In a farewell speech to the Tel Aviv Rotary Club just before he left Israel last spring, former U.S. Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis confessed that he was deeply concerned over the rising level of American aid to this country.
When he spoke, Washington had already committed $2.6 billion in economic and military assistance to Israel for the current fiscal year. And there were plans well under way--and since then made final--for an additional $4.5 billion in regular and emergency aid before Oct. 1, 1986.
He was happy that America could help, Lewis told the Rotarians. “But I worry for your society so long as we must help in these dimensions.”
“I agree with Sam 100%,” said wealthy American Jewish industrialist and fund-raiser Max M. Fisher, when reminded of Lewis’ remarks here Monday. “When you get up to (aid) levels of $4 billion and $5 billion, there’s no question Israel is creating problems for itself.”
45 Businessmen Gathering
That’s why Fisher and 44 other leading businessmen from the United States, Canada and other countries have come to Israel for today’s formal launching of “Operation Independence.”
Inspired by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Operation Independence is a private organization of Israeli and international business leaders formed to promote new investment in Israel and other economic steps that will help wipe out the country’s chronic deficits and reduce its dependence on foreign aid.
Including $750 million in emergency funds being transferred this week, U.S. government aid to Israel this fiscal year equals about 13% of the country’s gross national product. And that does not include hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid donated by Jews in the United States and elsewhere.
“It is our ambition to see within the next decade the ability of Israel to be self-sufficient,” Fisher, chairman of Operation Independence, told a press conference here Monday.
‘Thawing of Peace Process’
“Economic independence will enable us to pursue, with renewed vigor, what we have begun in the political sphere,” added Peres in a letter marking this week’s formal kickoff of the project. He specifically mentioned “thawing of the peace process with Egypt” and progress toward peace talks with Jordan and the Palestinians as among his goals.
Fisher said initial efforts will be directed at increasing the export of Israeli consumer goods and boosting tourism to Israel.
Several export deals are already in the works, according to Operation Independence officials. Fisher said a minimum goal is to boost consumer goods exports by $500 million, or about one-third of the present level, within three to five years.
The group hopes to generate another $500 million through an increase of “several hundred thousand” tourists a year. About 1.25 million people visit Israel annually.
Fisher acknowledged that the project is unlikely to produce any miracles. The $1 billion from extra exports and tourism, for example, would be equal to only about 20% of Israel’s average $5-billion annual payments deficit over the past three years.
‘Not a Quick Fix’
More important in the longer term will be efforts to boost investment in Israeli industry, said Fisher. “This is not a quick fix,” he said. “This is something that is necessary for the stability of Israel.” One Israeli goal is to sell off several government-owned firms to reduce the size of the bloated public sector in the economy.
Realistically, said Fisher, Israel will continue to need some American aid indefinitely “unless they have peace and stability in this part of the world.” But as Peres outlined it in his letter, the hope is that Operation Independence will help “reduce our dependence on foreign aid to a minimum.”