poor. So if anything, call me a neo-Buffetist. And I’m not paranoid. Because even if I think everyone’s plotting, I never said it was against me. Just the opposite. Think about it. There are only a few winners in this conflict, and I’m one of them. Here, look.” He pushed his BlackBerry at me. “Oil options went up seven dollars. I’m the man. And maybe you too can come out of this thing with a few shekels from some op-ed piece. Who knows, now that the biotechnology bubble has burst, maybe whiney columns about the situation in Gaza will turn out to be the next big thing.”

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.