A couple of weeks ago, my friend – an intelligent, sophisticated, witty professional and single mother living near Tel Aviv – shared with me some of her concerns about life in Israel today. Listening to her, I was struck by two critical needs: one close to home, one more global.
First, she needs security. All politics are intensely personal. Despite her innate optimism and outward toughness, my friend is anxious about her kids’ future. Her cost of living is going up, but her quality of life is in jeopardy. She wants her children to have a better life, with economic opportunity and personal freedom, living in a safe, open community. She wants economic and social security, not just military security. She wants her children to want to stay in Israel and to thrive here, even while being resilient and aware of all the challenges, complexities and contradictions that life in Israel brings.
Second, she needs her national identity to be consistent with her values. She, like many Israelis, yearns for a renewed sense of common purpose – a shared community binding the country, not an Israel fractured by political or religious identities constantly demeaning each other. She wants Israel to remain a strong nation, both secure in its borders and worthy of that security. With national values that are at once Jewish and democratic, inclusive and aspirational. Values that respect tradition but are not stuck in it. Values that depend on optimism, hard work, and creativity, not on instinctive insecurity, fear-mongering, and narrow-minded parochialism. Values that protect the stranger and the needy, not the stubborn and powerful.
It seems the current government of the State of Israel meets neither of her needs.
On 9 April, Israelis head to the polls with a real choice between positive change and entrenching the status quo. What is at stake? A lot. Here are three key areas in which the upcoming election will affect both the life of average Israelis and the way Israel relates to the larger world.
Cost of Living & Economic Security
Housing costs in Israel remain high relative to income, despite the recent small drop in high-end real estate prices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as the property bubble at last loses air. Protests over housing shortages and the high cost of living in 2011 did little to stimulate responsive social policies. Indeed, government funding for new housing too often subsidizes settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) at the expense of families in Israel’s larger and medium-sized cities. The economic disparity between wealthy property buyers (both the Israeli economic elite and investors from outside Israel) and the average Israeli worker is still widening. Food and other necessities are costly. The Israeli economy, led by vibrant tech and service sectors, outpaces other countries, yet the “working poor” make up a high and rising share of the labor force.
According to Israeli government data and the OECD, the fastest growing segments of the population (Israeli Arabs and Haredim) are mired ever further in a cycle of low skills, low productivity, low income, persistent inequality, and pervasive child poverty. Leket Israel, the national food bank, this month highlighted the challenge of food insecurity in its Fourth Food Waste and Rescue in Israel Report, noting food loss in Israel currently amounts to 2.5 million tons with a market value of NIS 19.7 billion (US$5.5 billion) annually, approximately 35 percent of all food produced.
Archaic regulation protects entrenched economic interests, increases consumer costs, and hinders investment. The Likud-led right wing coalition government has for too long done more to subsidize its core constituencies and supporters at the expense of most Israelis. Economic policy favors the monied few, plus subsidies for friends on the religious right, but erodes the social safety net. To be successful, the next government must do a better job of addressing broader cost-of-living challenges and growing disparities in economic opportunity.
Freedom from Religious Coercion
Im tirtzu, ein zo agada, l’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu. “If you will it, then it is not just a fairy tale. To be a free people in our land.”
Polls consistently indicate that most Israeli Jews prefer religious freedom to government policies that extend strict Orthodox rules over the broader public. This concern is mainly not about pluralism in Jewish religious observance (like prayer at the Kotel) or conversions, topics that animate Diaspora Jews concerned about Israeli religious affairs. Rather, most Israelis want commonplace things, like access to public transit on Saturday in secular areas, options for civil marriage (including for same sex couples), reduced public funding of Orthodox yeshivot, and more sharing of the duties of national service including in the IDF. Such basic demands will remain out of reach, and religious coercion will worsen, as long as Likud and its allies on the right rely on ultra-Orthodox religious parties to remain in control.
Rule of Law & Anti-Corruption
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recommended for indictment in three separate criminal cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust, will stop at nothing and stoop to anything to maintain power. Undermine the judiciary, national police and criminal justice system? Check. Attack the media? Check. Encourage abhorrent fringe parties to merge in hopes of preserving a right-wing coalition with Netanyahu as its leader? Check. Like all autocrats, Bibi can no longer distinguish between the national interest and his own.
Ethics matter. The nation can do better. Otherwise, Israel risks losing its capacity to function as a democracy that respects the rule of law and the rights of all its citizens. If that happens, the erosion of international support for Israel as the Jewish state could threaten Israel’s long-term national security and the potential for a legitimate, overdue resolution to the Palestinian question.
In prior elections, insufficient consensus formed around alternative candidates. Now, with the center-left Kahol-Lavan (Blue and White) alliance of Benny Gantz (Hosen LeYisrael), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem), many Israelis may find the idea of change to be both desirable and feasible. Faced with a coordinated challenge from two former IDF Chiefs of Staff, Netanyahu can no longer credibly claim a monopoly on national security experience or commitment.
So other issues – like the economy, social issues and corruption – may determine the election. And on those issues, Netanyahu is weak. So, expect from Netanyahu more division, diversion and distraction from the issues that matter to most Israelis in the days leading up to the polls.
Change is possible. It is also necessary.