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COLUMN ONE

It's a Sin to Be a Sucker in Israel

Fear of being seen as a freier creates an unbending approach to life--from parking to peace talks. Israelis say the desire to be tough is rooted in history of survival.

July 25, 1997|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Why does an Israeli driver speed up when another car signals its intent to enter his traffic lane? Because he doesn't want to be a freier--a sucker.

What do Israelis say when dodging military reserve duty? "What do I look like, a freier?"

And how does the Club Riviera advertise its five-star apartments? "Only Freiers Pay More!"

If Israelis could agree on anything--a highly unlikely prospect, but if they could--it just might be that the cardinal sin is to be a freier.

"It's a national characteristic," said author Zeev Chafets, who included a chapter on the subject in his book about Israelis, "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men." The topic "is something we talk about all the time."

A freier, in Israeli eyes, is a shopper who waits in line to pay retail. It is a driver who searches for legal parking rather than pulling onto the sidewalk with the other cars. And if he does this in a rush to file a tax return, he is the consummate freier.

In short, a freier is anyone who cedes ground, plays completely by the rules or allows someone to get the better of him. The ideal Israeli is clever and tough, and a freier is the opposite. A pushover--in the way that Israelis often perceive Americans to be.

Of course, no one likes to be a sucker. The weakling who gets sand kicked in his face is universally scorned. Men and women all over the world lift weights to avoid this fate. But even muscle-bound Israelis dread a face full of sand on a daily basis, and the fear of being a freier plays into every aspect of life, from the most mundane task to the peace process with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

This has earned Israelis an international reputation as rough and gruff, more brash than New Yorkers and ruder than the French. It is a stereotype that Israelis readily accept, adding only that a true Israeli is like the native sabra, or prickly pear--sharp on the outside but soft and sweet inside. And they explain that, like everything else in the Middle East, the fear of being a freier is rooted in at least 2,000 years of history.

Freiers are naive, apt to fall into a trap. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beat the Labor Party's Shimon Peres in elections last year in large part because of Peres' nice-guy image and view that Israel must be generous from its position of strength, giving up land now to gain long-term peace.

"He was misperceived as someone who would make us freiers," lamented former aide Uri Dromi, "even though he never made concessions or compromises on something important to us."

Now, Netanyahu makes the point wherever he can that he is no sucker. In a recent interview with the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he credited his muscle-flexing for the drop in terrorist attacks against Israel. "The Palestinians have learned that we aren't freiers," he said.

Two months ago, a Maariv newspaper reporter asked Netanyahu, "Would you agree that Arafat is no freier?"

"Yes, but neither am I," Netanyahu blustered.

The Middle Eastern Way of Negotiating

So does the fear of being a sucker bear upon peace negotiations?

Israel's bottom line in a peace accord with the Palestinians will be determined by "the sense that they are making decisions governing the existence of the Jewish state and future of the Jewish people," said a U.S. diplomat in Israel. Not by the fear of being a sucker.

And yet, peace negotiations are affected by the fact that neither Israelis nor Palestinians want to risk being a sucker by making concessions before the other side does.

In negotiations, an American generally will put his cards on the table, expect the other side to do the same and assume that a happy compromise lives somewhere in the middle. But Israelis and Palestinians do not bargain in this way.

"Both sides believe anything offered up first will be pocketed by the other side," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "Whenever things break down, this is usually the problem. They will hold out carrots but do not want to give one up until they are sure the other side will give."

Lucy Shahar, co-author of the book "Border Crossings: American Interactions With Israelis," explained that, in the case of Israelis, this is because they do not share the American belief in win-win negotiations. "In his heart of hearts, an Israeli believes that is impossible," Shahar said. "In the Middle East, usually someone loses badly. Nothing in the Israeli experience suggests that everyone wins here or in the diaspora."

Because of this, business deals with Israelis also frequently start out on a more stubborn note than they do with Americans and Europeans. In the early stages, Israelis may see negotiations as more of a contest of wills than as potential cooperation. When an Israeli businessperson says "no," it may be a bargaining position rather than the final answer a foreigner thinks he is hearing.

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