Massive Protests Raise the Question: Should Israel be More European or American?

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Protesters take part in a protest call for social justice, including lower property prices in Israel, at the centre of Tel Aviv August 6, 2011. (Photo: Nir Elias / Reuters)

Back in February when Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow longtime Israel’s longtime friend and ally Hosni Mubarak, many Israelis fretted over what ill wind the “Arab Spring” would bring. Would a more democratic Egyptian government veer away from the U.S.-Israel axis and ally with Hamas? Would it abrogate the Camp David treaty that had brought Israel three decades of peace with its most powerful neighbor? Would it inspire the Palestinians to cast aside the hapless President Mahmoud Abbas and mount their own peaceful rebellion against Israel?

Nobody dreamed, however, that  the Arab Spring’s most immediate impact on Israel would be to spark a copycat movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the street in peaceful mass protests denouncing their own government and demanding social justice in the face of declining living standards. The echo of Cairo is unmistakable: The Israeli protestors chant (in Hebrew) “The people demand social justice” to the same tune as Egypt’s protestors chanted, in Arabic, “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

Despite the slogans, however, the Israeli protest  has more in common with those that shook southern Europe in the spring than with the Arab uprisings. Those marching on Israel’s streets live in a relatively advanced economy and get to vote for their government. But they’re outraged, nonetheless, and polls show they have the support of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. The protest movement led by the shrinking middle class, moved to act by the steady erosion of their standard of living in a system whose economic growth in recent years has benefited mostly a tiny elite. It was outrage at the cost of housing (which has increased six-fold over two decades) that sparked the original demonstrations, which have since mushroomed into a broader movement representing a range of constituencies, including Arab Israelis, bound by a common sense that the country’s social system no longer serves them. And, at least so far, they appear unwilling to accept their government’s traditional response of citing external threats, from Iran to Gaza, as reason to dip their banners and go home. 

Social justice is a highly contested term in the Israeli context, and many more left-wing elements in the protest movement insist that justice for Israelis is indivisible from justice for the Palestinians. But issues of the Palestinians beyond the 1967 borders are left out of the protestors’ demands, in order to maintain the broadest front across political divisions. Even then, some settler leaders are worried, because even raising the issue of the cost of housing, transport and other basic necessities draws attention to the fact that the government spends twice as much on public assistance to the average settler as it does on public assistance to the average Israeli. By some estimates, the occupation soaks up 10% of the national budget. And the nationalist right is hardly comfortable with the spectacle of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Israelis raucously applauding a Palestinian Israeli writer’s speech calling for justice and equality for all citizens.

But what may be most striking about the protest is a reassertion of the values of European social democracy in a country whose politicians — and public — have over the past three decades increasingly embraced American individualism and winner-take-(almost)-all capitalism.

Netanyahu’s government, in keeping with Likud-led governments of the past two decades is of a mind with conservative Western governments committed to free-market economics, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy and a kind of social Darwinism when it comes to public spending on the poor — albeit with many compromises dictated by Israel’s political system, in which creating a governing coalition requires that the religious parties are essentially bought off with massive social grants; and also by its nationalist drive to settle the West Bank. (Some Israelis joke that while Likud and its right-wing allies have throttled Israel’s welfare state inside the 1967 borders, it’s alive and well in the settlements.)

The benefits of the Israeli economic success story over the past decade and a half have accrued largely to a wealthy elite growing wealthier, while the middle class shrinks and a growing number of Israelis struggle to make ends meet. Israel congratulated itself for becoming the 34th member OECD last year, confirming its accession to the global economic elite. But supporters of the protest movement point out that among OECD members only Mexico has a higher rate of poverty and social inequality.

While the domestic economic policy orientation of the current Israeli government would be shared by its most fervent U.S. allies in the GOP, Israel’s founders — and the Labor Party that ruled the country during its first three decades — were a lot more Bernie Sanders than Eric Cantor, to use an American political yardstick.

From the kibbutz collective farms that produced the country’s political and military elite of an earlier generation to the welfare-oriented social policies that provided generously funded public health care, education and social support, the solidarity and well-being of the community, even if narrowly defined on ethnic nationalist lines, was given priority over the acquisition of wealth by the individual.  Israel modeled itself on the social solidarity of European social democracy rather than the unrestrained and often predatory capitalism of its American ally. Of course, that’s largely in the past, although the ongoing protests have served up  a kind of militant nostalgia for that bygone era. After all, average earnings in Israel are substantially lower than those in Europe, but the cost of living is often higher — and Israelis have come to expect Western standards of living.

Netanyahu epitomizes an Israel that has embraced an American economic and social system — the idea of 15 million Americans (the proportional equivalent of 300,000 Israelis) taking to the streets to protest the cost of housing or childcare is almost unthinkable, since the idea that the state is responsible for ensuring a decent basic standard of living for its citizens has been a heresy in Washington since the early 1980s.  But the Israeli prime minister is facing an unprecedented level of dissent from that vision.

It’s too soon to tell what effect the protest movement will have on Netanyahu’s political prospects, but it appears increasingly likely that the most serious social protest Israel has seen in decades will realign his agenda. “I understand my views need to change,” the Prime Minister is quoted in the Israeli media as having said Tuesday of the challenges raised by the demonstrations. But it remains to be seen whether and how Netanyahu change. Some suspect he may, instead, take  initiatives of his own on national security issues to change the subject. Still, an Israeli political scene that had seemed static and complacent just a few short month ago suddenly seems alive with possibilities as a result of Israelis’ improbable mimicking of their Egyptian neighbors.