The new Right-Left dichotomy

Serious thought is being devoted, perhaps for the first time ever on such a wide scale, to formulating and articulating coherent views on specifically socioeconomic issues.

Tent City Rally (Ben) 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman [file])
Tent City Rally (Ben) 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman [file])
As lower- and middle-class discontent spreads, a positive process is unfolding: Serious thought is being devoted, perhaps for the first time ever on such a wide scale, to formulating and articulating coherent views on specifically socioeconomic issues.
In dozens of tent cities whose inhabitants demand affordable housing, in rallies backing our underpaid and overworked doctors, in marches organized by baby stroller- pushing mothers fed up with the high cost of childcare, in demonstrations against high consumer prices, citizens are coming together to discuss our society's socioeconomic ailments and how best to treat them.
With Arab Israelis having announced their intention to join the protests, we hope more serious thought will be devoted to how a Jewish state should provide for the economic welfare of the one out of five of citizens who make up the Arab minority.
Since the establishment of the state, concern with security has understandably overshadowed all other issues in our tiny, embattled country. Elsewhere, Right and Left refer to worldviews that bring together a wide range of issues, from socioeconomic and immigration policy to religion and foreign policy. In Israel, the polar opposites on the political scale give expression almost exclusively to the extent of one's identification with either peace-loving doves or security-minded hawks. Elsewhere, elections are won or lost on the economy. In Israeli elections, the vast majority of voters place their ballots based almost solely on a party’s security platform.
And even when public interest in socioeconomic issues grows, a wave of terrorism, a military operation or a full-fledged war immediately rearranges the priorities, placing security back at the top.
With a long spell of relative quiet from military conflagrations, Israelis have recently had the “luxury” of focusing on improving their economic predicament. And there are no lack of elements in the economy in need of improvement. While GDP is expected to grow by an impressive 5.2 percent this year, according to the Bank of Israel, and unemployment has reached a record low of just 5.7%, this tells only part of the story.
One out of five Israelis lives under the poverty line, including tens of thousands who work, the second highest poverty rate among OECD countries after Mexico’s. Also, 39% of Israelis said they find it difficult or very difficult to live on what they earn, significantly higher than the OECD average of 25%.
And prosperity is not trickling down. If in 1990 the top 1% of Israeli breadwinners earned 8.5% of the country’s income, in 2009 they earned 12.8%.
To address our economy’s ailments, a new sort of Left- Right dichotomy not determined by security issues is developing, with competing worldviews. In fact, the Left, which has failed to garner significant public support for its stand on security issues, is rushing to weigh in on economics out of a realization that it is the only issue that has a chance of challenging the stability of Netanyahu's government. Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini, a senior Labor Party member who at one time considered running for the party's leadership, has now enlisted the labor federation in the demonstrations sweeping the nation, giving them a clear partisan hue. Eini and leftwing MKs such as Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) have attacked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “capitalist,” “neo-con,” right-wing economic policies, which they claim have ravaged the middle class and polarized Israeli society. They are demanding more state spending on social welfare, a freeze on tax cuts, and other steps to increase state involvement in the economy. In contrast, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and others on the economic Right argue that more needs to be done to foster competition and to cut red tape to allow market forces to lower prices and improve efficiency.
Based on experience with the bloated budget deficits that brought the Israeli economy to the brink of catastrophe in the early 2000s, we believe it is important to maintain fiscal discipline. Modern economics has also proven that free market forces are much better at regulating supply and demand and providing incentive for personal initiative and growth than central planning and state-run projects.
Nevertheless, the emergence of serious debate on the economy has given a new dimension of meaning to Left and Right. This is an eminently positive development that might give birth to an Israeli version of The Third Way that manages to combine the compassion and social solidarity of the Left with the liberalism and respect for personal freedom and initiative on the Right.