It started in June with a Facebook campaign against overpriced cottage cheese, an Israeli breakfast staple. Then demonstrators put up a tent city in Tel Aviv in protest at the shortage of affordable housing. By last Saturday 250,000 Israelis were on the nation’s streets, demanding an end to economic inequality and social injustice.
It is tempting to draw a parallel with the Arab spring protests that began with a vegetable vendor in Tunisia and brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians on to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But such a comparison is misleading. True, a perception that too many people cannot make ends meet, or even live in outright poverty, motivates Israelis as it did Tunisians and Egyptians in January and February. But Israel is a democracy; the anciens régimes in Tunis and Cairo were autocracies. Political corruption is not unknown in Israel, but the government is not a kleptocracy. Israelis are not trying to overthrow their state.
In this sense the demonstrations look more like the protests of the indignados – “the indignant ones” – in Madrid and other Spanish cities. There, however, public discontent centres on high youth unemployment and the government’s austerity measures. By contrast, Israelis enjoy almost full employ- ment and healthy economic growth. What makes them angry is the inability of their wages to cover food, housing, education, healthcare and other basic family costs. They resent the big cuts in direct taxation that have benefited the rich, not the squeezed middle classes or the less well-off. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 24 per cent of Israeli families lived below the poverty line in 2008.
The burgeoning protest movement has no formal links to Israel’s political parties and poses no immediate threat to Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister. This is no excuse for complacency. The government is capping electricity price increases and trying to make housing cheaper and more available. But more ambitious measures are required.
Prices for Israeli consumers and businesses are high because a handful of politically well-connected families control the economy through monopolistic conglomerates. These need to be broken up. At the same time, it is evident that public spending on education and healthcare is low partly because the government’s military budget is so high. Nothing better illustrates how a peace deal with the Palestinians would benefit Israeli society as a whole.
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