The role of free enterprise in developing Israel's economic potential was the theme of the first annual awards dinner for the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, held Monday night at the St. Regis Hotel. In 10 years, Israel could be one of the 10 richest countries in the world, Israel's minister of finance, Benjamin Netanyahu, said. The economist Milton Friedman put it another way in his video address: "Israel has the potential of being the Hong Kong of the Middle East." "Transform the Israeli economy into a modern competitive market economy and its productivity will skyrocket," the center's founder and director, Daniel Doron, said.
Mr. Doron also invoked the words of one of Israel's earliest heroes, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a founder of the Jewish Brigades who, in 1929, said: "Productivity can only grow in a society where hope smiles on private enterprise and offers individual reward."
What has kept Israel from realizing its potential?
"Too much, too rigid, and too intrusive a government," Mr. Friedman said, citing socialist policies, a high level of government ownership, and private monopolies.
The event celebrated the recent progress the country has made in removing these obstacles.
As minister of finance since 2003, Mr. Netanyahu is moving Israel toward a free-market, free-price system. The government has cut taxes, reduced spending, and privatized state-owned enterprises such as El Al airline. Israel is also stimulating its economy by building new roads and a fast rail system.
"When I took office, I saw we were about six weeks away from financial collapse," he said. "Now the economy is growing fast." And a strong economy has more than monetary benefits.
"I believe Israel's growth will give us the power to resist the attacks made against us. Military power can't last without economic power," Mr. Netanyahu said.
As he spoke, the black-tied waiters swept into the room with the main course: a capitalist's dream meal of roast prime filet of beef and roasted potatoes. Mr. Netanyahu, who as an economic reformer has a keen eye for competition, decided his monopoly on the audience had come to an end. "There is one thing the finance minister cannot do. I cannot compete with any army of waiters," he said.
Once dinner was on the table, Israel's minister of economic affairs in America, Ron Dermer, rose to present awards to five men who have supported the center.
The real estate investor Eugene Grant, recipient of the Economic Freedom Award, described himself as "a simple American Zionist" who wanted to "help the government of Israel get rid of the shackles and handcuffs of an idealistic but fatally flawed economic and political system into which Israel was born almost 60 years ago."
The editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, accepted the Inspiration and Guidance Award on behalf of his father, Irving Kristol, whom he described as "a Zionist all of his life, even when he was a Trotskyist at age 18."
David Lewis, who owns hotels in Israel, flew across the ocean from England to accept the Entrepreneur Award. He made a pitch for Americans to visit Eilat, which he described it as "Las Vegas by the Sea, Arizona on the beach."
Receiving the Pioneer Supporter Award, the chairman of Robinson Steel Company, Edward Minor, told of a trip to Israel during which he saw the inefficiencies of the economy. "I noticed lots of scrap," he said. "I soon learned that there were laws that forbid the export of scrap from the country, and there was only one scrap recycler - in Haifa."
The lawyer Kenneth Bialkin, who is the president of the American Jewish Historical Society and the chairman of the America Israel Friendship League, received the Stalwart Award.
The master of ceremonies of the event was a Philadelphia-based builder, Richard Fox, who is chairman of the American friends group of the center.
The 325 guests included the chief financial officer of Israel's ministry of finance, Harry Langman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, and one of Israel's leading venture capitalists, Shlomo Kalish. Even the invocation given by Rabbi Aryeh Spero was infused with the spirit of free enterprise: "Minister Netanyahu and our distinguished honorees realize, as does the Bible, that the best way for man to provide his sustenance is not through the state or state engineering but as an independent, autonomous, self-productive entity. As scripture says, each man in his orchard, each family in their vineyard."