End the cellular cartel, end the occupation

One Member of Knesset’s success at bringing down the mobile monopoly in Israel demonstrates that when there is a will, there is a way.

On the minds of 99% of Israelis this week was not the occupation, not the bloated new coalition and definitely not Iran. Israelis were thinking about cellphones.

In what was considered a historic moment, the country’s three oldest cellular phone companies – Cellcom, Orange and Pelephone –  got a great sock in the eye, when two sleek new mobile operators entered the market last week, instantly undercutting the giants. With several more virtual companies on the way, the de facto monopoly of three identically-priced and identically awful companies for nearly 20 years is effectively broken.

Israelis are overwhelmed and abuzz; they never believed it would happen. News of the cheaper mobile packages dominated television, radio and print news, grabbing the covers of weekend magazine supplements. All week, regular conversations ran on giddy energy, as consumers planned their sweet revenge on the hated mobile operators.

Israelis had resigned themselves to a life of permanent rage against exorbitant and arbitrary costs, lengthy commitment plans and astronomical exit penalties. In 2011, the revenue on wireless services as a percentage of per capita wages was higher in Israel than for all 27 OECD countries studied.

Then the Minister of Communications (Moshe Kahlon, Likud) set out to revolutionize the cellular market; and he actually did it. The country has been dazzled to witness a modest technocrat take down the omnipotent monsters of money – the one percent. He did it step by step, relentlessly dismantling the cellular companies’ power over consumers, leading up to this final blow.

The whimpering end of the mobile monopoly made me think: Is there no better proof that Israelis have been sedated into believing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved, when of course, it can? Todd Gitlin, one of my favorite authors, wrote in his book The Sixties that when America drastically expanded its war effort, anti-war activists embraced a policy of exaggerated immediacy: “When doubters asked, ‘How can we get out of Vietnam?’ the quick answer was: on boats.”

There may not be a quick answer to the conflict.  It may seem foolish to compare cellphone companies to the great geostrategic political machine of the occupation, singlehandedly charged with saving the Jewish people from existential destruction; that is, if you believe the government’s reasoning about why Israel can never withdraw from Area C, which is conflated with the reason it cannot dismantle five buildings, containing 30 apartments total, in Beit El. Politicians can never face down a few thousand extremist settlers, the argument goes, or a few religious parties in Knesset.

But with revenues of up to NIS 19 billion annually in recent years, the cellular companies aren’t exactly trifling players. Their owners include some of the country’s most formidable financial power-mongers who control enormous segments of Israel’s private sector  (Hebrew). Yet MK Kahlon dismissed doomsday warnings of these petulant owners, with their implied economic existential threat, and marched ahead.

There is no terrible wizard behind the occupation either. There is only a thick curtain of tangled politico-security myths and military bureaucracy, smothering our powers of independent thought.

So here’s a modest thought: If one low-key minister with a clear goal and commitment can take down the cellular giants, is it really impossible for the country’s top statesman to end the occupation – say, by just doing it?