As we come down to the wire, many Israelis remain undecided about their vote. The latest polls show the Zionist Union with a non-trivial lead over the Likud, yet it appears that the Likud has better prospects for forming a narrow coalition than does the Zionist Union. At the same time the polls show a strong majority against a unity government.
While I don’t believe the worst things said about Benjamin Netanyahu or about the Yitzhak Herzog – Tzipi Livni team during the often fervid campaign, I do think there are meaningful differences on important policy matters. Consider the economic sphere and the Palestinians, for example.
The economic record of the Netanyahu government has had substantial positive elements. During the six years since early 2009, Israel’s average GDP growth rate and average unemployment rate have been better than most Western countries. Employment is especially important for a sense of personal well-being. The performance of the high-tech sector has been a widely-hailed success. Infrastructure investment has produced impressive improvements in the country, particularly in transportation and energy. On the negative side, the sharp rise in housing prices has been largely due to a combination of the ebullient domestic economic conditions, the worldwide decline in interest rates, and growing demand for apartments from foreign sources. These factors, rather than a failure of government policy, have been decisive. While some parts of the population have been clearly disadvantaged by the rise in apartment prices, others (mainly those who own apartments) have benefited from the resulting capital gains. Reforms on the supply side are possible and probably will be expedited by the next government, which should help to either slow or reverse the trend in housing prices. Beyond the housing sector, initiatives to open more sectors to competition may help reduce the cost of living. Some, particularly in the Labor Party with its socialist roots, might advocate drastic changes in the economic sphere. However, in light of the overall economic record, economic policy changes should be incremental rather than drastic.
Regarding the Palestinians, the prospects for a viable agreement are objectively bleak. The Palestinians simply are not ready for peace with Israel. However, the Obama administration and Europe seem adamant about trying to force further Israeli concessions. One might readily venture that the personality clashes between Obama and Netanyahu have been much less important than their profound conceptual and policy differences. Judging by past experience, current rhetoric from the Obama administration, and the ominous appointment of Robert Malley as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, these differences are most likely to lead to heavy pressure being applied to Israel during the remaining 22 months of Obama’s presidency regardless of who is the Israeli Prime Minister.
The prospect of a narrow government led by the Zionist Union is a worry to many Israelis both because of fears that it might concede too much in an attempt to appease the Obama administration and might take ultimately harmful steps on the economy. In addition, it might make significant concessions to the Haredi parties, reversing some of the gains recently made.
The prospect of a narrow government led by the Likud is a worry to many Israelis because it is more likely to pursue unwise settlement policies and also might make too many concessions to the Haredi parties. Another worry is that a narrow right wing government might be regarded with hostility by the U.S. and other Western governments, which could interfere with constructive communication and cooperation between governments.
In contrast, a unity government, even if led initially by Yitzhak Herzog, would likely avoid the main risks posed by the two alternative narrow governments. Such a government’s policies would naturally reflect a compromise agreed to by the two large parties. Unfortunately, the Israeli political process does not allow voters to directly opt for a unity government.
Some might counsel voters to cast a “strategic vote,” namely, to choose a party with the goal of affecting the coalition possibilities, rather than a party one actually prefers. Ultimately, however, there are far too many variables to allow one to anticipate the repercussions, even if the party one votes for does win an additional seat.
Those who agonize about their vote can find solace in the fact that in purely empirical terms one vote simply does not change the outcome in a national election. In small organizations, yes, one vote can be decisive, but not when millions are voting. So, we should make our individual voting choices and hope that the collective voting outcomes, combined with wise and astute political negotiations, will result in a coalition that helps Israel to navigate the treacherous waters that lie ahead.