Tel Aviv — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections, he cast the Iranian nuclear threat as the primary issue facing Israel—and analysts predicted the vote would turn on voters’ fears of war.
But if Netanyahu’s would-be opponents have anything to say about it, the January 22 election could be more about the price of cottage cheese and Tel Aviv apartments than anything the mullahs in Tehran are up to.
At least one leader of last summer’s social protest movement has already thrown her hat in the political ring. And leaders of opposition parties are vowing to tap the spirit of the movement that attracted massive crowds with a message of economic justice and social inclusion.
“For many years Israelis have focused on security issues over social issues, but during (the) protests, people realized it is a distorted division and that national security and social security go together,” said Stav Shaffir, one of the protest leaders who announced plans to run for a Knesset seat on the Labor Party ticket.
Shaffir openly plans to run on a program based on the protesters’ agenda, and predicted Netanyahu and other leaders will have to respond.
“Following a year when the social protest changed the discourse on social issues in Israel completely… people are much more aware of what the budget means, of every step that the government takes against the interest of our society,” Shaffir told the Forward. “Today, politicians and the government are a little afraid and they don’t want the public to turn against them.”
It is not just protest leaders who plan to put social-economic issues on the election agenda. Shelly Yachimovich became Labor leader during the tail end of the protests, stressing her commitment to the issues they raised during her successful battle to lead the party. She has boosted the fortunes of the party which is now polling at around 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to the all-time-low 13 it won at the last election.
Pollster and political scientist Tamar Hermann believes that all parties will scramble to prove that they are concerned with social-economic issues and have a track record on them. “I believe all parties will have to address them directly and in a straightforward way — no party can avoid them as they are in the air,” she said.
Besides Labor, the other party poised to put social-economic issues at the center of its platform is the new Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, a former newspaper columnist, author, screenwriter and actor. Lapid, whose party is expected to win about 15 seats, tapped into the frustration that the middle class expressed during the 2011 protests, and propelled himself into politics on the promise that he will be a remedy. His party is expected to call for fixes that are more moderate than those called for during demonstrations, and give much attention to other matters such as demanding the draft of ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli national service.