Fresh Israeli Face Pushes Economic Message

Benjamin Netanyahu Hopes the Election Will Focus on Iran

Street to Ballot Box: Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of last year’s social justice protests, is running for a seat in Israel’s Knesset.
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Street to Ballot Box: Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of last year’s social justice protests, is running for a seat in Israel’s Knesset.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 21, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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Lapid is not calling for a major bolstering of the welfare state, but rather improvement in the management of the public sphere. Analysts say his call may resonate with the middle class.

“The feeling that there’s something wrong with the state of the middle class is widespread, (but) when it comes down to translating those feelings in to the political arena many people will say it’s very important but there are other issues,” said Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Adva Center policy institute. “So many people who marched through the streets of Tel Aviv will probably vote for Yair Lapid whose social policy is far away from Shelly Yachimovich.”

A third serious party with social-economic issues central to its agenda may still emerge. Kadima, which took a black eye over its shortlived coalition with Netanyahu, is currently on the political fringes, polling only in the region of six seats.

But if Kadima manages to recruit a popular figure like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it could revive and strengthen the call for change. Hebrew University academic Manuel Trajtenberg, who wrote the official government report on the protest movement, is also rumored to be considering joining Kadima, which would make the party a very strong player on social-economic issues.

Even Netanyahu may realize he has to emphasize the economy over his preferred territory of national security. In his speech to the Knesset announcing the early elections, he tried to cast himself as the cure rather than the illness.

The Prime Minister boasted that he pulled the Israeli economy out of recession during his four years in office and put it back on a path to growth during a global economic crisis.

The global economic crisis, he said, “threatened to bring down the economy of Israel.” But his “responsible policy” brought “a change in the trend,” leading to Israel’s steady economic growth.

Despite the fact that large parts of the Trajtenberg Report of recommendations, which he commissioned in response to the protests, have not been implemented, Netanyahu is expected to remind voters repeatedly about the popular changes that he has made. At the top of his list are likely to be extending free kindergarten to Israelis from the age of 3 and providing tax credits to working parents.

According to Hermann, who is professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the national keenness on social-economic issues won’t necessarily work against Netanyahu. “He can say that his government got the message, and put forward a list of policies and future plans dealing with hardships,” she said.

Even though some hope to focus the election campaign on social-economic issues, a flare-up with Iran or battles with the Palestinians could return the discourse to the more familiar territory of security. Many speculate that any such January surprise will only strengthen Netanyahu’s hand as the vote nears.

“The government will be very ready to seize on any opportunity to increase the flames and direct the attention from the social and economic issues,” said Ono Academic College researcher Amir Paz-Fuchs, an expert on Israel’s social protest campaign.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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