March 17 is coming quickly.

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Israelis Worry About Inequality, Not Iran

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled to address Congress on Tuesday, his speech is seemingly the only Israel-related subject receiving attention in the American press. Today’s New York Times had two prominent stories about Israel: one about the dilemmas Netanyahu's speech is creating for Jewish Democrats in Congress and a second that said the speech is a highly divisive topic in Israel.

That latter claim is true, but it mischaracterizes the nature of Israel’s national conversation. With the speech just a day away, it's not surprising that much of the Israeli press is giving it play. But most of the vitriol leading up to Israel’s March 17 elections has been about Netanyahu’s handling (or mishandling) of the economy and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in Israel, and not on the congressional showdown.

Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper of record, gave the speech top billing Monday morning, but, in its Hebrew version, it peppered its website with many more stories about economics. The paper reported that at Sheba Medical Center, one of Israel’s leading medical establishments, overcrowding is so great that the hospital has asked ambulances to bring no more patients. Haaretz attached a photograph of a patient being treated in the hallway. Haaretz also reported on a small revival of the tent city that had sprouted in Tel Aviv two summers ago to protest the high cost of housing. The paper covered a court ruling that said teachers cannot stage a semi-strike over changes in their working conditions, and discussed what has emerged as the top symbolic issue of rich versus poor in the Israeli press: the investigation of alleged financial mismanagement and excessive expenditures in the prime minister’s residences.

On YNet, Israel’s most-read Internet news site, the Sheba hospital story led the news; YNet included a photo of bedlam in the hospital and another of ambulances lined up, presumably with nowhere to drop off their patients. Interestingly, on YNet this morning, the only discussion of Netanyahu's imminent speech was a tiny entry at the bottom of the page.

Israel’s first debate leading up the elections was held last week. Netanyahu and the joint candidates for the leading left-wing party, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, declined to participate, assuming that they only had something to lose. In the conversation between the numerous other candidates, the prime minister’s speech to Congress was hardly mentioned. Most of the tumultuous evening (“debate” is a generous description of what actually unfolded) was devoted to the cost of housing, the high percentage of Israelis who are sinking further into debt and the burden that Israel’s largely unemployed ultra-Orthodox population places on the rest of the population.

To the extent that foreign policy figured into the debate, the issue was whether the mere notion of a Palestinian state is now irrelevant. Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party claimed that “two states for two peoples” is not an option, while others insisted that solution still makes sense, except there is no partner with whom to negotiate. No one suggested that there was any chance for a peace deal in the near future. As for Netanyahu's trip to the U.S., one would hardly have known he was going by watching the debate.

Netanyahu has called Israel’s elections a referendum on his handling of Iran, which he considers Israel’s most pressing challenge and on which most Israelis trust him. Much to his disappointment, though, the vote has turned into a showdown over his handling of the economy. With Barack Obama's administration clearly not in line with Netanyahu on the Iran threat and with Islamic State just over Israel’s northern border, dwarfing any concern about the Palestinians, Israelis see no good moves on the international chessboard. They are now focusing on the quality of life in their still young country. Across the political spectrum, there is a sense that even if Israel has no intention of reverting to its socialist roots, the egalitarian spirit that once animated Israeli society has been too thoroughly discarded.

Upon his election as Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann said to the Knesset in February 1949: “The world is watching and waiting now to see what path we choose for ourselves in arranging our lives, and what the character of our state will be. It is listening intently to hear whether a new message will go forth from Zion, and what this message will contain.”

Israelis no longer speak in such bombastic terms about a new social vision emerging from Zion, but they miss believing that Israel was about such a vision. Yes, they are divided about the prime minister’s decision to get into a public spat with the American president (who, there was a wide consensus, is no friend of Israel’s), but that isn't what keeps them up at night. Although foreign policy and security issues are always major factors in how Israelis vote, this election will not be about how to defend the state, but about how to ensure that what is developing here remains worth defending.

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To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net