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What do we want? Something! When do we want it? Now!

Netanyahu is clearly panicked by Israel’s tent protest. He’s also confused, and who can blame him. A couple of months ago, his popularity was through the roof and his agenda of fear ruled the country. Fear of imminent nuclear attack from Iran, fear of Palestinian insurgency in September, fear of invading hordes. Suddenly, with no warning, and out of nowhere, the agenda has changed entirely and his support is seemingly at an all-time low. Now we’re talking social issues, housing, cost-of-living and Israel’s economy, seemingly his biggest asset, has suddenly turned on him. Not because the economy is in trouble per se – unlike many other countries around the world – but because of the way in which the country’s resources are distributed.

Wanted: New Priorities

I admit that I finally have some common ground with Netanyahu. I’m confused too. Reading the press about the tent protests only adds to my bewilderment. We started with the price of cottage cheese – that was just a taster for what was to come. Next came house prices. That widened into general dissatisfaction about the cost of living – much higher than most Western countries, and set against much lower wages. But now, according to different opinion pieces in this morning’s paper, this is about the need for a constitution, about the electoral system, about changing the priorities of government spending, about the fact that the economy is dominated by a few cartels, about social justice, bringing Netanyahu down, weakening Netanyahu’s position in preparation for September, or all of the above – and that’s just in Ha’aretz. No doubt perusing more news pages will only add to my confusion.

And who’s behind the protest? Of course, we have the wicked evil extreme left, aided and abetted by the infamous New Israel Fund. Or is it a new generation, dedicated to social change, influenced by their experiences in pre-army programs and their dedicated volunteer work? Or are they the same thing – and anyone who does not receive sectoral funding is now identified with the extreme left? Or is it the selfish hedonistic youth of Tel Aviv, who only care about their own pockets? Or is this a genuine uprising of the entire middle classes, the silent majority, finally sick of the system whereby they do all the hard work and everybody else gets to enjoy the benefits (literally as well as figuratively).

Here’s an amusing youtube creation regarding Netanyahu’s position (the crowds at the rally are shouting: ‘The People – Want – Social Justice’):


One of the striking things about Saturday night’s mass demonstrations all over the country was that it seemed that many different groups were represented. Young and old, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the rest of the country, left and right, native-born and immigrants, Jewish and Arab. Although the organizers of the struggle are being very careful not to turn it into a so-called ‘political’ campaign (and clearly its very essence is political), two groups were perhaps noticeable in their absence – and they perhaps more than anyone have what to lose from this popular uprising. The settlers and the ultra-Orthodox have suddenly become silent – after all, they are the primary benficiaries of the current economic policy. They are also those who do best in a system where everything is always about security issues, and no one is prepared to rock the boat.

And in the meantime, where are Israel’s opposition leaders? All of them have been caught short by this volcanic eruption – and their weakness has been exposed for all to see. One of the reasons this protest is seemingly a-political is that there is no alternative leadership anyone can get behind, challenging government policies . Unfortunately, that also means that it’s difficult to see how this protest can achieve substantial change.  

I don’t know where this public outpouring is going. I have no idea what the government could do to satisfy the demonstrators. I sincerely hope they won’t be taken in by Netanyahu’s wriggling, manipulation and willingness to do anything superficial just to make everyone shut up and go ‘home’ – at least, those who have a home to go to. The sticking plasters that Bibi is looking for will not cure the decay at the very heart of Israel’s political and economic systems. Even the tent-dwellers themselves probably can’t agree on shared objectives for their struggle. Which doesn’t bode well for achieving the root-canal treatment that Israel really needs.

And in the meantime, one can’t help but suspect that Bibi will try to defuse the protest with security needs. The traditional outlet for a government in trouble with its own electorate is to create a security situation that necessitates manning the barricades. Unfortunately, Netanyahu has all sorts of possibilities at his finger-tips. Let’s hope that for once Israel’s public will see the manipulation for what it is – and refuse to be distracted from its purpose.

It’s fascinating and exciting to watch this protest unfold, even if I don’t pretend to know quite where it’s going. It does feel like there’s some sort of awakening going on. The fact that it’s driven by a younger generation previously written off by many as politically inactive and self-absorbed is encouraging. And we shouldn’t be misled by the festive feel of the tent villages – spending the hottest months of the year in a tent in the middle of the city is no vacation. Even as we enter the months of Elul and Ramadan, it’s probably too much to hope for that the country can use this opportunity to make some real changes to the very core of our society. In spite of that,  Hodesh Tov and Ramadan Karim.


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