Transport policy is not usually a central policy concern of Israeli elections. However, this year’s election is set to be extremely close and dysfunction and strikes among Israel’s railways has the potential to be a decisive factor in determining the election’s outcome.
Israel’s state comptroller recently released a damning report on the state of nation’s railways, criticising persistent underinvestment leading to overcrowding and delays– a situation that itself contributes to road congestion as Israeli commuters drive rather than risk public transport. This is aided by OECD statistics stating that Israel has significantly more vehicles per kilometre of road, than the OECD average. As well as proving frustrating to Israeli commuters, this also hinders the nation’s productivity.
The comptroller’s report has sharply criticised Likudnik Transport Minister Israel Katz, who has held the post since Likud returned to power under Netanyahu, in 2009. Katz disputes the report, blaming a previous century of neglect and emphasising the areas of investment that have occurred under the current administration.
Israel’s railway troubles add further tsuris to Israeli workers, already struggling with high costs of living and low wages. Economic discontent prompted nationwide protests in 2011 inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. These economic concerns failed to dislodge Prime Minister Netanyahu in either the 2013 or 2015 elections; after a decade of Likud rule it remains to be seen whether these concerns will now prove decisive in the April 9th election.
However, a complicating factor is that in tandem to the comptroller’s report, ongoing industrial action by unionised train drivers, have paralysed parts of the rail network.
Their leader, the Histadrut labor federation’s chairman Avi Nissenkorn, has recently joined the centrist Blue and White party, which under former General Benny Gantz, is launching a formidable challenge to oust Netanyahu’s Likud party from power.
Netanyahu has, in turn, seized upon the train strikes as a wedge issue, attacking his chief rival as a ‘lefitst’ and claiming his premiership would lead to strikes and chaos across Israel. Nissenkorn has responded by attacking the government’s record of underinvestment, calling the management of the railways under Likud, “disgraceful”.
Writer and Commentator Yossi Klein Halevi has written about how Netanyahu is fighting leftist ghosts, constantly invoking a mythical leftist establishment that seeks to undermine him, and in his eyes, undermine the security of the state. Netanyahu has been in office for a decade and the left no longer holds a hegemonic position in Israeli society but the Prime Minister remains convinced of his own underdog status.
In Netanyahu’s rhetoric, any opposition to him whether from political opponents, the media or from the courts, is ‘leftist’ and a fundamental threat to security. The rail strikes and Nissenkorn’s involvement in the Blue and White party only adds further ammunition to this element of Netanyahu’s election campaign.
The Blue in White party, an amorphous collection of former generals and centrist politicians, is itself divided with leading figure Gabi Ashkenazi voicing disquiet at the idea of Nissenkorn becoming finance minister.
It has been many years since a trade union figure has played such a central role in the work of government and would represent a reversal of fortunes for the Histadrut, which has lost influence in Israel in recent decades. When the Labor party was dominant in the first thirty years since independence, the Histadrut worked closely in building the state.
Netanyahu will be hoping that the rail strikes prove that the unions, and those associated with them, cannot be trusted to run the country, while Blue and White will hope it shows the misjudgements of Bibi’s incumbent government. With the election only weeks away, and the strikes unresolved, Israel’s railways may prove to be a potent factor influencing voters.