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The approaching election is already emerging as unique in more ways than one, including the existence of three would-be ruling parties, a party schism on a scale that hasn't been seen here in 40 years, a proliferation of prime ministerial candidates (eight, for now), and the prominence of domestic issues for the first time since the Six Day War.
The outgoing ruling party, the Likud, is in a particularly unfavorable position, having been floored by none other than its leader and founder, and at the same time being expected to somehow fight on, if not for dominance than at least for its survival. Until recently, it seemed to be on the cusp of hegemony. Now it is embroiled in a bitter succession struggle among six candidates.
Since within this pack former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, the fire is naturally being drawn to him, and specifically to his record as finance minister. This is the backdrop to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's vicious attack this week on Netanyahu, whom he described as a rich-born child from Jerusalem's well-to-do Rehavia neighborhood, as opposed to Mofaz himself - raised in "a home where bread slices were thick and the spread on them thin." Mofaz's conclusion from this perceived contrast is that "Netanyahu will never know" the poverty he claims to have known intimately. Such comments, besides being factually inaccurate and blatantly ad hominem, are politically manipulative and patronizing.
First, Netanyahu was not raised in Rehavia, but in less affluent Katamon. Secondly, as an academic his father may have afforded to spread a few more ounces of chocolate spread on his three sons' bread slices, but as a man who spent his days writing history books he could hardly be more distant from, and uninterested in, the kind of wealth with which Mofaz was trying to associate him.
By the defense minister's logic, the candidate from the most deprived background is the one best prepared to defend the interests of the poor, which rather makes it sound like Mofaz is campaigning for Amir Peretz.
Mofaz has yet to present a remotely thorough analysis of the economy in general and the budget in particular. But as a cabinet minister, he played his part in passing Netanyahu's reforms, presumably sharing the assessment that they have helped end our worst-ever recession, cut unemployment, attracted foreign investments, nourished the shekel, and turned Israel's into one of the free world's faster growing economies.
Still, Mofaz apparently hopes the public can be confused by his childhood reminiscing. How patronizing it is of the electorate to whom he seeks to appeal that he assumes all they can understand is stories about bread rather than coherent arguments and facts. In particular, it is odd that, if he had ideas on how to better distribute the budget, he did not reveal them by proposing cuts in the defense budget, which has somehow emerged close to intact on his watch even after the dismemberment of the Iraqi army.
The same goes for the rest of the critics bidding to gain stewardship of our budget and economy. Amir Peretz has yet to explain how he will fund the enlarged minimum wage he is advocating, and why we should believe its result here will not be what it was in France, where it made hiring of illegal immigrants soar.
Ehud Olmert should explain what will happen under his leadership to Netanyahu's planned tax cuts, and how we can retain the most talented and mobile part of our workforce along with a tax burden among the highest in the developed world. And Silvan Shalom would do well to remember that the recession that ended under Netanyahu took place while he, Shalom, was at the Treasury's helm.
None of this is to say that there is no room to critique Netanyahu's stewardship of the treasury. But anyone who does had better put forward alternative policies and credible arguments for how they will increase growth and more rapidly reduce the yawning poverty and income gaps.
The decline of the territorial theme as the central election issue, and its replacement with a domestic socioeconomic theme, may or may not prove temporary, but genuine debate on the issue is certainly welcome. It is not enough to mud-sling with an economic face. The public deserves clear choices, substantively argued.
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