Rattling the Cage: Our first 'social' election

There's a consensus on security issues. Now for the domestic agenda.

By LARRY DERFNER
March 29, 2006 23:49
4 minute read.
larry derfner 88

larry derfner 88. (photo credit: )

 
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A sign of what was coming appeared the day before the election: The Bank of Israel reported that when it comes to taking care of old people and children, Israel has become one of the stingiest countries in the developed world. Of the 23 economically advanced countries the bank surveyed, Israel ranked 22nd in the size of its child allowances and 19th in the size of its old-age benefits. Over the last five years, this country has made an ideology out of letting the "have-nots" fend for themselves, and on Tuesday these have-nots and their sympathizers rebelled. They delivered the loudest, strongest message of the election: No to Social Darwinism, yes to social democracy. It's often said that while Israeli voters and politicians pay lip service to the issue of poverty and inequality, elections are always decided on the issue of war and peace. This was true - until Tuesday. The public discontent that's been rising in reaction to the government's Marie Antoinette economic policies was the decisive factor in the success or failure of several parties. Probably the most obvious example was the election's sentimental favorite, the Pensioners' Party. These people ran on one issue only - that unless you have lots of money saved up, or you have children and grandchildren who can afford to take care of you, to be old in Israel is to be humiliated. A lot of Israelis didn't know this. Now they do. An example almost as obvious was the disaster that befell Binyamin Netanyahu and Likud. The former finance minister's promise that his cuts in welfare and taxes would be good for everyone, rich and poor, turned out to be only half right. With his Republican economic policies, Netanyahu put soup kitchens on the national map. He caused more suffering to poor people than any single individual in Israel's history. He claims to have "saved the economy" - "saved the country," even - but in fact what got the economy growing again was the containment of terror and the rebound in the world hi-tech industry, neither of which Netanyahu had anything to do with. Some commentators are now actually calling him a "tragic figure." I disagree. The devastation of Netanyahu's political career at the hands of all those former Likud voters whose families got chewed up by his "reforms" wasn't a tragedy - it was justice. The tragic figures can be found standing in line at the soup kitchens. ANOTHER unmistakable sign of the public's dissatisfaction with the economic order was the comeback of Amir Peretz and the Labor Party. This is the first time either of Israel's traditional ruling parties ran on a socioeconomic platform. Labor paid hardly any attention to the issue of security - and did pretty well. Only a few weeks ago, Peretz was a national joke, a union organizer way out of his depth. He was sinking into oblivion, but he kept pressing his message of a decent society, and in the end people listened. Shas's powerful showing is yet another example. Putting aside its amulets, the party didn't preach religion to poor Mizrahim, it preached economic survival - mainly a restitution of the child allowances Netanyahu slashed with a severity nearly unmatched in the West. Once again, Shas had its finger on its constituency's pulse. As for Shinui, whose economic platform was identical to Netanyahu's, it disappeared mainly because of the advent of Kadima, but the disappearance of Shinui's economic platform was caused by the public's new social consciousness. After swallowing Shinui, Kadima hasn't been talking about tax cuts for the middle class - it's talking about helping the poor. The twin champions of laissez-faire capitalism in Israel were Shinui and Likud; now the first one is dead while the second one looks like a dead man walking. Thatcherism, Reaganomics, neoconservative economics, correct economics - whatever you want to call it, this ideology just got thrown off the Israeli political stage. Even Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu probably owes much of his success not to his image as the scourge of the Arabs, but to the widespread hope of poor, elderly Russians that "one of theirs" will get them out of their misery. Lieberman ought to devote less energy to railing against the Arabs and more to improving the daily material lives of his voters; otherwise, an enormous number of them may desert him for the Pensioners' Party. Likewise, now would be the perfect time for the National Religious Party to listen to legions of "crocheted kippa" moderates by putting aside its obsession with settlements, and instead fighting a holy Jewish war against poverty. It could change the spirit of contemporary Judaism. My impression is that the primacy of the "social vote" in this election is directly tied to the new consensus on separating from the Palestinians. Except for a diehard right-wing minority, Israelis consider the old argument over territory and settlements to have been decided. The neutralization of this controversy allowed people to discover what other political issue gets in their blood, what else makes them angry, what else they want fixed. And what they discovered was economic injustice - the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. What people want now above all is for this society to find its heart again. After Tuesday's election, this is now the burning issue of Israeli politics. Ehud Olmert and Kadima ought to try to understand the message coming from this country's have-nots and their sympathizers. The country's "haves" who are still have-nots in sympathy ought to try to understand it too.

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