PM deserves tent protesters’ ire – but so does Tzipi Livni

Netanyahu betrayed his voters by failing to address domestic problems, but Livni contributed greatly to this failure.

tzipi livni_311 (photo credit: Idan Gross )
tzipi livni_311
(photo credit: Idan Gross )
The mass protests over Israel’s high cost of living increasingly seem to be aimed directly at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, featuring raucous chants of “Bibi, go home!” And while many of the demonstrators are clearly longstanding Netanyahu opponents, many others are traditional supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party or its allies; that’s precisely why Netanyahu is so worried. Yet the problems demonstrators are protesting have existed for years; Netanyahu didn’t cause them, and in most cases hasn’t even exacerbated them. So is it fair for the protesters to blame him?
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I think it is. But there’s another person who also deserves a sizable share of the blame: opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
First, Netanyahu: As I wrote in March, Netanyahu campaigned on a promise to address Israel’s numerous domestic ills, and that’s what his voters expected him to do. While some Israelis do still view the “peace process” as the country’s top priority, Netanyahu’s voters aren’t among them: They belong to that majority of Israelis who, as repeated polls have shown, give top billing to domestic concerns. Last October’s Peace Index Poll, for instance, found that only one-fifth of Jewish Israelis listed the peace process as their top concern; the other four-fifths chose various domestic issues.
Moreover, as someone who prides himself on being Israel’s “Mr. Economy,” Netanyahu cannot credibly claim to be either ignorant of the causes of Israel’s high cost of living or incapable of addressing them. Indeed, the remedies are largely those he has advocated for years: lower taxes (currently, for instance, taxes more than double the price of a car) and increased competition (for instance, major food manufacturers shouldn’t also be the chief food importers, leaving them with no incentive to sell imports more cheaply than their own products).
Yet since taking office, he has done virtually nothing to address these issues; indeed, his government even raised some taxes. Instead, he has devoted the bulk of his time and attention to diplomatic issues. As a result, while last month’s Peace Index poll found that 52% of Israeli Jews were dissatisfied with the government’s foreign policy, its rating on socioeconomic issues was worse: 62% deemed its handling of socioeconomic policy “poor,” while 80% voiced “concern” over socioeconomic issues.
Moreover, the foreign-policy dissatisfaction came primarily from opposition voters. Coalition supporters, including 70% of Likud voters, generally approved the government’s handling of foreign policy. In contrast, though the poll provided no party breakdown for the socioeconomic results, the larger overall number presumably indicates a larger share of dissatisfied Netanyahu voters.
Thus while Netanyahu didn’t create Israel’s economic problems, he betrayed his own voters by failing to do more to solve them. And he thereby fully earned the blame he is now reaping.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu faces one objective difficulty in enacting reforms: His own economic policies are diametrically opposed to those of several major coalition partners, including Shas, United Torah Judaism and Independence. All these parties favor more government control over the economy and more government largess. As a result, vital reforms like forcing the Israel Lands Administration to release more land for construction – thereby easing the land shortage that is a major cause of soaring housing prices – have been stuck in the Knesset for over two years.
And that’s where Livni comes in.
The party whose economic views are closest to Netanyahu’s is Livni’s Kadima, and that also goes for many other domestic issues (for instance, reforming the system of government). Consequently, Kadima was the first party Netanyahu invited to join his coalition: He needed it to enact the domestic reforms he craved. And by the usual standards of Israeli coalition negotiations, he was prepared to pay generously.
But Livni posed two completely unprecedented demands. First, according to Hebrew media reports, she demanded a rotation deal for the premiership. Netanyahu’s center-right bloc trounced Livni’s center-left bloc 65 seats to 44, and Israel has never had a rotating premiership when one party was capable of forming a government without its main rival. All previous rotation deals arose because neither major party could form a government without the other. Yet Livni essentially demanded that he overturn the election results and hand her the job Israeli voters had denied her.
Perhaps even worse, however, she demanded full authority over negotiations with the Palestinians even while Netanyahu was serving as premier. And no prime minister could reasonably cede control of one of Israel’s most crucial foreign-policy issues. Thus Netanyahu was left with no choice but to cobble together his current coalition.
Moreover, having chosen to stay in opposition, Livni largely refused to let her party support Netanyahu from outside the government even on proposals that Kadima had backed while it was in power. Had she offered to support certain key bills, it might have been possible to pass them despite the objections of some coalition members.
Finally, Livni pulled the same trick on diplomatic issues, relentlessly attacking Netanyahu as “anti-peace” even though many of his negotiating positions – which the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly and unequivocally rejected - are identical to those she herself espoused as foreign minister in 2006-09: Israel must retain the settlement blocs, Palestinian refugees must be resettled outside Israel and the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This greatly increased international pressure on Netanyahu, since Western powers would have found it harder to keep demanding that he soften these positions had the opposition leader made it clear they reflect an Israeli consensus. And that in turn forced Netanyahu to devote more time and energy to diplomatic damage control, leaving less time and attention for domestic issues.
None of this excuses Netanyahu. He is the prime minister, not Livni, and it was his responsibility to push through the necessary domestic reforms despite the diplomatic distractions. But faced with the choice of facilitating this process or throwing a spoke in the wheel, Livni has repeatedly chosen the latter. And for that, she, too, deserves a full measure of blame.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.