Diplomacy: It’s not the economy, stupid

Security issues always trump economic ones in Israeli elections, and this time is not likely to be the exception.

Policeman patrols near spot where a bus was ambushed 370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Policeman patrols near spot where a bus was ambushed 370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
For those keen on running in the upcoming election on a social/economic platform, August 2011 should provide a cautionary tale.
August 2011 was the month when the Rothschild Boulevard tent-city cottage cheese protests were at their peak. This was when tens of thousands of people took to the streets on successive Saturday nights in public squares throughout the land protesting the country’s high cost of living. This was when the names Daphni Leef and Stav Shafir burst into the nation’s headlines.
And then terrorists infiltrated from Sinai on August 18 on a road near Eilat and killed eight Israelis. A huge protest planned for the following Saturday night dwindled to almost nothing, and one could make the argument that the social protests never recovered their initial steam.
Was it because of the attack? Obviously not. Many other factors were involved in the slow deflation of that summer of protest.
But the terrorist attack from Sinai, for that moment, put things into perspective: In this country security issues always, but always, trump economic ones. Always have, always will; Or at least until – as Defense Minister Ehud Barak might say in his distinctive style – the Palestinians turn into Finns; the Egyptians into Danes.
It is simple logic, really: first secure life, then deal with the quality of that life. And that perspective is one that should not be lost when trying to figure which way the winds are blowing in the coming elections.
Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich may shout from every radio studio in the land – as she did Thursday on Army Radio – that the time has come to focus on new and different issues (read: economic ones) and not the “same moldy old issues that don't help anyone” (read: security/diplomatic ones). But she is taking a mighty gamble that this will resonate in a land where security concerns are not theoretical, but real; where the traumas of the terrorism of the second intifada are still etched in many people’s minds; and where the Iranian leadership’s threats of annihilation are not – in light of Jewish history – seen merely as overheated rhetoric.
The pattern of security concerns pushing economic/ social ones to the side, seen in August 2011, can also be seen in the late 1990s and in the early part of this century.
In 1998, when the country celebrated its jubilee, the main issue on the agenda was the haredi-secular divide, with the central jubilee ceremony itself on Independence Day marred by months of bitter controversy over what clothes – “modest” or “immodest” – the dancers would wear.
In the spirit of the times, the anti-haredi Shinui party lead by Tommy Lapid, whose son Yair will lead his own party in the upcoming election, burst onto the scene and surprisingly won six seats in the 1999 election that unseated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Then the second intifada hit, and the haredi-secular issue fell pretty much off the radar screen. By the 2006 election, Shinui, which rose to 15 seats in 2003, disappeared completely from the country’s political map. When all are being targeted on buses by suicide bombers, haredi-secular divisions suddenly feel less acute. Again: first secure life, then deal with how to organize and structure that life – religiously, politically and otherwise.
When politicians in America turn to the electorate and urge them to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are better off then they were four years ago, the question is largely an economic one.
Are you making more money? Are you paying more or less taxes? Are you buying more goods? Are you able to afford college for your kids? Are you living better? Here, when that question will be asked in the coming campaign by Netanyahu – and it will be asked – it has a starkly different meaning. It is not necessarily whether you are better off financially, but whether you feel more secure. How much is terror on your mind? Do you feel safe in a café? How do you feel when you put your kids on a public bus? It is no coincidence that Netanyahu opened his comments Tuesday night declaring new elections by first stressing security and only then talking about the economy.
“In a few months, we will finish the fourth year in office of the most stable government in recent decades,” he said in the opening salvo of the election campaign. “This stability has helped us to achieve the two main goals that we promised the citizens of Israel. First, we strengthened security, and this during a period in which a difficult and dangerous upheaval has raged around us in the Middle East.
“And second,” he continued, “we strengthened the economy during another upheaval, a continuing global economic crisis that has led to the collapse of key economies in Europe and to mass unemployment there.”
First he mentioned investing heavily in the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries and building the security fence along the Egyptian border, and only then creating a “record number 330,000 jobs.” First security, then economy.
Those trying to reverse that order are running in the face of history – no election in this country has ever been decided on economic issues – and the country’s steady right-wing gravitational pull, a pull drawn by two major events of the past 12 years.
The first was the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 and its years of mind-numbing terrorism that impacted everyone. The second was the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and seven ensuing years of unending Kassam and rocket attacks.
Those looking on from the outside, and even some of those commenting from the inside, underestimate at their own peril the impact those two events have had on the Israeli psyche.
A decade ago, in December 2002, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit penned a piece called “Lessons of the blood curve.” In it Shavit divided the 16 years going back to 1986 and the first intifada into four distinct periods.
“Between 1986 and 1991, when the peace process was in a state of utter stagnation, an average of about 29 Israelis were killed each year in hostile actions,” he wrote.
“From 1992 to 1996, the years of the Oslo paradigm, about 86 Israelis were killed each year,” he continued. “From 1997 to the middle of 2000 – the three-and-a-half years during which former prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak tried to carry out various revisions in the Oslo process – about 40 Israelis were killed each year. Since the withdrawal from Lebanon and since the Camp David and Taba concessions were offered to the Palestinians, nearly 300 people a year have been killed in hostile actions.”
Shavit wrote that the significance of those figures was clear: “An Israeli withdrawal or a promise of a withdrawal does not lead to an end of the bloodshed. On the contrary, every time Israel withdraws, the hostilities increase. Every time Israel promises a withdrawal, the killing curve rises,” he wrote. “Thus, in the given Middle Eastern reality, handing over territory does not bring peace. Nor does it bring tranquility.
On the contrary – handing over territory costs human lives.”
And that, by the way, was written when there was a degree of stability in the Middle East, something that has since gone out the window Shavit did not conclude that Israel should not withdraw from the territories – he wrote that it ultimately had no choice but to do so – but rather that the Israeli public understood the “blood curve” and voted accordingly, and that it wanted its leaders to build and radiate strength. The ultimate question, he said, was “how to withdraw and stay alive.”
Netanyahu understands the Israeli public well, and the strength and determination it wants its leaders to radiate. This is why he went to the UN in September and gave a strong speech in perfect English using a red marker and a graphic of a bomb that – while it may have been mocked in the blogosphere abroad – radiated strength and fortitude back home. Haaretz’s political reporter, Yossi Verter, attributed a 15% positive swing in Netanyahu’s approval rating over the past two weeks partly to that speech.
Since 2002, Shavit’s chilling blood curve can be extended even further and is open to many different interpretations. One is that from 2003 to early 2009, before Netanyahu was reelected, an average of 95 Israelis were killed a year in hostile actions, and from his reelection in 2009 until today that average stands at nine a year.
People might not know those figures, they might not have crunched the grisly numbers, but they can feel what they represent.
This enhanced sense of security from terrorism – even as the region is reeling and, yes, even as rockets continue to rain down on the South from Gaza – is something Netanyahu will be running on and something that is likely to trump even the high prices of gas and bread.
The importance of security issues in the Israeli psyche helps explain the continued dominance of the right bloc, a dominance that was evident in both Ma’ariv and Haaretz polls on Thursday, with the Haaretz poll giving the right block a 68-to-52 seat advantage over the Center-Left.
All those challenging Netanyahu would do well to keep in mind that in this country – with its distinctive geography and unique psychological make-up – it is not the economy, stupid. At least not when it comes to national elections.