Less than a year ago, the whole Arab Region, from Tunisia in the West to Yemen in the South East, was the arena of a gigantic and extraordinary popular uprising for freedom and democracy. The decades-old dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali were overturned in a few weeks, and the road to new democratic regimes seemed wide open. Not all the regimes of the region were challenged, but there was not a single country in it that was not affected by the popular movements within or outside their boundaries – except one: the State of Israel.
Israel looked like an island of stability in a sea of unrest and revolutions, and its leaders did not for a minute hesitate to sell this stability to the Western governments: “to defend your interests in the area, you cannot trust even the toughest dictatorships that you are supporting with money and military equipment; sooner or later, popular movements may take over and jeopardise everything you have invested in these allies” said the Israeli leaders, in substance, to their Western counterparts, “the State of Israel is your only stable and trustworthy ally!”
A few month later “Israeli stability” was displaced by the biggest popular mobilisation the country has ever seen: starting with a small tent camp in Tel Aviv that quickly spread to many other cities, it grew to bigger and bigger street demonstrations culminating in September 3rd, when, according to the police, 450,000 demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv, the biggest demonstration in the history of the State of Israel.
The movement started around a single issue: housing. After several decades in which an Israeli couple had access to decent housing thanks to state-subsidised loans, the new neoliberal economy makes it almost impossible: a young couple, in which both the man and the woman are earning a decent salary, can no longer buy an apartment. Cuts in state subsidies and the abolition of cheap loans, privatisation of land and the dismantling of the public-housing system make it almost impossible for a young couple to have access to a flat.
This policy hits not only the poor, but most of the middle class too. And indeed the present movement started as a movement of the middle class. Only recently did the poorest layers of society join it, in the main cities as well as in the so-called periphery. Let us remember that, according to the Israeli National Insurance Agency, 30% of Israeli children are living under the poverty line, i.e. slightly less than one quarter of Israelis is considered to be poor – in a country that is wealthier than the European Union average.
Very soon, however, the demands around housing developed into an overall challenge of the neoliberal system as such. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the world’s most aggressive leaders in implementing the neoliberal economic order; when he served as Minister of Finances (1998-1999) market economy was his religion, private enterprise and “free” competition his Holy Bible. And indeed, in few countries was the process of privatisation and dismantling of public services and properties so brutal and total. Almost nothing remains of the old welfare – some would say even socialist – state, and even the education system is being gradually privatised. The return of Netanyahu as Prime Minister signalled a new offensive, but this time, instead of frontally attacking the poor and the middle classes, Netanyahu chose another tack: to give to the rich, especially by dramatically reducing taxes on enterprises and on high personal income.
With Netanyahu the money-power connection became naked in a truly provocative way, and the personal friendship between Netanyahu, his ministers and senior officials, on the one hand, and the “tycoons” – a local name for the oligarchs – on the other, are on the front page of the local media almost every day. By shouting “the people demand social justice“ and “against privatisations – welfare state!” the demonstrators are challenging the very heart of Netanyahu’s economic and social philosophy and practice. “A government of the tycoons”, this is how the Israeli middle class perceived Netanyahu’s government, and rightly so: all the other layers of society are left out, not only the poor.
After a couple of weeks of mobilisations, however, new layers have been joining the struggle, those called the “Israeli periphery”. “Periphery” has a double meaning: those in the geographical periphery, i.e. living outside the three big cities (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa) as well as the social periphery. During the first weeks, the poorest classes were not part of the mobilisation whose spokesperson insisted that the participants belong to the middle class, as if that sociological fact should assure them privileges in contrast to the poor. Moreover, they insisted also that, unlike the poor, there are “normative Israelis”, which means in Israeli language, paying taxes and serving in the reserve army. On Saturday night, August 13, tens of thousands of “peripheral” Israelis took to the streets, in Natanya and Beersheba in particular, and by so doing changed the class nature of the movement. Accordingly, two new sectors were in the forefront of the mobilisation: poor women (especially in Haifa) and the Palestinian minority. In both cases, new demands specific to these sectors have been raised. It is worth noting that the Arab demonstrators were welcome by the Jewish ones, some of them explaining that “they have no problem at all with Arabs, but they hate the Palestinians” (sic).
In its first stage, the protest movements were reminiscent of the World Social Forum initiatives in the first decade of the present century: no programme, no leadership, and no joint agenda besides the two above-mentioned slogans. Everyone was in the movement and raised his or her own demands and concerns. Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Avenue, where the first tent site was established, quickly became a huge forum of discussions, exchange and dialogue, in addition to cultural activities; well known artists came to express their solidarity and contribute to the mobilisation. The demonstrators insisted that they were “neither left, nor right” and indeed many Likud voters are part of the movement. They also insist in distinguishing between a “social” movement and a “political movement”, adamantly denying that they are “political”. No one can deny, however, that the movement is openly challenging neoliberal economics and calling for a return to the welfare state. In that sense it is a break with the consensual policy of all the Israeli major parties – Likud, Kadima and the various splits of the Labour party. The real nature of the movement and its spokespersons will be revealed when they have to answer the question that was already raised by Netanyahu and the Finance Ministry directors – more money for housing, health and education, from where do we get it? The question is relevant, and the answer obvious: from the huge budgets for settlements, from the defence budget, from the tax exemptions for big enterprises and banks. There is plenty of money there to take, and the decision to do so is political.
We should not limit ourselves to the self-perception of the movement and its demands. Something much deeper may be happening, though it will take time and political battles before it bears its blessed fruit. In Israel the concept “people” was synonymous with “the nation”, i.e. the Jewish nation of Israel. The people were always “the people of Israel” in the biblical sense – not in the modern republican sense of the collectivity of the citizens of the State of Israel. It excluded from the sovereign collective the non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinian minority in particular, though they represent more than 20% of the population. In most of the demonstrations, the spokespersons were extremely explicit when speaking on behalf of “the whole people”, and they became used to specifying: “religious and non-religious, Ashkenazi (of European background) and Mizrahi (of Arab and Mediterranean background) – Jews and Arabs”. And indeed the Arab minority of Israel was part and parcel of the movement and, in the mixed cities, like Haifa, the demonstrations were really joint Jewish-Arab demonstrations. Let us hope and dream that a new “Am Israel” (People of Israel) was born on July the 14th, like the new French nation in 1789, a civic definition of the people instead of an ethnic/confessional one. If this turns out to be so, the ambitious slogan of the demonstrations – “Revolution!” – was no exaggeration.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s first reaction to the movement came as no surprise: “the movement is politically motivated and manipulated by the left”, but soon after his close advisers made him understand that if the movement is the left in Israel, the left is the great majority of the voters. He therefore changed his argument and claimed that changing budget’s priorities would weaken Israeli security. Ehud Barak, from his penthouse in one of the most expensive buildings in Tel Aviv, was even cruder: “Israel is not Switzerland” said the kibbutznik who became a millionaire. As usual in Israel, the first response of the government was to establish a commission. Led by Professor Trachtenberg, the commission’s mandate is very limited, and its members unable – and unwilling for the most part – to relate to the main demand of the protest movement: the end of neoliberal economics, and a return to some kind of regulated capitalism. In the best case scenario, it will focus on a criticism of the concentration of capital, denounce the “tycoons” and suggest some measures to limit their financial power. The next step of the present ultra-right-wing government may well be inspired by Ehud Barak: heating the border with one of the neighbouring countries or even provoking a series of terrorist activities in Israel, hoping that “security” will recreate a spirit of national unity against a foreign threat. It will not be the first time that an Israeli government will have used this dirty strategy. It seems, however, that Israeli public opinion is more astute than in the past: when government spokespersons recently raised the security issue, the answer of the demonstrators has been: “housing, education and health are our real security”, showing in a sense that they are well aware of this old trick. Will this awareness be sufficient to deter the Israeli government from initiating a war? No one can answer that question. The great publicity given by the Israeli right to the visit of the US war-mongering Chuck Norris and Glenn Beck and their racist statements are definitely not a good sign.
The demonstrators reacted to this government’s initiative by establishing their own commission, made of progressive economists, sociologists and social activists. This alternative group has a very heterogeneous composition, including the former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel, and a good many activists have expressed their hostility to the alternative commission. Every one in the progressive camp would agree that any alternative should include:
But this is not enough, and the following additional demands are definitely not part of the consensus of the movement, which is trying hard to remain neither left nor right. One should, however, understand that, like democracy, social justice cannot be divided: it is an either-or matter: