Commentary

Israel's Own Version of the Arab Spring?

Middle East In Focus

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For the last two weeks, Israel has been rocked by large street demonstrations protesting regarding recent changes in housing construction by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. For many, the protests are merely a reflection of domestic dissatisfaction with current economic conditions. Others, however, see in the mass protests that have spread throughout Israel the influence of region-wide anti-government sentiment.

Michal Margalit sums up the issues in the business-friendly Israeli newspaper The Globes, reporting that the National Housing Committees Law “is intended to expedite the construction of 50,000 housing units within 18 months, bypassing the local and regional planning and building commissions, in order to lower home prices…. The tent protesters called for the National Housing Committees Law to be withdrawn before the vote, on the grounds that the beneficiaries will be the developers. They argue that the law sets out no mechanism for lowering prices for land or apartments.”

In the same newspaper, Dror Marmor points out, albeit in a disapproving tone, some of the criticisms associated with the law: “The public at large either did not know about or was not interested in the National Housing Committees. But then someone managed to rope in the crowd favorites, the tent protesters, to the campaign — the ones for whose sake the ‘emergency program for accelerating residential construction,’ now called the National Housing Committees, was set up.... The main argument of the tent dwellers is that the law has no sections concerning lowering of land prices or affordable housing, and so it is not clear how it will lead to cheaper homes.... Ironically, this is the tragedy of the Housing Committee Law's opponents. [Just] before approval in the Knesset, the law became enemy number one of the tent protesters.”

With the protests daily gaining strength and catching the government by surprise, news outlets and commentators have expressed varying opinions on the matter. The hardline website ArutzSheva posted an article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who is very critical of the protesters: “Protestors do not analyze the situation in a broader context; they want instant gratification. Judaism, however, has something to say about how a country's economics should be run.... Between the two extremes of capitalism and communism, the Torah generally tends to favor capitalism, given that freedom of choice and individual responsibility are the moral foundations of man's existence in the world.... The economic situation of Israeli citizens today is far better than it was ten or twenty years ago, even in comparison to other developed countries. Netanyahu's weakness is that he is easily influenced by pressure. He is liable to squander many accomplishments by capitulating to the protesters.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, the bimonthly leftist magazine Challenge published a statement by Daam (The Worker’s Party), who see in the protests a demand for new elections: “What began as a housing intifada has become an all-inclusive protest. The policies of privatization and the free market are today on trial. The trial is in the streets. The protestors demand that Netanyahu change his entire approach.... The time has come to say clearly: The government has lost the people's trust. It should return the mandate. Those who want social change must seek political clout through elections. This means turning to the voters and asking them to empower a party that will carry out a political platform.... [I]f the protest movement succeeds in bringing on new elections, it will burn into the public mind an imprint of just how powerful the regular citizen can be, a fact that will influence every future government.”

The two major Israeli dailies, Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post, couldn’t be any further apart. According to the Haaretz editorial, the “Israeli protest has turned into a revolution,” noting, “For more than three weeks the Israeli society and polity have been shaken by waves of social protest of the sort that has never been seen here before…. Following decades in which the public has curled up in its indifference and allowed a handful of politicians to run the country as they wished, with no significant involvement from civil society, the rules of the political game have changed.... We must therefore praise the protesters for the changes in perception they have already instigated and hope that they will be able to continue their efforts in the future, in the same impressive way that has characterized them to date — and bring about genuine change.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial, on the other hand, minimizes the importance of the demonstrators’ grievances but remains concerned about their long impact: “Their qualifications to fix Israel’s entire socioeconomic system aside, their catalogue of demands is so all-encompassing, and so radical, that no government of any political persuasion could plausibly meet it. Regrettably, therefore, it must be judged as more populist than serious.... By definition, populism is popular, but it is frequently irrational and introduces instability into the political process, no matter how enticing or compelling its rhetoric appears on first hearing.... We’re moaning about the marmalade, not about the bread and butter. Things can get a lot worse if unemployment ensues as a result of overspending. In Spain, 45 percent of young people are jobless. We don’t want to be dragged down that path.”

On balance, however, most columnists see the ongoing developments as transformational. For example, The Forward editorial wonders, “[Has] the Arab Spring arrived in Israel? Are we seeing a Jewish Summer? That’s the popular perception of the surprisingly large and robust protests that have taken over nearly every major city in Israel, peaking with a march of 30,000 in the streets of Tel Aviv on July 23…. This is most certainly political, whether the protesters want to call it by that name or not. They are demanding a government that doesn’t just engage in fights to shore up its ideological base or appease vocal communities like the settlers’ lobby.... This is probably not a revolution. But it should be a wake-up call.”

Susan Hattis Rolef examines at The Jerusalem Post the value of the demonstrations for “Renewing the social contract,” adding, “The tent demonstrations that popped up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and then spread to other parts of the country are an exciting development in the eyes of many of us, who have become pessimistic and a little cynical with age.... The leaders of the demonstrations are neither hardcore politicians nor experienced social activists, and some of the ideas they have expressed with great enthusiasm are naïve and even childish, but they have brought a breath of fresh air into this hot summer.... The question now is whether, despite everything, enough voters will let social and economic issues dictate the way they vote, and whether the parties that reject the neoliberal ideology will manage to convince those among the 35 percent of the population who stayed away from the polling stations in the past two general elections – and who care about social justice – to get off the fence.”

Finally, Attila Somfalvi doesn’t mince words, calling the protests “Israel’s political revolution” and arguing in an article on YNet, “Following the protest, Israeli politicians will have to chart a new course to stay in power…. There are moments in the life of a nation where it’s clear that the deck has been reshuffled and new order has been created. At this time it’s clear that the tent protest gave rise to such an order, a social and humane order that seeks to enable Israel’s citizens to purchase an apartment, make ends meet and live in dignity. The new order also shakes up the political system, and our politicians must chart a new course; those who fail to do so shall be punished.... The people who hit the streets Saturday night spoke out: Things will be changing, and the politicians will no longer be able to get comfortable in the Knesset seats for four years, indifferent to the people’s demands. The public regained power the other day, and it wants answers. Not threats and not promises; a change.”

 


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