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The cost of not talking peace

Isaac Herzog sought victory by ignoring Palestinians and focusing on living costs. Netanyahu was smarter. Will Labor learn the lesson?

Early in Israel’s recent election campaign, in a brief discussion with a fellow journalist, I argued that this time, contrary to the 2013 election campaign, the political issues - namely the Israeli-Palestinian question with all its ramifications - would have precedence over social-economic issues. My friend was convinced that social-economic issues would stand at the centre of the campaign.

I was wrong. For the past three months, all you could hear about in the Israeli press and in the Zionist Camp's election campaign, led by Labor's Isaac Herzog, was the high cost of living of everyday Israelis and the exaggerated cost of living of Benjamin Netanyahu and his family. The Palestinians were all but missing from the campaign.  

And yet, when Israeli voters went to the polls, they elected a prime minister whose main promise could be summarised as "I will not give Eretz Israel to the Arabs". So maybe I was not so far from the truth after all.

The focus given by the Israeli-Jewish centre-left on social issues is relatively new, but its roots go back almost 40 years, to when Menachem Begin's Likud won the elections in 1977, driving the Labor party out of power for the first time in Israel's history.

It did not take professional sociologists long to understand the composition of Likud's voters. Most of them were Mizrahi Jews (a term sometimes used to refer to Jews descended from communities in Muslim-majority countries) living in peripheral quarters or small towns, lagging behind their Ashkenazi co-nationals in almost every economic or social aspect: revenues, house ownership, jobs, education …. They rebelled against the Labor party, which had governed Israel for decades and which they they saw as responsible for their exclusion.

This political split between right and left along ethnic and social lines was very much felt during 1980s and 1990s, but the Labor party preferred to ignore it and focused more on the peace process, first with Egypt and later with the Palestinians. After the main trade union, the Histadrut, which was traditionally associated with the Labor movement, almost collapsed in the beginning of the 1990s and the number of unionised workers fell dramatically, the peace process assumed even more prominence in the discourse of the left-wing parties.

The Oslo agreements and later the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin only highlighted the centrality of the peace process to the Israeli left. It may be argued that the peace process was void of meaning as the occupation went on and settlements only grew. But it least it was on the agenda. This issue was the main rift between right and left in Israel.

The failure of the Camp David talks between prime minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian president Yasser Arafat in July 2000 and later the beginning of the Second Intifada sent this "peace discourse" into a crisis from which the left-wing parties have not really recovered up to the present.

The claim made by the same Barak that the Palestinians were not a partner for peace has been a cornerstone in Israeli political thinking ever since, going from the extreme right to the moderate left. No wonder he was the last prime minister who came from the Labor party,

One of the strategies adopted by left-wing activists and politicians to tackle this new political situation, in which the very talk about agreements with the Palestinians seemed to drive away voters, was to abandon this discourse once and for all. The way into the hearts and minds of Israelis, they claimed, was to talk about the issues that really mattered for them, such as jobs, housing and health and not about thorny issues like the Palestinian conflict.  

This line of political action made even more sense as the Likud governments, especially since Netanyahu was appointed finance minister in 2003, started to cut social benefits and other social services, tearing apart, slowly but persistently, the Israeli welfare system. It seemed only reasonable that through defending social policies it would be possible to encourage right-wing voters, most of them Mizrahi working-class Jews, to choose Labor or other left-wing parties.

This became even more evident after the huge protests in the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis went down to the streets of Tel Aviv and other major cities. The protests, which began from a demand to solve housing problems but then moved to a vast array of social issues, became the biggest challenge Netanyahu's government had known.

Sheli Yehimovich, elected as chairperson of the Labor party a few months after the social protests of 2011, made it into a political philosophy. On the one hand, she tried to revive the social democratic heritage of her party. On the other, she refused to commit herself to the peace process with the Palestinians, claiming that social issues were more urgent. Much thanks to her, the 2013 elections were maybe the first since the 1967 war in which the Palestinian issue was not part of the campaign.

Yet this shift from the peace process to social discourse did not work with the voters, who gave Labor only 15 seats in the 2013 elections. When Isaac Herzog ran against Yehimovich in the party internal elections in November that year, one of his main criticisms of her leadership was her disregard for the Palestinian issue. He promised to change that.

Yet when early elections were announced last December, this promise somehow faded away. Although the elections were held only a few months after Operation Defensive Edge in Gaza, regarded by many Israelis as unsuccessful if not a total failure, and despite the growing apprehension in Israel from international pressure or even the risk of facing a boycott, Herzog's campaign nearly ignored these questions.

All he did say in this regard was that he would ameliorate Israel's relations with the US administration - without specifying how - and that after being elected he would "check out" if a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians would be possible. Netanyahu, for his part, kept on bringing in these issues, combining Iran, Hamas and Islamic State in one big threat to Israel's security from which only he, Netanyahu, was able to put up a defence.

Herzog's campaign focused on the high cost of living, especially rising housing prices, and tried to depict the economic situation in Israel in extremely dark colours: no work, overcrowded hospitals, and no hope for the future. Yet apart from the housing crisis, the economy is not in such a bad shape. Unemployment has fallen below 6 percent, growth has been steady and even the poverty rate has declined slightly. People were fed up with Netanyahu, but the picture depicted by Herzog and by most of the (left-leaning) press was far too dark.

Economic analyst Sever Plocker, writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, predicted in December 2014 that "Israelis will not vote en masse to the left or centre if those parties compete [against] each other in distributing promises to bring down the cost of living." This week he summarised the elections quite bluntly. The Zionist Camp (the union of the Labor Party and Hatnuah) lost, he wrote, because it focused on the cost of living while ignoring the elephant in the room, meaning the continuation of the occupation.

In the last few days of the election campaign, Netanyahu took off his gloves. He admitted that he had made some mistakes in his conduct of the housing market, but at the same time he explained to voters that these elections were about the creation of a Palestinian state, which he promises to prevent, and about the "Arabs" (meaning the Palestinian minority inside Israel) growing to take over the country with the help of Herzog and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni.

His remark on election day itself about "Arabs coming in droves" to vote is considered now to be the one move that convinced hesitant right-wing voters to go to the polls and win the election for him.  

Herzog was caught off guard with his cost-of-living discourse. His vague talk about a possible renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians was not enough to tackle Netanyahu's violent attacks. Nobody knows if a more straight-forward talk about the Palestinian issue would have won Herzog the elections. But sticking to the social issues did not help him either.

The Israeli left is now licking its wounds, trying to understand how it lost elections that seemed so close to being won. Much of the discussion is focused on the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi split, which was evident - as always - in this election.

But maybe this time left-wing politicians will understand that the way to overcome this gap is not by vain talk about the cost of living in the hope that it will convince the Mizrahi Jews to vote for them. Yitzhak Rabin was elected after promising an agreement with the Palestinians, Barak after promising to withdraw from South Lebanon. Will a promise to end the conflict with the Palestinians help an Israeli politician to be elected? That is yet to be seen.

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Labour Party leader and co-leader of the Zionist Union list for the general election, Isaac Herzog prays at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem on 15 March, 2015 as part of his campaign (AFP)

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