In the second of two articles ahead of next week’s elections, Stephen Oryszczuk considers issues that will be crucial for the average Israeli voter
An old British army joke has become popular in the cafés of Tel Aviv recently. In an effort to rouse his troops, the commander gathers them together and tells them the good news: they’re finally getting new underwear.
The bad news: they’re exchanging with each other. It conveys the idea that “new faces might not mean new policies,” as Tel Aviv University’s Professor Yossi Shain puts it. “It’s maybe different rhetoric, different images, but I cannot imagine anyone articulating a serious new policy.”
That’s one way of looking at it.
Richard Pater, a BICOM analyst in Jerusalem, is more hopeful. “Although this election may produce a similar political constellation as the last, it is worth recalling that Israel’s democracy has an impressive dynamism,” he says.
Whatever it produces, there is much for the new government to consider, not least in terms of domestic issues, which is still the number one concern for voters, despite the headlines about the US and the Palestinians.
As Nimrod Goren of the Israeli Institute of Regional Foreign Policy notes, “it is not by chance that most parties chose to reveal their economic platform first”.
Domestically, things have moved on since the last election, which was fought on the back of huge social protests in 2011 and the basket of issues that arose as a result
Back then Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg (now would-be Finance Minister for Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union) was charged with finding the solutions to Israel’s socioeconomic problems.
Some of his recommendations, such as free pre-school for three-year-olds, were adopted almost instantly. But there is far more left to decide than the cost of nursery provision.
Many feel the housing market and a series of state monopolies in land, ports and energy are overdue a shake-up, and that the new government – if centre-left – will play a part.
“The left wants more government involvement in the economy, especially on issues of state subsidies to welfare, education and housing,” says Mikhael Manekin of Israeli think-tank Molad.
It may take intervention. Certainly, there is an enduring problem in that the young cannot afford to buy even a modest property anywhere near Tel Aviv, and wealth inequality is growing, in a country founded on socialist values. “Israel still has this divide between centre and ‘periphery’, ie everything 50km north or south of Tel Aviv,” says Shain, noting the recent demonstrations in Be’er Sheva.
“Most of the wealth is in the centre, and the rest suffers. Factories close, people become unemployed. These are major issues.”
Prof. Yossi Mekelberg from Regent’s University London agrees that housing is a “massive” issue. “Young Israelis can’t buy a home and 30 percent of children are under the poverty line,” he says with a sigh. “The gap between rich and poor is one of the worst in OECD countries.”
How will these issues play out in the election? Some think politicians won’t risk tackling the emerging issues for fear of upsetting their core vote. “This is the election of the glass ceiling,” says Elion Schwartz of new Israeli think-tank Shaharit.
“Parties know they need to remake themselves, to break out of their natural constituencies and gain more influence, but they’re held back from making big changes by who they truly are.”
For example, he says: “People are sick of Bibi but that doesn’t translate into support for the left, which shows how impenetrable the sociological divides are. This election is about a changing political map, and the forces that prevent that shift.”
Israeli Arabs are one such socio-economic group facing these changes. Comprising a fifth of the population, they have never done well electorally, and the raising of the election threshold last year was seen as the final nail. In fact, it has had a galvanising effect, since it meant that the several small Arab parties had to merge.
Led by a lawyer who Pater describes as “a strong proponent of coexistence, social justice and human rights for Jews and Arabs,” the so-called Joint List could get 15 on the 120 seats, which would let them secure a centre-left bloc.
As the vice president of Lib Dem Friends of Israel Lord (Monroe) Palmer says: “It will also be interesting to see how many Members of the Knesset (MKs) they get and how they will act.”
To really register in Israeli politics, however, Israeli Arabs will need to turn out to vote in far greater numbers than they have to date. Whether they will is unclear, as are so many factors in next week’s election.
As Britain’s former Middle East Minister Alistair Burt MP says: “Listening to talk of debunking politicians and indecisive voters, I wondered if we had swapped electorates between here and Israel, or if we simply had the same one!”