Ongoing demonstrations in Israel are said to be the largest protests ever over social and economic issues. Criticism of the government began over the rising price of cottage cheese, a product on many Israelis’ breakfast table. Youths broadened their protest to encompass rising rents and the skyrocketing prices of food and set up Tahrir Square style camp-ins in Tel Aviv and other cities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by promising a task force to deal with these problems. He said he would name “a team of ministers who will set up a round-table discussion with representatives of various sectors to allow them to share their concerns”. A “practical plan” would be drawn up to rectify the situation.
In other words, Netanyahu proposed a “committee”. Committees are constituted by rulers who have no intention of doing anything about problems they are expected to tackle.
The reason he will not take any serious steps to address the protesters’ demands is that he is committed to the Zionist colonisation enterprise, which is consuming funds that could be used to build low-cost housing and maintain services to Israelis living within the 1948-49 ceasefire line, i.e., in “Israel proper”.
Netanayhu is also committed to the free market capitalist economic system, which has enriched a minority of Israelis at the expense of the middle class and the poor.
The process of dismantling the Israeli social-welfare state began when the Likud won its first electoral victory. The Likud bloc consisted of the right-wing Herut, led by Menachem Begin, the Liberal Party of free marketeers, the chauvinist National List and the Movement for Greater Israel. The two chief objectives of the Likud were to “liberalise” and colonise the occupied Palestinian territories.
Under Likud prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu these objectives have been pursued to the point that Israelis who vote for the Likud lost confidence in the party leadership’s willingness to address the concerns of the majority. The Likud is geared to grant the demands of wealthy plutocrats and East Jerusalem/West Bank colonists.
The tent cities that have sprouted up in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in “Israel proper” should worry Netanyahu because many of their inhabitants are supporters of the Likud.
In a strident opinion piece published by the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, veteran columnist Akiva Eldar asked: “Why is it all happening now? After all, ‘piggish capitalism’ wasn’t born yesterday. Seven years ago, Shimon Peres, then leader of the opposition [Labour party], announced that the government’s economic policy resulted in ‘6,000 millionaires and six million beggars’. This economic policy did not change after Peres joined the Likud governmentة”
The policy did not change precisely because Peres and the Labour party did not challenge the Likud or put forward a corrective policy. Labour failed in opposition because it has been co-opted by the Likud. Furthermore, Labour can no longer claim to be even moderately leftist. Labour and Likud fundamentally agree on policy, particularly sticking with the free market and colonisation.
The important point Eldar makes in his article is that the protesters come from all parties and shades of opinion in Israel. Young Likudniks are mixing with old fashioned Labourites who had a social conscience, as well as left-wing activists who call for an end to colonisation and, even, the abandonment of most colonies so the Palestinians can have a viable state. Eldar also reveals that protesters do not carry signs committing to “Judea and Samaria”, the West Bank, and do not include settlers.
Israeli governments – Labour, Likud or Likud-offshoot Kadima – have been trying to, as they say, “have it all”: guns, butter and colonies.
Nations have to create a balance between “guns and butter”, investment in military and civilian goods, in order to provide for security and popular wellbeing. Israel has failed by building a military for offensive use, waging war after war, ignoring the populace and pouring money into colonisation.
Even the billions of dollars donated by the captive US Congress and susceptible Jewish communities round the world could not help meet the demands of ordinary Israelis for a decent standard of living. They have paid for guns and colonies, sacrificing healthcare, education, infrastructure and housing.
Israelis pay high taxes and get little in return. They also pay higher prices for basic consumer goods because 80 per cent of the economy is dominated by family firms that charge what they please for what they produce.
Netanyahu put forward a plan for the construction of thousands of hostels and residential flats for students. He said contractors would be given free or discounted land by the Jewish Agency and low-cost housing would be built. But protesters were unimpressed. Elderly folk feared being ignored. Some complained that the beneficiaries of the scheme would be contractors who are already wealthy – many from building colonies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Netanyahu admitted that Israel is facing a “housing crisis”, but does not seem to realise that he cannot fix it immediately because the shortage built up over years and will take years to rectify. He refuses to meet representatives of the protesters and insists that they have a leftist political agenda rather than genuine economic concerns.
Protest leaders are drawing up a list of demands including boosting construction of affordable housing, imposition of rent controls, revision of taxes and upgrading education. Netanyahu’s arrogant attitude has alienated the protesters.
It is ironic that settler/colonists living in subsidised housing in fortified and guarded communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are also grumbling about price rises and deteriorating government services. So far, they have not joined the protests in “Israel proper” but it would be interesting to see what sort of reception they would get if they tried.
Israel can probably continue to manage guns and colonies, but butter will have to be rationed as long as the country spends a large proportion of its budget on the military due to the lack of peace with the Arabs and remains determined to pour money into the settlement enterprise, the engine of Zionism.