Left Up in Polls as Israelis Name Economy Top Concern

The left is up in the polls as Israelis worry about making ends meet but Benjamin Netanyahu could still stay on.

A boulevard in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 16, 2013
A boulevard in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 16, 2013 (Anna Spies)

Israel’s left-wing coalition has a real chance of defeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month but the conservative could still win a fourth term if rightwingers stick with him after the election.

The Zionist Camp alliance between Labor and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnuah party has been neck and neck with Netanyahu’s Likud since it was formed in December. Recent polls give both parties around 25 seats in the Knesset where 61 seats are needed for a majority.

The Zionist Camp especially appeals to Israelis who feel the last two Netanyahu governments have done too little to reduce inequality and make living more affordable. When asked, nearly half of Israelis list the economy as their top concern. Only a fifth of the electorate lists relations with the Palestinians as their priority while 10 percent mentions the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Netanyahu, a national-security hawk who calls the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran an “existential threat” to Israel, has presided over years of high economic growth. But wealth has not always trickled down. Although nominal gross domestic product per capita is higher in Israel than in many European countries, including Italy and Spain, income gaps are among the widest in the developed world and many products from overseas, such as cars, are exceptionally expensive.

So is housing. Since 2007, home prices are up nearly 84 percent. The number of houses built is not keeping up with demand — at least partially because more than 90 percent of the land is either owned or administered by the state, creating a lot of red tape.

At times of crisis, such as during last year’s war with Hamas in Gaza, support for the hardliner Netanyahu rises. Now that the security situation looks relatively calm, Israelis, like voters everywhere, are more worried about making ends meet.

That benefits the left but it could still fall short of a majority in parliament.

Naftali Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home, which also appeals to some of the tech-savvy Millennials the Zionist Camp is targeting, will probably become the third largest party. He is currently in coalition with Likud but could change sides if Labor and Hatnuah compromise on security issues and the building of settlements in territory that is also claimed by the Palestinians, something Jewish Home defends.

The religious right, which propped up Netanyahu’s previous governments, is divided. So is the far left which could not put the Zionist Camp over the top anyway. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which appeals mostly to Israelis from the former Soviet Union, is down in the polls. Likely kingmakers are Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is predicted to lost around half of its nineteen seats, and Likud dissident Moshe Kahlon, whose new Kulanu party campaigns explicitly on cost-of-living issues and could win around as many seats.