Israel's Surprise Issue
The world expected Israel to have an election on national security, but the voters decided that it was about the economy, stupid.
Tuesday's vote was supposed to be the "big bang" in which the Kadima party, led by Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, won a mandate for a new political center built around a unilateral evacuation from large parts of the West Bank.
Kadima -- the word means "forward" in Hebrew -- won a plurality, 29 seats in the 120-member parliament, and Olmert is expected to lead the new government. But the energy in the election was around social and economic issues, and the big winners were a group of parties that ran against Israel's rising social inequality.
The biggest surprise was the sudden emergence of a Pensioners Party that called for higher social benefits for the elderly. Led by Rafi Eitan, who helped in the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the Pensioners went from zero to seven seats.
The Labor Party, which had far more to say about economic justice than security, won 20 seats. And Shas, an ultra-orthodox religious grouping that ran on restoring some of Israel's old social benefits, won 12. Labor Party leader Amir Peretz sees these 39 seats as a "social bloc" determined to deal with rising poverty and inequality in Israel.
Stanley Greenberg, an American pollster who worked for the Labor Party, noted that outsiders might find it strange that economics trumped security as a voting issue even after Hamas, the party that has strong terrorist ties and rejects the existence of Israel, won the recent Palestinian elections.
"It would be like having al-Qaeda winning the election in Mexico and then having an American election on prescription drugs," Greenberg said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv yesterday.
The power of economics reflected the strength of the backlash against the privatization and deregulation policies pushed by Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party who was finance minister earlier in the decade. A Likud loss was inevitable after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split off from the party to form Kadima once Likud rejected his West Bank pullout plan. Olmert took over Kadima's leadership after Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke.
But Likud's collapse to 12 seats and a fourth-place tie with Shas, Greenberg said, was a sign that reaction against Netanyahu's free-market economic policies "was so strong that Netanyahu couldn't get an audience" on security issues. At one point in the campaign, the former finance minister apologized for the social pain his approach -- widely hailed by free-market economists outside Israel -- had inflicted.
Writing yesterday in Haaretz, journalist Ruth Sinai pointed to rising poverty rates to argue that the election was "above all a victory for the civic, social welfare agenda" and "a clear expression of public disgust for the economic policy championed by the Likud." Greenberg noted that for the first time, "poverty was a word that gained currency in the mainstream political debate."
Paradoxically, domestic social concerns rose to the top of voters' minds precisely because the security situation is frozen. Most Israelis do not see how negotiations are possible with Hamas. The death of grand dreams -- either of a "Greater Israel" that included the West Bank or of a permanent negotiated peace with the Palestinians -- allowed many Israelis to look homeward and seek greater social justice within their own society.
"All politics is local, and this was as much a local election about local concerns as it was a big election about national security concerns," said Douglas Schoen, an American pollster who conducted surveys in Israel. Schoen argues that Olmert, who ran behind expectations, could have won more seats if he had focused more on voters' economic concerns.
Underscoring the local nature of the election, the strong showing of Eitan's Pensioners Party can be attributed in part to the fact that Peretz is the first Sephardic (i.e., non-European) Jew to lead Labor. Eitan's party appears to have picked up votes from pro-Labor European Jews not quite ready to vote for a Sephardic leader. But Peretz's ability to cut into the lower-income segment of the Sephardic vote, once a stronghold for Likud, could mean that more class-oriented politics is in Israel's future.
Voters can cast aside their economic concerns for only so long, even in a nation facing an existential threat. In the one election in a long time in which Israeli voters had a chance to protest economic inequalities, they seized the opportunity.