Netanyahu's greatest disability: the social agenda
What has become apparent just a couple of weeks into the campaign is that socio-economic issues are the decisive factor in this election.
It’s tempting to cackle with glee at how the elections are playing out so far. Here is Netanyahu doing everything he can to effortlessly secure a second term – calling early elections, recruiting Kadima into the coalition and cancelling early elections, letting Kadima quit the coalition, calling early elections again and merging Yisrael Beiteinu into the Likud.
And yet the elections aren’t going his way.
What has become apparent just a couple of weeks into the campaign is that this could be the first election since 1992 where the social-economic issues are the decisive factor. If you look at the latest Mina Tzemach/Dahaf poll of last week, it’s the social parties that are in the lead. Forgetting Moshe Kahlon, who briefly held high the social torch before dropping it, you have Labor with 24 seats, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 15, Shas with 13 and the Greens and the pensioners, each with one or two (though it takes a minimum of two seats to be eligible for Knesset representation). Altogether, they add up to as many as 56 seats. If you add Meretz, which half-heartedly pretends to be social, the social block reaches the threshold of 60 seats.
Now let’s count up the “generals” parties, the ones led the by ex-military men parading their security credentials. It adds up to two. Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut gets them both, according to the poll, and Shaul Mofaz gets a stunning zero. Netanyahu is now peddling his Likud-Beiteinu as the party that won’t let Iran get the bomb, but it is doubtful that many voters take it seriously. If they did, given the national mood on Iran, Mofaz would be riding higher on his anti-let’s bomb’em campaign. Likud-Beiteinu is the party of the status quo, albeit now tinged with some Russian fascism.
The social agenda has come to the fore and Netanyahu can blame himself for that. In four years in power he did nothing to create controversy. He froze settlement construction for a while, then thawed it. He dabbled in negotiations with the Palestinians but accomplished so little that he neither upset the right nor energized the left. He issued veiled threats against Iran but did not threaten enough – much less act – to create a war panic. When the social protests lit up last year, he threw just enough water of mild reform to douse the flames. When the High Court ordered a decision of the Haredi draft, he simply ignored it-- another controversy swept to the side.
He was fortunate to come into office in 2009 with a balanced budget that enabled the economy to skirt the global recession. He has frittered enough of it away in deficits to keep interest groups at bay but not enough to upset the economy or be forced into unpopular tax hikes and spending cuts (until after elections).
Of course, even with 60 seats between them, the social parties will never form a government. That’s not the point. The point is that Netanyahu created a political vacuum – a time when there little to fight over because nothing is happening -- into which the social agenda has come to fill the space.
Imagine a Yacimovich regime
But what kind of space is it? Imagine a government headed by Shelly Yacmovich. Yair Lapid is minister of Israeliness. Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai uncomfortably share the interior minister’s office. The defense portfolio is handed over to some small faction, like Atzmaut, as candy for joining the government. It’s hard to imagine them all sitting at the same cabinet table, even after it has been lengthened to make room for the plethora of ministers in the current government.
The problem is they could probably all agree on one thing, which is to expand the welfare state. How these goodies should be allocated, or who should accept the burden of higher taxes, or pay for a higher deficit could be smoothed over by giving something to everyone. The Yacimovich government would be “social” in the sense that most of these parties mean it, but where would it lead us. There is no guiding vision behind what the secular parties want, just a general sense that the government should ensure that no one suffers, that tycoons should be put into place and that more government is better. Despite the events of the last four years, Europe is their model.
The Haredim do have a vision, which is what makes them both so powerful and dangerous: it's that they not suffer economically and the rest of us have to muddle through. Eastern Europe of a century or more ago is their model. Both share a nostalgia for times long passed – pre-1967 War Israel for the secular left and pre-Second World War Poland for the Haredim.
Israel’s body economic is ailing, but real social medicine has to relate to the present rather than to longings for the past or vague sentiments about fairness. It would acknowledge that we are not wealthy enough to fund a vast apparatus of transfer payments that allow large parts of the population not to work. It would recognize that our comparative advantage lies in our intellectual capital – Start-Up Nation and all that – and consider how we can best exploit and expand it.
Two things should be at the core of that social agenda.
The first is increasing the number of people in the workforce, which means raising the labor force participation rate among Haredim and Israeli Arabs. Among Haredi men, less than half of the adult men work while among Israeli Arab women the rate is 29%. By comparison, the rate for other Jewish males in Israel is 86% and for Jewish females 80%. Closing those gaps would give an immense boost to output and save the state money that could be spent on truly needy segments of the population.
The second is improving the educational system and investing more in the universities.
Israeli children performed abysmally on the PISA exam conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to measure educational achievements across countries. The fact that Israel has accomplished as much as it has in technology and science is a testament to other institutions, like the army. But that has meant that Israel’s achievements lying on a narrow foundation of start-up companies.
Neither item figures prominently in the agenda being offered by the social lobby because they are not feel-good initiatives. Bringing Haredim and Arabs into offices and factories would not only upset the Haredim but a lot of other people who look askance at the social integration that would follow. An overhaul of the educational system would upset the teachers and offer few immediate rewards for politicians or parents. Child allowances are a check in the mail and a vote in the ballot box.