Israelis went to the polls a year ago Wednesday, voting for stability at the top of the political pyramid, while pleading for a change in the country’s priorities.
They reelected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu but gave strong support to the new players on the political scene, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett.
Lapid and Bennett focused their agendas on helping the middle class, lowering the cost of living and making the country more livable.
Thanks to Lapid and Bennett, Israelis voted not on diplomatic issues but on the economy, matters of religion and state, and on frustration with old-style politics.
Parties that focused on the old bread and butter issues of war and peace fared poorly, especially Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and the right-wing Otzma Le’Israel party, which did not pass the 2 percent electoral threshold.
A year later, ironically, diplomatic issues dominate the scene.
There are serious American-brokered talks taking place with the Palestinians, and the world has made an effort to prevent the nuclearization of Iran, at Netanyahu’s urging.
But what about the issues the election was about? They are still a work in progress.
Efforts to draft yeshiva students are stuck in a Knesset committee, as are electoral reforms. Both items on the government’s agenda are expected to pass in upcoming months, but watered-down from the potency Israelis showed they wanted on Election Day.
Despite their success in keeping ultra-Orthodox parties out of the coalition, the socioeconomic promises of Lapid and Bennett also remain unfulfilled a year after their strong showing at the ballot box.
Finance Minister Lapid came into office vowing to tackle the “monstrous” deficit, which in 2012 had unexpectedly swollen to 3.9% of the economic output (4.2% under the old GDP calculations). He set himself an unambitious target of 4.3% for 2013. But a combination of good fortune and aggressive measures helped him bring it down to a respectable 3.15% instead.
To do that, however, he had to backtrack on his central promise not to use the middle class as “an ATM” to finance state spending, a promise he later amended to say he would not rely “only” on the middle class.
To be fair, when the deficit improved, Lapid canceled the planned income tax increases, but the VAT increase and other regressive tax hikes remained in place.
Though he fulfilled a promise of getting big corporations to release their “trapped profits,” that is profits earned by multinationals after they had been provided with tax incentives to invest in Israel, which alongside major exits by start-up companies such as Waze helped bring in one-time revenue bumps, he failed to significantly slash budgets in areas he had touted as ripe for cuts – the Defense Ministry and the settlements.
The other major promise Lapid made to the social protest voters, who helped sweep his party to take the second spot in the Knesset, was lowering the cost of living.
Although the government has initiated a series of laudable reforms, such as the Open Skies agreement with the EU, port reforms and legal limitations on pyramid companies that dominate the economy, attempts to lower housing prices have fallen flat.
Sure, the government created a committee to recommend ways of improving the market, passed a plan to increase the supply of rental units, and moved forward with sensible plans to clear out prime real estate in Tel Aviv, by moving the Kirya military headquarters and the Dov Hoz Airport.
But nothing has been done to systematically clear out the numerous roadblocks that plague the process of building and marketing housing units.
Instead of dropping or even leveling off, the cost of housing rose 8.6% in the past year.
Finally, while Lapid and Bennett promised to slash red tape, Israel has continued its uncomfortable slide down international rankings measuring ease of doing business.
In the latest reports, it dropped from 33rd to 35th in the World Bank’s Doing Business index and from 22nd to 26th in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index.
So a year after an election about change, there are still many changes that remain a work in progress. A year from now, perhaps it will be possible to look back at promises fulfilled.
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