It’s almost time for my second vote this year. American law enables citizens who live abroad to vote in U.S. elections. I did. I voted my conscience and picked the loser. This time I’m picking the winner.
Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud Party deserve to be re-elected. They’ve kept Israel prosperous and safe in a neighborhood which is becoming poorer and more dangerous. Our economy and security situation cannot be judged in a vacuum. The industrialized world, of which we claim to be a part, has had four crummy years, while we have maintained slow but steady growth, low unemployment, and enviable levels of investment.
Our neighbors remain the hothouses of violence and intemperance they have always been, while we have continued to build a civil society which allows for dissension in the public square, a free press, fair and open elections and a robust, multi-party parliament. We are indeed a strange growth in our neck of the woods.
Netanyahu has stood up strongly for Israeli interests around the globe, even at the risk of ruffling feathers in the U.S. and Europe. Far from being isolated, we have signed international defense agreements and business deals with some of the heaviest hitters on the world stage. We have more emissaries working abroad, more foreign visitors coming to Israel, more stocks listed on overseas exchanges, more Israeli products and services being marketed in other countries – than ever before.
As four years ago, it is essential that the main coalition party be as strong as possible, setting the national agenda and able to attract smaller parties to join it. A government in which the Likud is at equal strength with the other partners will be unstable and short-lived. It will be exposed to extortion by any small party and unable to advance any legislation that the country needs.
My first choice would have been for the Likud not to run on a joint list with Yisrael Beytenu. The two parties have different values and very distinct historical echoes. The Likud has roots in the liberal nationalism that swept over the peoples of Europe in the 19th century. Avigdor Liberman’s party was established to address the very specific problems faced by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, while embodying their belief in strong leadership, unflinching displays of state power, and distaste for the political left.
Liberman himself may be cultured and multi-lingual, but his public persona is the very antithesis of a diplomat. He speaks the blunt truth as he sees it. His voters appreciate that quality in a politician.
So do I. Despite the differences in history and style, the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu share a common understanding of Israel’s place in the world and have no illusions about the threats we face. That is the main reason I can accept a joint list for the elections that unites the two large center-right parties. I have no problem casting my vote for it.
Leaving aside the more extreme parties, which are basically those to the right of the Likud and the left of Labor, Likud Beytenu is challenged by three main center-left parties. Two of them – the Labor Party and the Tzipi Livni Movement (has any Israeli party been more ego-centric?) – have made it their goal to replace Netanyahu as the prime minister. The third, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), puts more emphasis on checking the tendency of the Netanyahu government to move too far to the right and to be too agreeable to accept the demands of the ultra-Orthodox.
Yet what is so striking is how similar are the security and diplomatic platforms of the Likud and these main opposition parties. With only minor differences in nuance, the policies voiced by the leaders of the Labor Party, Yesh Atid and even the Tzipi Livni Movement, are almost identical with what has been Israeli government policy for the last two or three years.
Why even consider voting for opposition parties which really don’t oppose?
Take Iran. The opposition says that Netanyahu is leading us to war and that we must give sanctions more of a chance to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Yet our current government is doing all it can to encourage stronger sanctions – and none of the three centrist opposition parties are themselves willing to remove the military option from the table. They may really believe that sanctions will ultimately work, but they all say we should keep our powder dry.
What about building homes for Jews and Arabs within Jerusalem and between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim? The three opposition parties attack the government for moving ahead with building plans which are giving the Americans, the Europeans and other nations another reason to censure Israel. Yet these parties themselves are not opposed to building in and around Jerusalem. They recognize that these areas will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any case. (And I would ask, why can’t Jews continue to live in these areas even if they become a part of “Palestine”?) What their criticism boils down to is basically the government’s “timing” for announcing the building plans – not really much on which to build a dynamic opposition.
And then there’s the so-called “peace process” with the Palestinians, which they accuse Netanyahu of sabotaging. The opposition parties call upon the government to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority immediately without pre-conditions. Isn’t that great? They just ignore the little fact that the government has been calling on the Palestinians to do just that for over two years. It’s the PA which is setting pre-conditions and refusing to negotiate. None of the three opposition parties has advocated giving in to the Palestinians’ pre-condition. No matter. When you’re in the opposition, you have to oppose, and Netanyahu must always be wrong.
And finally, the opposition parties attack Netanyahu for allowing the ultra-Orthodox to shirk military and communal service and avoid joining the labor force. Yet they admit that the wholesale drafting of the ultra-Orthodox would probably not be very workable at this stage and would cause severe disruptions in our society and military, to say the least. They all call for a gradual approach – precisely the government policy.
On the subject of fighting Palestinian terror, Hamas and Hizbullah, these parties line up solidly behind government and Likud policy.
So if these main opposition parties have such minor squabbles with the Likud-led government, what motivates them and their campaigns? Two things.
1) The allocation of government funds, price policy and entitlement programs. This is especially true for Labor and the Tzipi Livni Movement; less so for Yesh Atid. Feeding on the fading social movement of the summer of 2011, these parties want the government to be more involved in “aiding the middle class,” closing the social gap and preventing rises in the cost of living. In short, they more or less advocate the building of a democratic welfare state where free market capitalism is moderated by government-funded social programs. I have no problem with this. Yet, particularly in these days when government debt has several European countries wavering on the brink of bankruptcy and social dislocation, and even the mighty United States is threatened by a massive debt burden, we should be very wary of populist remedies. Governments cannot keep on spending money that they don’t have without ending up like Greece.
The Likud-led government has advanced sober economic policies which balance social expenditures with income, while maintaining budgets for defense and infrastructure and fueling economic growth. It has worked to lower prices through market manipulations rather than direct government subsidies. I hope that within a few years, government coffers will be much larger due to increased tax revenues, especially from our offshore supplies of natural gas. That would be an opportune time to demand more government spending on social programs. Until then, we should resist the opposition’s call to spend money we don’t have. I think most Israelis understand this.
2) Replacing the “Netanyahu government.” This is the main engine driving the opposition parties, as is immediately apparent from their campaigns. Since their attacks on the government have no traction with the voters, they have made the term “Netanyahu government” itself their bete noire. The need to change it is a self-evident truth. No legitimate reasons have to be given. I don’t buy it. When judged by most yardsticks of good government, Israel has had a very satisfactory period under the current coalition.
In the American election, I believed that the promises of change four years ago had gone sour, and it was time for change again. In Israel, the promises of four years ago have basically been kept by a strong, stable government which even the best opposition parties have difficulty faulting. That is why I am voting for Likud Beytenu and why I urge others to do the same.