Nice Iran Speech, Bibi, but What About the Price of Cottage Cheese?

So Netanyahu spoke, alienating Obama even more and impressing Israelis not at all. They still care about the cost of living in Israel.

David Rosenberg
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Netanyahu waves during his address to Congress, Washington, March 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg

Bibi’s great and controversial address to Congress has come and gone. What has he achieved? Has he thwarted Iranian nuclear ambitions by getting a better deal? Has Israel joined the stable of Republican causes like killing Obamacare, instead of something all Americans support?

And, will Israeli voters turn their attention away from the impossible cost of living in Israel, and vote for the candidate who’s toughest on Iran?

The impact of his speech will take time to emerge, which is very unfortunate. Iran's ambitions and America's causes are both critical for Israel’s future, but the voters have to decide within days whether he failed miserably to block the Iranian nuclear threat and upset relations with our most important ally, or thwarted a dangerous deal with Iran.

Dangerous games

Judged by his record on Iran up to March 3, Netanyahu has to be given due credit. His repeated threats to attack Iran, which reached their peak in the first Obama term, had their effect. Fearing war, the United States ratcheted up the sanctions regime, forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, though, Israel spent 10 billion shekels ($2.5 billion) readying the Israeli army for a military operation and untold damage was done to Israel’s international standing.

On the other hand, Netanyahu has played a very dangerous game with the White House. He bet disastrously wrong that Obama would be a one-term president who could be ignored and insulted until he was succeeded by a friendly Mitt Romney.

One would have thought that Netanyahu would have acted quickly after the 2012 U.S. election to patch things up. Apparently however he is too close to Republican money and influence, and too easily swayed by the Israeli right’s loathing of Obama, to do the sensible thing. Instead, he has continued to defy the leader of the most powerful country in the world and the man who can make life extraordinarily miserable for Israel in a hundred different ways.

Who's the man

We can only hope that Obama and the Democratic Party, which Netanyahu has now added to his enemies list, see the problem as Bibi, not as Israel.

That will be harder if Netanyahu forms the next government. Obama doesn’t see an accord with the Palestinians or a nuclear agreement with Iran as bad for Israel, so it’s not an issue of Obama taking revenge. But it is easy to envision Bibi fighting the president on both fronts, provoking him and defying his wishes, and further diminishing Israel’s standing in Washington and around the world.

And, did Bibi's speech distract Israelis from the cost of living in Israel? Brilliant as it was: No.

Mere days before his address to Congress, Channel 10 asked voters what issue influences them the most. For 56% of them the answer was the cost of living and social welfare. Only 27% said it was security, which for most people means the immediate threat of terrorism and the next war with Hamas, not Iran.

Certainly the polls show no sign of the Likud gaining even short-term momentum from its leader being feted in Congress and treated like the head of a superpower.

So, Netanyahu is stuck (from his point of view) with the hopeless issue of the economy.

Persnickety details

Apparently he doesn’t think so. The Likud narrative could have been, “While the rest of the developed world was reeling from a financial crisis, plunging into recession, bailing out banks and struggling with double-digit unemployment, Israel’s economy under my stewardship was growing and prospering. Today the jobless rate is at a record low and Protective Edge – contrary to what everyone said – did nothing to stop growth.”

Of course, the narrative is missing a few critical details, such as soaring housing prices, widening income gaps and the high cost of living. But as campaign narratives go, it would not have been particularly wrong. The ones cooked up by the other parties, which depict Israel as an economic disaster area, are at least as misleading.

So, how should those 56% who worry about the cost of living first and foremost vote? Here are some rules of thumb.

Rules for choosing your man

First, ignore the attacks on Bibi and his failures. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, but attacking the last government is a cheap and easy way to win votes, it’s not a policy or ideology. What you want to know is what Party X will do when it is sitting in the government. Keep attacking the last government?

Second, ignore solutions that have only winners and no losers. Case in point: Yair Lapid's "zero-VAT" plan to reduce housing prices. Person A is exempt from the value-added tax when he buys a home, what could be bad about that? How about because Person B, who doesn’t qualify, will either have to pay more taxes to make up for the lost VAT revenues or make do with fewer government services?

Third, unless Party X’s leader is the prime minister and/or it holds the finance portfolio, it doesn’t matter how attractive its economic proposals are. Economic policy is set by the prime minister and the finance minister, with the governor of the Bank of Israel, treasury mandarins and financial markets having their say too. That means the scope for policy change is very limited, especially when it involves spending more money.

Fifth, admit it, you have only the vaguest idea of what is troubling the economy and even less of one about what to do about it. And, the great majority of people running for office are no more knowledgeable either.

So, don’t pay too much attention to the specifics of policy proposals (who, in any case, is going to read Yesh Atid’s 270-page manifesto?) Choose the party whose leadership demonstrates a modicum of knowledge, a clear ideological line and the interests of the great middle class in mind, combined with enough political savvy to act. Believe it or not, there are a few politicians out there who meet the criteria. That you can probably figure out.

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