Israelis Sick and Tired – but of What?

by , August 08, 2011

As a humble columnist, I am puzzled. I have been writing on Israeli realities for a decade, and I find writing ever more difficult: nothing changes. How often can you write something different about the same things? The international media, on the other hand, has had no difficulty filling pages and screens, making the very same look quite different every time.

These days, however, when Israel is really changing as it hasn’t done for decades, the international media keeps silent. The Israeli winds of change get some attention in the Guardian, for example, but little elsewhere. Can someone explain this paradox?

Arab Spring, Israeli Summer

Just a few weeks ago, when I wrote that Israel lagged behind its neighbors, I couldn’t imagine that the Arab Spring would be followed by this Israeli Summer. This is not the place to describe what is by far the most intense protest in the history of Israel. It’s enough to say that what started as a couple of protest tents in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in mid-July now counts a thousand tents in two dozen towns. The first mass demonstration in Tel Aviv attracted some 20,000 people; a week later, 80,000 were marching in Tel Aviv and a similar number in several other cities; and on the third Saturday demonstration (Aug. 6), some 300,000 Israelis took to the streets. What started as a protest by Tel Aviv students against impossible rent prices has now been joined by an endless list of professions, organizations, ad hoc groups, and individuals — from doctors and teachers to milk producers and taxi drivers, from single parents to motorcyclists. Significantly, even spouses of police have joined the protests recently, as has the organization of retired soldiers. They protest everything: the prices of housing, of cheese, of gasoline, of insurance, of kindergarten fees, you name it. The economy held by a dozen of tycoons, the unfair burden of taxes…

It’s the Israeli middle class that takes to the street, not the lower classes as in previous protests. The middle class saw a decline in its ranks of 20 percent between 1988 and 2007, with most of those lost pushed downward to poverty. The protesters are Jews, Arabs, and migrant workers (but predominantly Jews), secular, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox (but predominantly secular). They are young and old, but predominantly young, 20-30 years of age — people who for the first time in many years truly earn the term “generation.”

Broken Promises

What do they want? The protesters do not want peace. In fact, one of the common posters in Rothschild imitates the very font, color, and design of “Peace Now” and replaces it with “Welfare State Now.” This is what makes Israelis take to the street: the exorbitant cost of living in Israel. With average wages considerably lower than in Europe or North America, prices in Israel are often much higher.

Obviously, life in Israel is economically much better than in neighboring countries. Why do Israelis expect more? Why do they compare themselves to Europe and North America, not to Egypt or Turkey? Because that’s what the Israeli state (all Israeli governments from the mid-1980s on have had precisely the same policy) has persuaded us to do. The Israeli ruling right wing (call it Labor, Likud, or Kadima; they’re all the same) has persuaded Israel’s middle class that peace is unnecessary: we can both run the occupation and have a Western standard of living. As evidence, they point at Israel’s membership in the OECD, the exclusive club of the world’s richest economies, or at Israel’s prosperous high-tech industry.

The idea sounds perfect: the regime knows that the Israeli middle class would refuse to pay for the occupation. The regime is unwilling to give up the occupation, so it convinces the masses that the occupation has no economic price for them. We don’t need peace: we can go on like this and have a good life. (Convincing Israelis that the other side does not want peace is another component of the same ideology.)

But to keep this lie alive, they have to deliver. And the Israeli governments cannot deliver. The middle class hears the promises of the good life and reads reports on diminishing unemployment rates and strong growth, but it sees a different reality: it gets poorer all the time. I see it all around me: hard-working parents cannot raise their children — let alone buy a flat — without massive aid from their own parents. “Grandparents are not an ATM,” as some protesters write on their posters.

Aims and Distractions

The rage of the protesters is not aimed especially at the occupation. Some of the protesters are blind to the occupation’s economic significance; some of them fear a split in the protest if this becomes the focus. Indeed, the occupation is in my eyes Israel’s greatest sin, but not its only one. The protesters implicitly target the unfulfilled promises of the good life. They target regressive taxation, and they target the few Israeli tycoons who, because of the interdependence between politics and big money, have monopolized almost every branch of the small, isolated Israeli economy and turned the entire people into their captive market.

It’s too early to say where the protest will lead. It has already had incredible success in changing the public agenda and public discourse in Israel for several weeks. Netanyahu has done well not to send police and soldiers to shoot the demonstrators (as Ehud Barak did when Israeli Arabs took to the street 11 years ago), but all he has to offer are some neoliberal reforms that he has been trying to promote for years — in other words, more of the same mistakes that have led Israel to the present predicament. Netanyahu still believes his government is not in any danger. Now that a quarter of a million Israeli citizens have taken to the streets, Netanyahu looks more and more like Mubarak or Assad. Indeed, the protest has adopted as its slogan “The People Demand Social Justice” — chanted with precisely the same melody as the Arabic “The People Demand the Fall of the Regime.” Netanyahu can’t ignore that, or the posters that proclaim “Egypt Is Here.”

Remember, however, that Assad tried to warm the border with Israel to save his skin. Netanyahu and Barak might do the same. Rumors in Rothschild Boulevard have it of a war in September (following a declaration of a Palestinian State?) to distract from the internal protest. If that happens, the big question will be: Will the young generation trade its colorful protest tents for khaki ones?

Read more by Ran HaCohen