Jerusalem — Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket, Israel’s national food bank, is used to receiving desperate pleas from soup kitchens and other institutions struggling to feed the poorest in Israel.
Every year Leket rescues over 700,000 meals and 21 million pounds of produce and perishable goods, and provides 1.25 million sandwiches to needy school kids.
What’s unnerving Kroch now is the number of calls he’s getting from individuals who, he says, “clearly don’t know their way around the system.”
“I get a lot of e-mails and phone calls from people who don’t know how to go to welfare or to seek support from the government or charities. It’s obviously their first time,” Kroch said.
“People who are poor know how to find a food kitchen, so these are clearly middle-class first-timers,” who are experiencing bad times.
While years ago the prospect of national elections might have infused Kroch with hope that a new government would focus more on socioeconomic reform, he has no such hopes for the government that will be elected on Jan. 22.
“There’s a lot of talk” from the politicians, Koch said, “but I don’t see any meaning behind the talk. Everyone’s quoting statistics about the percentage of poor children, but I don’t see a concrete plan, not for helping the poor or the middle class.”
Much of the problem, say pundits, is the fact that Israel’s center-left parties — which have traditionally focused on both socioeconomic issues and the peace process — have lost many voters due to splintering among themselves and failing to bring about a lasting peace.
Rather than coalesce and make common cause, political leaders from the center-left have formed their own parties. Tzipi Livni, for example, who headed Kadima, which won the most seats in the last election, has founded Hatuna, and former media personality Yair Lapid formed Yesh Atid. Each is expected to win about 10 seats.
Meanwhile, the right-wing parties are zeroing in on security, not the economy, knowing that the poor and middle class hold them responsible for much of their financial woes.
The result: “A new and unprecedented divide in Israeli politics between those who will be voting primarily on external issues and those on domestic issues,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Harman Institute in Jerusalem.
The fact that the platform of the pro-peace-process Labor Party does not mention the word peace “is belated recognition that the Oslo process is dead for most Israelis,” he said, despite Israelis’ widespread support for a two-state solution.
Right now, Halevi said, the right wing’s “great advantage” is the political unrest sweeping the Middle East.
Voters who might have voted for Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, due to domestic concerns, might instead choose a right-wing party “based on their anxieties about security.”
Some of the parties’ almost single-minded focus on a domestic agenda “is very promising for Israel in the long-term,” Halevi said, but it is somewhat “premature” for Israelis living alongside an unstable Egypt, war-torn Syria, Hamas in Gaza and a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Even so, Halevi predicts that “a substantial number” of Israelis will vote on the basis of such domestic concerns as the economy, haredi participation in the IDF and religious-secular tensions.
Bar Ilan University professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig, deputy director of the School of Communications, agrees that the right wing will win the election “if you assume that the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties are part of the right wing.”
If so, Lehman-Wilzig thinks the right could win approximately 68 of the 120 Knesset seats.
“And we’re not talking about 68 versus 52 center and left-wing parties,” he emphasized “because 10 of those are Arab seats and the Arab parties never join the coalition.”
Still, there are some unknowns, Lehman-Wilzig said, starting with how many Likud voters will jump ship because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined forces with Avigdor Lieberman’s secular nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu.
The largely Russian immigrant party advocates a two-state solution — something many right-wingers do not support and a land swap arrangement that would eventually place many Arab Israelis under Palestinian rule.
Furthermore, Lieberman is currently being investigated for his alleged intervention in the appointment of an Israeli ambassador.
The sudden rise of 40-year-old entrepreneur-turned politician Naftali Bennett is also leading to some surprises, especially after Bennett, who leads the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party (a joint Jewish Home/NRP & National Union list) told an interviewer he would refuse IDF orders to evacuate Jewish settlements. He criticizes Netanyahu for talking about greater settlement activity but not making good on his pledges.
Despite his controversial remarks about not following IDF orders, which he backed down from, Bennett, the son of American immigrants, this week gained in the polls, which predicted he would win 15 seats; previous results were in the 11 to 13 range.
The poll showed a concurrent drop for Likud, which is running on a settlement-growth agenda, to 35 seats; earlier estimates were in the high 30s.
The Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, which is strong on socioeconomic issues, is slipping, despite the return of its former leader Aryeh Deri, after serving a prison term.
Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which is focusing on the challenges facing the middle class and the lack of haredi participation in the workforce and military, is also weakening, the poll said.
Labor, the socioeconomic party, would get 18 seats if elections were held today, while the centrist Kadima, which scored 28 seats in the last election, wouldn’t get even one seat this time around, decimated by the defection of Livni and others to newly formed parties.
Ben-Gurion University professor Shlomo Mizrachi said research shows that the very financially strapped people who might be expected to vote for socially minded center-left parties often don’t, and that is the reason these parties are struggling.
The ultra-Orthodox tend to vote for right-wing parties because they can later “bargain for their sector’s interests,” including funding for their schools, military exemptions and affordable housing.
The Mizrachim/Sephardim usually don’t vote for the left because they believe the Labor party and its predecessors have historically discriminated against Jews from Arab countries.
Despite their mutual agenda, “they just can’t bring themselves to vote for them,” Mizrachi said.
And the large Arab sector either votes for Arab parties or doesn’t vote at all.
“They’ve never entered the coalition, so they feel they have no impact on Israeli policy,” Mizrachi explains.
Then there are the yuppies, “people who are a little spoiled and looking for the perfect ‘boutique’ party,” despite the fact that such parties traditionally have little or no say in national policy.
“It’s either that,” he said, “or they don’t vote at all.”