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Israel's Middle Class Corrections, Less Social Rebellion

 16 August 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Israel's middle class protesters are holding steady, digging in and trying not to lose momentum. As everyone knows – demonstrating and sleeping outside in August is a trifle uncomfortable but not painful. The question is "What happens when the rains come?" But that is only in two to three months time. In the meantime the government appointed the Trachtenberg committee of experts to come up with economic and especially housing solutions to end the protests. Prof. Trachtenberg had a surprise meeting with the demonstrators two nights ago emphasizing that the government will do what it can but drawing the line at overspending, alluding to the American and European debt crises. On the other hand an independent group of several dozen experts organized to give advice on how to maximize socio-economic change, restructuring and keep the social protest going. They fear half way steps will put an early end to social change. To sum up there is a major socio-economic debate in the shadow of world economic crisis and the looming September issues (Palestinian independence?) and so far no real violence except for a few marginalized anarchists trying to "capitalize" on general discontent, and yes, someone from a poor neighborhood did throw shoes at the two members of the Trachtenberg committee during a meeting in Beersheva. But let's face it security is not our only concern. We are finally confronting serious domestic issues which can hold our society together or tear it apart.

The Right wing and Haredim are stifling a furious anger directed against the media in particular. Nadav Haetzni, a Ma'ariv columnist living in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) attacked the media on Israel's Channel 2 saying almost all are not reporting the news but rather acting as PR reps for the demonstrators. He claims only a few thousands are showing up for demonstrations outside of Tel Aviv, hinting broadly that the movement is Left wing secular middle class, does not have the masses behind it and is less than representative.

His point is valid but only in part. Those living across Israel's 1967 lines are facing constant building freezes for political/diplomatic reasons and are at variance ideologically with most of the demonstrators. The ultra-orthodox haredim for the most part have little interest in socio-economic issues, rather depending on the Likud's coalition partners Shas (Sephardi haredi) and UTJ (Ashkenazi haredi) to award them housing, yeshiva and educational funds and draft deferments in political deals to keep them in the government. Both of these groups stand to lose if the government shifts priorities to the more mainstream twenty and thirty "somethings" living inside Israel's declared boundaries (including many Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem across the 1967 lines).

Secondly, members of the lower classes interviewed on TV consider this whole operation to be far too much of a campout with singing and entertainment when the great majority of the demonstrators have jobs and a roof over their heads. The middle class may be squeezed by high prices and not be able to afford to buy a flat in the center of the country, but they, the lower classes barely have jobs, rent substandard housing in poor neighborhoods often in peripheral development towns, have poor schooling for their kids and do not see any real hope on the horizon. When the poor had "bread and employment" demos over the years the middle class yawned and in the end the police and municipalities evacuated them forcefully from their tent and cardboard housing during the winter. Many had nowhere to go. The lower class interviewees express appreciation for the middle class rebellion but do not believe it will go very far and even if it does, most likely the poor will not benefit. When asked what should be the next step many were quick to add that only violence would bring about a fundamental change in government priorities. For the mainstream demonstrators such behavior is anathema. The poor however may yet grab the biggest headlines with no regard for anarchist antics.

Politically Netanyahu and the Likud have a bit of an immediate problem. The PM is down in the polls from a 50% approval rating in early June to 29% at the moment, but such numbers mean close to nothing. A crisis or two with the Palestinians and Arab world in September and everything could change. Pollsters say that if elections were held today there would be little if any change in the Knesset make-up – meaning that Netanyahu would continue as PM or with a slight shift towards the center Kadima's Tzipi Livni, would be premier. She and her party are as responsible for Israel's over centralized capitalist approach as much as Netanyahu. So who's left - the Laborites?

With all Labor's eight seats (out of 120 in the Knesset) and the virtual collapse of their social democratic platform they are close to useless at the present. No doubt there are those trying to rejuvenate the party (like Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog) who in the past warned not only of increasing social gaps but that the young middle class may too rebel. Much of their strength is drawn from the Histadrut Labor Union led by Giora Eini. One would think this is a plus. Unfortunately today the union represents the powerful extremely well paid sectors controlling the ports, electric company, water concern Mekorot, etc. Each one of these sub-unions is a virtual cartel in its own right and their workers draw salaries several times greater than the average wage. These sub-unions have close to full control over critical junctures of Israel's economic infrastructure. No doubt there are tycoon families controlling much of the Israeli economy but one forgets the "collective tycoons" as represented by these professional unions. To truly re-prioritize the supposed Labor social democrats need to limit the power of these unions. Neither the middle class nor the poor will identify with a "labor aristocracy". Although they have over the years negotiated in good faith for the average worker, Eini and the Histadrut have a long way to go before they gain enough credit on the national level to be truly seen as leaders. After all they are not even capable of convincing the government to make the very necessary concessions to end the doctors' strike. All this rubs off on the Labor party and any chance they have to either win an election or even be an influential coalition partner.

One should not expect massive change. There will be tax restructuring to apportion more financial obligations to the wealthy and cut sales taxes (VAT). Seemingly, Netanyahu's coalition partners have little to worry about until the next elections in 2013. The middle class revolt is given much more to evolution and is seen as "soft". The demonstrators are not demanding a revolution but rather a correction. They will get it in part and only several years down the road.

Only a sustained, disruptive and at times violent rebellion by Israel's Likud supporting lower classes will shake the government into more radical action such as building low income housing for poor working families. But Likud stalwarts are not going to undermine the party seen as holding the line against the Palestinians, the Arab world, Obama, the EU and the UN. Foreign policy and unity in the face of outside threats have always in the past trumped any demand for socio-economic change.

Full lower class participation in the demos accompanied by demands and credible threats against the government remain the only catalyst for deep social change. They can even threaten not to vote for the Likud (and then actually do it). The middle class will be happy with government intervention bringing down prices and making the appropriate adjustments. Then they will go home. If the lower classes do not organize and focus their demands most specifically for housing and education, this is exactly what will happen, another opportunity will be missed and once again they will be left behind.