Analysis: A focus on domestic last

Israel’s 19th general election is seminal because it is the first since 1965 to have been dominated by domestic issues.

January 22, 2013 03:20
An Israeli arranges ballots in a voting booth

An Israeli arranges ballots in a voting booth 370. (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)


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Today’s election is historic.

Not because of the winner’s identity, where no one expects surprises, and not because of a new idea, which no candidate has introduced, and not even because of the many new faces – an unprecedented one-third of the Knesset – who will now checker the public sphere.

Israel’s 19th general election is seminal because it is the first since 1965 to have been dominated by domestic issues. It is through this prism that its parties, issues and candidates should be seen.

Among the parties, Labor should take credit for this change of the agenda. Its strategic decision to focus on the economy and all but ignore foreign affairs has been a success. This is what most voters wanted discussed, and this is what the campaign ended up debating.

After decades of allowing the Right and the Left to preach and execute their Greater Israel and land-for-peace visions, swing voters concluded they were wasting their limited political resources on a conflict that they no longer believed will be solved in their lifetimes.

The mainstream electorate that fought the war on suicide bombers, imposed the West Bank security barrier on thenprime minister Ariel Sharon and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and finally backed the retreat from Gaza is the same electorate that later took to the streets demanding cheaper housing, education and food.

And so, though an end to the Middle East conflict is nowhere in sight, Israeli politics have entered the post-conflict era, as voters have come to see the conflict’s treatment as a matter of management rather than ideology.

The politicians who tried to resist this trend, Tzipi Livni with her focus on the Palestinian front and Shaul Mofaz with his initial focus on Iran, failed in their quests. The public yawned so impolitely that the two soon joined everyone else’s domestic discourse – Livni by suddenly recalling her past as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s privatization czar, which she now claims to regret, and Mofaz by celebrating his social origins as an immigrant boy who rose to command the IDF.

Indeed, Kadima, the party that the two led successively, entered the outgoing Knesset as its largest faction, and emerges from it a political relic, having been caught off guard by the social upheaval in the summer of 2011. While Kadima preached peace, it discovered that the people expected their politicians not to wait with their treatment of mortgages, tuition and cheese prices until Israel’s enemies are persuaded to beat swords into plowshares.

The domestic debate itself is largely about a decade of Bibi-nomics, which began during Netanyahu’s term as Sharon’s finance minister, was then upheld by the Olmert government, and culminated in Netanyahu’s second premiership.

More specifically, the vote pits Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who plans to hike social spending and upper-echelon taxation, against Netanyahu, who plans to rebalance the budget by cutting it.

Paradoxically, the budget deficit’s growth to 4.2% of GDP was largely caused by Netanyahu’s accommodation of the social protest by extending free education to children aged 3 and up from the program’s previous limit set at age 5, among other costly concessions he made to the economic Left. And ironically, by the time he returned to the driver’s seat, Netanyahu’s reformist zeal had waned.

The land reform he promised could have flooded the markets with state-owned real estate and thus depressed prices. However, when met by opposition from his political allies, he backtracked.

Netanyahu’s recent promises – that this time around he will not give the Construction and Housing Ministry to Shas and that he will appoint pro-market Likud MK Moshe Kahlon as director of the Israel Lands Authority, a promise he has already fulfilled – indicate how much he regrets having compromised his own convictions.

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The party that most unequivocally agrees with Netanyahu’s economics is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which has also crusaded for the conscription of haredi men into the army. The combined vote that the two win today will therefore reflect the popularity of Netanyahu’s economics.

By the same token, a strong combined showing for Labor, Shas and Meretz will be interpreted as a counter-capitalistic protest.

Beyond economics, this election is also about demographic and social trends.

If Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party performs as well as all polls predict, it will reflect the high birthrates of the national-religious community.

At the same time, it will also prove that a fresh and charismatic new face can even redeem a political cadaver like the National Religious Party, whose following has been voting habitually for other rightwing parties.

Bennett’s problems will start tomorrow, when his refashioned party – now a patchwork of rigorously religious, loosely observant and fully secular people – has to actually do things together. But that’s tomorrow. Today, thousands of national-religious voters will flock to the polls, eager to restore the power that the historic NRP wielded throughout the years of Labor’s hegemony, when it was the loyal, respected and most stable coalition partner.

That is why this election is also about the future of Shas.

Twenty-nine years after its entry into the Knesset, the party that has since become a fixture of the political era is at a crossroads – not because of a change of minds or hearts, but because of its founding sage’s advanced age.

Today’s vote will also pass a verdict on the haredi party’s future, as well as its fielding of Arye Deri despite the jail term he served, and the social-tarnishing campaign that he led.

If Shas performs well, it will mean that a critical mass of the public remains alarmingly disenfranchised.

However, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s jabs this week at Bayit Yehudi voters indicate Shas fears that someone may finally be stealing its thunder.

If Shas emerges from this vote weakened, it will mean that the post-Ovadia Yosef-era in religious politics, like the postconflict era in Israeli politics, has dawned.

The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. •

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