One billion, four hundred thousand shekels - that is the declared cost of the early election-economics trick that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled, earning the worn sobriquet "revolutionary." He has promised to carry it out at supersonic speed, like his previous "supertankers" - by September, Netanyahu declared, education will be free for all children in Israel from the age of three.
Will it really happen? It doesn't matter. Netanyahu knows that September is too far away and the public's memory too short, and that between now and then the news media will find other, more important, urgent or shocking issues to cover, like the opinion polls signaling a warming trend on the election front or the question of who will join Yair Lapid on the ballot.
Ah, yes, Lapid. On the face of it, and to go by all the polls and the pundits, Netanyahu shouldn't be worried: Lapid will take votes away from Kadima or from both Kadima and Labor. In either case he will only split the center-left bloc further, and as the head of the rock-steady right-wing bloc Netanyahu will only be stronger.
But Netanyahu apparently doesn't care about this analysis. His election trick proves that he believes he must now appeal to the middle class in the center: the center of the political map, which is repulsed by the antidemocratic laws of the right and horrified by "the exclusion of women from the public sphere"; the geographic center of the country, which generally votes the political center; and of course the economic middle, the one that rose into public consciousness in last summer's protest movement as "the eroded middle class."
As an experienced salesman, Netanyahu may be Israel's most election-savvy politician. As such, he heard the heartfelt groaning that poured out of 400,000 Israelis on the street last summer and came up with a precise demographic profile of the protesters. For that reason he isn't interested in Holon's Jessie Cohen neighborhood, in Tel Aviv's Schunat Hatikva or the development towns. He knows they are hard-core Likudniks who only rarely go astray, and even then in negligible amounts. He cares about the "Stroller March" - that's his audience.
As a textbook neoliberal Netanyahu knows these people speak the language of money, expenses and tax burdens and can recognize a good bargain. That's why he arranged a benefit for them worth between NIS 800 and NIS 1,600 a month. A nice chunk of change. And if you add this to the fantastic benefit of eliminating customs fees on Internet purchases and promises to slash water rates and gasoline prices (okay, so that hasn't happened yet ) and a few high-minded (but insistent ) pronouncements against "the exclusion of women," the picture becomes clear: Netanyahu is indeed addressing the center.
You can't blame him. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e wants to please the middle class. Why should he lose them? The problem is that Netanyahu, the only one with the automatic support of Israel's social and geographic periphery, is also the only one causing that periphery real damage through his efforts to cater to the center.
That is because the Free Compulsory Education Law, which stipulates mandatory, free education beginning at the age of three and was passed in 1984 but never fully applied for budgetary reasons, is in effect in the periphery. In around 80 local authorities, including Shlomi, Afula, Sderot, Migdal Ha'emek, Rahat, Kiryat Shmona, children aged three and above receive free education, in some cases including an extended school day and meals. In some of these communities enormous sums have been spent on "smart" classrooms, on afterschool programs and enrichment activities in kindergartens and elementary schools.
Netanyahu is not thrilled by the prospect of early elections, but when they happen of their own accord he demonstrates "leadership": He makes across-the-board cuts to the direct and indirect budgets of communities in the periphery, and what he takes from them he puts into free early childhood education in the center. And that, presumably, is just the beginning.
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