Small-business champion Abir Kara launches underdog Economic Freedom party

Former Yamina MK starts up party to advance ‘social-minded right-wing’ economics and end ‘Soviet’ market regulations, backed by members of Shulmanim protest group he led

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

MK Abir Kara presents his new Economic Freedom party in Jerusalem, September 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
MK Abir Kara presents his new Economic Freedom party in Jerusalem, September 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Former Yamina MK Abir Kara kicked off a dark horse bid to return to the Knesset Sunday night, going back to his activist roots representing small business owners with the launch of the Economic Freedom party, which he promised would tackle inequality by unshackling the economy from government bureaucrats.

“I believe in a true free market. I am for a social-minded right-wing. I’m in favor of lowering the cost of living, helping the disadvantaged in society through a free economy which is necessary to increase the welfare of every citizen,” Kara said at Jerusalem’s Cinema City mall, announcing Economic Freedom as the banner under which he’ll advance these goals.

Kara rose to prominence as the head of the Shulmanim, a movement that harnessed the anger of small business owners and the self-employed who struggled with the government’s coronavirus health restrictions. (The group takes its name from a joke about the sucker left to pay the tab at the end of a meal.)

He first entered the Knesset last year with the right-wing Yamina, but made the move to strike out on his own after negotiations with party leader Ayelet Shaked broke down over placement on the Zionist Spirit list, founded as the successor to Yamina.

Neither Zionist Spirit or Economic Freedom are forecast to cross the 3.25% vote threshold to enter the Knesset.

Though Israelis regularly list bread and butter economic issues as a top concern, upstart parties promising to champion the battle to lower the cost of living, such as economist Yaron Zelekha’s New Economics Party, have made little headway in recent elections.

While Kara did not present an ordered Knesset candidate list for the November 1 election, he invited a number of prominent activists from the Shulmanim to join him from the party launch stage, calling them members of his party’s “top team.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (L) and then Yamina MK Abir Kara present their plan to reduce the bureaucratic burden on small businesses, May 1, 2022. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

The newly minted party leader blamed regulation, import restrictions, and market concentration for the bulk of Israel’s economic challenges, tying these conditions to Israel’s socialist past.

“The Israeli economy has not yet disengaged from its Mapainik foundations, from the red notebook, which in recent years has become the blue notebook,” Kara said.

Democratic socialist Mapai was the leading party in Israel’s foundational years, headed by longtime leader David Ben-Gurion. As part of the system it perpetuated, many social services and access to certain jobs were dependent upon party membership, symbolized by the now-defunct red notebook.

A Kara spokesman explained that the lawmaker was implying that the new socialists — or blue notebook — were the right-wing Likud party, which he complained did not do enough to dismantle those economic structures during its 12 years in power.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu cut taxes as finance minister in 2003 and championed deregulation in several industries while prime minister. While some have blamed Netanyahu’s reforms for increasing inequality, Kara indicated they had not gone far enough.

Likening several of the Israeli agricultural industry’s growers and suppliers boards to “Soviet” market controls, Kara said that Israel has elements of a “managed economy” that have led to it becoming “more expensive in every field.”

“Why are we the sixth most expensive country in the world? Because Israel has a managed economy market! A market that takes from citizens of a very particular type in favor of groups in society that shout loudly,” he said.

Israelis protest against the soaring housing prices in Tel Aviv and cost of living, on July 2, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In particular, Kara pointed a finger at agricultural lobbies, unions, monopolies and a bloated public sector.

“The agricultural lobby in Israel has become accustomed to growing compensation, generals have become accustomed to growing pensions, teachers have become accustomed to increased days off, the Histadrut [federation of labor unions] has become accustomed to growing inefficiencies, the public sector has become accustomed to growing wastefulness, and the Israeli economy, which is monopolistic and blocks imports – has become accustomed to exploiting sucker citizens,” Kara said.

“Israel is not a country that has a Histadrut, Israel is a Histadrut that has a country,” he quipped.

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