Arab Spring reaches Israel

The ongoing protests in Israel are the country’s largest ever demonstrations over social and economic issues. Resentment over the lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of living built up this summer after consumers boycotted the soaring price of cottage cheese, a dairy product traditionally eaten by Israelis at breakfast.

Youths inspired by Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, established tent encampments in Tel Aviv and at 44 other locations. Tens of thousands joined rallies calling for social and economic justice.

Last Saturday, 300,000 were estimated to have taken part in demonstrations around the country, equalling the 1982 Tel Aviv protest, Israel’s largest political rally. This was staged against its war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila camps in southern Beirut. The then defence minister Ariel Sharon was forced to step down while prime minister Menachem Begin resigned in 1983.

The target of today’s protesters is premier Binyamin Netanyahu. They want to oust him —just as Sharon and Begin were brought down 30 years ago.  But Netanyahu is not personally responsible for the shortage of public housing, the soaring prices of essential goods, and the dismantling of the country’s welfare, educational, and health services. He shares the blame with his predecessors and Israeli voters who put them in power.

Spartan state
Built by leftist Zionists, Israel was initially a spartan state dependent on three key institutions: the armed forces, the Histadrut labour federation, and the kibbutzim, communal farms where members shared equally. Israel also gave high priority to building its educational, health and social services and, after the 1967 conquest of East, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, to planting Jewish colonies in these occupied territories.

But when the Likud—a bloc formed by right-wingers, chauvinists, and free marketeers -  won power in 1977, it began to transform the economy into a capitalist system while increasing the country’s defence budget and stepping up the construction of colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Thereafter, Likud, Labour, and Kadima (a Likud off-shoot) governments carried on with a policy of ‘guns, butter, and colonies’: weapons for the military, consumer goods for the populace, and finance and subsidies for the colonies. This policy did not change because all Israel’s leaders became committed to it and the populace remained passive.

In a sharply worded opinion article published in the Israeli liberal daily, Haaretz, Akiva Eldar asked, “Why is it all happening now? After all, ‘piggish capitalism’ wasn’t born yesterday. Seven years ago, Shimon Peres, then leader of the opposition (Labour party), announced that the government’s economic policy resulted in ‘6,000 millionaires and six million beggars.’ This economic policy did not change after Peres joined the Likud government..”

As a result of this policy, on the waiting list for public housing within Israel ‘proper,’ i.e., excluding the Palestinian territories, are 10,000 Israelis— many of whom have waited for five years or more—and 50,000 new immigrants. The rent subsidy of Shekels 1,200 ($300) provided by the housing ministry has lost 30 per cent of its value in recent years due to rising prices of real estate.

From 2002-2009, the ministry sold 26,000 public housing apartments for Shekels 2 billion ($500 million) but the money went to the state budget rather than the fund set aside to build new homes. Meanwhile, there was a construction boom in the occupied territories, half the funding coming out of public coffers.

Although Netanyahu admitted that he must change his economic policies, he has done little to reassure protesters. But this past week he established a panel of experts to assess the situation and and make recommendations. Netanyahu’s tactic seems to be to wait until the protesters grow bored and tired and go home - if they have homes.

However, this seems to have backfired. The Finance Ministry is upset and protest leaders responded by assembling their own team of experts and issuing a framework for Israel’s re-development.

This specifies lowering of living costs and taxes, imposing price controls on basic items, giving priority for public housing to areas on the outskirts of cities, and dealing with the needs of the sick and elderly. Protest organisers demand an end to privatisation, more generous rent subsidies, reductions of the numbers of students in classrooms, and more doctors in the public health system.

This coming Saturday’s mass demonstration—meant to be a Egyptian style ‘million man’ march—is set to test their the social justice camp’s ability to mobilise supporters. If this rally is successful, the protesters will next have to prove they possess staying power by remaining in their tent camps and continuing to press Netanyahu and his ministers.

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