Elections in Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
This time round it would seem that the economy – specifically the cost of living – is the central theme of all the parties competing for votes in the forthcoming elections. Do we have the sense that we have been here before? Was it not the same prior to the 2013 elections? What happened to all those promises? The 2011 “Summer of Discontent” when tens of thousands of Israelis – the majority from the younger generation – took to the streets and pitched tents in Tel Aviv’s affluent Rothschild Boulevard to protest the high cost of living in Israel. What started as a protest against the price of cottage cheese, which was twice that in New York, turned into a massive socioeconomic uprising the likes of which the country had never previously experienced – one of many demonstrations attracting some 250,000 participants.
As a result of this “uprising,” the government appointed economist and academic Manuel Trajtenberg to head a committee to address the socioeconomic challenges facing the citizens of Israel. The recommendations that evolved included temporary solutions for affordable housing for struggling families with more aid for those eligible for public housing; removal of import duties and lowering of purchase taxes; free education for three- and four-year-olds; the cancellation of gasoline excise hike – often used as the excuse for the increase in food prices – and structural changes to laws regulating the Antitrust Authority (the body responsible for maintaining appropriate levels of competition in the economy).
So what happened to the recommendations of Trajtenberg and his committee? How many recommendations were actually addressed? None that actually made a difference to alleviate what the original protests brought to light.
Let us look at the question of “maintaining appropriate levels of competition.”
There is no doubt that one of the major factors in the high price of food here is the monopoly of companies who decide between themselves what the price will be. This, together with heavy taxes on imported foods, results in the element of competition being firmly removed. The question of tackling monopolies and cartels that control supermarket prices has been generally ignored. Large corporations like Tnuva, Tara and Strauss dictate the price of milk products. This in conjunction with the Dairy Board, controlled by the dairy farmers themselves who decide on the level of milk production, results in the cartel calling the tune with no chance of competition.
Additional reasons for the high costs to the consumer are value-added taxes and high import taxes aimed at protecting farmers and producers. Uriel Lynn, head of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, stated recently, “Stop wasting so much time and complicating things in making more laws... just expose the total industry to importation.”
A study carried out last year found that a basket of basic products was 12 percent more expensive in Israel than the average cost in OECD countries. A further detrimental gap is that gross salaries are $10,000 lower in Israel than in other OECD countries.
Recently we have seen that the price of oil has gone down by around 50%. This has resulted in the price at the pumps here being reduced by 10% – quite a disgrace when compared, for example, with the United Kingdom where the cost to the customer has been lowered by some 24%. Yet even with this much more significant reduction in the UK, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne decries the fact that the consumer does not enjoy a far greater benefit.
Here in Israel it should be noted that the cost of gasoline is frequently given as a prime reason for the comparative high cost of food.
While in the middle of pre-election fever, what have we got? We have a combination of party heads slamming each other and making lots of promises to the electorate. We can but wonder where they have been all these years. For it matters not who heads the government or who sits in the government; whatever positive change is promised in the pre-election campaign appears to dissipate on arrival in office.
Back to the beginning and the summer of 2011 – it is true that it was, by and large, the young middle class that were protesting. Protesting about the difficulty of making ends meet and having a secure future for themselves and the family they would one day produce. Much has been written of late about young Israelis choosing to live in Berlin. Comparisons have been drawn between the prices in the supermarkets. The administrator of a group called “Olim L’Berlin” – set up to attract Israeli immigrants to the city – claimed that a list of items purchased in a German supermarket would cost €16.08 ($20.15) while at one of Israel’s cheapest chains (Rami Levy Hashikma) the cost would be approximately NIS 200 ($54).
There are many here who find it strange – at best – that there are those who choose to move to Berlin or other European cities. Sitting with friends recently – UK expats – we were discussing how it is that these young people are prepared to leave the country to which we were happy to come. Of course there is a big difference – we are the ones who know what it is to live as a minority.
Some of us experienced anti-Semitism as I did in my schooldays when I was told “Go back to Palestine where you came from!” Many of us are of an age to remember a world without Israel and the consequential destruction of European Jewry. We were privileged to witness the rebirth of the Jewish state in our time. Conversely, for those who were born and grew up in Israel, where they have never experienced any form of anti-Semitism, where they feel at ease, where one does not need to remind oneself that one is Jewish and where one does not understand what it is to be a minority, other countries might well appear exceedingly attractive.
However, the rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the horror of what has recently taken place in France should be a wake-up call for those believing life will be better there.
Yes, the cost of living is a major issue for a high proportion of the electorate (old and young alike). The bottom line is – is anyone listening? Will there be a government ready to hear what bothers us and do something about it? The last election attracted a high proportion of young voters who believed that their vote could make a difference.
This time, however, many will stay away from the ballot box because they are disillusioned and firmly believe nothing will change. While it is true that following March 17 a new coalition is likely to be formed, if those in government continue to think more about the need to stick to their seats rather than confront the vital urgency of an appropriate socioeconomic policy, then we will be back to square one with little hope for a better future.
Promises, promises – the time is long overdue for turning promises into reality.The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in public affairs and status-of-women issues.