JERUSALEM — As a disabled veteran of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arik Vamosh belongs to one of the most honored groups in Israeli society.
But when the wheelchair-bound father of two tried to import a small elevator he needs to get around in his new multi-story home, the Israeli customs service demanded $8,000 in purchase and import taxes.
The stunned Vamosh, who paid only $7,500 for the elevator to begin with, has been trying since early this year to either have customs waive the fees or persuade the army to pay them, but his efforts are snarled in government red tape. Meanwhile, the elevator sits in a customs warehouse.
Vamosh might be called Exhibit A in the case of what is reputedly Israel's most hard-nosed bureaucracy.
One of the veteran's friends thought she might be able to help him with a dose of what the Israelis call "Vitamin P," as in "proteksia" --better known in the United States as connections in high places.
The friend contacted an aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who agreed in principle that the situation was terrible and promised to do what he could. However, the aide added, "Don't get your hopes too high."
As the aide explained, Shamir himself had discovered that the customs service is not easily influenced. The prime minister received a gift of porcelain from the ruler of an unnamed South American country on a recent state visit, the aide related. Since Shamir had several more stops to make on his trip, his South American counterpart agreed to have the gift shipped back to Israel.
A Bill for Shamir
When it showed up some weeks later, a customs man called Shamir's office and announced that the porcelain would be released only after the prime minister paid $400 in duties.
The argument that this was a gift to the government, not to Shamir personally, fell on deaf ears. "Either pay up or we'll ship it back to South America," the customs man insisted.
But that would be an insult to the donor government, Shamir's office argued, suggesting as an alternate solution that the customs service donate the gift to charity and forget the $400. But the customs man stood fast.
In the end, Shamir paid the import duties. Call him Exhibit B.
Asked about the Vamosh and Shamir cases, Assistant Customs Director Shlomo Barkan explained in an interview that "only the president is exempt" from import fees. And he pointed out the applicable Rule No. 1 from a four-inch-thick volume of customs regulations to prove it.
"But why?" a reporter persisted.
"Why not?" Barkan responded.
Agency of Anxiety
All this illustrates why Israel's so-called Directorate of Customs & VAT (value added tax) probably causes more anxiety among Israelis than any other branch of government.
It also helps explain why a relatively tiny department whose staff numbers only 1,640 of the government's roughly 75,000 employees collects almost 25% of the money required to run the country--7.7 billion shekels last year, or about $5.1 billion. That's exactly 154 times the directorate's 50-million-shekel budget, presumably making it one of the great bargains in government.
The customs service's reputation does not hinge on how much bang it delivers for the buck, however. The way Israelis feel about it depends much more on their own first-hand experiences the last time they re-entered the country from abroad, said Barkan, an affable 26-year customs veteran.
If they walked unhindered along the green line for people with no taxable items to declare, they say the service is good. If they got stopped trying to sneak a videotape recorder past the inspectors, "they, of course, have another opinion," he said. "They don't like us very much."
'30 Seconds of Fear'
"Thirty seconds of fear" is how Barkan characterized the stroll from the baggage claim area of Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport through the customs area to the terminal exit--and freedom.
Below Barkan's second-floor office on Customs Square in central Jerusalem is the Tax Museum, including several displays of devices people have used in trying to smuggle valuables past alert Israeli customs inspectors.
There's the silver bas-relief of "The Last Supper" in which thousands of dollars worth of diamonds were hidden; a life jacket used to smuggle drugs; a special vest in which an arriving airline passenger managed to conceal 390 gold watches, and a hollowed-out book used by an Israeli seaman to hide a tape recorder.
A tape recorder?
"Because of high taxes, we are a country with a greater smuggling potential than other countries," acknowledged Efraim Aviram, director of the Tel Aviv district customs investigation department. "Abroad, customs usually deal with drugs, antiques and things like that." But in Israel, consumer electronics are the hottest of commodities.