Opinion |

Dr. Economy and Mr. Nationalist: Three Reasons Not to Vote for Bibi

The prime minister really is Mr. Economy, in the short run. But over time, his policies will doom Israel to backwardness and poverty

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Picture of Benjamin Netanyahu lying on fruit at the market
The prime minister really is Mr. Economy – in the short run. But over time, his policies will doom Israel to backwardness and povertyCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Gaza, the Trump peace plan, weak leftists and Bibi himself - that is what the campaigns ahead of the election next week are all about. The parties are simply ignoring socioeconomic issues, even though more than a quarter of respondents in a opinion poll said that was their main consideration, well ahead of security, or who the party leader might be.

To win votes, Netanyahu meets with foreign leaders to enhance his credentials, attacks the media and the judicial system, engages in name calling, and makes deals with Kahanists. Yet he has been silent on the economy – which is strange.

>> Read more: Under a decade of Netanyahu rule the Israeli economy has gone backwards | Analysis

Calling attention to Israel’s low unemployment, rising wages, tax cuts and zero inflation would be the obvious thing to do for a politician running for office in any normal country, especially as he takes credit for these concrete achievements.

Perhaps the parties and Netanyahu himself assume that voters looking at pocketbook issues will automatically choose "Mr. Economy " – Netanyahu. Hence Bibi’s campaigning aims at rightist voters who are motivated less by policy achievements and more by disgust and resentment -- of the left, the establishment, Arabs and Obama (long gone, but Bibi has trotted him out as a campaign issue anyhow).

But that great and silent Middle Israel of pocketbook voters should think twice about Netanyahu’s accomplishments.

Years of irresponsibility

The Bank of Israel this week accused the prime minister (and his finance minister) of years of fiscal irresponsibility that left Israel with a growing budget deficit and big problems for the next government to grapple with.

Beyond that, the central bank said, in so many words, that Netanyahu had failed to address the fundamental problem facing the Israeli economy, namely low labor productivity. For all Israel’s accomplishments in high-tech, without that seemingly arcane issue being addressed, we will be consigned to a future of slower economic growth and lower standards of living.

If that isn’t reason enough not to vote Bibi next week, I believe there are three others that make the case.

1. Corruption: Bibi’s multiple police investigations are usually seen as an ethical problem (no one that corrupt should hold high office) or a political one (he won’t have time to deal policy issues if he’s huddling all day with his lawyers). But it’s also an economic issue.

Corruption by its nature is underground, so you can only guess at its extent. The evidence we have had before us did not point to egregious corruption in Israel until the Bibi era; there was nothing on the scale of the rot in some countries, such as wildly inflated government contracts, billions of public money disappearing without explanation or shadowy business people making mysterious deals with the government.

Based on the allegations against them, Bibi and his friends and family have taken Israeli corruption to new heights. Maybe not with Case 1000 (cigars and champagne), but most assuredly with Case 4000 (friendly media coverage in exchange for regulatory goodies for the Bezeq telecoms company) and Case 3000 (the submarine and missile boat deal).

If the allegations prove true, this is about big money. And, if Netanyahu wins the election and forms the next government, the political establishment and the business community will be getting the message that none of this is very serious. Elected officials and business people will understand that what was once considered past the red line is now safely within it.

2. Haredim: The ultra-Orthodox have become an unbearable weight on the economy because relatively few adult men work or pay taxes, and the community's proportion in the population is growing. For a while the government was using a combination of carrots and sticks to bring more of them into the workforce, but the achievements have been reversed since 2015 when the Haredi parties returned to the government.

Netanyahu seems far more interested in leading a stable coalition with partners who don’t give him political headaches like Naftali Bennett or Avigdor Lieberman than in the greater good of Israel in the long term. From his point of view, the price the Haredi parties demand -- restoring allowances to yeshiva students so they don’t have to find a job, enabling them to avoid the draft and getting a general education -- is small. He’ll do it again to form the next government without a second thought.

For the rest of us, however, especially for our children and grandchildren, the price will be enormous. It will mean fewer people working and more relying on benefits. The Startup Nation phenomenon will be dead in the water for lack of trained personnel.

3. Israeli Arabs: To Netanyahu’s credit, his government has undertaken to spend billions of shekels to upgrade education and infrastructure for Israeli Arabs. That’s critical for the same reason it’s critical to bring Haredim into the workforce: Israel’s Arab minority is impoverished, under-educated and underemployed, and the economy can’t afford to let that continue.

Yet Bibi can’t help himself, especially during election time, from attacking Israeli Arabs as disloyal and dangerous, who deserve no better than to be second-class citizens. Bibi may be Dr. Economy but he can’t contain his Mr. Nationalist side when it comes to political survival.

His attacks on Israeli Arabs are another case of short-term calculations designed to advance his personal interests at the expense of Israel’s. The fact is that the billions the state is spending will achieve nothing if the prime minister contributes to an atmosphere of hate and resentment against the very people he is supposed to be helping. A freshly minted Arab Technion graduate won’t be able to find a job to match his skills if potential employers are fearful and suspicious of him.

We can’t be sure what a Gantz government will do on these issues, but we can be certain about the next Bibi government.

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