Not Just Security: What Could Benny Gantz’s Socioeconomic Directive Be

None of the candidate's advisers are economists and none have a record in finance, but potential additions could provide clear direction as tough decisions are badly needed

File photo: Benny Gantz mingles with people during an electoral campaign tour in the city of Rishon Letzion, February 1, 2019.
Thomas Coex/AFP

Benny Gantz’s team has had lots to consider since the last weekend, with their main question being how to maintain the momentum he enjoyed following his campaign launch speech, and how not to make mistakes down the line.

One question is how much to talk and expose, given that the little he’s said so far has produced great results in the surveys. The question of how to maximize the position of minimal press exposure, significant public curiosity and the desire for something new, calm and untouched by corruption, when all the other parties are in the midst of civil wars, is likely to be the key to winning the election.

But there are nearly two months left until Election Day, and at some point Gantz’s list of Knesset candidates, platform and ideology will make their way out. Gantz promised his activists that he’d publish one shortly, and suggested in the meanwhile they work based on his statements regarding “policy regarding Gaza, Iran, housing, LGBTs and Shabbat.”

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This is necessary for a party that started out less than two months ago and is currently building its institutions, Knesset slate and partners. Gantz made some general statements about defense and policy, and even said a bit about the health system, but doesn’t really have an action plan regarding anything yet.

One of the main people helping him draft a platform is Hili Tropper, a professional educator and a man of principle who currently serves as head of Yeruham’s municipal education department. He and Michael Biton, Yeruham’s former mayor, give Gantz’s party Hosen L’Yisrael a clear social agenda. If Gantz manages to bring in MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, known as a social activist, this would make the party’s socioeconomic agenda clearer.

Yet none of these people are economists, and none have a record in finance. This raises questions as to what the party’s economic platform will be. Gantz’s campaign launch focused on defense, a legitimate platform given that Gantz is seeking to compete with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by his supporters as Mr. Security.

One person who has been mentioned as a potential addition to Hosen L’Yisrael is Hisdadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn. If he joins, he would become one of the party’s economic ideologies, creating a very clear direction.

Gantz’s need to pull in personalities to strengthen the party is clear, but at the moment the party’s need for a socioeconomic platform is no less clear. Currently, no Israeli party has said it intends to vie for the Finance Ministry portfolio, aside from current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. This portfolio has the potential to be the foundation of socioeconomic change, perhaps because the next government is likely to have to start off by carrying out a budget cut or raising taxes to close a 10 billion shekel ($2.8 billion) deficit. It’s not a particularly tough choice – particularly not for a government that’s just starting out – but Kahlon has been trying to avoid a tax increase. No politician will say during the campaign that he or she intends to close the budget deficit with a 1% VAT increase, even though it’s quite reasonable to do.

The more serious economic issues will come later, but they’ll involve the same dilemma: What programs to advance, how to finance them and at the expense of what. For instance, Gantz brought up the issue of healthcare and said he intends to declare the public health system to be in a state of crisis. What exactly does a state of crisis mean? It’s not news that the public health system needs more resources, or that private health spending is increasing.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a government meeting, Jerusalem, January 27, 2019.
Amit Shabi

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Simantov says the only way to solve the problem is by increasing resources via a 0.5% hike to the health tax. Gantz, like all other politicians who have vowed to tackle the country’s healthcare crisis, will have to address this question. It may be possible to glide through a campaign without clearly answering where the money will come from – Yair Lapid ran an entire campaign focused on the question “Where’s the money?” without actually answering it – but declaring an emergency isn’t really an action plan, just a slogan.

Tough decisions are also needed on housing. Kahlon is passing on to his successor four years focused primarily on his Mehir Lemishtaken subsidized housing tenders. That program has cost the government 6 billion shekels calto date, on behalf of only 25,000 home buyers. But beyond its high cost, it created a distortion between the subsidized market and the free market, limited the number of construction starts, and advanced the idea that buying an apartment is preferable to renting.

Kahlon understood his mistake and said last week that if elected to another term, he would advance rental housing construction. The next finance minister – be it Kahlon or someone else – will have to provide an alternative to Mehir Lemishtaken. It’s too expensive, and too few people benefit. If the next minister wants to continue with it, he or she will have to find funding, as there’s no budget for it starting in 2020.

It’s hard to imagine Gantz and his political partner Moshe Ya’alon taking charge of socioeconomic issues, as they’ve built their entire reputation and careers in the budget-devouring defense establishment. They’ve always been on the side demanding the money, and not on the side that needs to prioritize, say, food versus guns. If Netanyahu heads the next government, Gantz may wind up as defense minister. If so, he really won’t need a socioeconomic platform. But if Gantz really wants to be prime minister, he’ll need to address the major socioeconomic issues facing the Israeli economy, including health, housing and transport. Even if these issues don’t determine the election outcome, Gantz and Ya’alon need to have policies regarding them.

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