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Concerns shift from peace process to economy as Israel votes

As Israelis go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament, they are more preoccupied with the high cost of living than seeking peace with Palestinians. The price of milk and other basic food is two or three times higher than that in countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, and housing is steep in comparison. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, leaving the middle-class feeling burdened.

One survey found 60 percent of voters listed socio-economic conditions as their main concern; only 16 percent said it was the peace process. “With the salary that I bring home, once I would have been considered upper middle class. Today I’m not even lower middle-class,” said a taxi driver in the business hub of Tel Aviv. The average national income, before taxes, is about 1,760 euros (2,350 dollars) a month. In Tel Aviv, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment in a reasonable neighbourhood is at least 1,000 euros; a carton of milk costs between 1 and 1.50 euros. The rising cost of living spawned a grassroots protest movement in July 2011, two years after the last legislative election.

“One-third of my salary goes to rent,” said Yoav Koren, 27, a website manager from Jerusalem, adding that is only because his girlfriend pays half. Amnon Agassi, 56, a lawyer from Ramat Hasharon, an affluent town north-east of Tel Aviv, has owned his house since long before prices soared, but worries about his children.

“They have no ability to save and tell me cynically, ‘For what? Even if we save, we won’t be able to buy a flat anyway’.” Agassi wants lower taxes for the middle class. But he also listed security as a top concern, and said it was another reason for voting for the centre-right or the right.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to win Tuesday. Surveys show his Likud-Israel Beiteinu faction winning about 35 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, and the centre-left Labour Party coming in second with about 16. Labour leader Shelly Yechimovich has made socio-economic issues the focus of her campaign, and like other party leaders has wooed activists such as Itzik Shmuli, the former student union leader who made it to the Labour candidate list.

In previous elections, Labour has traditionally been the peace process flag-waver. This year one of its slogans is: “Bibi (Netanyahu) is good for the rich. Shelly is good for you.” Netanyahu is seen as a free-market capitalist rather than an advocate for the socially weak. In the wake of the protests, he promised to bring down housing prices. The price of a two-bedroom home in Tel Aviv is at least 400,000 euros, and rising.

The premier made national security central to his election campaign, highlighting the threat posed to Israel by Iran, Palestinian militants and an unstable Arab world. He took credit for making the international community acutely conscious of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Many in Israel, even those preoccupied with living conditions, would not entrust national security to a less savvy candidate.

As a result, Likud with its campaign slogan – “a strong prime minister, a strong Israel” – has held onto its lead over Labour, according to surveys. Tzipi Livni of the new centrist party, The Movement, was about the only candidate to prioritize the peace process. The former foreign minister campaigned under the banner “Hope will defeat fear”.

But Israelis’ faith in the peace process has imploded since the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) began in late 2000 amid a deadlock in negotiations. And as the population blocked out the conflict, the dovish parties who form a minority in the Knesset saw their support bases begin to dwindle.

Little more than a week before the poll, a quarter of Israelis were undecided. “I couldn’t care less,” said Koby, a kiosk owner in Tel Aviv. “They (the candidates) all suck,” the 27-year-old said. But he said he may vote for the rising star of Israel’s far-right, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, which is making a surprise third-place showing in the polls. The ultra-hawkish newcomer is young and strikes Koby as hardworking. Asked if he was worried about Bennett’s opposition to Palestinian statehood, Koby said no – he never believed the peace process stood a chance anyway.

Ofira Koopmans, "Concerns shift from peace process to economy as Israel votes," Business recorder. 2013-01-18.