Bibi Netanyahu gave an interview to Haaretz on Wednesday where he dismissed the concerns over growing inequality in Israel – it is in the bottom three of IMF countries and bottom four of OECD members with the largest gap between rich and poor – because Israel is “in great shape” if you don’t take into account Haredim and Israeli Arabs. This statement bends the limits of credulity given that the latest IMF report on Israel specifically mentions integrating the Haredi and Arab sectors into the economy if Israel is to maintain its high growth. This summer’s upcoming social protests are also expected to focus on Haredi military exemptions and the drain on state resources through Haredi subsidies and special provisions, so dismissing the Haredim and Arabs out of hand as if they are a small and simple problem to be easily overcome is hasty at best and irresponsibly negligent at worst.
Netanyahu’s cavalier treatment of Israel’s inequality issue is also curious given the report issued by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics in March. The CBS forecasted that there will be an additional 350,000 Haredi Jews and an additional 300-400,000 Arabs in Israel’s population by 2019, and that by 2059 the Haredi population will equal the non-Haredi Jewish population. If this forecast is correct, then Netanyahu’s dismissing these two segments of the populace and insisting that Israel is in reality doing well on measures of inequality is dangerously off-base. Furthermore, the insistence that mainstream Israelis are not suffering from inequality is going to do him no favors politically as socially minded Israelis gear up for a repeat of last summer’s protests that rocked the country. The people that flocked to Rothschild Boulevard and erected tent cities across the country came primarily from the secular Jewish majority that Netanyahu needs to reassure, and Shaul Mofaz’s strategy of using social justice issues to bludgeon Netanyahu with is only going to ensure that Bibi’s comments are not soon forgotten. Many Israelis would take great exception to the claim that Israel is in great shape when it comes to inequality, and the CBS forecast confirms that the problem will only get worse as the Haredi and Arab populations grow relative to the rest of Israel. Netanyahu meant to reassure both domestic and international audiences that he has the problem under control, but his comments actually underscore that he believes he can ignore Israel’s economic gap and that he has no real strategy to correct what should be a pressing concern.