Sooner or later, the race must be run next year.
But the difference, in political terms, of when we go to the polls is huge. It matters cardinally to what’s best for the country rather than what’s best for any party. Here Netanyahu has undeniably opted for what’s best for the country.
We all know that the 2013 budget must be put together and then put to a Knesset vote. We all know that this annually entails intense haggling. We should all be equally aware that the budget now awaiting deliberation is likely to be full of edicts that would perforce increase the burdens already weighing down on ordinary folks.
We should all know that this isn’t the product of arbitrary hardheartedness. The world’s leading economies are all – without exception – in deep trouble, and this cannot but rub off on us. Hence the need for what should be – for the collective good – an austerity budget, or one close to an austerity budget.
It’s conventional wisdom that it’s easier to pass an unpopular budget after having received a mandate from the public than to attempt it before having faced the electorate. Political common sense rules against going to the voter after having inflicted an austerity budget, even if this is warranted by objective reality.
Moreover, even if Netanyahu were altruistically to put all the above cogent considerations out of mind and adopt a semi-suicidal political course (as his detractors would surely have liked him to do), it wouldn’t work.
It wouldn’t work primarily because all players in the political arena know the clock is ticking. With elections unavoidably in the offing, no political faction would earnestly consider the budget in terms of what is best for the economy. Trumping everything would be the upcoming campaign, i.e., the need to appeal to constituents and put their sectarian interests even more ahead of the greater good than is the usual inclination.
Thus the horse-trading about a particularly difficult budget would be overshadowed by an election season. No Knesset candidates can afford to ignore the political calendar.
Given this, concocting a budget becomes a mission impossible, with all MKs focusing on the contest for electoral support directly ahead. The inducement to curry favor with the voters would grow all the greater at the unquestionable expense of doing the right thing.
In a nutshell, this is called populism – catchall demagoguery that purports to side with the “people” against the “elites.” Populism doesn’t make for good economic management, but it can be exploited to make political capital. Populists of varying political colors will tell the public that cutbacks and belt-tightening are ruthless unjustifiable greed.
Short-term carping over higher prices and fewer entitlements stokes populist furnaces. It allows populists to misrepresent economic reality in order to appear like righteous protectors of the common man. If election fever coincides with budget time, politicians are tempted to wax populist, at which point no rational budget is remotely attainable.
In the background hover existential concerns, certainly not disconnected from economic circumstances. Dangers of war don’t improve our economic prospects. But even barring outright confrontation, extreme geopolitical uncertainties don’t help stabilize an economy, already imperiled by economic instability abroad.
We aren’t an island. When basic commodities cost more abroad, we pay more. When countries to which we export goods find themselves in dire economic straits and buy less from us, they inflict pain on our industries, hi-tech sector, etc. This is unavoidable.
Beyond all this looms the US political picture. Whatever the outcome of America’s elections, it would serve our interests better to face the winner with an Israeli government that enjoys a new mandate for potentially four years than with one at the end of its road and susceptible to foreign interference (hardly unprecedented) in our own domestic democratic processes.
Given the 2013 challenges, we’re better off casting our ballots early in the year than doing the same later in the year with a bad budget and greater vulnerability to excruciating political pressure from overseas.