Analysis

Social Issues Back on the Agenda - and Labor Might Stand to Gain

From the Ethiopian community protesting police brutality to demonstrations over day care centers, renewed social protest might play in the hands of Labor's new leader Amir Peretz

Protesters scuffle with police during a protest for the death of 18-year old Solomon Tekah of Ethiopian descent, after he was shot by police, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 3, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Just two months before Israel’s September election – lazy days summer when many voters are preoccupied with keeping their children busy and taking vacations – July has turned out to be a time of intense social protest.

First it was the Ethiopian community protesting police brutality after the killing of Solomon Teka. The protests have refused to wind down, and in the meantime a new grievance and more protests have erupted this week, this time over the physical abuse of children at a Rosh Ha’ayin day care center and the government’s shoddy supervision.

Next on the agenda it seems will be the issue of mandatory school fees, an issue that the opposition has now raised in the Knesset because the government plans to impose them already at the start of the next school year.

In each case we’re talking about socioeconomic problems that the government must address in a fundamental way, something that wasn’t done in the 10 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule. The prime minister was surprised as anyone about the sudden eruption of the street protests, but he shouldn’t have been: They’re an expression of suppressed anger that had to explode – it’s only waiting for something to light the fuse.

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The protests demonstrate that none of the very many parties competing in the September election have focused on socioeconomic issues. In the April vote there were three that did. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher both vowed to attend to the needs of the middle class and the poor, while Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut challenged some fundamental policies of the state.

The election ended badly for all three. Kulanu lost six of its 10 Knesset seats, while Gesher and Zehut failed to pass the 3.25% threshold to enter parliament. They learned their lesion and none of them had been planning to run as standalone parties in September.

The protest of July could change everything and bring the socioeconomic conversation back on the agenda. The assumption is that about 10 Knesset seats – the number the three parties would have won based on the percentage of the vote they captured – are looking for a new home.

The most likely party to win them is Labor. Among all the party leaders, its chairman, Amir Peretz, is the one most closely identified with social issues. His party slate counts no ex-generals but does have the former social activists Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli.

The September election may turn out against all expectations and be very different from the April vote because many Israelis have no idea who they’ll vote for. Many are reconsidering their April selection.

In Kiryat Malakhi, for example, a city where 16% of the residents are Ethiopian, Kahol Lavan won just 7% of the vote. Now that could change.

Likud is usually the beneficiary of Ethiopian votes, but they may start looking for a new home. Kahlon Lavan has two Ethiopian-origin MKs on its list – Pnina Tamano-Shata and Gadi Yevarkan. They’re currently far down on it, but the party is considering giving them higher slots that would ensure them a seat in the next Knesset and thus lure Ethiopian voters.

Peretz lives in Sderot, another Likud town where Labor garnered a measly 3% of the vote in April. When he last led the party into an election, in 2006, Labor won a quarter of the town’s votes.

On the other hand, there’s the threat of voter apathy. Remember that Peretz won the Labor leadership race last month with just a 40% turnout of party voters. In the previous party primary, it was 60%.

It’s far too early to predict how many voters will choose to stay home on September 17, but if the Labor turnout reflects a similar indifference among the wider electorate, all the parties will be due for unpleasant surprises.