BICOM Analysis: Are we seeing an ‘Israeli Summer’?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Key points

  • A major protest movement has taken hold in Israel, which began as a campaign for more affordable housing and has broadened into demands for social justice.
  • Now in its third week, it carries the hopes of a large segment of Israeli society, led by the disillusioned middle class.
  • Originally leaderless, the campaign is now supported by the Histadrut (Israel’s workers union), led by its popular leader Ofer Eini, adding to the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • Although the government does not face immediate threat, the protests are set to continue. The lack of a clear goal could be a weakness for the movement, but the longer it maintains momentum, the potential increases for it to impact the timing and outcome of the next elections.

Who are the protestors? What do they want?

More than 150,000 Israelis joined protests calling for social justice last Saturday evening, in cities across Israel.  This followed two weeks of protests calling on the government to address economic and social challenges facing the population. The headline issue is the cost of housing, but the list of grievances is much broader and relates to the high cost of living in general. The director general of the Finance Ministry announced his resignation on Sunday over the government’s handling of the issues. Municipal workers held a one-day strike on Monday in support of the protestors’ demands, and teachers are now set to join the protests. This has presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his biggest domestic political crisis since the start of his term.

The public walkway and cycling path running the spine of Tel Aviv’s affluent Rothschild Boulevard was the starting point for the housing protest.  What began on 14 July with a few tents in Tel Aviv spread quickly to almost all of Israel’s major cities and towns. The protests were not initiated by a recognised leader or political party; in fact, one of the founders is a 25-year-old lawyer who began her campaign on Facebook.  However, the National Students Association backed the campaign early on and continues to be a significant and vocal element. As a result, many students have come out and joined the protests. The protests have also attracted many young professionals and have encouraged a parallel protest from parents with young families, campaigning for longer maternity leave, free preschool education and control over the price of baby food.

The protestors are predominantly from the mainstream middle class. Despite comprising the main productive force in Israeli society, they feel they have not reaped the rewards of Israel’s economic growth. They complain of shouldering an excessive burden, paying significant taxes and serving in the military reserves whilst struggling to cope with high prices and rising bills. Largely absent from the protests are ultra-orthodox Jews, who participate less in the workforce and yet receive significant financial support from the state. Though there have been some minor tent protests in Israel’s Arab population, their demands are more specific to their sector.

As well as feeling that theirs is an unfair hardship, many in the Israeli mainstream rue the fact that the more egalitarian principles dominant in the country’s founding have given way to economic liberalisation in recent years.

Though these issues span the political spectrum, and the protests have broad support, there is clearly a left-wing atmosphere in the protests. Among the crowds on Saturday night was strong representation from the ‘National Left’, a left-wing political movement founded by Eldad Yaniv, a former advisor to Ehud Barak. Among the flags and posters were many identified with a variety of left-wing organisations.

Two weeks into the protest, Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut workers union, announced that he was joining the campaign and was ready to represent it in negotiations with the government. Eini brings leadership, but it remains to be seen whether he can secure concessions from the government that will satisfy the protestors. There is also some ambivalence among the protestors over Eini’s role, due to his long-standing cordial relations with the prime minister and the government.  Nonetheless, he has been trying to forge a coherent negotiating position between the students, the tent protestors and other groups involved in the protests.

Simultaneously, a long-running doctors’ strike is adding to the sense of dissatisfaction in the country. Over the last week, Dr Leonid Eidelman, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, has marched whilst on hunger strike from Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Increasingly, the protests are aimed at the government and PM Netanyahu in particular.  Many of the leaders associate Netanyahu personally with pure capitalist economic policies which have led to a concentration of wealth and the neglect of social welfare. The protests also have a generally anti-political flavour.  Politicians from various parties have been heckled and asked to leave when they visited the protest tents.  Kadima, the main opposition party, is reported to have given support to the protestors behind the scenes. But opposition leader Tzipi Livni has refrained from meeting the protestors in public to avoid overtly politicising the movement.

Leading business tycoons are also a key target. They are being blamed for exploitation, driving up prices and for holding too much wealth and power.  According to a recent report by Reuters, 50% of Israel’s economy is reportedly controlled by just 16 families.

Why is this happening now?

The current protests are a culmination of various other campaigns. They follow shortly after a successful campaign to lower the price of cottage cheese, a staple food in Israel.  The high price of cottage cheese was the result of oligarchic control of the dairy industry. The campaign, mobilised via Facebook, led to the lowering of prices and to legislation which will open up the market to foreign competition.  Other consumer products have also been scrutinised for their pricing, including water, petrol and electricity.  There have been numerous other campaigns in the last year by teachers, social workers and doctors, striking over pay and conditions.

The Arab Spring has also given the Israeli public a jolt. The scenes of Arab protestors broadcast on television have helped to embolden the Israeli public to coordinate via social media and take to the streets. The relatively quiet security situation and lack of diplomatic activity is also allowing social and economic issues to rise up on the public agenda.

It is also worth noting the social element to the tent protests. The summer’s school holidays and warm weather make an environment conducive to camping in the streets. High-profile media coverage, impromptu musical performances and a communal atmosphere have helped attract people to the demonstrations.

What does this mean for the prime minister and his coalition?

So far, the protestors have enjoyed the overwhelming support of the public. The electorate is critical of the prime minister and members of his government.  According to a recent poll in Haaretz, both Likud and Kadima have lost ground, whilst Labour has improved in the polls from six to 12 seats.

However, whilst Labour has tried in the past to position itself as the party of social issues, it is unable to capitalise fully on the protests because it is in the middle of a protracted internal leadership election.

This situation may create an opportunity for new figures to enter the political arena. Yair Lapid, a popular newspaper columnist and anchor of a weekend news show, has long been planning to enter politics. He could seize the opportunity to do so under the banner of a social-welfare protest movement. Similarly, Aryeh Deri, a popular figure who led the religious Sephardi Shas party before serving a prison term for corruption, could use the opportunity to re-enter politics with a new party.

As well as drawing political support away from the prime minister, the protests also threaten to undermine the stability of the coalition. Shas has traditionally concentrated on social issues and feels under particular pressure to identify with the protestors. They have tried to position themselves on the side of the public by threatening to withdraw from the government if a solution is not found. They have also suggested that the Knesset cancel its summer recess.

In the face of these threats, PM Netanyahu has made efforts to meet the protestors’ demands. Last week, he announced an affordable housing plan that met almost every demand the students had been campaigning for. In response, however, the students committed to continue protesting alongside the other groups to address the broader array of economic problems.

On Sunday, the prime minister further demonstrated his desire to appear responsive to the demonstrations. Speaking before the weekly cabinet meeting, he hinted at further concessions on his economic policies, stating that his government will ‘change priorities.’ He announced the appointment of a ministerial committee to find ways to alleviate Israelis’ economic burden.

However, the structural problems which are the underlying cause of the high cost of living can only be addressed in the long term. It is not clear what immediate steps the government could take that would satisfy the protestors, or how long the momentum behind the protests will continue. Eini has clearly stated that he does not want to bring down the government. Given that, it is hard to define exactly what victory looks like for the campaigners.

The lack of a clear, defined goal could be a weakness for the movement. There are various other factors that could also undermine them. Public support could be diluted if PM Netanyahu’s proposals appear to be addressing public concerns. The public could also become divided if they feel the protests are being politically manipulated by an overtly left-wing agenda, whose aim is purely to bring down the government.  Furthermore, in Israel, unexpected security or diplomatic developments always have the potential to push social issues back down the agenda.

At the same time, the constructive ambiguity could be an asset to the protestors. If they can build momentum behind the demand for change, without providing specific demands the government can meet, they could build pressure on the government itself. By appointing a committee to examine the protestors’ concerns, PM Netanyahu is trying to relieve this pressure.

Conclusion: the government under pressure

What began as an unfocused protest in tents in Tel Aviv has empowered Israel’s middle class and united them around a range of social and economic grievances.  The protests have taken Israeli politics into a new, socially-oriented direction that transcends the traditional political divide over security issues. As a result, it is very difficult to know where this will go. PM Netanyahu is working hard to show that he is responding to the protestors, in order to contain the political challenge posed to his government. The outcome will depend on several factors. These include the unity of the protestors and their determination to continue, the political calculations of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, the ability of the government to produce proposals which satisfy the public and whether the calm security situation will continue, allowing the public to maintain focus on social issues.