Interesting Times: The summer of our discontent?

Netanyahu is constitutionally incapable of addressing the deepest issues that are the source of angst for the heart of Israel.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in cabinet meeting 390 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90/Pool)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in cabinet meeting 390
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90/Pool)
He did his best to try to soften the message by inviting some teenaged Facebook friends to attend and offer some ideas for legislation. But it couldn’t do much to alter the basic message at last Sunday’s cabinet meeting: Israel is (as usual and even more than usual as usual) facing existential threats, surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction. Therefore, forget spending more on education, health or social services, the money has to go to defend ourselves. Even tax cuts – usually a favorite of the prime minister’s – aren’t in the offing. This was the prime minister in his essence – not ready to make war but joyfully hunkering down.
Delivered with a smile as well as much self-congratulation for three years of stable government and economic growth, Netanyahu’s opening remarks at the cabinet meeting echoed his Hobbesian view of the world, which is nasty (due to our many and implacable enemies), brutish (society works best when the wealthy and strong are free to thrive as they see best) and short (for governments that are not led by political wizards like our leader).
Yes, Netanyahu also talked about the need to spend more to care for the elderly, build railroads, etc., but those are things he does – like cutting gasoline prices at the last minute again as he also did last Sunday – to score points with the voters, not because he sees such interventions as good in themselves.
If the polls are any indication, Israelis are willing to go along with the Netanyahu vision, even if they do not share its dark and fundamentally pessimistic foundations. But that may become a harder sell for the prime minister over the next critical few months as he contemplates going into early elections and faces the prospect of four more years with Barack Obama in the White House.
Already those same polls that laud his leadership and even show the majority of the public trust him and Ehud Barak to make the right strategic choices for Israel show little support for what appears to be Netanyahu’s pet project: a military strike against Iran.
The kind of Hobbesian choice in which the prime minister is said to have framed the Iran problem – either they will shower Tel Aviv with conventional missiles after we attack their nuclear facilities or they will drop an A-bomb on us if we don’t – is not shared by most of the country.
CLOSER TO home, Egypt is wavering between chaos and Islamist rule, Syria fated for prolonged civil war and Libya for anarchy. Yet none of this has created a security crisis of the kind that confirms Netanyahu’s Hobbesian view.
If the army prevails in Egypt, it will be status quo ante revolution; if the Muslim Brotherhood secures dominance it will be too preoccupied with the hopeless task of restoring order, keeping the generals at bay and ensuring bread riots don’t break out that it will pose little threat to Israel.
Hamas is at a dead end, bottled up in Gaza while the world turns its attentions to bigger issues. Hezbollah is weakened by its patron’s troubles in Damascus. The Iron Domes and security fences Netanyahu spoke about on Sunday may be needed, even with tensions in the region on a low boil, but the public – who do not share Netanyahu’s bleakness – is not prepared to pay any price for it.
That will especially be the case if the economy is slowing. At the end of last month the Bank of Israel revised its forecast for 2012 economic growth slightly upward, but at 3.1 percent it will be slowest pace in nine years (not counting the 2009 dip). Unemployment (using the old figures, before the Central Bureau of Statistics revised its methodology, thereby increasing the rate by a full percentage point) is expected to rise to 5.9% by the final quarter from 5.4% at the end of last year. Home prices are falling, but so are home sales.
These numbers don’t spell anything like a recession, but they are certainly weaker than they were this time a year ago when griping over cottage cheese prices set off a chain reaction that led to a summer of discontent, tent cities and mass protests.
Bibinomics – the policy prescriptions he initiated as finance minister and has kept to as prime minister – have undeniably served Israel well, but not well enough and in many cases its achievements came at too high a price for the typical Israeli. The package of measures the government took in its wake hasn’t begun to address the anxieties that sparked the protests.
Inevitably, economic growth has helped trim back some of the economic inequalities that have grown over the past two decades, but the gaps remain very wide.
The middle class is shrinking, prices for consumer goods are high relative to the West and the quality of services people get not only from the government but from the private sector are poor.
Too much of the burden of paying taxes, serving in the army and keeping society running fall on too little of the population.
As the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Israeli Arab portions of the population – the former refusing to serve in the army or work, the latter effectively denied the opportunities – that burden is becoming unsustainable and too evidently unfair.
Netanyahu may well survive the summer and emerge victorious in elections, but that is only because no one has emerged from our dysfunctional political system able to articulate a more compelling vision. But Netanyahu himself is constitutionally incapable of addressing the deepest issues that are the source of angst for the heart of Israel, those people who were out protesting last summer.
Where they see military preparedness as a necessity, the prime minister sees it as a sacrament. Where they have an ethic of collective responsibility for the health and well-being of everyone, he sees society as a no-man’s-land where the strongest should be given their chance to excel and perhaps give back a little to the rest out of their generosity. Where they see a social burden apportioned unequally, Netanyahu sees coalition partners who provide votes and share his fundamental distrust of others.
There are many Israelis who tend more to the Netanyahu view of the world, mainly the religious, the settlers, and the poor and less well educated. They can provide him the votes, but they can’t produce the society he envisions, prosperous and at peace with itself.
The writer is economics editor at The Media Line. His book Israel: The Knowledge Economy and Its Costs will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.