The first time I heard the idea, my friend was suggesting it as a joke. He was sopping wet from Israel’s first winter rains and said that perhaps now we had seen a few drops fall from the sky we should abolish the drought tax.
For Israel, this is the fifth consecutive year of drought, and the first during which the budget encouraged citizens to be careful with water via the so-called drought tax. Households were allotted a monthly quota of water, enough for normal usage taking account of the size of the family. If they exceeded that, they were charged at a higher rate.
Then, during a few rainy days at the end of October and beginning of November, a revolt emerged against the drought tax. Certain politicians stoked up irritation among the public at the fact that they were paying to fix leaky roofs on the one hand and, on the other, footing a drought-tax bill.
The issue united politicians normally positioned at each other’s throats. Fighting as one were United Arab List parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi, former aide to Yasir Arafat, and Uri Ariel of National Union, a far-right party that has a Kahanist contingent, as well as politicians from a range of more moderate parties including Kadima and Likud.
Several of these unlikely allies even put their heads together to produce a booklet encouraging the public to evade the tax. Now Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expecting to suspend the tax throughout the winter. Once again, we are witnessing Israeli short-termism at work --- and more specifically the general attitude of Israelis towards water.
In this part of the world, water has always been something precious, the procurement of which has required immense effort. When Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, the ideal qualities of his proposed match, Rebecca, became apparent when she ran to and from the well to feed his camels.
And yet the basic premise of the discussion over the drought tax was that Israelis have an absolute right to unlimited, clean water, procured through no more effort than turning on a tap, and at minimal financial outlay. Water costs the average household a pre-drought tax of just a little over 100 shekels (£16) a month. To put this into context, when the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics surveyed Israelis on their spending patterns in 2007, the amount the average household spent on eating out each month was almost three times that figure.
Israelis have been sitting over their European-style cappuccinos (eight cups total one month’s water bill) and their American-style MacDonald’s (take a family of four and that’s a month’s water rates) indignant at having to shell out a little more for water.
However westernised modern Israel sees itself, there is a limit to how far Israelis can act as if they are in London, Paris or New York. No amount of material advancement will change the country’s location in the heart of the Middle East, where it is hot and dry. Water here simply cannot be taken for granted. So long as the poorest are protected, it is entirely reasonable to use financial leverage to make people conscious of the value of water and to encourage prudence.
Westernisation is clouding Israeli identity. Almost every Israeli, for example, will profess a love for the Negev desert — so long as it does not interfere with building work. Last year, a government authority actually sold a large quantity of Negev sand in order to allow contractors in Eilat to keep down building transport costs.
It is not just in relation to the environment that Israelis act in spite of their circumstances. In local politics, while everyone demands good service from their council, in many areas more than half of the population avoid paying council tax. And, while people long for the kind of welfare state that Israel had in its early days, they also support the aggressive privatisation policies of most Knesset parties.
A collective desire to “have it all and have it now” served Israel well in those early, heady days of state-building. But today it is in danger of placing an impossible burden on the country’s natural and economic resources.