Israel’s protest movement which has come to life and grown rapidly over the last three weeks has steered clear of the issue of the occupation. Yet the one group in Israel that has been largely absent in the call for social justice is the far right including settlers in the West Bank, this being the segment of Israeli society that has the deepest investment in the perpetuation of the status quo.
Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and co-editor of 972 Magazine, speaks to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!
In the New York Times, Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah write:
There are profound and institutionalized economic disparities between Arabs and Jews in Israel. But when it comes to housing prices, an Israeli Arab who makes $1,000 a month and pays $500 in rent can still find common ground with an Israeli Jew making $2,000 and giving $1,000 to the landlord.
On Saturday, approximately 150,000 people flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and many small suburbs and towns to protest the rising cost of living. It was Israel’s largest demonstration on any issue in over a decade, and organizers are calling for an even larger protest this weekend, mimicking the snowballing weekly rallies of the Arab Spring.
The protests that are paralyzing Israel began on July 14, when a few professionals in their 20s decided they could no longer tolerate the city’s uncontrolled rents, and pitched six tents at the top of the city’s most elegant street, Rothschild Boulevard. Three weeks later, the six tents have swelled to over 400, and more than 40 similar encampments have spread across the country, forming unlikely alliances between gay activists and yeshiva students, corporate lawyers and the homeless and ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs.
So far, the protesters have managed to remain apolitical, refusing to declare support for any leader or to be hijacked by any political party. But there is one issue conspicuously missing from the protests: Israel’s 44-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, which exacts a heavy price on the state budget and is directly related to the lack of affordable housing within Israel proper.
According to a report published by the activist group Peace Now, the Israeli government is using over 15 percent of its public construction budget to expand West Bank settlements, which house only 4 percent of Israeli citizens. According to the Adva Center, a research institute, Israel spends twice as much on a settlement resident as it spends on other Israelis.
Indeed, much of the lack of affordable housing in Israeli cities can be traced back to the 1990s, when the availability of public housing in Israel was severely curtailed while subsidies in the settlements increased, driving many lower-middle-class and working-class Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza Strip — along with many new immigrants.
Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population. The annual cost of maintaining control over Palestinian land is estimated at over $700 million.
Noam Sheizaf reports on the political impact the protests may have, as indicated by recent polls.
While it would be unwise to try and predict what sort of effect these unprecedented demonstrations will have on Israeli politics, the polls do confirm some of the hunches we had in the last three weeks, and most notably, a potential for far-reaching changes in the political system in the years to come.
– The support for the protest crosses sectors and party lines. According to Channel 10’s poll conducted on Monday, 88 percent of Israelis support the protest. The middle class parties lead the way: 98 percent of Kadima voters (!), 95 percent of Labor’s and even 85 percent of Netanyahu’s Likud voters find the protest just. Even if these figures dropped in the last couple of days—which had some fractions and public disputes in the protest movement—they are still exceptionally high.
– The attempts to discredit the protest have mostly failed. Government spokesperson and rightwing organizations tried to tie the protest to left wing movements, claiming that it is a politically-motivated move aimed personally against PM Netanyahu. Still, 74 percent of the public think that the protest is a genuine one, and only 22 percent find it to be politically motivated.
– The hard right is the only group not identifying with the protest. Half of Shas’ voters and most of those voting for the settlers’ parties think the protest is politically motivated. Voters of those parties are more inclined to oppose the protest than any other group. I believe that these groups sense that the protest might challenge the dominant political arrangements in Israel – ones with benefit the settlers and the religious parties.
Carlo Strenger writes:
The current uprising has given Israeli liberals a voice again. Its authenticity could not be disputed: to this day there is no clear leadership. The atmosphere on the boulevard, where hundreds of tents fill the tree-lined spaces, feels like a remake of Woodstock. The demands sound eminently reasonable to all sectors of Israel’s population.
But the apolitical character of the protest is being challenged. Netanyahu is already claiming that the protesters are driven by political motivations. His intent is clear: he wants to delegitimise them and claim that their real goal is to topple his government. This, he hopes, will weaken nationwide support for their demands. On Monday, members of the Likud central committee started to say that the demonstrators are just a bunch of sushi eaters with nargilas (Arab pipes) – ie leftist radicals – and that the media was exaggerating their numbers.
Because the process so far has been rather chaotic, it is very difficult to predict what it will lead to. If the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu step up their attack, the protesters will not have any choice but to confront the current coalition in the political arena as well.
They will have to say that taxpayers’ money in Israel has been spent lavishly in the occupied territories; that billions of shekels go to child support for the ultra-Orthodox, most of whom do not contribute to the economy; that the silent collusion of Israel’s governments with the settlers is ruining the country morally, politically and economically. In the end, the call for social justice and the demand to reinstate liberal values in Israel cannot be separated.