Forget Doves and Hawks: Where Israeli Parties Stand on Shabbat and Healthcare

Haaretz sent a list of questions to all political parties, asking their positions on a range of issues from the right to strike to drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the army

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Party leaders for 2019 election.
Credit: Ofer Vaknin, Olivier Fitoussi, Oren Ben Hakon, Amit Shabi
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

With Election Day approaching on April 9, the political deck is being shuffled, with new parties on the political scene. So what do the parties stand for on socioeconomic issues?

Who’s for raising the healthcare tax and who is willing to take on organized labor? While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the founder of the new Hosen L'Yisrael party, spar over their conduct in the 2014 Gaza war, we asked the parties to reveal their platforms on the economic and social issues.

“At this point, we don’t have a platform," was the response from Netanyahu's Likud party, in what was probably the most direct refusal received in response. Hosen L’Yisrael said it was too early to unveil its platform, asking us to make do with the contents of Gantz's maiden policy speech on Tuesday.

“The heads of the anti-competitive monopolies should know: Your time has passed. The revelry over the high cost of living is over,” Gantz, a retired army chief of staff, told supporters Tuesday. “We will declare a state of emergency in the healthcare system, and we will provide immediate incentives for medical studies. We will build another hospital in the north and another hospital in the south.”

But when we asked Gantz whether he supported a ban on the right of workers in essential services to strike, imposing mandatory arbitration instead, we did not get an answer. Nor were we told whether his party supports increasing the healthcare tax to strengthen public health system at the expense of private healthcare.

The answers to these questions personally affect the members of the public. The strength of organized labor at the Israel Electric Corporation, for example, is one reasons our electricity bills are high. And a decision on a healthcare tax could shift the balance between public and private medicine in Israel over the long term.

The parties that did provide detailed answers to questions were Labor, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Hayamin Hehadash — the new right-wing party headed by Naftali Bennett — and Telem, whose leader, Moshe Ya’alon, responded two days before his party decided to run on a joint slate with Hosen L'Yisrael.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party said its platform would be ready in about 10 days. Orli Levi-Abekasis' Gesher party did not respond to any of our questions.

Presumably Yisrael Beiteinu, which is running on the security plank of its leader, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, isn’t answering questions like that, but the refusal of Kulanu and Gesher to answer is surprising considering the priority that they place on socioeconomic issues.

Some of the issues do not directly affect supporters of Shas and United Torah Judaism, both of which are ultra-Orthodox. Issues of importance to them do include their opposition to public transportation on Shabbat, the continuation of draft exemptions for yeshiva students and government funding for institutions of importance to the community. They will apparently develop their policy positions as part of the give-and-take involved in formation of a future government coalition.

Candidates 3

The parties' prior positions

When it comes to Likud, Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, we have presented their positions here based on the policies they took in the outgoing government and on statements by their leaders to the media. The reader should bear in mind, however, what every novice political adviser already knows: In Israel, elections aren’t won on economic issues. They are only won on the issue of defense.

That’s why Gantz launched his campaign by counting the number of terrorists he said he was responsible for killing as army chief of staff, along with the razing of entire neighborhoods in Gaza. For his part, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the new Hayamin Hehadash, has claimed that Gantz gave priority to saving lives among Israel's enemies over those of Israeli soldiers.

An outlier in this regard is Netanyahu, whose barbs have been directed at the media and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is expected to announce a decision shortly on whether the prime minister will face criminal charges — subject to a pre-indictment hearing after the election.

What are the issues on which the parties say they would veto their participation in a coalition government that takes positions contrary to their own? Yesh Atid said that it would not compromise on religion and state, the draft of yeshiva students equality in the draft, a core curriculum in all Israeli public schools and fighting corruption. Party leader Yair Lapid would also insist on eliminating the appointment of ministers without portfolio in the cabinet and the imposition of a limit of two terms for the prime minister. The Labor Party said it too would demand term limits and would also insist on public transportation on the Sabbath.

On the subject of membership in a coalition headed by Netanyahu if he is indicted, Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties were the only ones to say Netanyahu could continue in office even after he is charged, if that happens. Kulanu, Hadash, Labor, Yesh Atid, Hosen L’Yisrael, Telem, Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah all said Netanyahu would have to step down if indicted. Hayamin Hehadash said it would wait for the attorney general’s decision.

Defense spending

Netanyahu has said that the defense budget must be linked to the growth in the country's gross domestic product. This also relates to socioeconomics because funds that are not spent on tanks or fighter aircraft can be invested in schools and hospitals. No other party accepts the prime minister's linkage of defense spending and GDP. Even the right-wing Hayamin Hehadash said defense spending should be based on the threats facing Israel rather than its GDP.

The Labor Party said outright that the defense budget has eaten into civilian needs. It called for an increase in spending on social services, noting that the country's outlays in the field are the lowest in the OECD, the grouping of the world's developed economies. Meretz and Hadash, which is one of the constituent parties of the Joint List, want to reduce defense spending. Telem party leader Moshe Ya’alon supports the agreement he made as defense minister with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, which calls for spending on the two to be balanced.

Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz and Ya’alon pledge to support increased transparency in the selection process for members of the boards of government companies, in an effort to root out political influence. Hadash said it was in favor of more Arabs, women and the residents of outlying communities on the boards.

For its part, Habayit Hayehudi, which in the outgoing Knesset worked to increase the power of the government at the expense of the authority of professional staff, said that a balance should be struck between the desire to elect board members based on their professional capabilities and the desire of ministers to see government companies under the their ministries' aegis represent the ministers' policies.

Judicial appointments

The investigation of former Israel Bar Association president Efraim Nave over allegations that he sought to arrange judicial appointments in exchange for sexual favors is likely to raise questions over some judicial appointments made in recent years. Hayamin Hehadash, whose leadership includes outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, believes the selection process for judges, which is currently made by a committee with representation from the bar association, the Knesset and judges themselves, should be changed, while Meretz believes it should not. Yesh Atid said it would call for a change in the Basic Law on the Judiciary that would require an opposition Knesset member as well as a coalition legislator on the Judicial Appointments Committee. Hadash is calling for representation of the opposition and Arabs on the committee.

The question of government involvement in the communications sector comes against the backdrop of criminal suspicions that, as communications minister, Netanyahu traded positive news coverage from the Walla news website, owned by the Bezeq communications firm, in exchange for government regulatory policy favorable to Bezeq. On that issue, we found unexpected consensus among Ya’alon's Telem, Lapid's Yesh Atid and Hadash. Yesh Atid and Telem both favor the establishment of a national communications authority. Telem and Hadash want such an authority to replace the Communications Ministry.

Labor said it would like to see distance put between politicians and influence over media content, as well as a reduction of bureaucracy that harms competition. Hayamin Hehadash said it is for less regulation in the free market in general, while Meretz came out in favor of “government regulation to protect the public interest, so long as the regulator is politically independent.”

The question of whether the parties support limiting the strength of organized labor elicited complicated answers. It turns out that nobody wants to face off against the unions before an election. Meretz said outright that such limitations would “introduce exploitative employment practices,” while Hadash said it would “not support any restriction that would hurt services to citizens, and [it] would not support arrangements harmful to workers and organized labor.”

The other parties were less committal. Telem's Ya’alon said labor agreements should be made more flexible than at present. The Labor Party said organized labor was important socioeconomically, but that “there is a basis for change and revision ... as part of a broad consensus between employers and employee representatives.” Hayamin Hehadash said it was for consideration of the issues by a special Knesset committee.

As for banning the right to strike essential services, Yesh Atid and Hayamin Hehadash said they supported such legislation unequivocally, while the Labor Party said it was opposed. Meretz and Hadash said the right to strike was basic to a democracy.

Draft exemptions

The issue of military service by draft-age ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students nearly broke up the outgoing government. The issue will have to be dealt with as soon as a new government is formed. Yesh Atid, Hayamin Hehadash and Telem continue to support current legislation, which Labor says is “a total bluff that will not lead to even one more yeshiva student being drafted.” Labor called for expanded benefits for soldiers, including higher pay and more benefits for veterans. Meretz expressed a similar lack of confidence in the current legislation and said the main problem was the connection between draft exemption and the low level of ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce. Hadash opposes the legislation and says “no person should be forced to serve in the army as long as it is occupying the Palestinian people.”

The natural gas policy blueprint of the outgoing government has come up again in recent months due to the rise in the price of electricity. According to Labor, “the average family spends hundreds of shekels unnecessarily on electricity because of this corrupt plan." Ya’alon said natural gas should be subject to price controls to help lower the cost of living. Meretz and Hadash want to see the plan scuttled, while Yesh Atid and Hayamin Hehadash support it as is.

Yesh Atid, Meretz, Ya’alon, Hadash and Labor have had a longtime position that those who do not observe the Sabbath should have access to public transportation on Shabbat. Surprisingly, Hayamin Hehadash, which bills itself as a religious-secular partnership, said it does not rule out the idea. More generally on issues of state and religion, it called for the establishment of a public committee to consider the subject.

Finally, on the issue of whether the parties would support raising the healthcare tax to boost support for the public healthcare system, the Labor Party has a comprehensive plan for the system that includes a 0.5 percent hike in the healthcare tax “to fund custodial nursing care for all citizens.” Hayamin Hehadash said it opposes a tax increase, as does Yesh Atid, which said there was no need for a tax hike. It claimed that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads United Torah Judaism, had managed to get approval for 4.5 billion shekels ($1.2 billion) in other coalition funding "that could be given to healthcare.” Hadash said it favored the hike, while Meretz and Ya’alon did not answer directly, but called for the public healthcare system to be upgraded.

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