With the general election set for January 22 next year, the candidates and their
supporters have gone into overdrive, bombarding the Israeli public with campaign
Each party is working hard to frame the public’s conception of
the past four years, trying to sum up the government’s performance with a
handful of terse but memorable sound bites. On the one side of the divide are
the coalition partners, who describe the past four years as a period of
wonderful stability, growth and security; pitted against them are the members of
the opposition, who describe the very same four years as an awful period of
regression, stagnation and deterioration.
Tapping into our fears and
hopes, they paint a rosy picture of a wonderful future that can be ours if we
only have the presence of mind to vote for them, and a calamitous fate that will
befall us if we are foolish enough to vote for any other party, particularly
those on the wrong side of the left-right divide.
The truth is that while
there are real differences between the larger mainstream parties, they are not
as black and white as the pithy campaign messages would have us believe,
certainly not when it comes to the bigger issues on the public
ONE CAN start with government policy on Gaza, focusing on action
over rhetoric. In comparison to the Olmert government, which prosecuted
Operation Cast Lead, the Netanyahu government took no gamechanging military
action against the Hamas regime in Gaza in the face of continued rocket attacks,
arms smuggling and an ongoing military buildup.
In terms of political
activity, the current government has maintained a stance similar to its
precursor: while it has insisted that Hamas meet the Quartet’s threshold
criteria for full-fledged legitimacy, the Netanyahu government, just like the
Olmert government, has cautiously heeded the terms of its unwritten truce with
the regime in Gaza, eased the blockade and even negotiated a prisoner exchange
agreement with it.
On the issue of Iran, the Netanyahu government has
certainly been more publicly outspoken than its precursors, but in terms of real
action it has done nothing discernibly different from the governments that
served under Olmert, Sharon and Barak.
Netanyahu has worked hard to
persuade the electorate that he alone has the wherewithal to order a military
strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if need be, but empirical evidence indicates
otherwise. The strike on the Syrian reactor in 2007, which was ascribed by
foreign sources to the Olmert government, undermines the very premise of that
The truth is that when deemed necessary, centrist and even
left-leaning governments have taken Israel to war. There is no reason to expect
things should be any different in the future.
Regarding peace with
Israel’s neighbors, the report last weekend in Yediot Aharonot about
negotiations that were held just last year between Netanyahu and Syrian
President Bashar Assad undercuts the oft-repeated argument in left-wing circles
that Netanyahu would never agree to the territorial concessions needed to cut a
peace deal with an Arab neighbor.
Assuming the report was accurate – and
it was confirmed in the main by the US State Department – Netanyahu agreed to a
full withdrawal from the Golan Heights down to the shore of the Kinneret,
endorsing a withdrawal more extensive than any of his predecessors from the Left
and Center ever had.
Unto itself, this dashes the image of “Netanyahu the
hardliner” that both Left and Right have worked to foster, each for their own
conflicting electoral purposes.
Moreover, extrapolating to a broader
context, no one should be surprised if one day Netanyahu agrees to far-reaching
territorial concession on the West Bank in the unlikely event that the
Palestinian leadership accepts a proposal that meets Israel’s basic political
and security needs.
The same can be said about economic issues. There are
certainly real differences between the various parties and candidates, but the
pithy slogans that the politicians on both sides want us to buy into are too
simplistic to reflect the practical policies that will be pursued, particularly
when so much is influenced by the global economy.
Netanyahu promises us
economic stability, growth and jobs if we vote for him, and warns us that we
will suffer the calamitous fate of “Spain and Greece” if we are tempted to vote
for the opposition. Shelly Yacimovich offers us the enticing promise of social
justice if we vote for her, and warns us against the intolerably heavy burden
that average Israelis will be forced to bear if we vote Netanyahu back into
WHILE BOTH candidates would like us to believe that this is a
choice between economic black and white, a more accurate description would
probably be that it is a choice between shades of gray. Neither is quite as
radical as their opponent would have us believe, and neither will be setting
economic policy in a vacuum. Rather, both are answerable to the Israeli public,
on the one hand, and will have to work closely with the powerful players in the
Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry on the other, providing for significant
checks and balances.
The ideological differences between the parties are
real, but in the election before us it seems that the important differences, on
economic issues as well as in all that pertains to war and peace, will be
dictated mainly by political and partisan priorities, and, of course, external
realities beyond their control.
Judging by his track record, for example,
Netanyahu is more likely to prioritize maintaining smooth relations with the
haredim (ultra-Orthodox). As in the past, he will be loath to upset the haredim
by introducing changes that would spread the burden of taxes and military
service more evenly over society, a course of action that would free up money
currently doled out by the state to support those large parts of the haredi
sector that live off subsidies.
Also on the basis of his track record,
Netanyahu is likely to continue to prioritize maintaining smooth relations with
the settlers, and will be loath to antagonize them by reducing the enormous sums
in state funds that directly and indirectly finance their pet
Yacimovich and Yair Lapid, who claim to want to oust the
current government from power, have less of a track record by which we can judge
them. That said, all signs indicate that their political priorities differ
significantly from Netanyahu’s. Neither are politically beholden to either the
haredim or the settlers and, as such, are more likely deprioritize those groups
and to increase spending and investment in other Israeli sectors that have been
deprioritized by the Netanyahu government.
Ultimately, no matter who is
elected prime minister and what the composition of their cabinet is, he or she
will be the prime minister of all Israelis, whether they live in Herzliya, Ofra,
Ofakim, Kalansua, Kibbutz Nirim or Bnei Brak. The real difference, the one that
will have a direct impact on our lives, will be in how much political and
monetary capital each one chooses to invest in the different sectors of Israeli
society.The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.