Tue, Aug 02, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Protests could spark revival of Israeli left’s spirits

NY Times News Service, JERUSALEM

For years Israelis told themselves they had to suppress major domestic difficulties to deal first with their existential challenge. Security needs required collective sacrifice.

So as the quality of education declined and wages stagnated, as apartment prices rose and wealth grew concentrated in fewer hands, little political pressure arose. The real threats, it was widely asserted, remained those from Iran, radical Islam and Palestinian violence. Little else mattered.

In the space of two weeks, that conventional wisdom has softened with the rise of a huge protest movement over the cost of living and the sense that, despite soaring national wealth, the paycheck of the average Israeli does not cover family expenses.

What started as a modest -Facebook-driven protest by young people over housing prices has mushroomed into what many analysts suspect could be one of the more significant political developments here in years — and a possible opening for the defeated left.

On Saturday night, 150,000 people took to the streets across the country demanding “social justice,” one of the biggest demonstrations in Israel’s history and its largest protest ever over social and economic issues.

The phenomenon, reminiscent of recent protests not only in Egypt, but also in Spain, is too new and unwieldy for a unifying theory about what is driving it or where it is headed. A security emergency like a terrorist or deadly rocket attack could stop the movement in its tracks. And it does not yet have the power to bring down the government: None of the parties in the governing coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem inclined to pull out, meaning no sign of early elections.

Still, the populist, grassroots challenge to the government could open new political terrain.

For outsiders, it may seem strange that this is happening just as the Palestinian leadership prepares a bid to join the UN next month that could cause Israel further diplomatic isolation and popular uprisings in the occupied West Bank.

However, it is probably the very remoteness of a solution as well as the decline in terrorist attacks of the past few years along with the growing national wealth that have allowed this movement to coalesce.

“We’d been accustomed to believe that everything that mattered was about security,” said Anat Ben-Simon, a Jerusalem psychologist. “All other issues had to wait. And we were constantly on the verge of some solution. But now there is nothing on the horizon, it’s pretty quiet on the security front and people got sick and tired of waiting. Meanwhile, Israel became insanely expensive with a handful of families controlling everything.”

Daniel Doron, director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a pro-market research institution, agreed.

“Monopolies and cartels dominate every sphere of life here,” he said. “After years of being exploited, the Israeli consumer is waking up. There is a widespread feeling that people simply can’t hack it.”

Netanyahu quickly grasped the significance of the protests and, canceling a trip abroad, issued directives and plans to ease the burden on consumers. He has proposed new rules to make housing more affordable and has frozen gasoline prices, while his public responses have been dominated by bold talk of ending monopolies and sympathy for the demonstrators.

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