The tent protests prevailed on the Israeli streets during last July. These protests erupted on the basis of the decline of the middle class and the high living costs amidst reduced governmental spending on public services. The protestors demanded the change of the socio-economic policy pursued by the government and the return to a system of “social welfare.”
The protests did not call for any change in public life in Israel, for there was no mention of the political system although the economic and social conditions were influenced by the halt of negotiations with the Palestinians. In addition, the protestors could not achieve much regarding the security file, they called only for some reductions in the security budget in favor of specific socio-economic sectors .
Based on the above, it is possible to say that the Israeli government might pursue some reforms in attempt to absorb public anger. However, it is not likely for the protest movement to trigger a fundamental change in the party system within Israel. At the same time, the protestors –who have refrained from indulging in political affairs –might soon pose political demands during the coming period.
To understand the implications of this movement, it is first necessary to address its motives and goals in addition to its outcome.
The July scene in Israel witnessed wide protest movement which erupted in Tel Aviv and spread in a large number of cities from north to south Israel. The movement was known as the “tents protest” were tents were set up tents in the streets of the different cities and tens of thousands of Israelis joined the movement.
In order to better understand this movement, it is important to address its motives, objectives and final outcome.
1. The deterioration in social status of the middle class during the last two decades after the continuous decline in wages and salaries. This could be ascribed to the economic policy of the consecutive Israeli governments over the mentioned period, most particularly, by the Netanyahu government which supports the privatization of the public sector. Consequently, financial resources were concentrated in the hands of around 20 Israeli families.
2. The rise in the costs of living and commodity prices on one hand and the erosion of the salaries of the middle class, the main segment affected by the policies of the Israeli governments, on the other hand. Thus, no middle class family could afford to maintain the life standards it has been used to. Yet worse, the purchasing power of salaries deteriorated in face of the increase in the prices of goods, both basic and luxurious.
3. The drastic increase in prices during the last year due to the increase in the demand on residential apartments in Tel Aviv and surrounding cities. Accordingly, young couples could not afford this increase.
4. The government policy of curbing expenditure on public services and consequently reduction of taxes imposed on the middle class in order to boost economic growth. This policy has backfired and while the middle class was inflicted, capitalists and businessmen were able to increase their income significantly, paid lower taxes and were refunded indirect taxes paid by middle class workers.
5. The Israeli government has given up on its role as a government in a welfare state and left it to the private sector to assume this role. Accordingly, the middle class was left without health or education services and the citizen had to pay much in order to receive these services.
6. There are specific segments in the Israeli society which do not participate in the work market and are thus not productive, i.e., the ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim). These segments depend on what they get from the religious parties which extort money from the government in the form of funds for the institutions they run. In addition, the Palestinians inside Israel have no effect on the job market due to the Israeli discriminatory policies meant to marginalize them and deprive them from work opportunities.
7. The security budget in Israel which comprises a high share of the total budget at the expense of the education, health and development sectors.
8. The unlimited support which the government dedicates for settlement activities especially the construction projects in the West Bank. This is done while the government—either itself or by contracting with other companies—should invest in building in Israel.
9. The increase in social and economic gap between the center and the periphery which is considered poor as compared to Tel Aviv.
It should be mentioned here that the protest movement did not seek any socio-economic coup. Rather, its demands focused on the need to return the social welfare state and social justice after the prevalence of free economy which led to the concentration of money in the hands of a few capitalists. The demands show that the movement has reiterated the need for the Israeli society for a balance between the free market and more just distribution of wealth in light of acceptable living conditions while maintaining public interests. In general, the demands could be summarized in the following points:
1. Demanding a change in the general economic system in Israel. Thus, this movement reacts to the free market system yet it needs to restrain its scope.
2. Changing the government socio-economic regime and re-introducing the welfare state based on social justice, which was the movement’s focal demand. This means that the government should re-assume its role in social welfare after it had left this task to the private sector which has controlled the market, prices and salaries.
3. Demanding the government to restore the government control system which was in effect especially regarding the prices of basic items, in addition to raising salaries and enhancing health services and imposing taxes on capitalists.
It is useful to understand the nature of this movement before delving into its implications on the Israeli arena and its impact on the current policy of the Israeli government in addition to decision makers. The protest movement did not violate the Zionist ideological consensus as it did not proclaim a comprehensive revolution against the political regime and it did not demand the fall of the regime. Nor did it call for parliamentary elections. Rather, its demands were restricted to the living conditions of the middle class in Tel Aviv.
On the other hand, the movement did not call for changing the agenda of public life in Israel where the security issue was not addressed except regarding the reduction of budgetary allocations in order to meet other expenses. As a matter of fact, this demand is not new where there was a call since a while demanding a minimal reduction of the security budget in such a way which does not impact security itself.
It is also possible to notice that this movement seeks to reschedule the Israeli budget priorities and the ways it is spent yet without demanding a radical change. This means that the protest movement is not a revolutionary movement whether regarding its motives or essence.
Undoubtedly, this movement preoccupied the Israeli politicians and influenced their orientations, even if temporarily, for around a month and a half. The Israeli street seemed to accept what was presented by the government as if it were for granted especially that security file was used to justify any economic, social and reform measures that should be adopted. It is also doubtless that this movement has caused a shock, some way or another, for decision makers and public opinion. Thus, we can notice a number of implications on different levels:
1. The decline in the popularity of Netanyahu and his government as shown in public opinion polls conducted regularly. This decline was particularly noticed when tents were set up in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Consequently, this movement participated in undermining the position and role of the Likud as a ruling party which deluded the Israeli public into believing that it can lead the country on the political, economic and social levels. This in fact is very important as it will have an impact in case of the collapse of the Netanyahu government and the call for parliamentary elections. However, this is not likely in the near future although many observers have expected it following the protests.
2. The awareness among the opposition parties that they can face the policies of the Netanyahu government which has parliamentary majority based on religious and rightist extremist parties.
3. The stalemate chosen by Netanyahu in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations did not yield any outcome. Rather, it had a negative impact on the economic and social life in addition to increasing the Israeli isolation on the regional level (particularly after the January uprising, the protests in the Jordanian streets and the policy of Erdogan’s government in Istanbul). There was a feeling that Israel was on the verge of bloody confrontation with the Palestinians especially that the Israeli leaders were worried by the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation (although it was not implemented). Thus, it is necessary to mobilize the political track to alleviate the economic crisis.
4. In addition to what is mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the protest movement did not address the political conflict between Israel on one side and the Palestinians and Arabs on the other side. In fact, the movement leaders tried to completely refrain from addressing the occupation issue and its burdens in order to unify the protesters who were joined by segments from the Israeli extremist right wing.
5. There were voices among the protesters calling for the reformulation of the basics of the Zionist project which is based on social cohesion. Thus, the movement called for restoring the social welfare state which has contributed to the unity of the Israeli society following the establishment of the State of Israel. Consequently, the movement called for the revival of the Zionist project through the restoration of the so-called “social values and ideals advocated by Zionism and its founding fathers.”
6. The demands of the protest movement were more restricted than those of the uprisings or protests in a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt. Consequently, the movement would have a temporary and provisional impact which does not last on the long run. The limited demands were met with a limited reaction on the side of the government especially when demands had to do with the budget and the financial issues. In other words, the movement demanded the government to resolve the housing crisis in Tel Aviv for the people of Tel Aviv to live in affluence. Thus, Netanyahu and some members of his government suggested a solution (which remains unofficial) to direct the youth to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank where there are thousands of apartments which they can get for free or at low prices which could be transformed into grants.
7. The protest movement might produce new political forces on the political arena in Israel before the next Knesset elections. In this sense, there is talk about the establishment of a middle-class political or party movement yet without new political or revolutionary horizon, to give the impression that it had departed from the prevailing consensus. This movement will remain within the general Israeli political scope which rejects any compromise in the security file.
It is possible to notice a number of amendments in the social and economic systems which will not shake the foundation of Israel as a state whose Jewish population is united behind key issues.
We can also notice that the demand draft put forward by the Trajtenberg Committee would not provide anything new. Rather, it will indirectly absorb the anger of the Israeli public and it is here exactly where Netanyahu has shown superiority.
Consequently, we realize that the protest movement has attracted the attention of decision makers to the need to curb the economic and social movement which did not address such issues as settlement building, the occupation or the Gaza siege. Ultimately, these issues are left for the government to take care of while the people of Tel Aviv have nothing to do with them.
It is not likely to witness a revolution against the party system in Israel as long as the ceiling of the demands has been defined in advance, without pointing at the real pain in Israel which is represented in the governance system and the political vision.
It is clear that the protesters in Israel refrained from tackling the political issue and the specific crisis on this level. However, their reluctance would not last for long time as they should address these issues when it becomes clear that the Israeli government would not be able to immune itself from the repercussions of the revolutions in the Arab world. Then, tent protests would not be the only available means.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Johnny Mansour for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 14/10/2011