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Israeli elections: It's the economy, stupid!

Peter Dahl
March 17, 2015

Will Israelis vote with their wallets as security fears take a backseat to economic alarm? Punishing housing prices and costs of living are threatening to tear Israel's social fabric, according to some economists.

Israelis shop on Rosh Hashanah
Image: imago

"It's the economy, stupid!" Legend has it that it was these five pithy words that secured Bill Clinton the White House, when he ran for US president in 1992. It's a message so simple, yet so effective, that no candidate gunning for higher office should be excused for omitting it from their rhetorical arsenal. Yet, this appears to be exactly what Israel's incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done as he's running for a fourth term - and it could cost him the election.

For the first time since the Six-Day War in 1967, it's pocketbook and not security issues that are turning out Israeli voters. "The main issue here is economic well-being. It's anxiety over the cost of living, and the fact that for many, many people, things are very tough," Paul Rivlin, an economist at Tel Aviv University, told DW.

According to a January poll by Israel's Channel 10, 53 percent of potential voters ranked costs of living and social issues as the most pressing matters going into the election. Less than a quarter listed national security as their main concern.

Economy booms, people bust

At a first glance, these numbers seem surprising, when looking at the state of the economy. Last quarter, GDP grew at an annualized 7.2 percent, its fastest pace since 2007. This year, the OECD has projected growth to exceed 3 percent, up from 2.5 percent in 2014.

The problem, said Rivlin, is that "the economy has performed well, but many feel they're not benefiting from this."

Their worries have largely been fuelled by soaring housing prices, which jumped by 55 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to a damning report released last month by the state comptroller.

The study slammed Netanyahu's government, which has been in power since 2009, for doing nothing to solve the crisis. According to research by AFP news agency, a four-room apartment currently costs $700,00 (660,000 euros) in Tel Aviv, $470,000 in Jerusalem and $350,000 in the port city of Haifa.

Under the Prime Minister's watch, the public mood has gone from bad to worse as the gap between rich and poor has continued to widen. From 1992 to 2010, the number of Israelis living in poverty has more than doubled, from 10.2 percent to 20.5 percent. That number has nearly quadrupled for children.

At the same time, there's been an extreme concentration of wealth, as some twenty families control about half of the total value of Israel's stock market, prompting the Bank of Israel to warn that "the high level of economic concentration in Israel...aggravate systemic risk in the domestic financial system."

"Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world," Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote Monday in his column for the New York Times.

Anti-government protests in Tel Aviv
Tens of thousands of protesters filled Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 7, calling for a change in leadership.Image: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

No quick fix

This increasingly bleak outlook gave birth to massive social protests, which swept city streets across the nation in September 2011.

"The main issues, which brought out almost 500,000 protesters during the 2011 demonstrations, were the prices of housing and of cottage cheese, which had gone up very steeply. This captured the feeling that Israelis are being ripped off by monopolies and cartels," which stifle competition and keep prices inflated, Rivlin said.

Rivlin warned that the growing discontent is tearing at the social seams of the country.

"Thirty years ago, Israel had a strong society and a weak economy. Today, it has a strong economy and a weak society," Rivlin said.

According to a 2012 study by the country's prominent daily Haaretz, 37 percent of Israelis are considering leaving the country. 55 percent of them cited high costs of living.

But Rivlin warned that changing the tide could prove a nearly insurmountable challenge, as any new coalition government is likely to consist of a panoply of parties, owing much of their support to competing interests.

"The truth is, there is no easy fix. You've got to have a government that's willing to roll up its sleeves and do the dirty work of tackling all the vested interests - from agricultural lobbies to labor unions and banking cartels."

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