Haifa – After building a life in Modiin, Israel, Jonny Granby, his wife and their two children packed their bags and boarded a one-way flight to the United States a year ago.

They moved to pursue a job opportunity for Granby’s wife, he told Al Jazeera. Similar work opportunities in Israel would likely have required the family to move to Tel Aviv, which has the highest housing prices in Israel – a country where the cost of living has been creeping upwards for years.

“The big expense in Israel is the housing. The question is always how to manage your rent or your mortgage,” Granby said, noting that his wife’s new job at a New Jersey start-up provides enough for their children to attend private school and for him to be a stay-at-home father.

“When we move back to Israel, my wife will have gained experience that will make it possible for her to get a much better job.”

VIDEO: Israeli elections: The media battle

As Israel gears up for the March 17 elections, the cost of living and other economic concerns have taken a central role in campaign discourse.

The elections were announced in early December after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s Likud party released a statement claiming that Lapid had “failed miserably in his handling of the economy”.

Netanyahu under fire over election campaign ads

A recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 found that 53 percent of Israelis ranked cost of living and social issues as the most pressing matters to be addressed in the upcoming parliamentary elections, compared to only 24 percent who viewed security as the most important challenge.

As campaigning continues, the left-wing Meretz party has promised to ensure “the right to housing” and to build 100,000 homes in city centres across the country.

Meanwhile, Moshe Kahlon, chairman of the Kulanu Party, has lashed out at Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett over their failure to ease living costs, which he said had risen by 16 percent over the past two years. “I’m going to protect Israeli citizens from monopolies, tycoons, mobs, the cost of living and the housing shortage,” Kahlon told a packed pre-election event in Ashdod, a city in southern Israel.

Asad Ghanem, a senior lecturer at Haifa University’s School of Politics, said Likud and other right-wing parties have attempted to divert criticism of their economic stewardship by hyping up security issues.

“The Israeli right speaks to basic instincts [felt by Israelis] that the country is under threat,” he told Al Jazeera. “The strategy is to say that Israel’s existence is under threat from Hamas in Gaza and the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] in the broader Middle East.” Candidates who have failed to address security concerns in the past “were often punished by Israeli voters”, Ghanem added.

Alon Giladi, an asset manager and father of three who lives in the central Israeli city of Ranana, says he holds out little hope that the next governing coalition will be able to confront the cost of living and other economic burdens. “The budget is spent on security, and this makes it impossible for the development we need,” he told Al Jazeera.

The budget is spent on security, and this makes it impossible for the development we need.

Alon Giladi, Resident of Ranana, Israel

Disappointed by the lack of economic opportunities in Israel, Giladi said he has looked for jobs in New York and London. “On an Israeli salary for my whole career, I’ve never been able to build up a savings,” he said.

OPINION: Netanyahu: He came, he delivered, he failed

A 2012 study by Haaretz found that “37 percent of Israelis are considering a move to a different country at some time in the future”. Of those contemplating emigration, 55 percent were motivated by the high cost of living in Israel and other economic factors.

Paul Rivlin, an economist and senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre, told Al Jazeera that the economic situation “motivates people in Israel like anywhere else. Since the dawn of history people have been moving to improve their living standards.

“The housing crisis [in Israel] has resulted in prices that continue to rise, but incomes aren’t reflecting that [increase],” Rivlin added. “The government has done absolutely nothing to alleviate it. The costs of food, clothing and housing are significantly lower in places like Berlin or other [European] cities. It’s easier to buy or rent an apartment there.”

In the summer of 2011, “social justice” protesters filled the centres of cities across Israel for several weeks, climaxing in September when nearly half a million Israelis protested nationwide. Though Netanyahu’s government established the Trajtenberg Committee to examine and suggest solutions for the country’s economic woes, many of its recommendations were either partially implemented or ignored. Analysts say the cost of living remains a source of contention for Israelis across the country.

Dov Khenin, a Knesset member from the leftist Hadash party, said the cost of living has “shot up sharply” since Netanyahu became prime minister. “The Netanyahu government’s economic and social approaches are not just failures; for most Israelis, they have been a disaster,” he told Al Jazeera, noting the government “should reduce military spending first of all, and stop spending money on the occupation and settlements. The government should prioritise the working people over the oligarchs who support the ruling right-wing establishment.”

Back in his New Jersey home, Granby says his family’s stint in the US has been valuable, but they intend to move back to Israel soon.

“I have realised that I don’t mind earning less money,” he said. “I’d rather live a more meaningful life and I think the opportunity to do that is greater in Israel.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera