Economy looms large in Israeli elections
Facing continued resistance ... Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Getty Images
WHEN hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest against the country's impossibly high cost of living and a deterioration in public services, the anger of the demonstrators was palpable.
Tent embassies sprang up all over the country, dominating the wealthy Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and the message was clear - ordinary people could no longer afford to rent or buy in Israel and the economic crisis was worsening.
More than a year later, the protests have disappeared but the anger has not. Eight days out from Israel's general election, making ends meet is still one of the major concerns for many who will vote on January 22.
Israel has a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.7 per cent and a growing economy, but business cartels keep prices high, the minimum hourly wage in Israel is $A6.07 (compared with $14.94 in Australia, $9.08 in Britain or $6.87 in the US), and the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest of all developed countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found.
A poll of 803 voters commissioned by The Times of Israel found that 60 per cent highlighted socio-economic issues as the most important issue facing the new government, with 19 per cent nominating security and 16 per cent peace with the Palestinians.
But the socio-economic pressures are all but absent from this election campaign, says Professor Eytan Gilboa, from the BESA Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
"This campaign is very shallow," he said. ''I think the candidates have not addressed adequately either domestic or foreign issues, and this stems from the huge emphasis on personality in Israeli politics - you do not hear about parties, or platforms, or positions."
The social justice protests of 2011 have not translated into this campaign because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to defuse the issue by appointing a committee and accepting most of its recommendations, Professor Gilboa said.
"Everybody knows that after the election there is going to be austerity measures. The government will have to raise 15 billion shekels ($3.8 billion), which is a huge sum."
Indeed, the fact that these elections are being held in January and not October as expected illustrates the difficulties Mr Netanyahu had in his attempt to push through the austerity measures in the last Knesset.
Facing continued resistance, and after a failed attempt at forming a coalition with the centre-right Kadima party, he instead called early elections in the hope of increasing his margin in parliament by joining his Likud party list with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.
The leader of the national religious Jewish Home party and a former Israeli special forces officer, Naftali Bennett, has proposed cutting the budget of the Israeli Defence Forces in order to find the savings - a move sure to be vehemently resisted by the military establishment.
"I am a supporter of a moderate cut in our defence budget - not because I want to cut the defence budget, just because we have a deficit … and it has got to come from somewhere," said Mr Bennett, the rising star of Israel's far right.
Professor Manuel Trajtenberg - the economics expert appointed to head the committee established in response to the social justice protests - has consistently warned that Israel cannot sustain another increase in defence spending, and that further funding boosts will lead to financial collapse.
The defence budget is around $A13.28 billion, which includes an annual $A2.84 billion in US military aid.
"I think that the basic trade-off Israel faces is between defence and social services. Any attempt to look at it differently is deceiving the public," Professor Trajtenberg said last year.
Wherever the savings are to be found, one thing is almost certain: it will be Mr Netanyahu who is responsible for finding them.
Several opinion polls released on Friday predicted that Mr Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu alliance would win between 33 and 38 seats, with Labor forecast to win between 16 and 18 seats and Mr Bennett's Jewish Home gaining 13 or 14 seats.
Although most polls show at least one-quarter of voters have not yet decided who to back, Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Centre at Hertzilya, does not believe there will be any surprises on polling day.
"The amount of people who are excited by Bibi Netanyahu is very small, but at the same time everyone feels that it is inevitable - there is no one who has more experience than he does."