Will the protests in Israel bring down Netanyahu?
Israelis demonstrators gather in their tent camp in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on August 1, 2011 as they continue protesting against rising housing prices and social inequalities. (Getty Images)
August 9th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Will the protests in Israel bring down Netanyahu?

Editor's Note: Nadal Eyal is a senior columnist for Ma’ariv Daily and the chief editor of International News for Channel 10 TV.

By Nadav EyalForeign Affairs

Along Tel Aviv’s most expensive boulevard, where apartments sell for millions of dollars, hundreds of Igloo-shaped tents line the streets. They first appeared on July 14, when a dozen or so young Israelis, responding to a Facebook invitation, set up camp to demand affordable housing. The demonstrations soon spread - tens of thousands joined in solidarity and added a whole host of social issues to the protest, from conditions in public hospitals to the cost of raising children.

Commentators and politicians disagree about the reasons behind the protest. But they agree that it represents the most powerful social unrest Israel has seen in decades. Never before have so many Israelis taken to the streets over social issues; huge demonstrations have historically been confined to security and peace debates. Now that the peace process has stalled and overall security is relatively stable, the protests have dominated the news cycle and changed the national conversation.

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With over 300,000 protesters in the streets this weekend, the demonstrations seem to have no end in sight. Yet even so, the protesters’ grievances remain vague and unfocused. Some call for an end to Israel’s decades-old privatization process and an expansion of the welfare state. Others demand an end to cartels and import taxes - cornerstones of free-market philosophy. The unifying factor among them is anger toward the status quo. And as the protests widen, they could spark a massive social and political shift in Israel.

For all of their import, the protests look and feel like something between a music festival and a political commune. There is a collective kitchen and an eating tent serving three meals per day for the hundreds of demonstrators camped out in Tel Aviv. An area for “elders” - those living in the tent city for more than two weeks - features signs saying “here lives a Ph.D. graduate and a waitress,” “Revolution is done with Love, or not at all,” and “All of Israel are tents.” A compost corner gives the campsite a funny smell.

Given the carnival-like atmosphere of the protests, originally made up of young Tel Avivians, many Israeli political figures were initially dismissive. The demonstrators were and are still being called everything from ”spoiled left-wingers“ to cheap ”Che Guevaras.” Had the protests remained in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most liberal city, those labels would likely have stuck. But tent camps have risen across the country, from the border with Lebanon to the heart of the Negev Desert. According to a recent Haaretz poll, 87 percent of Israelis support the protests. A Channel 10 survey found that 85 percent of Likud voters also back the demonstrations.

The demonstrators, then, are not just ”sushi eaters” from Tel Aviv, as one Likud politician called them; they are middle-class Israelis - taxi drivers, doctors, and mothers who are angry about a variety of issues, including working hours, the rising cost of living, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Since the 1970s, Israel has experienced extensive deregulation and privatization, shifting from a welfare state with relatively controlled market prices to a free market focused on encouraging competition.

This shift has ostensibly strengthened Israel’s economy. Most recently, Israel emerged from the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, and, according to the Bank of Israel, boasts 4.8 percent growth and six percent unemployment this year. But economic success has contributed to inequality, creating unprecedented wealth for some yet failing to benefit the middle class. According to Meitav Investment House, a respected financial firm in Israel, the price of groceries has risen 16 percent since 2007 and the cost of fuel has risen 19 percent. Deregulation has allowed cartels and monopolies to stifle competition in many sectors. For example, two large manufacturers control the baby formula market in Israel. When they raised prices earlier this year, the cost for baby formula rose by 15 percent nationwide, outraging consumers. Thanks to artificial pricing set by the government, olive oil is more expensive in Israel than in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that olives are grown in Israel. And many argue that privatization has led the government to neglect social services such as public transportation, education, and health.

Housing prices, however, are the main catalyst of middle-class revolt. The majority of Israel’s land is held by the state, under the control of an administrative authority that Netanyahu himself recently described as a “cartel.” The administration sells the land to highest bidders in a convoluted process that often takes months. This difficulty with building new housing comes at a time when Israel’s population is increasing, foreigners are purchasing more homes in the country, and the government has decreased publicly funded housing.

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As a result, according to the Israeli Housing Ministry, an average home in Israel costs a million shekels (roughly $250,000), the equivalent of 132 average salaries put together - before tax. That ratio is one of the worst in the world; the accounting firm BDO reported that in the United States, by comparison, the average home costs about 60 average salaries. Bank of Israel data suggest that housing prices have risen 60 percent since 2007, while employee salaries, according to Meitav Investment House, have risen only six percent.

All in all, middle-class Israelis feel that they are working harder, earning less, and paying more. They blame Israel’s so-called tycoons, who own Israel’s largest corporations and whose faces appear on posters at the demonstrations with the words “We Mean You.” And they blame Netanyahu, who, in previous stints as prime minister and finance minister, has been a major proponent of Israel’s neoliberal economic policies.

But the protest against Netanyahu is not just about contrasting economic visions; it is about the growing gap between Israel’s upwardly mobile middle class and the lethargic political system. Whereas Netanyahu, according to Israel’s Channel 2, does not text message or use a computer in his office, the protesters organized themselves through Facebook. More important, they are feeding off of regional and global activism in calling for equal economic opportunity and dignity. The demonstrators are still debating their exact demands. But it seems an agreement is slowly emerging on the need for a "New Deal" for Israeli society. This may include tax reform and reduction, an opening of markets to achieve competitive prices, greater and improved regulation of the housing market and more government subsidized housing, and more extensive state support for social services.

The protests are focused on economics, but their most significant impact may be in Israel’s political arena. The leaders of Israel’s current government - Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - have been major figures in the country’s politics since the early 1990s, and their careers have focused on security. The protests have shifted Israel’s public discourse away from security to social issues, away from the comfort zone of the old guard. Although there is a leftist tone to the tent demonstrations, the protest leaders have maintained support from across the political spectrum and have attempted to maintain a nonpartisan line. Likud leaders understand the danger. Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s education minister and one of Likud’s major figures, warned a Likud ministers’ forum last week that “in the last 20 years, every time the elections were on economic and social issues, the Likud lost,” only winning “when the issue was security and negotiations.”

Left-wing Israelis are coming to the same realization, discovering that their salvation might come not from demanding an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but by representing the struggling middle class. Already, some in the protest movement have attacked the public funds that Israel devotes to the settlements at the expense, they say, of those living in Israel proper. The right wing realizes that should popular sentiment turn against the settlements for economic reasons, it could set the stage for a dramatic political shift and, ultimately, the resurrection of the Israeli left. That is perhaps why right-wing movements themselves have joined the protests and set up their own tents in Tel Aviv.

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Despite the potential of the protests, the demonstrators have yet to establish a unified leadership and clear goals. The young age and strong Tel Aviv affiliation among the protesters may alienate the more conservative middle class in Israel’s periphery. And the leaders that have emerged are inexperienced and thus remain vulnerable to Netanyahu’s political maneuvering.

But despite Netanyahu’s efforts to outflank the demonstrators - at times he attempts to dismiss the protests and at others he seems to embrace them and meet their demands - the movement has continued unabated. Netanyahu thus faces a difficult path ahead. He can surrender to the protest movement and sacrifice many of the policies that he has enacted. Or he can attempt to co-opt the Israeli center with a renewed attempt to negotiate with the Palestinians. He may also try to ride out the protests and hope that all will pass. Yet the continued momentum of the protests indicates that Israelis may take their activism beyond their tents and express their desire for change at the ballot box.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nadav Eyal. Copyright © 2002-2010 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. 
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Topics: Economy • Israel • Middle East • Politics

soundoff (149 Responses)
  1. Dan

    Israel has a right to do whatever it wants. I stand behind the Israeli government and military. Israel forever!

    August 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Reply
    • manwhy

      I sure hope your comment contains a bit of sarcasm. let me ask you a question Dan. you say "Israel has a right to do whatever it wants" in terms of finding a solution for rising costs of living in Israel, YOU ARE TOTALLY CORRECT. In terms of geo-political endeavours and military operations, is it not fair to say then, by your logic, that ANY nation has the right to do whatever it wants? be it good or bad?

      August 9, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Reply
  2. Steve

    Ron Paul: January 9, 2008

    M. Speaker, I strongly oppose H. Res. 34, which was rushed to the floor with almost no prior notice and without consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The resolution clearly takes one side in a conflict that has nothing to do with the United States or US interests. I am concerned that the weapons currently being used by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza are made in America and paid for by American taxpayers. ..

    What moral responsibility do we have for the violence in Israel and Gaza after having provided so much military support to one side?

    August 9, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • manwhy

      was it after this statement his support percentage fell sharply?

      August 10, 2011 at 2:00 am | Reply
  3. Max

    Every time there is an article about Israel, even the most benign one, even the one that has nothing to do with the Palestinian issue... an anti-semitic bunch comes out to spew their hate at a tiny country barely visible on the map among vast riches of the Arab World. Oh, my "liberal", western pro-Palestinian friends, stop crying, pick up your si..t and go help those that can really use your help. Palestinians are not even close to being the neediest. No one, even in Gaza blockade, is dying of hunger, or any sort of epidemic by 1000's or even by 10's. But! I hear the boat to Somalia is leaving tonight.

    August 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Reply
    • edmond

      As a pose to what ever human relief organization that has ever commented on the state of palestinians, you seem to think palestinians are not living in poverty? Or maybe your just trying to decieve people into thinking so?

      August 10, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
      • edmond

        BTW, anti-semitic bunch? Heres a definition of semitic from the freedictionary:

        http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Semitic

        Yes, arabs are semites too; find another word to unfairly slander people...
        P.S. Infact arabs are more semitic than most modern days jews, who are in fact of european decent.

        August 10, 2011 at 10:00 am |
      • edmond

        ... Oh and 1 more thing, the fact that its a "tiny" country doesnt exempt it from guilt; is this how we are judging a country's deeds now, by its size?
        This "tiny" country has broke more UN resolutions than any other country on the planet.

        August 10, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  4. Steve

    Yeah, but simply to state the premise that the US support of Israel is the direct cuase of 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the deaths and diaability of 100's of thousands of American servicemen, $Trillions$ in the US National Debt,,and the fact a very small minority of the American People have a overwhemingly powerful voice in American politics and media to di.ctate US policy in the interest of a foreign power.. is a truth, Yes?

    August 9, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  5. p41

    There is nothing such as anti-semitism. The ORIGINAL JEWS have been extracted out of Jerusalem long ago, and enslaved by the new-jewz that stole our heritage.

    August 9, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  6. p41

    These new-jewz that came on the scene about 100yrs ago (caucasians from nazipoland,and nazigermany) are wicked and vile.

    August 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Reply
    • Anton

      And you p41 is stupid and rasist. And was "extracted" out of your own as.. long ago

      August 10, 2011 at 1:43 am | Reply
  7. Genius

    Behind all conflict is economic inequity. Any other distinctions between two groups of humans are purely arbitrary and needless.

    August 9, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  8. Anthony C

    I normall never post on here although I do enjoy reading the comments; they are entertaining to say the least, but I thought this one needed my 2 cents. I am all for peaceful protests and peaceful anything but having that many people in a confined area when your neighbors are bomb toting extremists is not a good thing. I see this article on CNN and I here in the states know of the unrest now as I am sure Hamas and others do too. I can only hope the people over there in power are smart enough to provide some protection for the protesters as they are 1 check point away from being the new headline and being this weeks top story. God Bless.

    August 10, 2011 at 2:11 am | Reply
  9. arafat

    Netanyahu is not in trouble , Israel is not like Syria ,Eygpt, Iran, Jordon, Yeman , Somolia, Pakastan, Iraq, Afghan, libya, Bahrain , Saudi

    Americans dont support the palestinians after their display on 9/11.Americans have a very low tolerance for Islam and muslims in general so I dont see America supporting a palestinian state, its just going to fall apart like all the other muslims countries.

    August 10, 2011 at 2:27 am | Reply
    • edmond

      Then i suppose its reasonable for you to see why arabs dont care much for america. What goes around comes around buddy.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:27 am | Reply
  10. Marine5484

    I don't remember seeing hippies in Israel when I was there.....I guess there everywhere in the countries that will allow them to exist.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:59 am | Reply
  11. jswimmer785

    If Mexico launched a rocket from Tijuana into San Diego, we would give a firm warning. If they launched a second rocket, we would put troops on the border; a third rocket and tijuana would be a parking lot. A very big, flat, parking lot.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:00 am | Reply
    • edmond

      ... And this is assuming san diego is occupying tijuana prior to the rockets or no?

      August 10, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
  12. Rick McDaniel

    Young people spend all their money on gadgets, and electronics, on they premise, they are "essential", and then have nothing left to live on.

    It is impossible to sympathize with them, at all.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  13. MobiusEight

    Do not let Eric Cartman see this picture...

    August 10, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
  14. IsraelGirl

    Netanyahu needs to step down

    He ruined my country

    August 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  15. Muslims-Jews-Christians-UNITE!

    Edmond, I applaud your strong & needed stand against the mindless and stone-hearted ignorant "Isralies" as Thinker & ann & other like-minded individuals. Their hatred for the Plestinains &–muslims in general (there is a high corrolation I've observed that if one dislikes something they will dislike anything associated with that thing) runs deep... Their hatred for Palestinians is as deed as was Hitler's hatred for the Jews–there is no difference. It's sad but this truth stands as the biggest irony in history for human thought. Edmund, continue to annihilate their lies and question their mentality and God-willing someday they will grow the faculty to understand and shed their pig-headedness.

    As for the quips on questiong Israeli policy equalling anti-semitism... please WHAT!???? Israeli policies are secular and have no association with the Jewish faith; similarly, the word "Israel" does not equal "Jew" and vise versa as some people wrongfully have it in their understanding. When one uses the term 'Semite' she/he (un)knowlingly will refere to entirety of Arabs, Serbs and semitic-speaking peoples not just specific Jews residing in Israel. These kind of simplistic thinking can not and are not tolerated. The lack of a balanced judgement birthed from learning and knowledge is what's causing the various problems we see in the world today: these problems are all similar in nature because it all ultimately stems from the imcompetence of human judgement from the malevolence of the mind.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
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    June 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Reply
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