Jerusalem — The Aroma Café in the Germany Colony was pretty full on Tuesday night at 8, but virtually no one appeared to be giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s televised announcement about early elections the slightest bit of attention.
Of those within earshot, one young woman was focused on her cell phone messages while another 20-something applied green highlighter to an academic paper.
Asked why they seemed less than absorbed by the news that elections will take place within three months, the first woman replied, “Because I already know who I’m voting for,” while the second said, “I’m not indifferent, even if it looks that way. I’m concerned about security, but even more concerned about jobs and social equality. I’ll show my concern on Election Day.”
While pundits expect that Iran and security as a whole will continue to be a central campaign issue in the coming election, they also see a much more prominent role for socioeconomic concerns.
The most recent public opinion poll, published in Yediot Achronot, found that Netanyahu’s Likud Party could win 30 Knesset seats; it also found that the Labor Party, headed by socioeconomic activist Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich, could secure 18 seats — 10 more than it has now.
In election-related comments, Yachimovich accused Netanyahu of promoting a “violent jungle economy.”
“The public must bear in mind that Netanyahu is calling elections in order to afterward pass a cruel, harsh budget that will negatively impact the lives of almost all Israeli citizens — all but the very rich,” the politician wrote on her Facebook page. “The public will have to decide between two approaches — mine and Netanyahu’s.”
“Economic concerns will play a more important role in this election than in the previous election,” predicted Momi Dahan, head of the Hebrew University’s School of Public Policy and Government.
Dahan said the mass social protests that swept Israel in 2011 demonstrated just how upset Israelis are about the exorbitant cost of such basic items as food, housing and gasoline (about $8.50 per gallon), and about the fact that, outside the U.S., Israel has the largest gap between the rich and poor of any other Western country.
The street protests were especially significant, Dahan said, because they were led by younger, mostly employed Israelis “who tend to participate at lower rates” than their elders in elections.
“My hope is that participation among young Israelis will be higher as a result.”
Dahan said Israeli politicians shouldn’t draw conclusions from the dearth of similar social protests in 2012.
“It’s not reasonable to expect such a large number of people to be activists for a long period. They made their statement in 2011, and that statement stands,” he asserted.
Were it not for these protests, Dahan said, Yachimovich would not have risen to the top of the Labor party.
Despite his confidence that social issues will be key to the elections, “Still, this is Israel, and one security event can change everything,” Dahan noted.
Peter Medding, a professor of political scientist at Hebrew University, said Netanyahu himself put the economy front and center during his early-election announcement.
“If you listened to his speech, he said the reason for calling early elections was his inability to reach an agreement with his coalition partners over the budget. ‘Budget’ is obviously shorthand for how to deal with all the socioeconomic problems the country faces.”
Netanyahu “made it clear the other parties are already making demands and taking policy positions he couldn’t or didn’t want to meet, whether taxation, subsidies, minimum wage or child support,” Medding said.
By calling early elections and not passing the 2013 budget (the 2012 budget will continue into the coming year), Netanyahu in a sense dodged a bullet, the political scientist theorized.
Had Netanyahu not called for early elections, Medding said, he would either be wrangling over the budget for the next few months, with all the political dangers that might entail; or he would bear the legacy of a 2013 budget full of cuts to the socioeconomic sector.
“He would be portrayed as a person with no concern for the disadvantaged,” Medding said.
What remains to be seen now is whether a rival candidate will emerge in time for Election Day, and whether the people who marched the summer will put socioeconomic concerns before security and the peace process.
Medding said the street protesters appeared to come from a wide cross-section of Israeli society and consequently a wide range of political parties.
“If you’re a Yisrael Beiteinu supporter but vote for Likud, the change will not make a difference,” Medding said of the closely aligned coalition partners. But if a Likudnik moves to Labor or another, more socially conscious party, “that could make a large difference.”
Although Oded Karamani, the 39-year-old owner of an “Iraqi sandwich bar with an emphasis on the Iraqi,” voted for Likud in the last election, he said he’ll be taking his vote elsewhere this time around.
“I’m very disappointed in Netanyahu,” Karamani said as he and a friend consumed dinner at an outdoor restaurant about an hour after Netanyahu’s early-election announcement.
“They say the economy is pretty good, but everything here is crazy expensive. It costs much more than it should to buy or rent an apartment and to buy food. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”
Karamani, who described himself as middle class, bemoaned the fact that he can’t afford to purchase a home.
“The people I know earn 15,000 shekels [almost $4,000] a month but can’t save anything. We’ve served in the army, we work hard, but this isn’t the country I grew up in. I’d leave if I could, even though I love this country, but I owe too much money to the bank to even consider leaving.”
Baking pizzas at a popular Jerusalem pizzeria, Assaf Rikan, 22, who completed his mandatory army service a year ago, said the government’s priorities must change.
“The education system stinks, and it’s really hard for young people to buy a home or a car.
“All I know is, something’s got to change,” Rikan said.