November 21, 2018

Israel’s election: It’s the economy, stupid

Ambassador Michael Oren and professor Manuel Trajtenberg, both immigrants who have served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s most respected — and visible — public servants, have joined campaigns against the Likud. Their voices reflect 11th-hour polling suggesting the Israeli electorate is breaking from the prime minister’s party largely over the economy.

“It is clear that we should reverse course,” Trajtenberg said.

The Tel Aviv University economist emigrated from Argentina when he was 16 and earned his doctorate in economics at Harvard. Joining the Zionist Union’s electoral slate represents the first foray into partisan politics for the 65-year-old academic.

“I have a very strong feeling that the country is stuck in so many ways, both on the social-economic side but clearly on the political-diplomatic aspect as well. So, I feel if I can do anything to bring about change, I should do it,” Trajtenberg told the Jewish Journal.

“The government should again take responsibility for social services,” said Trajtenberg, who was named by Netanyahu to head a panel charged with drafting economic policy recommendations after the 2011 social justice protests.

The prime minister shelved most of the findings in the report.

“The Netanyahu era has been characterized by continuous decrease in government involvement in the provision of services. The liberalizing economic philosophy, which was good in the 1990s, has gone too far, and what we are seeing is a reduction in resources for education and health and increasing poverty,” Trajtenberg said.

Over the past few months, Trajtenberg, the Zionist Union’s candidate for finance minister, has worked with other party leaders including Yitzhak Herzog, social activist Stav Shaffir and tech investor Erel Margalit to draft a detailed economic program that shifts resources with the aim of “inclusive growth”.

“The reality is that “start-up nation” is happening only in high tech, and most of the economy is not involved — so what we need to do is bring innovation to other sectors in the economy, including services,” explained Trajtenberg.

Oren, who was appointed by Netanyahu to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009, is No. 4 on the Kulanu list.  The new party is focused almost exclusively on economic egalitarianism, with more of a focus on consumer rights and regulating prices, without some of the socialist underpinnings of the Zionist Camp program.

“When I was ambassador in Washington, I met hundreds of young Israelis who said they wanted to go home and do reserve duty,” recalled Oren at a March 12 candidates’ forum organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon.

“They told me they couldn’t come back to Israel because they didn’t see how they would make a decent living there or be able to own a home. It tore my heart out.”

Oren served as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces after moving to Israel in 1979.

“When I listen to the candidates here from the Likud and Yesh Atid saying how great a job they’ve done in office, I have to ask how is it possible that Israel’s rank in any international economic criteria is in the sewer,” Oren said. 

He pointed to child poverty rates of 20 percent and the world’s second-most-expensive food costs, exceeded only by Australia’s, as signs of a policy failure.

Polls show Kulanu likely to win eight seats in the next Knesset. Its leader, Moshe Kahlon, the son of Libyan immigrants to Israel, is best known from his stint as Netanyahu’s communications minister, when he reduced mobile phone rates.

“The prime minister gave a rather heralded speech in Congress about a truly existential threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, but the polls show overwhelmingly that we in Israel see far greater existential threats in the economic and social dangers facing this country,” Oren said.

According to February polls conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 40 percent of Israelis (41 percent of Jewish Israelis and 36 percent of Arab Israelis) say socioeconomic issues will determine which party they will vote for. Thirty-two percent of Israelis (33 percent of Jewish Israelis and 29 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on a party’s foreign policy/security stance, and 17 percent of Israelis (18 percent of Jewish Israelis and 12 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on both issues to the same extent.

While Kahlon’s supporters tend to belong to the center-right when it comes to the boundaries and timetable for Palestinian statehood, they are largely focused on capturing the finance ministry, with which they will demand either of the two large parties selected by President Reuven Rivlin to form a governing coalition.

“If we become the king-makers, we are going to make sure that we have the finance ministry,” said Joseph Brown, 34, an oleh (a person who makes aliyah) from Indianapolis who runs the informal Facebook Page for Kulanu’s English-speaking supporters.

“Should Zionist Camp win, Kulanu will moderate their more socialistic leanings and make sure they don’t turn the clock back to 1986. If Bibi wins, we are going to make sure that we get to break up the monopolies and continue to push for consumer rights. It’s a win-win either way,” Brown said.

Naor Narkis, a veteran of the 2011 Rothschild Street protests and the figure behind last summer’s controversial “Aliyah to Berlin” campaign, which was launched over the continued housing affordability crisis, isn’t saying who he is voting for, but makes it clear that the likelihood that Kulanu’s ability to align with Netanyahu is a concern.

“My fear is that Kahlon might be a good minister who will try to do good things for the public, but from where I stand, no real change is possible; under Netanyahu, no change is possible,” the 25-year-old activist said.

“I met Trajtenberg after Netanyahu appointed him to write the report on what changes are needed. After reading it, I felt it was a step in the right direction, if not exactly what the people who protested wanted. Netanyahu did nothing with those results, but I do think he is a good candidate who will do good things for Israel if Herzog gets to form the next government.”