Residents of one country woke up this week to headlines about teenagers gunned
down by an extremist in a horrible terrorist attack that killed
Residents of another had their newspapers filled with pictures of
young people not much older sleeping in tents in public
Anyone aiming to predict this summer’s headlines would
have thought the latter scenario would take place in Scandinavia and the former
in the Middle East. But they would have been wrong.
It is that contrast
that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s top advisers and coalition Knesset
members were discussing in the Knesset corridors and cafeteria this week. They
expressed relief that Israel’s summer was being marked by a socioeconomic stir
and not a stormy security situation, and they attempted to explain the
conundrums caused by the ongoing debate over the housing crisis.
one hand, the economy is stronger than ever. Israel has the highest projected
economic growth this year of any country in the OECD, 5.2 percent. The
record-low unemployment figure of 5.8% fell this week to an astonishing
Such numbers would certainly be welcomed in the United States,
where economic growth is not expected to exceed 3.3%, unemployment is at 9.2%,
and a frightening deadline is looming on Tuesday for dealing with the country’s
astronomic debt. The numbers in much of Europe are worse or not much
So if the economy here is doing so well relatively, why are there
so many legitimate problems raised by young people protesting all over the
country? And perhaps even more perplexing, how can a government that was
portrayed in the media this week as weak and vulnerable really be so
unthreatened and stable?
The first answer to both those questions given by MKs
and officials close to Netanyahu goes back to how this article started. The lack
of an urgent security dilemma and the diplomatic deadline in late September
being so far away by Middle East standards created a news vacuum that allowed
problems that have been swept under the rug to hit the surface and stay there,
encouraged by the media outlets that are out for Netanyahu’s head.
opposition MK put it this way: “The fact that the economy is so strong makes
what young people are going through even more infuriating. When there are wars,
people understand the need to make sacrifices. But the quiet in the North and
South gave people time to consider their own personal situation, the escalating
prices for so many basic items and services, and the fact that there is no party
in the government fighting for these things.”
Wars also have a habit of
uniting a people against a common enemy and giving even the least cohesive
governments a kindred sense of purpose.
By contrast, even in the most
stable coalitions, domestic unrest and protests lead to infighting and
finger-pointing among politicians seeking to avoid blame or ensure that their
enemies will be taken down or at least harmed politically.
An adviser to
Netanyahu downplayed a Dialog poll published in Haaretz
this week that appeared
to indicate that the protests had significantly weakened the prime minister. The
poll found that Netanyahu’s approval rating fell from 51% following his
altercation with US President Barack Obama two months ago, to only 32%. The
adviser called the earlier number artificially high and the current one
He said it was only natural that facing off against
Israel’s enemies in a war or standing up to perceived pressure from the
president of the United States in diplomatic developments makes a prime minister
look strong, while attempting to find solutions for the average Joe protesting
in the streets makes him look weak.
Addressing concerns that the Obama
administration could decide to “kick Netanyahu when he’s down,” like some
believe it did with ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the prime
minister’s advisers said polls proved that such a move by Obama would
The poll’s other interesting finding was that while Likud and
Kadima had fallen by four seats each since a poll in March, the Labor Party rose
during that time from six seats to 12. The poll indicated that the public
already saw the party in the socioeconomic image of leadership candidates Amir
Peretz, Shelly Yacimovich, Isaac Herzog, Amram Mitzna and Erel Margalit, and not
in the capitalist shadow of Ehud Barak.
Barak apparently did Labor a
tremendous service by splitting the party when he did and allowing it to
leave the government before the protests began. MKs speculated this
what would have happened had Labor still been in the government during
“They would have set poor Buji on fire,” an MK said, referring
to former welfare and social services minister Herzog by his
Herzog pointed out this week that he had warned of the housing
crisis in a book he wrote before he left the government. But that wouldn’t have
helped. Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz wrote about reforms to
solve the crisis in the “First 100 Days Plan” they published June 28, 2009, and
it didn’t help them at all.
Labor’s departure left the protesters without
a party to target in their demonstrations, as hawkish demonstrations have had
with right-wing parties. On the one hand, this made it harder for the protesters
to harm Netanyahu politically and threaten his coalition, but on the other, it
helped focus the attention solely on him.
An attempt by Netanyahu
advisers and Likud ministers to refocus attention on Steinitz this week failed,
because the public perceives that the real man in charge of the economy is
Netanyahu, who issued a statement appointing himself “super-minister” above
Steinitz when his government was formed.
The lack of a strong man in the
Finance Ministry, as former prime minister Ariel Sharon had with Netanyahu as
finance minister, left no one to deflect arrows away from Netanyahu.
idea raised in the Likud this week was that the prime minister would replace
Steinitz with popular, socioeconomically minded Welfare and Social Services
Minister Moshe Kahlon when work begins on the next state budget in late 2012, so
he could come up with a plan that would appeal to the masses ahead of the next
That idea assumes the government will last that long.
If the coalition makes it through current and future protests, it will be in
part because party leaders in the coalition like Barak, Israel Beiteinu’s
Avigdor Lieberman and Shas’s Eli Yishai have uncertain political futures and
would want the current government to last as long as possible.
because Netanyahu would only want the next election held once the housing crisis
solutions he proposed in Tuesday’s press conference were already
An opposition MK said it was too easy to forget that the
government’s stability came with a price.
The MK said the hefty cabinet
of 29 ministers bought Netanyahu political quiet and that money being used to
give Barak’s Independence faction four ministries for five MKs and create an
unnecessary new Homeland Security Ministry could have been used instead to lower
While the makeup of the current coalition, the realities of the
political system, and the amorphous and non-specific goals of the demonstrators
for “social justice” make it hard for the protesters to have an immediate
political impact, opposition MKs said the protests have already had a deterrent
effect on the government.
“Their lack of specific goals is important,
because it prevents the government from raising any taxes on anything any time
soon,” an opposition MK said. “In that regard, the protest has already been
successful. Now a government that had no limits before will have to think
Opposition MKs expressed confidence that the real impact of the
protests would be more long-term.
Ahead of the next election, they said,
every party will have to paint itself as socioeconomic, unlike the last race,
which was even more war-and-peace-focused than Israeli elections usually are,
because it was conducted during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza
The MKs said voters casting their ballots on socioeconomic issues
rather than the question of what they would be willing to give the Palestinians
could shift mandates from Right to Left and perhaps even significantly alter the
makeup of the next Knesset.
But they also said all that could change in
the likely event that the headlines ahead of the next election look a little
less like Scandinavia and a lot more like the Middle East.