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The “Israeli summer” protests

This is a cross post by Dan Kosky in Tel Aviv from Marc’s Words

In a country where even most twelve year olds appear to have a political opinion, popular protest wouldn’t usually dominate the news. However, the mass demonstrations which began in Tel Aviv two weeks ago have now spread far and wide. Not only is the discontent hogging the headlines, but there is a feeling that it might just bring about fundamental political change in Israel.

Social-economic protest in Israel has previously been thought of as the exclusive preserve of the left-wing, but the sheer scale of these protests has well and truly laid that myth to rest. It is estimated that 150,000 Israelis took to the streets on Saturday evening – hardly the work of a few radical socialists. Anyone who has attended the demonstrations knows that they are characterized by avowedly middle-class protestors, who are typically well educated, hold good jobs, pay their taxes and serve in the army’s reserves. All in all, the ‘rabble’ is essentially the type of ‘salt of the earth’ Israelis which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu identifies with. In truth, this is part of the problem for Netanyahu – While he is well practiced in satisfying the economic demands of narrow interest groups such as the ultra-orthodox, he is unsure how to deal with this type of mainstream discontent.

Netanyahu’s dilemma is also caught up in his failure to immediately grasp the nature of the unrest. At first, he mistook the protests as a simple housing issue and promptly outlined plans to make changes to the Israel Lands Administration. However, the continued unrest has demonstrated that the issues go far beyond just housing and cannot be solved with simple bureaucratic cosmetic change. In reality, the turmoil is not just about housing and nor is it only about petrol prices, healthcare, VAT or any other single issue which has been mentioned of late. The protests are an impulsive expression of frustration from a large swathe of middle-class Israel which feels that it is being exploited – While being constantly fed tales of how well the Israeli economy is performing, middle Israel sees a spiralling cost of living and has come to the conclusion that someone else is prospering while they, the backbone of society, are not. Amusingly, Likud minister Ayoub Kara yesterday branded the protesters “sushi eaters”- Presumably for Kara, authentic demonstrations are marked only by downtrodden proletarian revolutionaries manning the barricades. Not only is Kara’s supposedly derogatory comment a good indication as to why politicians have been wisely kept away from the demonstrations so far, but it merely confirms that we are witnessing the empowerment of a previously silent middle-class who yes, may well have a penchant for Japanese food.

Meanwhile, the protests have been criticized for lacking direction or agreed concrete demands. There is plenty of truth in this and it is still unclear what the end game will be. However, to dwell on this is to miss the point. Something has changed in the last two weeks or so. The government is listening – As the first mass protests took place, Netanyahu cancelled a trip to Poland in order to outline his housing reforms and now he has refined his approach by announcing panels to “propose a responsible and practical plan to alleviate Israelis’ economic burden.” Yesterday President Shimon Peres gave the protest ‘leaders’ an audience, giving further credence to their complaints.

Whether the protestors are middle-class ‘sushi eaters’, ‘lefties’, students or in fact all of those things and more, they have put social justice back on the Israeli political map and in a country so singularly focused on issues of war and peace, that is nothing short of revolutionary. The current government may well weather this storm. The Knesset will soon break until September for its summer recess and by the time parliament returns to action, all attention will likely be focused on the UN vote on Palestinian independence. That leaves a short window of opportunity for the protestors to institute concrete change. However, should they fail to do so the impact that they have made could still be profound. Elections are likely less than two years away. The protestors have ensured that social issues could well be a vote winner in Israel as never before, significantly shifting the parameters of the country’s political discourse.

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