January 8, 2013 5:21 pm

Social protest leaders seek Israeli ballot success

In July 2011 Stav Shaffir was among the first people to pitch tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to protest the high cost of housing, spawning a mass movement that was to channel broader economic discontent among Israel’s middle class.

For about two months, the protesters staged Saturday demonstrations that grew to involve hundreds of thousands of people, briefly pushing the conflict with the Palestinians off front pages, before fizzling out.

Now Ms Shaffir, along with two other leading figures in the social protests, Itzik Shmuli and Yossi Yonah, are candidates in Israel’s upcoming election, running for the leftwing Labour party.

Labour’s campaign is focused squarely on economic issues, including Israel’s high living costs and some of the worst indicators on inequality in the western world.

The party cite polling data showing that 57 per cent of Israelis say social and economic issues are the most important factors when they vote, compared with 28 per cent who say that peace matters most.

“People on the bus talk about the budget, they talk about changes in tax,” says Ms Shaffir, sipping a cappuccino in a café in Jaffa, where she lives. “This is new – what people talked about before was the conflict, what will happen with Iran.”

After polling well enough in a primary to rank eighth on the list of Labour – tipped to gain about 17 seats in Israel’s next parliament – the 27-year-old former journalist is almost assured a seat as one of the Knesset’s youngest MPs.

For all of Labour’s best efforts, polls show prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certain to form Israel’s next government after the vote on January 22, helped by a long-term rightward shift in Israeli politics.

His Likud Beiteinu bloc and other rightwing and religious parties are projected to win 67 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared with 53 for Israel’s centre-left and Arab parties, according to a poll published by the Dialog Institute on Monday.

As the campaign has cranked up, Mr Netanyahu’s government has made much of its national security credentials, with cabinet on Sunday approving construction of a new border fence with Syria.

At the same time, Israel’s three biggest centre-left parties – Labour, headed by Shelly Yachimovich, and parties fronted by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and ex-TV presenter Yair Lapid – are squabbling publicly, despite promises to join forces. On Monday Ms Yachimovich and Mr Lapid issued a joint statement accusing Ms Livni of “spin” after a meeting aimed at forging a united centre-left bloc failed.

However, in focusing on the economy Labour – which for decades ruled Israel and is still its second largest party – is challenging Mr Netanyahu in one of his most vulnerable spots. His government called the election last year after failing to pass a budget, and warning of a need for austerity ahead.

“The prime minister plans to pass a cruel budget the likes of which we have never seen in Israel, which will bring a social hell and economic chaos,” Ms Yachimovich said this week.

Labour has unveiled a “Yachimovich Plan for a Fair Economy,” promising improvements in social programmes like health, education and housing, paid for by new measures including an inheritance tax.

“After a decade dominated by Netanyahu’s economic worldview – a paradigm that has only expanded the shameful and dangerous gaps between rich and poor in Israel and severely eroded the middle class – the state has abandoned its obligations to its citizens,” the plan reads. “It’s time for change.”

However slim Labour’s chances of winning, a return to its egalitarian roots may be a smart tactical move for a party associated closely in many Israelis’ minds with former leftwing governments’ failed peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Yachimovich has repositioned Labour as a social democratic party, arguing that we have been negotiating and discussing the Palestinian issue for decades,” says Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Jerusalem University. “It makes Labour relevant and also has ignited some buzz among younger people.”

Mr Avineri says that Israel’s divided centre left, if it ever formed a government, would still struggle to forge common cause on the economy, where Labour’s views sit to the left of Ms Livni’s and Mr Lapid’s.

At the same time, analysts say, the party may be positioning itself for a more prominent role in the opposition, and a better shot at ruling again in years ahead.

“I don’t know if we’ll see the change in these elections, but we’ll definitely see it in the next few years,” says Ms Shaffir. “It’s a process that we first started when we pitched tents on the Rothschild Boulevard. It’s difficult to change the system, but people understand the old system is over and new people are coming. We’re going to take this country back.”

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