Inside Out: The politics of priorities

Yacimovich and Yair Lapid, who claim to want to oust the current government from power, have less of a track record by which we can judge them.

Netanyahu and cabinet 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu and cabinet 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
With the general election set for January 22 next year, the candidates and their supporters have gone into overdrive, bombarding the Israeli public with campaign messages.
Each party is working hard to frame the public’s conception of the past four years, trying to sum up the government’s performance with a handful of terse but memorable sound bites. On the one side of the divide are the coalition partners, who describe the past four years as a period of wonderful stability, growth and security; pitted against them are the members of the opposition, who describe the very same four years as an awful period of regression, stagnation and deterioration.
Tapping into our fears and hopes, they paint a rosy picture of a wonderful future that can be ours if we only have the presence of mind to vote for them, and a calamitous fate that will befall us if we are foolish enough to vote for any other party, particularly those on the wrong side of the left-right divide.
The truth is that while there are real differences between the larger mainstream parties, they are not as black and white as the pithy campaign messages would have us believe, certainly not when it comes to the bigger issues on the public agenda.
ONE CAN start with government policy on Gaza, focusing on action over rhetoric. In comparison to the Olmert government, which prosecuted Operation Cast Lead, the Netanyahu government took no gamechanging military action against the Hamas regime in Gaza in the face of continued rocket attacks, arms smuggling and an ongoing military buildup.
In terms of political activity, the current government has maintained a stance similar to its precursor: while it has insisted that Hamas meet the Quartet’s threshold criteria for full-fledged legitimacy, the Netanyahu government, just like the Olmert government, has cautiously heeded the terms of its unwritten truce with the regime in Gaza, eased the blockade and even negotiated a prisoner exchange agreement with it.
On the issue of Iran, the Netanyahu government has certainly been more publicly outspoken than its precursors, but in terms of real action it has done nothing discernibly different from the governments that served under Olmert, Sharon and Barak.
Netanyahu has worked hard to persuade the electorate that he alone has the wherewithal to order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if need be, but empirical evidence indicates otherwise. The strike on the Syrian reactor in 2007, which was ascribed by foreign sources to the Olmert government, undermines the very premise of that argument.
The truth is that when deemed necessary, centrist and even left-leaning governments have taken Israel to war. There is no reason to expect things should be any different in the future.
Regarding peace with Israel’s neighbors, the report last weekend in Yediot Aharonot about negotiations that were held just last year between Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar Assad undercuts the oft-repeated argument in left-wing circles that Netanyahu would never agree to the territorial concessions needed to cut a peace deal with an Arab neighbor.
Assuming the report was accurate – and it was confirmed in the main by the US State Department – Netanyahu agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights down to the shore of the Kinneret, endorsing a withdrawal more extensive than any of his predecessors from the Left and Center ever had.
Unto itself, this dashes the image of “Netanyahu the hardliner” that both Left and Right have worked to foster, each for their own conflicting electoral purposes.
Moreover, extrapolating to a broader context, no one should be surprised if one day Netanyahu agrees to far-reaching territorial concession on the West Bank in the unlikely event that the Palestinian leadership accepts a proposal that meets Israel’s basic political and security needs.
The same can be said about economic issues. There are certainly real differences between the various parties and candidates, but the pithy slogans that the politicians on both sides want us to buy into are too simplistic to reflect the practical policies that will be pursued, particularly when so much is influenced by the global economy.
Netanyahu promises us economic stability, growth and jobs if we vote for him, and warns us that we will suffer the calamitous fate of “Spain and Greece” if we are tempted to vote for the opposition. Shelly Yacimovich offers us the enticing promise of social justice if we vote for her, and warns us against the intolerably heavy burden that average Israelis will be forced to bear if we vote Netanyahu back into office.
WHILE BOTH candidates would like us to believe that this is a choice between economic black and white, a more accurate description would probably be that it is a choice between shades of gray. Neither is quite as radical as their opponent would have us believe, and neither will be setting economic policy in a vacuum. Rather, both are answerable to the Israeli public, on the one hand, and will have to work closely with the powerful players in the Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry on the other, providing for significant checks and balances.
The ideological differences between the parties are real, but in the election before us it seems that the important differences, on economic issues as well as in all that pertains to war and peace, will be dictated mainly by political and partisan priorities, and, of course, external realities beyond their control.
Judging by his track record, for example, Netanyahu is more likely to prioritize maintaining smooth relations with the haredim (ultra-Orthodox). As in the past, he will be loath to upset the haredim by introducing changes that would spread the burden of taxes and military service more evenly over society, a course of action that would free up money currently doled out by the state to support those large parts of the haredi sector that live off subsidies.
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Also on the basis of his track record, Netanyahu is likely to continue to prioritize maintaining smooth relations with the settlers, and will be loath to antagonize them by reducing the enormous sums in state funds that directly and indirectly finance their pet enterprise.
Yacimovich and Yair Lapid, who claim to want to oust the current government from power, have less of a track record by which we can judge them. That said, all signs indicate that their political priorities differ significantly from Netanyahu’s. Neither are politically beholden to either the haredim or the settlers and, as such, are more likely deprioritize those groups and to increase spending and investment in other Israeli sectors that have been deprioritized by the Netanyahu government.
Ultimately, no matter who is elected prime minister and what the composition of their cabinet is, he or she will be the prime minister of all Israelis, whether they live in Herzliya, Ofra, Ofakim, Kalansua, Kibbutz Nirim or Bnei Brak. The real difference, the one that will have a direct impact on our lives, will be in how much political and monetary capital each one chooses to invest in the different sectors of Israeli society.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.