Politics & Policy

The Painfully Maturing Israeli Voter

A significant election.

Considering that the recent Israeli elections were held at a critical time — when Israel is not only fighting a messy war with Palestinian terrorism, but is also suffering from a deep economic recession and worried about an unconventional attack from Iraq — the smaller than usual turnout of Israeli voters seemed puzzling. Even the usually involved Israelis ignored the parties’ costly campaign. Two days before the elections over 30 percent of the voters were still undecided. Only 68 percent of them cast votes, a very small turnout for a country where politics is so intense that voter participation usually tops 80 percent.

Most commentators saw this as an expression of despair over any possibility of change in a hopelessly malfunctioning political system. As in other democracies, government intervention in Israel’s economy has created a nexus between money and power, only more so in Israel, where a socialist past resulted in immense government influence over economic affairs and in many incidents of corruption.

Still, despite the low turnout, these elections were extremely significant. The decisive victory they granted to Israel’s controversial leader Ariel Sharon and his right-wing camp — Likud gained 38 seats to Labor’s 19; the right-wing camp 68 as against 28 for the Left — marked an historic nadir in the power of a Left that shaped and ruled Israel for decades. Israeli voters finally punished Labor, and even more so the more radically left Meretz party, for their promotion of the putative peace process, and their stubborn, almost messianic insistence that Oslo was still a viable option despite the disasters it created.

Israel’s left-leaning media exploited the low voter turnout to question the legitimacy of the Right’s victory and to berate the Israeli public for not internalizing how good Labor’s domination was for it. “There are a lot of people who are still not flesh of the state’s flesh,” Aliza Mitzna, wife of Labor’s leader Amram Mitzna, explained when asked why so few voted for Labor. Her answer was quite typical of haughty and exclusivist attitudes prevalent in the Left; that theirs was the only legitimate political path.

Overlooked is the anger Israelis increasingly feel toward their totally ineffectual and wasteful government and their resentment of the inordinately heavy and inequitable burden of taxation it imposes on the middle class, even as prolonged recession keeps crushing it. Should this trend grow, should this class finally rid itself of the defunct Statist ethos that still holds sway in Israel even among the right and acquire a positive ideology to lend conviction to their cause, Israeli politics will be transformed. Still better, many of Israel’s intractable social and economic problems, resulting from its Statist ideology and economy, might at long last find solutions.

The remarkable success of the Shinui (Change) party, which grew from 6 to 15 seats to become the third largest party, reveals a significant trend beneath what most considered merely a protest vote and an expression of hatred for the ultra Orthodox parties that deftly exploited their critical political balancing position to secure blanket exemptions from military service plus state stipends for many thousands of rabbinical students…

Shinui was established in 1974 by a group of academicians in the wake of the protest movements that rocked Israel after the Yom Kippur War debacle. Shinui did not succeed in its first electoral bid. But after it merged with a group of disenchanted Laborites led by former General Yigael Yadin, a Mr. Clean of Israeli politics, it garnered 15 seats in the 1977 elections. They mostly came from Labor voters expressing a general malaise and protesting revelations of endemic corruption in Labor. 1977 became a watershed election, because for the first time since the establishment of the state Labor lost its total hold on power. Shinui siphoned off so many Labor votes that Menachem Begin’s right-wing Herut became the largest party and formed the first non-left Israeli government.

Shinui’s leaders had only one common cause, the wish to reform Israel’s faulty electoral system. Their efforts bore eventually fruit when a law for the direct election of a prime minister was passed (and later reversed). But internal quibbling gradually eroded Shinui’s credibility as a party with new, decent politics, and its fortunes declined. In 1992, most of its leaders joined with the radical left-wing parties Mapam and Ratz to form Meretz. Only a small faction, led by MK Avraham Poraz kept Shinui’s original identity. Poraz, a dedicated defender of economic liberalism gave the party its distinct social and economic agenda.

Still, the party languished until 1999, when Poraz recruited a very popular journalist and TV personality Tommy Lapid to head Shinui. The sharp tongued and politically savvy Lapid exploited the wave of resentment many Israelis developed (with considerable help from a leftist media) toward the shenanigans of Orthodox politicians. Skillfully whipping up this wave of anger, some claim hatred, against privileges that were clearly abused, the politically savvy Lapid propelled Shinui to its great electoral success.

But anger against the Orthodox, a purely protest vote, could not have alone made Shinui so popular. The traditional adversary of the Orthodox, the radical left Meretz party, should have received most of the “hate the Orthodox” protest vote. Yet Meretz lost almost half its vote. Shinui’s success was due primarily to the image of a moderate right wing party Lapid skillfully crafted and to his perceptive recognition that a large middle class was growing in Israel and that no one was representing it.

Like most voters, middle-class Israelis were furious with the Left’s stubborn advocacy of Oslo, which among other disasters, ruined the Israeli economy, forcing into bankruptcy thousands of small businesses. They also became fed up with Labor’s Statist ideology and its advocacy of a huge wasteful, anti-productive welfare system. It was the heavy tax levied from the middle class — over 60 percent at the margin — that financed much of government waste and corruption, since low-income earners did not pay taxes, nor did a slew of privileged groups and the rich who earn income from capital.

Shinui’s moderate right-wing image that distanced it from Oslo, and the fact that Lapid declared it to be “the protector of the middle class” and railed against high taxes made it garner most of the protest vote that expressed anger against the Orthodox.

It is therefore the shift in Israel towards the right and to middle-class positions that is the real significant story of the recent Israeli elections, and not the anger against the Orthodox that existed for decades.

It may be that Shinui, like its predecessor of the Seventies, will fall apart because it has not devised a coherent ideology. The party has not formulated a coherent economic platform to deal with Israel’s severe economic problems: lack of growth, little competition and low productivity, the plethora of monopolies, an overwhelming bureaucracy and the excessive concentration of assets in the hands of the few (over 44 percent of all assets are in the hands of four entities!). It mostly complains about the tax burden and the problems of foreign workers which exacerbates unemployment in Israel.

However, should Shinui develop a coherent platform and an ideology that will give purpose to the nascent middle-class revolt, should it take the task of reforming the disastrous Israeli economic system seriously, it could become a very significant political force. Despite its claims, Likud — with the one notable exception of Benjamin Netanyahu — has never championed the cause of serious economic reform so the political arena has a significant niche available for a party ready to raise the flag of reform.

Only time will tell whether the charismatic Lapid will manage to make out of the disparate Shinui elements a coherent political force, and whether he will recognize the exceptional opportunity economic reform offers. Should he seize the hour, his success will make Shinui more than a passing episode, indeed it may it responsible for one of the more positive turns in Israel’s history.

— Daniel Doron is the president of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a private think tank in Jerusalem.


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