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Shira Herzog

Protest at the corner of Rothschild and Tahrir Add to ...

Tel Aviv’s upscale Rothschild Boulevard isn’t Tahrir Square, and the tens of thousands of protesters demanding affordable housing aren’t risking their lives. But the spontaneous outburst of citizen action that crosses ideological and sectoral lines is making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sweat: He didn’t create the problem, but he has to solve it.

This demand for “social justice” breaks new ground. As citizens poured onto the streets of neighbouring Arab countries, cynics noted the indifference of their Israeli counterparts. Israeli Gen Xers, popularly described as living in the “Tel Aviv bubble,” seemed to have given up on politics. But no more. While thus far unmotivated by partisan voices, this protest is about the very essence of democracy. Rallied by one individual’s call to action on social media, middle-class families – saying they’ve “got the power” – have sustained three weeks of outdoor demonstrations in unforgiving heat, with their numbers growing daily.

The swelling domestic unrest is striking in light of the relative quiet on the security front and, until recently, strong support for the Prime Minister. Supported by a stable hard-line coalition, Mr. Netanyahu has felt secure doing little on any issue. As a general rule, he prefers tactics over the risk of strategy and, even now, while he knows only structural change can yield significant results, he has proposed piecemeal measures. But with public confidence in him at a record low (30 per cent) and overwhelming support for the protest, Mr. Netanyahu has to show decisiveness. Sunday, he established a ministerial committee to engage in dialogue with the protesters.

Historically, Israel’s social contract has been based on a combination of collective sacrifice (a compulsory draft and punishing defence burden), a strong safety net that assured social and economic security, and a free-market economy that enabled the middle class to prosper. The country’s growth remains strong with capita income at nearly $30,000 – but its economic gaps are among the highest in the developed world. Especially since Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet (2003-2005), all governments imposed draconian cuts on social services while cutting tax and benefiting the rich. Housing supply hasn’t kept up with demand. That, along with rising food and gasoline prices, is fuelling the calls for social justice.

This goes beyond partisan politics: Left and right in Israel differ on the occupied territories and Palestinians rather than on socio-economic issues, and the opposition Kadima and governing Likud parties largely share a neo-liberal platform, while smaller sectoral parties fight strictly for their constituencies. The protesters want “government” to solve the problem, but target Mr. Netanyahu simply because he’s there.

Noticeably, the economic trade-offs involved in supporting the West Bank and Gaza (before the 2005 evacuation) settlement enterprise have been absent from the protesters’ agenda. Expenditures on and benefits to settlements amount to at least hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the protesters are assiduously steering clear of anything that may render their campaign controversial. If they maintain their non-partisan stand, it will be what most unsettles Mr. Netanyahu. Absent political fighting gloves, he may find himself outwitted in uncharted waters.

In 1971, Israel’s Black Panthers mobilized second-generation immigrants of Middle Eastern descent who abandoned the dominant Labour Party and aided Likud’s ascent six years later. It’s premature to speculate on the systemic implications of what’s unfolding, but Likud and Kadima have already dropped in polls; the moribund Labour Party has gained; sectoral interest groups want to capitalize on a potential bonanza; and there are calls for a new movement focusing on domestic issues. There’s no obvious alternative to Mr. Netanyahu right now, but nothing can be ruled out. What’s certain is that his government’s foundations are suddenly shaking.

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