An Israeli Spring?

As they stand, the Arab Spring and its sister revolutions are at critical junctions of their own. Barring the beginning of the trials of Hosni Mubarak and his close associates, the commitment of the junta in Egypt to democracy remains untested, doubts regarding the already-delayed presidential elections in November continuing to swirl and crackdowns on gathering crowds in Tahrir Square still ongoing. Tunisia, the Spring’s birthplace, has also postponed its elections and the police brutality of old remains, whilst few can predict the outcome of the Libyan civil war. Despite mounting international pressure, including the Arab League’s latest condemnation, the egregious suppression of nationwide protests in Syria continues unabated. Europe, where social movements inspired by the breakthroughs in the Arab World have also emerged, is also at a crossroads. The 18M protesters in Madrid, having just been evicted from the Puerta del Sol, are considering their next steps, as are those in Greece after the latest austerity bill was passed. Though many may see the Arab Spring and its spillovers as stalling, the appetite for political and social change it has generated around the Mediterranean is never more appealing. Surprising to many onlookers has been the “Israel Spring,” now a month old and increasingly gathering the political momentum its objectives demand. But to what extent may it be considered as related to the extraordinary developments of the first half of the year, and how may its impact be assessed against the short historical narrative of Israel’s past 63 years?

The protests drew their largest crowds on Saturday night after three weeks, figures of 250,000 reported as gathering nationwide in a country of nearly eight million. Rarely since the revulsion sparked by the massacres of Sabra and Shatila almost three decades ago, has a similar proportion of the Israeli public taken its grievances to the streets and enjoyed the support of a polled 90% of society. Unified around the goal of economic and social change, the protesters are expressing their anger at the apparent successes of the Israeli economy in recent years, the fruits of which have been barely visible in their working lives. Whilst the economy has on average expanded by 4.5% and unemployment shrunk from 11% to 6% as of 2004, 23.5% of the population is considered as living below the poverty line and wage disparities, ranked unfavourably on a global basis and among the worst in the OECD, are perceived as relentlessly widening. A combination of ever spiralling costs for food (most glaringly, cottage cheese), childcare, electricity, fuel and housing (many spending up to 50% of their incomes on rents and mortgages), unsustainable pensions and high taxes have brought the masses, of largely middle class background, to camp out on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv and across the country’s cities. The pressure on the political establishment is intense, the Knesset having postponed its parliamentary recess and Binyamin Netanyahu agreeing to set up a committee of academics, businessmen and ministers “to listen to the distress.” But the protesters show no signs of letting up, vowing “more pressure, more people, more tents and more protests” and hoping to draw in over a million for a march in early September.

As the stirrings in Israel increase in both scope and pace, it has been tempting for many to find analogies with the rest of the Arab world. Much of the Arab media has dubbed it as an “Israeli Spring,” claiming its roots originate in North Africa and hoping for an evolution of its current aims to more robust demands for an end to the Occupation, but the truth is a little more complex. As in the Arab Spring, the makeup of the protests has come from the broadest social spectrum, with a multitude of individual demands falling under one general theme. Some among the demonstrators are hoping the gathering momentum topples Netanyahu’s already flagging coalition government, others are hoping for some progress on the question of Palestine, despite the extreme caution with which the organisers have tried to disassociate the subject from their campaign. But unlike in the Arab world, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Europe, the central goals of the movement are not those of political freedom or oppression, although the sparks of economic frustration and inopportunity are common to them all. The organisers’ stated objectives do not include the overthrow of the Netanyahu government, instead seeking action from it on the specific issues they press for. Moreover, Israelis distance themselves both politically and culturally from the rest of the Middle East, and have traditionally not taken guidance from its experiences. The turbulence in the countries with which Israel shares relatively stable borders, such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, have also renewed security fears surrounding uprisings of the kind. But perhaps the most direct effect of the Spring upon Israel, or rather upon all of its sister risings, is the way in which the spirit of a reinvented art of protest, forged in Tunisia and Egypt, has transcended the borders of these countries. The recognition that a powerful concentration of all branches of society, striving to uphold the common values of dignity and opportunity despite its immense diversity, armed with the tools of modern social media and artistic creativity, and united against a shared rival no matter their creed, is still capable of delivering political and social change, has inspired so many across the Mediterranean. No wonder then that a placard declaring “Egypt is here” was hoisted on Saturday, demonstrating the relevance and outreach of the Spring, even to a recipient as unlikely as Israel.

The nature of the protests says much of the evolution of Israel’s socio-economic framework since its inception. Built along socialist lines, its citizens were expected to throw their efforts into forging a new, egalitarian state guaranteeing a welfare system for all. For almost three decades, embraced by the country’s leading figures and governing parties, the collectivist and statist values of Labour Zionism prospered. But the Six-Day War transformed the political discourse, peace and security beginning to increasingly dominate the agenda and trump the significance of the initial economic ideals. In 1977, the Labour movement’s dominance was swiftly interrupted, Menachem Begin’s Likud storming to victory. The economic status quo began to gradually unwind over the following decades as economic liberalization and deregulation took hold, especially, and now perhaps ironically, under the stewardship of Netanyahu as Prime Minister in the 90s and later as Finance Minister. Though the role of the state remains large in the Israeli economy, both it and the welfare state have been considerably rolled back in years past. As the country undergoes a sustained period of economic growth, wealth and corporate power are now increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, competition in many sectors stifled by monopolistic cartels and prices inexorably and prohibitively rising partially as a result. Not only does nearly a quarter of society live below the poverty line, but the middle classes too feel alienated from the apparent economic success, feeling as if they’re working harder while earning less and paying more in tax.

The protests also signal how detached the political establishment has become from the demonstrators, and hence the vast swathes of society who sympathise with their demands. The political careers of Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman, the trio at the helm of government, have been grounded in security, the last central theme of Israeli politics, yet they are now ruling at a time of the greatest social unrest in the country’s history and a period of relative peace. The political elites, no further than Netanyahu himself, have brought about the structural reforms to the economy which the crowds rage against, and cultivated strong ties with big business and tycoons, pictures of whom are hung on posters along the streets. There is no credible opposition, or current political vehicle, through which the protesters feel they can channel their frustrations, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni herself perceived as being of a background and ideology all too similar to the incumbents. In this vacuum, a civic movement has emerged, much like in the rest of the Arab world, which is hoping to potentiate the demands of wider society. The objectives of the demonstrators are scattered and wide, but may be evolving into a consensual goal of a “New Deal” for Israeli society, capable of further freeing up competition to improve price stability, regulating vulnerable areas such as the housing sector and increasing state support for social services. It is on these points that the development of Israeli politics may critically hinge on for the foreseeable future, away from the stalled peace process and stabilised security situation, and the political establishment will have to grasp that.

What next for the “Israeli Spring?” The momentum built thus far continues to grow, but whether it can be maintained or not will be known in the next few weeks. The movement is still leaderless and lacking clear cut objectives, something which must be redressed to maintain interest and discipline and avoid becoming outflanked by the government’s responses.  Netanyahu has accepted the validity of the protesters’ demands and set up the “distress” committee, but has yet to meet any of the protesters and is still perceived as sceptical of their demands. As the days tick down on the General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, likely to take over the political agenda, he will be hoping for the domestic pressure to die down and kick the issue into the long grass.  Last week, whilst commemorating the 71 years since the death of the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he employed the latter’s words to justify the need for greater competition in the Israeli economy as a remedy to its current problems. But such comment is unlikely to satisfy the Rothschild masses, pressing for a deeper and more comprehensive reform of the socio-economic framework Israel has adapted over the past three decades, failing many in the middle and lower classes. If concrete political action is not taken sooner on the issues pressed for on Israel’s streets, the spirit of the Arab Spring may just have become more deeply infused in Israel than anyone could have possibly imagined.

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One response to “An Israeli Spring?

  1. Very well written article and thanks for sharing. I take a slightly different view of the so called Israeli-Spring in that I agree with Barghouti when he says “[The tent protests are] the epitome of hysterical denial of the colonial reality”. Demanding affordable housing etc. is a legitimate demand in any normal country; the problem is, Israel is anything but. As the great hip hop star Lupe Fiasco says – “How can we take your protest for “economic equality” serious (sic) when you don’t take the inequality you impose on others with any seriousness?”

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