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Israel’s social protest movement started with a tent on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard and a few voices demanding affordable housing. In less than a month it has grown into a national phenomenon – and perhaps the most serious challenge yet to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last Saturday, more than 250,000 Israelis took to the street to call for social reform. Tent cities have sprung up across the country, drawing in an ever-expanding cast of protesters – from students to pensioners, and Holocaust survivors to taxi drivers.
In a striking procession of strollers, young parents marched through Tel Aviv to demand better childcare. Dairy farmers, meanwhile, decided to flood a busy intersection with milk in an effort to highlight their low income.
The demands, too have grown. What started out as a protest against housing costs has morphed into calls for a sweeping overhaul of Israel’s economy and society: the protesters want a new taxation system (lower indirect taxes, higher direct taxes), free education and childcare, an end to the privatisation of state-owned companies and more investment in social housing and public transport. There is talk of imposing price controls on basic goods and a broader desire to see an end to “neo-liberal” government policies.
In some ways, the sudden eruption of social discontent is surprising: Israel’s economy is set to grow by an impressive 3.7 per cent this year. Unemployment hovers at just over 7 per cent and is even lower in the greater Tel Aviv area, the centre of the protests.
What the economic indicators fail to convey, however, is the profound sense of frustration felt by members of Israel’s struggling middle class. Many have good degrees and decent jobs but still find they are unable to make ends meet.
Property prices have soared in recent years and the cost of many goods and services remains stubbornly high. Indeed, widespread anger over the high price of cottage cheese – an Israeli breakfast staple – led to a popular campaign against the dairy industry just weeks before the first tent was set up in Tel Aviv.
The reasons for this state of affairs are many and not all fit neatly into the protesters’ narrative. More than 90 per cent of land in Israeli is still in the public domain – a key reason, some analysts say, for the dearth of cheap housing. The lack of competition is another important factor: in sectors such as banking and retail, the Israeli market is simply too small and isolated to attract foreign companies. Competition is further undermined by the oligopolistic structure of the Israeli economy, which is dominated by a handful of sprawling family-controlled conglomerates.
Economic pain aside, the protests also draw on a very particular form of Israeli nostalgia. To most outsiders, the recent transformation of the Israeli economy from a high-inflation basket-case into a high-tech powerhouse is an unmitigated success story. Yet many Israelis, regardless of their wealth and social status, say they still long for a return to the years when the country was less materialistic and more egalitarian. Even in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, the ideals of the kibbutz live on.
A final cause for the surge in Israeli discontent is a diffuse but widespread sense that the state is falling under the sway of small but powerful interest groups: Israel’s clique of business tycoons is one such group. The fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community and Israel’s West Bank settlers are other examples.
The ultra-Orthodox have long drawn the ire of Israel’s more secular middle class. Not only do they depend on generous state handouts to support their large families, but most also refuse to serve in the Israeli army. The settlers, meanwhile, enjoy cheap, subsidised housing and benefit from public services that are far superior to those available to Israelis living inside the Green Line.
Until now, the protesters have shied away from targeting the privileges awarded to settlers and the ultra-Orthodox. They fear that any overt political statement against specific groups will fracture the movement and break its momentum.
Mr Netanyahu, for one, will be hoping that this reluctance continues. His coalition government is deeply dependent on the support of lawmakers from pro-settler and ultra-Orthodox parties. Discord on the streets is bad enough for the prime minister. Conflict and strife inside Mr Netanyahu’s unwieldy coalition may be even worse.
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