Tue, Mar 17, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Israeli vote has global implications, but will turn on local issues

At a moment when Tel Aviv faces major international challenges, an unstable coalition seems to be more likely than a decisive victory in this general election

By Andrew Hammond

The Israeli electorate goes to the polls today in a ballot that has attracted unusually high international attention. This is largely because Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli’s polarizing and second-longest-serving prime minister, appears vulnerable to defeat against a “Zionist-center” alternative which would seek to repair ties with US President Barack Obama’s administration, and resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

Latest polls appear to show momentum moving toward the Zionist-center which is a pact between the Labor Party, headed by Isaac Herzog, and former justice minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the Hatnua party. However, even if this centrist bloc wins more seats than Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, it would still need to overcome the hurdle of forming a coalition with a variety of nationalist and religious parties to secure the requisite 61 seats in the Knesset.

While international issues, including the potential forthcoming US-led nuclear deal with Iran are forming the context to the election, domestic economic issues are uppermost in many Israeli minds. Specifically, the rising cost of living, including housing costs. Last month, for instance, a report by the Israeli state comptroller put “substantial blame” on the Netanyahu government for a greater than 50 percent rise in house price over the past five years, in part because of the bureaucratic delays holding back the speed of house building.

Moreover, according to the Bank of Israel, a basket of basic products was 12 percent more expensive in Israel than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average last year. And official statistics indicate over 40 percent of Israelis are in a constant state of overdraft.

FORMIDABLE DEALMAKER

While the Israeli economy has performed better than most OECD countries since 2007, growth slowed last year. Exports and tourism weakened and the Gaza war also undermined economic activity.

However, there are signs that the economy is rebounding with data from the final quarter of last year showing the fastest quarterly growth, at an annualized 7.2 percent expansion, in nearly eight years. This follows a similar economic rebound, following the Lebanon war in 2006.

After serving some nine years in total as prime minister, Netanyahu has made many domestic opponents, and some now sense there is opportunity to unseat him. However, he remains a formidable dealmaker and his ability to forge a potential coalition across the fragmented political landscape should not be underestimated.

While the Zionist-center’s focus is primarily on the economy, the prime minister is placing greater emphasis on reaching out to ultra-orthodox and nationalist constituencies. One of his key messages is his assertion that he is the only figure who can maintain the safety of the country at a time of international danger.

It remains possible that this “security card” could yet help enable him a fourth term of office, but his credentials here have been undercut by a chorus of critics.

This includes former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who says that Netanyahu has actually undermined Israeli security with a number of his foreign policies.

Shavit is been particularly critical of the prime minister’s Iran policy which has caused significant tension with Obama’s administration, threatening a significant breach in the traditional pattern of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. Earlier this month, for instance, Netanyahu addressed the US Congress in one of the most controversial of more than 100 joint session addresses that have been given by world leaders and dignitaries to the US legislature since the 19th century.

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