After the Arab Spring, an Israeli Summer

Low-cost crusade ... demonstrators march in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Reuters)

After the Arab Spring, an Israeli Summer

JERUSALEM - "The people demand social justice!" Across the country's major cities, over 300,000 demonstrators, five percent of Israel's Jewish population, chanted the rallying call for the third consecutive Saturday.

The watchword "Revolution!" shouted in unison from Tel Aviv might be just that, yet it was a sea- change compared to the small "dotcom generation" group that set up tents on a trendy Tel Aviv boulevard to protest against the high cost of housing, food, education, and health.

If a revolution is indeed taking place, is it part of the global window of opportunity for change opened up by social media networks? "After Mubarak and Assad, this is Netanyahu's turn," claimed one placard.

A giant banner read, "Resign, Egypt is here". Could Israel's summer be following on the "Arab spring", a transition of sort aimed at building popular bridges of solidarity across unfriendly borders, particularly with the Palestinians, as 'enounced' by some idealists?

More prosaically or not, the protestors are calling for a new economic order. They demand public housing on a large scale; major tax reforms, including increased taxation of the rich to finance welfare, and lower indirect taxes on the general public; a shift in budgetary priorities, like transferring defence spending to social services; an increase in the numbers of doctors, policemen and firemen, and, less children per classroom.

Israel's is a middle class revolution - Israelis in their 20s, 30s and 40s, students, workers, state employees, doctors, parents with baby strollers, divorcees and single mothers, army reservists, the LGBT community, even ultra-nationalist settlers who'd want to resolve the housing crisis by building more settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Though moved by a constant, intrinsic dissatisfaction, Israelis are flabbergasted by the magnitude of their own protest. "It never happened before," is a common observation, neither during the early 1980s when Israel was sinking in the quagmire of the first Lebanon war, nor a decade later, when it lifted itself up during the heydays of the Oslo peace process.

In the winter of 2008-9, small vigils could be seen protesting Israel's Gaza war against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in front of the same government buildings where the central rallies take place. The unifying call for the release from five years of captivity of a soldier abducted by Hamas hasn't ignited a similar grass-root movement.

The great paradox is that never has the country felt economically so good, yet never have so many amongst the middle class felt so frustrated at their own economical well-being.

All socio-economic indicators show that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's budgetary restraint, fiscal conservatism and free-market policies, Israel is enjoying unprecedented growth. All the more so, given the global downturn afflicting the U.S. and the E.U., Israel's main economic partners. Unemployment is at a record low of 5.7 percent, a figure not attained since 1987.

But, demonstrators argue, the statistics do not trickle down to welfare. Buying a house nowadays means being feudalised to bank mortgages for a lifetime; rent for a regular three-bedroom apartment in a large city where work is to be found reaches half the average wage of a middle class breadwinner; a child daycare until 4 p.m. costs a third of a salary.

Israel is the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) member with the widest inequality between rich and poor. A dozen multi-billionaire families hold most of the country's wealth, controlling banks, energy consortiums, supermarket chains and the media. Annual tax concessions to "the tycoons" are estimated at approximately 11 billion dollars, some 11 percent of the national budget.

In a sense, Israelis are savouring a period of grace similar to the euphoria that gripped their nation when Israel became an independent state. Obdurate social and ethnic recriminations between secular and religious Israelis, between Ashkenazi Jews of European descent and oriental Mizrahi Jews are, for the time being, swept away by the popular quest for social justice.

Yet, there's one issue of discord that shows no sign of assuaging - the deep political divisions between Right and Left, between endorsement of occupation and disapproval of settlement policies. But who really cares when one has to make ends meet.

Remarkably, a month before the Palestinian drive for U.N. recognition of statehood comes to fruition, the voluntarily evasion of the Left-vs.-Right paradigm has reinforced the consensual, pseudo-apolitical nature of the movement. Eighty-seven percent of Israelis support the protest, albeit its organisers, who caution that their purpose is a change neither of government, nor of policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but of social priorities, belong to the Zionist Left.

The reason lies in the realisation that social concerns have been kept in abeyance by other existential priorities, those of war and peace, until now.

Though Netanyahu's no-peace-no-war policy left an agonising diplomatic vacuum, as a matter of fact, it also created quite a bearable status quo. Israelis under Netanyahu are experiencing the most peaceful years in recent history.

Netanyahu's large coalition of right-wing and religious parties seems unmovable. Unchallenged by the more centrist Kadima party, and by a decaying Left, Netanyahu has been expected to remain at the helm until the next election scheduled for 2013, a first in Israel's parliamentary democracy. But that was before the "summer revolution..."

With the end of peace, and of terrorism, young Israelis are now focused on generating a sustainable movement 'against the system.' This anti-establishment drive reflects a pervasive sense that the traditional parties no longer represent their interests. They want a new social contract.

On Sunday, Netanyahu set up an economic team whose task is to produce a new economic plan, but that may not be enough. It all depends on whether the tents erected around the country will translate into real political demands, and transform into tangible houses of power; and, whether the Palestinian quest for independence will not spoil their new-found celebration of independence from the establishment.

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