In Election Campaign No. 3, Netanyahu's Party Turns Right on Economic Policies

Hagai Amit
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A man walks past a vegetable stand in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020.
A man walks past a vegetable stand in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP
Hagai Amit

Only two parties – Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz – were ready by press time on Sunday to provide systematic answers to TheMarker’s questionnaire on where they stand of key socioeconomic issues ahead of the election on Monday.

The response comes as no surprise: This election campaign has been the dirtiest of the three that have taken place over the last year. The final two days have been the dirtiest of them all amid a war of embarrassing tapes. The first was of Benny Gantz’ adviser, Israel Bachar, saying that his boss would be afraid to attack Iran. The second was from Benjamin Netanyahu’s aide, Natan Eshel, saying that “hate is what unites our camp.”

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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In the absence of systematic answers from all but two of the parties, TheMarker assembled what it believes to be the platforms of the major parties based on answers from previous campaigns, public remarks by party leaders and how the policies they’ve implemented.

The first question is whether the party will serve under a prime minister facing indictment. In the two previous elections, the two leaders of the right, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, said they would decide after an indictment became a fact – which it has since Netanyahu was indicted January 28. Since Bennett accepted the post of defense minister, the answer has moved from unknown to yes.

In TheMarker’s survey, Yisrael Beiteinu is still listed as a party that would be willing to serve in such a government, although in recent days its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has said explicitly he won’t serve in a Netanyahu government under any circumstances.

Another change in platforms is over the Haredi military draft law, the issue that brought down Netanyahu’s religious-right coalition in December 2018. In the two previous elections, Likud said it supported the law; this time, it declined to provide an answer at all, so it can no longer be said to support the legislation.

The reason is that Likud is now more reliant than ever on its Haredi allies, and with United Torah Judaism resolutely opposed to the law, it’s hard to see Netanyahu doing anything to ensure its passage.

Another reason for the change is due to the release of figures showing that the army had been inflating ultra-Orthodox draft numbers. The politicians have been too busy to consider the implications of that, but when they do, it will no doubt force them to reconsider the while question. No matter what the composition of the next government, it will almost certainly ask the High Court to delay enforcement of a more equal draft burden while another committee studies the matter.

Last week, Likud lawmaker Sharren Haskel raised a storm when she responded to a question about whether the government should give financial aid to money-losing factories by saying: “With all due respect, we’re talking about the State of Israel today. Even an unskilled worker at a shuttered ceramics plant in the south … he can work as a dishwasher for 12,000 shekels [$3,440] a month.”

Haskel immediately came under attack from the left, which said he was cut off from the reality of life in the Negev. The next day, she admitted her example was off the mark and that, no, a 55-year-old man laid off from a factory in Dimona wasn’t going to find work at a Tel Aviv restaurant.

Even if her example was faulty, the substance of her remarks are in line with Likud’s right-wing economic policies, which oppose state subsidies for failed factories. It wasn’t by accident that Haskel made the remarks at a conference sponsored by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-of-center nonprofit whose influence on politics has grown over the past year.

With Netanyahu’s naming of former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as his finance minister-designate, Likud has put economic policy at the center of its campaign. Barkat had commissioned surveys showing that his being finance minister would draw votes to the party; in fact, he may have been a factor in Likud’s recent improvement in the polls.

Nevertheless, Barkat’s declared economic policies may have had less to do with Likud’s last-minute rise and more to do with his reputation as a successful high-tech investor, and with his image as a politician with clean hands.

In any event, Barkat came with an economic plan he produced with Harvard economist Michael Porter. It includes big investments in the periphery and the economic division of Israel into regions based on their assets and developing their brands. The Kohelet Policy Forum had a hand is this, too.

Barkat is also calling for lower duties on agricultural products and compensating Israeli growers with subsidies. Both Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Kahol Lavan said they oppose this.

In any case, the kind of policy regarding farm products that Barkat is proposing is likely to characterize a Likud-led government, if it comes to power: Lots of talk about policies to encourage competition, but no action to upset any interest group, whether it’s farmers, the powerful workers committee or the taxi drivers,

If Likud gains control over the Finance Ministry, policies are likely to steer more to the right than under its current minister, Moshe Kahlon, who increased negative income tax rates for low earners and subsidies for afternoon programs for children. On the other hand, there is no way it will reduce subsidies for the Haredim.

Against this, the policies of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance represents an uncompromising leftist approach. That comes across in its answers to three of the questions asked by TheMarker.

On the question of increasing the health tax and reducing the role of private medicine, it was the only party to answer yes. On the issue of mandatory arbitration for workers in critical public services, which would deny them the right to strike, only Labor and the Joint List were opposed. The only party that favors the law is Yamina. Labor is also opposed to measures that would ease rules in the civil service that make it difficult to fire employees.

Kahol Lavan hasn’t changed its stands on the main socioeconomic issues from the two previous elections. Regarding two new issues that have come up in this round, the party said it opposed lower tariffs on farm goods out of its “commitment to protect growers.”

With regard to marijuana legalization, it joins hands with Likud in supporting measures that would legalize certain forms of cannabis use. Labor also supports such a measure, while the two ultra-Orthodox parties oppose it. The rest have no stated position.

Talk about cannabis legislation may be seen by many as simply a gimmick to attract a certain class of voters, but the reality is it reflects a changing attitude inside the parties toward the issue.

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