As Election Day Approaches, Parties Stress Economic Platforms

Labor eyes return to social-democratic roots; Likud to stress Netanyahu's reputation as 'Mr Economy.'

As Israel increasingly feels the effects of the world financial crisis, the economy is becoming a main theme in the campaign before the February general election.

While Labor plans to revive its Social-Democratic image and attempt to pin social woes on Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party plans to make its first-ever appeal to the middle class and pledge to protect the poor from within the governing coalition.

Kadima under Tzipi Livni intends to attack Netanyahu for the pension-fund crisis and present an alternative program, which Livni and a team of experts are putting together. Likud, for its part, will try to portray Netanyahu as a reformer who enjoys high esteem abroad for his handling of the economy when he was finance minister under Ariel Sharon.

Labor plans to go back to some of its Social-Democratic roots.

"Labor chairman Ehud Barak already proposed a substantial increase in funds for social issues three months ago," says Shalom Kittel, a Barak adviser. "Already then they proposed a safety net for pensioners and for provident funds." Kittel added that it was Barak who proposed that Livni sit down with a team of economists to try to find solutions to the impending crisis.

Labor intends to blame the crisis on Netanyahu. According to Labor's campaign strategists, Netanyahu's role in creating the funds crisis "cannot be ignored." They say the same applies to his "contribution to the broadening of social gaps in Israel."

Labor also intends to go after Kadima and Livni over financial issues. "The campaign will address the ongoing stammering by Livni and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, who are supposed to be resolving the crisis," a campaign strategist said.

The head of Labor's financial team will be Prof. Avishai Braverman, a Labor MK. The chief spokespeople on social gaps in society will be Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz. The election campaign is expected to begin in earnest after Labor's primary election, slated to take place next week.

Likud's campaign strategy, according to some of its architects, will give the economy the same level of importance as security. While Likud's rivals plan to go after Netanyahu, Likud will stress his involvement in the economy, relying on his image as someone who already rescued the economy once. One Likud source said Netanyahu will be the election campaign's "Mr. Economy."

Kadima will probably take a swipe at Mr. Economy and accuse him of gambling on pension funds - and losing. Likud officials say they expect attacks of that sort but still believe that Netanyahu is "a winning brand-name" when it comes to the economy.

Likud is expected to retaliate by claiming to offer a more coherent approach than Livni on economic issues, while highlighting Livni's relative lack of experience in the area. This could be partly why Livni is surrounding herself with a team of economists, with whom she is reportedly consolidating a plan to "save the economy."

As for Shas, the crisis has prompted it to vigorously court middle-class voters for the first time. Shas, which has traditionally relied on welfare entitlements to recruit voters, will try to persuade middle-class voters that they are next in line to be hit by the crisis.

As such, Shas will try to argue that middle-class constituents will need the social and financial benefits that Shas has to offer.

Yair Ettinger and Roni Singer-Heruti contributed to this article.