By Tikva Honig-Parnass, Israeli Occupation Archive – 9 Jan 2011
The inherent limitation of a middle-class protest in a settler-colonial state
The protest movement of summer 2011 in Israel looked at first as if it constituted another link in the chain of militant uprisings which swept throughout the world in 2011. It seemed that the rage and indignation expressed by Israeli protesters were directed against the disastrous doings of capitalist neo-liberalism which, here as elsewhere, resulted in a vast enrichment of a very small elite – “The 1 percent” – concomitant with a drastic deterioration in living conditions and increased poverty among wide social strata. However, the nature of Israel as a settler-colonial state in which neo-liberalism and privatization were supported by Labor and the Histadrut (an acronym for the General Federation of the Workers in Eretz Israel) determined the decisively different character and development of last summer’s protest.
Until the last decade, the majority of the Jewish society has been enjoying the spoils of the apartheid and colonization regime that the Jewish Zionist state has imposed on Palestinians both within Israel and in the ’67 occupied territories. The fact that the spoils were divided unequally between Jewish upper and middle classes — and the lower echelons of workers and the poor — has not diminished the wide consensus around the hegemonic ideology and political culture. At the center of them are the “collective” values of state and its “security” which supersede individual social rights and class interests.
The protest of Summer 2011 was comprised mainly of a middle-class Ashkenazim who have, for decades, enjoyed a higher economic and political status in the class structure of Israel. This has inevitably curtailed the prospects of the movement to even develop an alternative political language used in the prevailing discourse in Israel.
The Israeli class system which was constructed by Zionist labor in the first decade of the state has largely remained the same since then. Namely, Ashkenazi Jews constitute the socio-economic elites while Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian citizens are the majority among workers and poor. However the difference between the Jewish Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens is crucial. Not only do the Palestinians occupy the lowest echelons among blue-collar workers, but their discrimination as a national minority both on the individual and community levels is structurally significant to the nature of the state of Israel (not to mention that “all of them are under constant threat of being ethnically cleansed whenever the opportunity arises”).
This is not the case of the Mizrahim who were brought from Arab states to settle the frontiers of the newborn state and to constitute a cheap labor force for building it. They were allocated a disadvantaged status in the economy albeit as members of the oppressive colonial regime. Thus, although a minority of Mizrahim managed to acquire small businesses and enter various middle-class occupations, the overall socio-economic gap between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews has remained very wide up until today. They comprise a large part of the poor neighborhoods of the big cites in the center of Israel and the “Development Towns” in the South and the North (“The periphery”) which are the most neglected communities in Israel. Many of them lack any homes or minimal conditions for living.
Functioning as the arm of the Zionist project before and after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Histadrut has systematically prevented the emergence of any real independent organized labor. The prevailing state-centered ideology which granted legitimacy to a divided and subdued working class has been articulated by intellectuals and publicists the majority of whom supported the Zionist labor movement for decades. This “statist” ideology has also blocked the appearance of any mass movements for civil and social rights, comparable to those of the 1960’s in the US and Europe.
The Mizrahi “Black Panthers” uprising in the early 70’s – largely inspired by Matzpen, “The Israeli Socialist Organization” – challenged both their own class oppression and the national oppression of Palestinians. The Panthers’ movement was brutally oppressed and cunningly co-opted by then the labor government. It has been retained only as part of the collective memory of many Mizrahim and the small number of Matzpen supporters.
The middle class’ “Tent” protest has thus been devoid of any revolutionary traditions which could serve as source of inspiration for them. They have not been able to translate their spontaneous rage into a challenge against the economic neo-liberal policies and the extreme-right government which enforced them more fiercely than ever before. At a rather early stage in the development of the movement, the leaders were almost willingly co-opted by the business elite, the government, and the Labor Party- which have brought about its pathetic end.
The onset of the protest movement
As mentioned above, the “Tent protest movement,” as it came to be known (also named the “intermediate class” or the “high cost of living protest movement”), was mainly comprised of Ashkenazi middle class. They were joined by the lower Jewish echelons of the working class and the poor, largely Mizrahim, only when the latter were mistakenly convinced that this was an opportunity to achieve through the middle class the answer to some of their demands which have been ignored for decades.
The uprising started on July 14th by Daphni Leef. A few dozen middle-class youngsters immediately followed her call on Facebook and responded with demands to reduce the high rent charges and high prices of buying an apartment. Leef, a student of the film school at Tel Aviv University received a message from her landlord that her lease had expired. But while looking for a new apartment, she soon realized that rent had more than doubled in recent years. She simply couldn’t afford to get a home, and she and the activists pitched tents on Rothschild Boulevard (one of Tel Aviv’s main promenades). They were soon joined by Itzik Shmuli of the Hebrew University, the chair of the National Student Union who, together with Daphni Leef and others, formed the leadership of the movement. In two weeks, the encampment along Rothschild Boulevard increased to many hundreds of tents – which were followed by tent encampments sprouting up all over the country: in Jerusalem, Haifa, Ashdod, Beer Sheva and Holon, albeit in lower numbers.
Never in Israel’s history did demonstrations against the cost of living expand to the huge mass mobilization which took place in the summer of 2011. A number of huge demonstrations took place in many places in which hundred of thousands of people participated. “The people demand social justice!” was shouted with a hoarse throat while angrily lifting arms with tightly closed fists. In the two enormous demonstrations of August 5th and September 3rd, 300,000 and 400,000 people, respectively, marched mostly in Tel Aviv but also in other places across the country. Smaller demonstrations took place between those two big ones and after.
In a short time the initial demand for “attainable accommodation” has widened to include other issues as the high cost of living, the lack of adequate social services like education and health and the demand for change of the “scale of preferences” in the government’s policies. The draft document of demands, articulated by the heads of the protest movement was published in Haaretz already on August 2nd – only two weeks after the onset of the uprising. It included, among other things, the demands for gradual cancellation of indirect taxes, for rent-control, for the renewal of government public housing projects which have long been canceled, and for an increase of state intervention in supplying social services and in regulating the economy in general. However, these demands were not followed with a call for the resignation of the Netanyahu government.
On the contrary — the protest leaders implored PM Netanyahu and his extreme-right wing government to implement their demands. They have thus disclosed what would be proved later on – namely, their belief that those whose policies brought them to the streets were capable of introducing deep changes in their policies. Underlying this trust is their commitment to the economic and political regime at large which has been adopted in principle by both left and right governments. This is the very regime on which the apartheid and capitalist nature of Israel has been established, and that which sustained their own grandparents and parents who belonged to the economic, political and cultural elites of the state. The majority of the demonstrators were born into the social class that was the main beneficiary of the welfare state for Jews. It was built on the ruins of the Palestinian people, theft of their lands and properties, and the marginalization of the Palestinian citizens who survived the 1948 Nakba. The welfare state discriminated against Mizrahi workers and poor – albeit to a much lesser degree than the Palestinian citizens.
The demonstrators’ middle-class parents continued to enjoy the benefits of the neo-liberal and privatization regime introduced by Labor in 1985, as well as the remains of the welfare state which still existed here until the ascent to power of the extreme right-wing governments in the last decade. Hence the majority of the protesters aspired to regain their lost privileges in the socio-economic systems and not to do away with neo-liberalism and the free market, not to mention the settler-colonial nature of Israel.
Being raised on the ideology that privatization serves the Zionist state and its economy well made them devoid of a genuine solidarity with Palestinian citizens or the Jewish laborers and poor. This stance underlined the strategy of “Anything But Politics!” adopted by the movement’s leaders from the start. They justified this strategy by their aim “to avoid any sign of political affiliation” which would prevent many from joining the protest. And indeed due to this a-political approach, the support for the protest reached unprecedented dimensions. This wide support, however, indicated the common denominator of both the leaders and the masses of the protest – namely, their commitment to the state and its political regime.
Ignoring the Palestinian citizens
The demand for “social justice” has not addressed the structural discrimination and devastating policies against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The call for “attainable accommodation” did not relate to the very legal constitutional base of the apartheid policies which denied Palestinians access to 93 percent of the lands in Israel (75 percent of which were confiscated from Palestinians) which are “state lands” for the benefit of Jews alone. Nor was their protest against “housing shortage” include the regulations issued by governmental or municipality departments which discriminated against Palestinian citizens in building roads to their communities or in allocating building permits.
Limiting the designation of developable land to only two percent of their lands has suffocated the Palestinian localities even within the residence allotment they were given since the establishment of the state. The number of Bedouin houses demolished in the Naqab (Negev) escalated to more than 1000 in 2011 (an increase of 120 percent in comparison to 2010), as part of the policies adopted by all Israeli governments to concentrate the Bedouins in poor and desolate townships which lack any employment resources.
All of these issues have not been considered to be adequate subjects for the tent movement’s campaign, which avoided politics in their search for the widest common denominator within Jewish society. Hence, it’s no wonder that the Palestinian national institutions, parties or NGOs, did not express solidarity with the movement as did their Jewish counterparts. Very few Palestinian individuals or communities joined the encampments and demonstrations organized by the tents’ movement. An article by Salman Masalha which was published in Haaretz at the peak of the protest represents the Palestinians’ sharp criticism at the hypocrisy of the Tents’ movement:
“Even if the slogan ‘The people demand social Justice’ uttered by tens of thousands in the streets of Israel of late is pleasant to hear, it is the greatest of lies. Were its users asked to explain which ‘people,’ demand what ‘justice’ for which ‘society,’ the slogan would crumble.”
As an example, Masalha presents the case of the racist discourse of “enlightened” Jewish communities around the authorities’ suggestion to return some of their lands to the Palestinian village Jisr al-Zarqa. This is how Modi Bracha, a resident of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and deputy head of the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council explained the Jewish community’s opposition to the plan to enlarge the area of Jisr al-Zarqa:
“No one needs to teach me about socialism, but if a farmer received a land why should he relinquish the asset that is supposed to provide him a living? […] From a national perspective, too, I am opposed to the idea of taking lands from a Jew and give them to an Arab.”
“To spell it out to the champions of ‘social justice,’ Jisr al-Zarqa is the only Arab community that ‘socialist’ Zionism left all along the coast of Israel [which was cleansed in 1948 from its many Palestinian villages, and their lands including those of Jisr al-Zarqa were confiscated]. This community is trapped between the sea and the coastal road, between Caesarea and Ma’agan Michael. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics can surely add to the explication: The population density in the village is catastrophic, 7,730 people per square kilometer, compared to an average density of 321 per kilometer for the whole country…”
Ignoring Mizrahi workers and the poor
All throughout the last decade, tents populated by homeless and unemployed – mostly Mizrahim – have been erected at the margins of the big cities and “development towns.” From time to time, workers and the poor have participated in mass meetings and demonstrations, protesting against their appalling socioeconomic condition. They have been ignored by Israeli establishment including the Histadrut, Labor and other political parties. The self-organization of the disadvantaged socio-economic layers in the form of NGOs which fought for their social and economic rights have hardly won any attention of the media.
The leaders of the middle-class tent movement did not see their own “tent protest” as part of the past and present protest of the unemployed and the poor who lack housing whose tents have been already there since long before. Due to mistrust in the middle-class’ solidarity with them, the Mizrahim leaders have postponed the mobilization of their followers to the tent movement. Only in mid-August a rather much smaller number of tents than that in the center of Tel Aviv or in the center of other big cities were erected in poor neighborhoods and “development towns.” Some of them just joined the old ones. However, their participation in the “tent movement” was only formal. The Mizrahi activists continued with their own agenda and discourse which was not addressed by the leaders of the protest movement. Thus, for example, on the 24th of September the “Periphery Forum” – which consisted of representatives of encampments of the unemployed and poor throughout the country – organized a demonstration opposite the home of the minister of housing under the slogan “A home for all.”
Unlike the middle-class protesters, the Mizrahim do have a tradition of militant uprisings in which the Black Panthers movement of the early 1970s is considered the “jewel in the crown” of sporadic Mizrahi uprisings. The discourse of the present small self-organizing projects of unemployed and poor Mizrahi still emphasizes the inevitable connection between “politics” and their social-economic oppression as did the “Black Panthers” in the past.
The mass meeting which took place at the “assembly hall” in Tel Aviv on September 21st was dedicated to the lecture of Reuven Abergil, one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers and now a member of “Tarabut-Hit’habrut: an Arab-Jewish Movement for Social and Political Change.” Abergil spoke at length about “the back yard and front yard of Israeli society,” about the discrimination and oppression of Mizrahim and Palestinians and the racism which is built into Israeli establishment and Zionist ideology. He continued to tell the audience the story of the Black Panthers’ uprising and their violent repression by the establishment.
When analyzing the character of the current Tents’ movement, he said:
“What is the difference between the present current cry of the middle class and the old and continuous cry of the back yard? The middle class people cry against what was taken from them and about what is being taken from them at the present. In the past they had security and status and expectations. Now they are uprising against the swine that destroys all what they used to have. The people of the back yard however, the [poor] neighborhoods and development towns have never had a significant existential security. For them, social change does not mean a longing for a welfare state but for a deep social change… Still, all along the past years, the inhabitants of the back yard tried to demonstrate and express their protest in different ways and always were repressed by the police and the authorities. Maybe this time when finally also the inhabitants of the front yard demand part of our demands – there is hope that our joint voice would be heard… The protest should end only when the regime of pigs and masters would end.”
However, precisely because of this hope the coming betrayal by the middle-class leaders was even more cruel than ever before.
Co-optation: the establishment “bear hugs” the protest
From its onset, the tent movement of the summer of 2011 was embraced by the political establishment and by industrialist and business elite. This was done by re-articulating the rather blurred and “non-political” demands of the protest leadership so as to fit their ideology of “free market” and neo-liberal economy. The labor and the Histadrut have used the protest for strengthening their own political power by claiming that the protest reflects Labor’s “social democracy” agenda.
Co-optation by the Business Elite
The business elite in Israel has been launching a bitter campaign against the big monopolies and cartels and against the right-wing government that supports them. Their interests and positions are regularly represented in “The Marker, the Magazine of Economy and Business in Israel” (a supplement to the daily Haaretz).
The Marker has warmly supported the protest movement from it first days. The magazine has followed daily the protest activities with long reports and analytical articles which glorified the protest’s leaders and their demands for “social justice.”
The reason for this “bear embrace” by Israeli capitalists was disclosed by Dov Lautman who was, for many years the chair of the Manufacturers Association of Israel and was a 2007 recipient of the Israel Prize. In 1975 he established the textile enterprise Delta – a company considered to be one of the world’s five leading companies in the production of underwear clothing. In an interview with Lautman in early August, he said:
“The government must act [to respond positively to the protest] because if not, the demonstrations would reach the lower classes. At present the participants in the demonstrations are of the fourth or five upper tenths; they have not yet trickled to the lower tenths and the latter have not yet participated in them. But they would [in the future] because their distress is much greater [than that of the middle class]. The social gaps endanger our future more than the Hamas and the Hezbollah.”
Lautman represents the prevailing position among the industrialist and business elite in Israel that seeks to do away with the most destructive consequences of economic neo-liberalism and the ideology which supports “wild capitalism.” This stance is in accord with the “re-thinking” of the International Monetary Fund as expressed by Michel Kamarso, the ex-chair of the IMF in his visit to Israel in the first week of November. The report on Kamarso’s visit, published in The Marker, says: “He called for comprehensive reform in the economic method; for return to the social values of Adam Smith and for re-introducing the concept of social justice to economic thinking and to the market economy… While expressing his understanding for the protest movements across the world against the results of globalization, Kamarso determines that the governments and policy makers should prepare for the coming crisis which may be much more sever.”
However, the business elite made sure to interpret the term “social justice” in accord with its class interests. The socio-economic difficulties were assumed to result from the Israeli government support for the big monopolies both in the public and private sectors. Hence the cure for the unjust economic regime is to “liberate” the market from the monopolies and encourage the competitiveness in the economy by opening it to import, and by breaking the monopolies and dismantling cartels. It has been assumed that strengthening competition in a free economy would result in increased growth and prosperity that would trickle down to wide socio-economic strata.
Following the “new winds” of “social justice” among leaders of world globalization, Guy Rolnik the founder and editor of The Marker stated: “Contrary to the Left position, there is no contradiction between a free market and a strong public sector. Both are elements in a state which wants to advance towards a viable welfare state.”
The government of Israel pretended to accept in principle the demands of the protest for “social justice” including the specific demands of the protest’s devoted supporters among the business elite. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu appointed Professor Manuel Trachtenberg to head a committee “for suggesting reforms in the economy” which came to be known as “The Manuel Trachtenberg Committee.” Netanyahu also re-activated the committee for raising competition in the economy (“the centralization committee”) which had been dormant since its nomination nine months prior.
However, Netanyahu’s main aim – as would be proved later – was to dissolve the protest and weaken the challenge against the “tycoons” – the small group of families that control the public’s wealth as emphasized by The Marker.
Co-optation by the government – the “Trachtenberg Committee”
The chair of the Trachtenberg committee and its members were selected from within the political and economic establishment. As they held senior positions in government ministries, they were responsible for the present economic policies which they were called to reform. Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg was, in the past, the head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and is currently the chair of the Committee for Planning and Budgeting of the High Education Council. Among Trachtenberg committee’s members were the General Director of the PM Office, the Head of the National Council for the Economy, the General Director of the National Security Institute and high officials of the Ministry of Finance such as the Supervisor of the State Incomes and the head of the Budgets Department.
The mandate given to the Trachtenberg Committee prohibited to base its recommendations upon opening the framework of 2012 state budget. This limitation implied at best only very minor changes which would not respond to the demands of the protest for “changing the order of preferences.”
The business elite embraced the nomination of the Trachtenberg Committee mainly for its plans to encourage competitive strength within the economy. The protest leadership, however, was split over the approach to Trachtenberg: Itzik Shmuli, the chair of the students union called to support and cooperate with the committee in which he saw a good potential for introducing socio-economic changes. On the other hand, Dafna Leef and her colleagues opposed the Trachtenberg Committee. They appointed their own independent advisory committee headed by Professor Avia Spivak of the Hebrew University and Professor Yossi Yonah of Beer Sheva University – “The Spivak Committee” – to come up with reforms of their own. The Spivak Committee was composed of top experts in different social and economic areas whose positions supported in principle the welfare state model.
Daphni Leef called upon Prof. Treachtenberg to resign from his post as chair of the committee which she identified as “the most cynical, misleading and cruel” and as “a one-time pocket money intended to put an end to the protest.” In a few weeks time, Spivak and Yonah published their comprehensive program for a thorough change in the socio-economic policies based on expanding the 2012 budget. Among others, they demanded the increase of the government’s contribution to the Gross National Product; limit inequality and poverty by rehabilitating the public services and by introducing a deep reform in the labor market – mainly by a significant reduction of the widespread use of contractor employees (supported by the Histadrut), and by raising the direct taxation mainly on capitalist-industrial, commercial companies and people of high incomes.
Each of the sub-committees nominated by Spivak and Yonah has translated the general policy outlines to concrete recommendations.
Thus, for example, the team in charge of social security demanded, among other things, a significant increase in the government spending for welfare; the halt of privatization processes; a raise in the level of different allowances paid by the state such as unemployment allowance, income security, and a negative income tax.
This plan truly interpreted the protest call for “social justice” to specific policies. The “responsible” part of the protest leadership, represented by Itzik Shmulik in fact rejected it and preferred Trachtenber’s limited reforms. However, the Leef-led “radical” part among the leaders would later come to support Trachtenberg and express regret of opposing it. In light of the wide support for the Trachtenberg Committee, the withdrawal of the protesters support has left the Spivak-Yonah attempt to erase the most disastrous effects of neo-liberalism with no one to struggle for it; which left it silenced and forgotten.
End of middle class encampment protest – betrayal of workers and the poor
The expectations of PM Netanyahu’s nominations of the Trachtenberg Committee indeed came true. It inflicted a lethal blow to the middle class protest in the streets. The protesters hurried to dismantle the tents in the center of Tel Aviv following an agreement achieved in a “civilized” dialogue with the Tel Aviv municipality at the High Court. The leaders declared that they were moving to “a new style of protest” which actually would signify the last stage of the protest – integrating into the hegemony.
On the other hand, the encampments in the poor neighborhoods in Bat Yam, Holon and “development towns” were brutally removed from their tents with all their holdings destroyed and thrown away by the municipalities and the police. The “lawful” middle class young protesters and their leaders did not mobilize any solidarity actions to defend them, not to mention to join the determined resistance to the evacuation of their “partners” to the protest. The disadvantaged workers and unemployed have returned to their pre-summer situations. Isolated and neglected as ever, they continued to raise their silenced voice and organized their own activities and demonstration. They have thus remained the only unequivocal opposition to Trachtenberg Committee – an opposition that just a short while ago had been shared by part of the middle class leadership. In their demonstration facing the Knesset, while the discussion on the Trachtenberg report went on, they said: “We demonstrate against the fact that the committee’s conclusions don’t answer the demands of the tent protest. We demand the enlargement of the budget cake and say no to the crumbs offered to us”.
The Trachtenberg report was submitted to the PM on September 25th. It confirmed the concerns of the heads of the alternative committee headed by Spivak and Yonah, and their supporters among the protest leaders: “the committee was designated to deceive,” and “instead of admitting the failure of the existing policy of the government it in fact defending it: It sees utmost importance in preserving the fiscal framework of the state of Israel.”
Trachtenberg explicitly admitted that the aim of his committee was to improve the socio-economic condition of the middle class. When presenting the report conclusions in a press meeting he said: “The intermediate stratum feels as if it is [squeezed] between the hammer and the anvil: between a strata that does not bear the burden [the poor and unemployed] and an inappropriate wealth. This is a bitter feeling of injustice.”
However Trachtenberg’s recommendations have no solution for even the most fundamental problems of the middle class which motivated them to go out to the streets. No real reforms in public housing and control of rent fees were suggested, nor was a policy which would enforce the building of affordable housing. The recommendations for free education from age 3 until the end of high school and for reduction of university fees have proved to be just futile since no financing sources in the 2012 state budget were available .
The business elite also admitted that the Trachtenberg report had not supplied an immediate answer to the middle class need for improving its socio-economic conditions. But still, what they consider the report’s most important contribution is that it has changed completely the public discourse: the recognized need to return the “real free market” which would replace the current government’s strict regulation of the market for the benefit of the tycoons and the big monopolies.
The business elite has remained the last fighters for igniting the flames of the middle class mass protest. Their aim was to put pressure on the government to implement the Trachtenberg’s recommendations for canceling the “centralization in the economy.” Realizing that the government has not intended to implement them brought Trachtenberg himself to plead to the protest leaders to back his attempts to influence the government decisions. In his desperation he admitted: “Whoever expected the committee or its report alone to serve as the central tool for change has deceived himself’.”
Time and again, the Marker has warned that “all the tycoons, the heads of oligopolies and financial-reality pyramids must stop their battle against the public interest because, if not, they may bring about an escalated protest of the public against business. The social protest has not died – it is only at the beginning of the road.”
Paradoxically, the tents protest for “social justice” has been called upon to support the fight of the business community for a greater share the neo-liberal regime. However, there wasn’t a protest movement anymore which could support them.
From a protest movement to a lobby, a “company,” and community advocates
The leaders of Summer 2011 tent movement have lost their way within the bear hug of Israeli capitalism. On the way to their complete disappearance from the political scene they have paused to try and function as a pressure group. Throughout October and November 2011, Daphni Leef and her colleagues held personal meetings with Knesset members and government ministers. “They are working for us,” the leaders explained when asked how they expected their demands to be met by a government whose ideological approach is so contrary to their own.
Daphni Leef held her first meeting with the right-wing Shas minister of Interior Eli Yishai, who was quick to declare his support for the protest. When coming out from the meeting, Leef declared “Yishai is a real man!” Thus, in one stroke, Yishai erased all his former wrongs, from voting against minimum wage, through deporting the children of migrant laborers, to the racist legislation against Palestinian citizens.
By December, the protest leadership came to be united around the need to campaign for the implementation of the Trachtenberg recommendations as the necessary minimum including Daphni Leef who had fiercely condemned it. They, however, are divided on the alternative ways to the mass protest movement.
Daphni Leef, who initiated the movement, founded a company for the benefit of the public which would fund protest activities of different bodies, not necessarily by her and her friends who are partners to this project. The new movement as she named it would sell shares for 20-30 shekels to the public who would thus “be able to influence its decisions.”
Itzik Shmuli and his colleagues have joined a number of existing “national missions” like the strengthening of the “social periphery” or aiding Holocaust survivors. They also meet government ministers in order to convince them to implement projects for attainable accommodation and education. Shmuli himself moved to live in Lydda to work in a poor neighborhood.
However, by the end of December it was already clear that the government did not intend to implement the Trachtenberg recommendations. Netanyahu retreated from his earlier decision to cut 3 billion shekels from the yearly “defense” budget, at the expense of education, health, and welfare. Moreover, the Knesset, which confirmed this decision on December28th, also voted to add 1.7 billion shekels to the defense budget. By the same token, Netanyahu has not yet followed the recommendations regarding weakening the big monopolies and “open the market.” Thus he retreated from his lip service promise to remove the government defense on the monopolies by allowing competing imports.
Plucking the fruit of the protest: Labor’s “Social Democracy”
MK Sheli Yechimovitz was elected to chair the party by the Labor delegates at their convention on October 17th. A few hours later, the delegates almost unanimously accepted Yechimovitz’s proposal that Labor would support her ally, Ofer Eini, to continue his current post as chair of the Histadrut.
150,000 delegates voted for Yechimovitz to chair Labor, and around 120,000 voted for ex-minister of Defense Amir Peretz. A large number of the voters were new members to the party. The polls, which took place a short time before the convention, predicted that, with Yechimovitch as chair, Labor would gain more than 22 Knesset seats in the next general elections – compared to only eight Labor MKs at present.
No doubt the revival of the Labor party and the victory of Yechimovitch should be attributed to the protest movement. “It is the first political interpretation of the social protest wave that swept over Israel in the last summer,” said an editorial in Haaretz on September 23rd.
Leaders of the protest movement, as well as progressive commentators, have argued that the most important achievement of the Tent Movement was the change it created in the public consciousness regarding the importance of “social issues.” However, for many among the middle-class, Kadima has failed to present an alternative to Netanyahu’s policy – and Yechimovitch’s unearned reputation as a “determined Social Democrat” may appeal to many among them. A short review of her past and present political positions clarifies the meaning of the presumable “change” in public consciousness: the return of the middle-class to support the disingenuous positions of Labor which sustain the political and economic regime of Israel.
The “Social Democracy” perspective of Yechimovitz is far removed from any accepted definition of the term. As her recent book shows, she agrees with the foundations of the neo-liberal and privatization regime. She would fight their wrongs albeit only within the framework of its basic premises. In an interview with Haaretz, which was given at the peak of the protest for “Social Justice,” she admits that her struggle in the Knesset against MKs who represent capital and high officials in the ministry of finance resulted in a new, “sad but sober” insight. That is, “the tremendous effectiveness of neo-liberal economists in leading moves which usually characterize a social-democratic thinking.”
Yechimovitch has been loyal to the “security” doctrine and oppressive policies historically adopted by Labor. She supported the 2006 operation ”Peace for the Galilee” (the Lebanon war) and the 2008 “operation Cast Lead” against Gaza – both led by Labor Ministers of Defense Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak, respectively. Further, she does not think that the settlements in the 1967 occupation territories “are a crime” and mocks at “any one who thinks that Israel should stop the settlement enterprise and retreat to the 1967 borders – as a condition for a change within Israeli society.” Gideon Levy justly responded: “The land was stolen, its owners are oppressed, their people beaten, live under a tyrannical rule precisely because of the settlements – and Yechimovitch does not see any crime in them… The princess of Social Democracy has never been interested in the hardships, machsoms [checkpoints], the inhuman daily agenda of their workers, nor in the tens of thousands unemployed who don’t have access to work because of their nationality.” And Levy warned the protesters: “All proponents of social justice should shirk this enemy of justice.”
But it was in vain. In two months time, tens of thousands from among the protesters joined the ranks of Labor and supported Sheli Yechimovitch’s party. Her ignoring of the connection between Israel’s neo-liberalism and its oppressive policies towards the Palestinians fits well with the strategy of “all but not politics” adopted by the Tent Movement. The same goes for ignoring the connection between Israel’s economic regime and its central role in enforcing the US imperial interests in the Middle East. A US-Israel planned attack against Iran, Gaza or Lebanon would allow the pretext of Israel’s “security” to silence any protest against the escalating neo-liberal policies. Labor and the middle-class protesters of late would unite with the right-wing to fight for Israel’s “existence,” as they did in the past.
The sad story of the tent protest in Israel proves once and again that being captive to the Zionist colonial state blocks the emergence of genuine left forces – democratic or socialist – the only alternative for relieving Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire Middle East, from the yoke of neo-liberalism and US Imperialism.