Situation Assessment 07 September, 2011

The Israeli Protest Movement: Motivations and Opportunities for Change


Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

The Israeli protest movement of July 2011 has been unprecedented in terms of longevity and scale, as well in terms of the variety of political forces taking part in it. The movement itself began with the pitching of tents in one of the main squares of Tel Aviv, protesting the rise in housing prices, both renting and purchasing; it soon spread to other squares in Israeli towns and cities, with a total of 3,383 tents pitched.  

The first protests, which started with the pitching of tents in mid-July on Rothschild Street, were organized by a group of no more than 15 youth in their 20s, none of whom had been members of a political party before. Even so, this movement spread to more than 40 towns and cities with many thousands of tents in a short span of time. Besides the rejection of the rise in housing prices, the protests also expanded to include a number of other issues affecting the lower- and middle-classes of Israeli society.

Previous protest movements within Israel were marked by their support base, which was drawn from Oriental Jews, the underprivileged strata of society, and tended to be reactions to perceived ethnic discrimination against them, such as the Wadi as-Salib protests in Haifa in 1959, and the Israeli Black Panthers movement in the early-1970s. It is worth pointing out that the current protests have the backing of various Israeli media outlets, including radio stations, television channels, newspapers, and online media that have all been treating the matter of the protests with the utmost care and support for several weeks. This reality enhanced the support of public opinion as surveys indicate that 87% of Israelis are in support of the protesters' demands. The Ashkenazi-centric middle-class being the backbone of the Israeli economy, assumed an important role during the present protests. In addition to themselves, this middle-class would have to support "unproductive" segments of their own society, including the ultra-orthodox Haredic Jews, who consume the state's services funded by the middle class, and settlers, in addition to the security burden.

This crisis, which is afflicting middle- and lower-class Israelis, has its roots in the socio-economic policies that have been adopted by successive Israeli governments over the last two decades, policies which have meant the abandonment of Israel's welfare state, and the implementation of "free market economics," policies which have seen the privatization of public assets and a decrease in spending on public services such as housing, health care, and education. After the protesters had agreed among themselves not to forward a concrete set of limited, determined, and local demands to the government, but to advocate for a radical comprehensive change in governmental socio-economic policies instead, they published a "Citizen's Bill of Rights". With a full-blown attack on what it deemed to be "unbridled" free-market economics, the document, which was titled, "Social Justice: Towards a New Socio-economic Agenda," reserved a special ire for the policies of privatization that have characterized Israeli cabinets in recent decades. 

At first, Netanyahu and his cabinet tried to dismiss the motives and objectives of the protesters, claiming that they were acting to serve the political agendas of some political forces. Then, after the popular approval the protesters enjoy among the public became apparent, and the support of even elite sectors of Israeli society for the protesters' demands, Netanyahu was forced to backtrack and change his position, as well as his government's, towards the protest movement. Gradually, Netanyahu conceded that the protest movement has fair demands, admitting that his government and the successive Israeli governments have failed to address the sufferings of the middle class.  

However, from the outset, the official protest organizers and leaders have been adamant that their movement is solely concerned with their own limited socio-economic demands, having nothing to do with political questions, particularly the Palestinian question. Importantly, the Israeli protest movement is confined to Israel Jewish Zionist population; it is, after all, the product of a society built on immigration and settler colonialism. The protest movement thus restricts itself to its own society, and has placed in its imagination a "wall" between itself and the Palestinians; the Palestinians are thus out of sight and out of mind for the protesters. The official protest movement has declined from using the word "occupation" throughout their protests, avoiding possible deep divisions and disruption of consensus within the ranks of the movement, thus transforming into a partisan protest movement; their actions, or lack thereof, were also out of fear that the wider public would not support them in the way they did, nor would the media should their protest be associated with the Palestinians in any way. Importantly, they did not want to alienate large sections of protesters and supporters who support the right-wing in their political positions, so they kept this stand point in order to maintain the movement's popularity and momentum.

 Nonetheless, this protest movement remains significant as it forms a serious challenge to Netanyahu and the extremist right in Israeli politics; importantly, it might lead to new political and partisan alliances, which might cause the weakening of the coalition between the Likud, the settlers, the Haredi Jews, and the Leiberman Israel Beitanu party. It holds out the promise of an upcoming electoral gain for those who are in the opposition. The success of such a change relies on the ability of the protesters to continue their protests, maintain their unity, and persist in taking the initiative with regards to their actions. The novelty in this movement is that the movement's leadership is drawn from the middle-class, who lies at the epicenter of Israeli economic, social, and political life; it is they who are demanding that the record be set straight, not in the Palestinian Occupied Territories or in the Golan, or even in the Negev, but in the regions which they inhabit. Yet while these groups demand that their solutions, especially the solution to the housing problem, be found within their cities and villages within the Green Line. While the right-wing Israeli government, in a coalition led by Netanyahu, is trying to manipulate the situation so that these affected categories from the middle class will look for their answers in settlements on Occupied Palestinian territory, American administration permitting. 

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