This election could have been about the Palestinians or about the economy. It could have been about Iran or about the Haredim. That about sums up the great issues of the day as defined by the politicians and the press.
- Centrist Parties Unite, Against Livni
- Goal: Dethrone Bibi. Mission: Hopeless
- Lapid Calls Centrist Parties to Join Netanyahu
- David's Harp / Israel's Poor, Poor Middle Class
- David's Harp / 3 Intifadas and You’re Out
Yet none of them have emerged as a real flashpoint in the campaign. No party has managed to seize any of these issues and run with it, successfully at least.
We can thank Netanyahu for this state of affairs.
The anxieties he provoked last year with veiled threats to attack Iran suddenly disappeared from the political agenda. The Palestinians have been stunningly cooperative, with Hamas on the one side providing a concrete threat and an easy enemy to point to while the Palestinian Authority languishes, neither willing to take the risks of negotiating in good faith or of igniting a Third Intifada. The wrenching issue of drafting the Haredim simply evaporated last summer with neither a draft nor an alternative framework.
In all these affairs, Bibi has behaved like a fire chief who hopes and prays that the flame will die out rather than risk trying to get an obstreperous and argumentative crew to assemble the hoses and ladders and arrive at the scene.
And then there’s the issue of the economy and more broadly, social justice. Rather than confront his coalition partners and voters with what was shaping up last autumn to be particularly nasty austerity budget, Bibi chose to put the whole thing off by calling early elections. In other words, Israel has begun the year 2013 with no budget in place: Bibi left that unpleasantness to the next government, never mind that he'll be heading it.
Budgets don’t simply disappear like the Haredi draft issue. They don't play nice like the Palestinians. But this time, if he has no choice but to put out the fire, he’ll at least have a newly elected crew willing to assist him.
The budget aside, the economy is cooperating with the prime minister, principally by not being in worse shape. True, growth is slowing and unemployment is rising. The Bank of Israel sees GDP growth slowing to 2.8% this year, not counting gas production that should start this year, and predicts that the jobless rate will rise to 7.1% from 6.8% last year. But these are not numbers that throw elections. Most political leaders in the West would be celebrating such numbers. Home prices have soared, but the dirty secret of this phenomenon is that for every first-time buyer that is literally mortgaging away his financial future, there are many more contented sellers, contractors and investors, not to mention homeowners who waste real estate agents’ time by calling them up for an estimate and daydreaming about their paper profits.
Yes, but weren’t the masses pouring into the street two summers ago to protest something more fundamentally wrong with the economy?
That’s what it looked like at the time. Bibi, as he is wont to do, panicked and appointed the Trajtenberg Committee. The media prophesied revolution. Even a year down the line, many politicians evidently think social justice can animate voters. Two of the protest leaders, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, have reasonable places on the Labor list; Meirav Cohen may squeak into the Knesset with Tzipi Livni's new party Hatnuah.
The myth of the social agenda
It even looked for a time as if the election might turn on the so-called "social agenda". Back in October the three “social” parties, Labor, Shas and Yesh Atid -- the ones that have socio-economic issues at the forefront of their campaign – would have received a combined 42 mandates if elections were held back then, according to the Haaretz/Dialog poll.
By the middle of December, they were down to a combined 35 seats. Last week, they had edged up to 36, thanks to a small rebound in Yesh Atid’s poll standings, but, as everyone knows, the big winner is going to be Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, two parties that have other things on their mind than unemployment or housing prices.
In point of fact none of the three social parties have a social agenda at all. Labor simply wants to bring back the welfare state as if the last three decades, with Europe's implosion, never . Shas’ social agenda is simply a boondoggle for Haredim. Neither Labor nor Shas have any answers for the deep, long-term issues facing the economy -- the failings of the educational system and of the high-tech sector to create jobs and spread wealth, the need to bring Haredim and Arabs into the workforce and integrate them into Israeli society, public sector monopolies, and the inefficiency, incompetence and corruption in the public sector. To the extent these issues emerge at all in the campaign, it’s as inchoate grievances, not as issue that have to be tackled with a program.
The social justice movement expressed a similar set of grievances but likewise never offered coherent solutions. Its current incarnation is Yesh Atid and its founder and driving force, Yair Lapid, who represents a state of being more than a political movement that arguably better represents the Israeli middle class more than Labor, Likud or Naftali Bennett, even if his party will have fewer seats in the Knesset than any of them.
Like the social justice movement, Lapid more or less knows what he doesn’t like and has a general idea of what he aspires to, but can’t make up his mind how to get there – and in any case is worried at least as much about a Scud landing on his home as he is about meeting next month’s mortgage payment.
That, at last, is a dilemma no voter in Europe or America has to contend with. The result is a kind of mealy-mouthed campaign that has nothing to say.
It’s unfashionable to blame the voters for their own failings; better to ascribe wrong choice to manipulative campaigns and cynical politicians that are leading them astray. But there’s no reason why voters can’t overcome these. After all the electorate is highly educated, the media are free if not always fair, accurate or balanced. There are no bars to social media or to going out into the streets. If the parties aren’t addressing the issues, then there is no one to blame but the electorate itself.