People will differ about what instigated recent protests in Israel, but they will agree on one thing: since a tiny group of Israelis in their 20s set up tents in the middle of the fashionable Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv calling for social justice, nothing has been the same.
Tens of thousands took to the streets every Saturday for almost two months. The J14 movement (named, in the tradition of the Arab Spring, after the date of the first protest) held not only the largest demonstration in Israel’s history, but also the biggest rallies ever in many of the cities and towns outside Tel Aviv. The largest protest to date was on Sept. 3. Almost half a million Israelis took to the streets – more than 300,000 of them in Tel Aviv – calling for “social justice” and a more equitable economy.
In years to come, Israeli journalists and historians might argue about the event that launched Israel’s “summer of unrest.” Was it the rise in gas prices, which led a few dozen people to embark on a “national march” that went mostly unnoticed by the media? Was it the more successful “Cottage Cheese protest,” when tens of thousands joined a Facebook group calling for a boycott of Israel’s most popular soft cheese due to rising prices?
Some people draw a connection between the protest and the larger political picture, claiming that many in the Israeli middle class feel alienated and anxious under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, which undermines democratic rights and isolates the country internationally. Some expressed concern over the lack of progress in the peace process; polls indicated that many Israelis didn’t believe Netanyahu was sincere when he agreed publicly to the idea of a Palestinian state. These people were the first to join the protest, even though it focused on social, rather than political issues.
One could also ask to what extent the example set by the Arab uprisings influenced a society which always insisted on seeing itself as a Western outpost in an underdeveloped region.
Already there have been significant gains for Israeli civil society. For the first time in years, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel have joined a grassroots movement which started in the Jewish middle class. After the Sept. 3 rally, Palestinian Israeli leaders and parties even issued an official call of support for the protest.
For the first time, protest over social issues continued during a military escalation (in Gaza and the South of Israel late last month) – a fact which led to a fierce political debate and an attempt to portray the protest as “unpatriotic.”
For many who struggle to find meaning in all this, the burning question is how the protest will affect the position of Netanyahu. Yet for most Israelis, this might not be the most important concern. While polls indicate a significant drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings, he is still likely to win elections if those were to be held in the upcoming months, due to the absence of a popular opposition leader.
More than anything, it seems that the protests – it’s even hard to speak of a unified movement with a coherent leadership – are challenging the entire political discourse in Israel, which for the most part has always been focused on geopolitical and security issues. In this sense, the protest is a threat to Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, Israel’s largest opposition party, just as much as it is to Netanyahu. Both are seen as representing the failed political trends, as well as the neo-liberal economical politics, which forced the public to take to the streets.
The national conversation that J14 has initiated on the future of Israel is not likely to stop even now that many of the tents are folding and the mass demonstrations are behind us. There is a feeling that Israel has reached a major crossroads: the death of the two-state solution is around the corner, if not here (a Palestinian think tank which advises the Palestinian Authority has recommended dismantling the PA if the statehood bid presented to the United Nations last week fails, thus making Israel a de-facto apartheid state); religious and nationalist circles, whose representatives hold senior positions in the government, are initiating laws that pose a real threat to the future of the democracy that does exist within the Green Line; and a radical neoliberal economic system has damaged any sense of social cohesion and left many angry and anxious.
Under these difficult conditions, one can understand why some Israelis treat J14 as the last hope for their country.
By Noam Sheizaf