Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

"The People Demand Social Justice!" but how will they get it?

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"Dear government, share in the joy of your people, who will be hitting the streets again, en mass, Saturday night.... share in our joy. You have an opportunity, possibly the last one, to join the people and start marching. If you do not - if you dare not - you shall stay there alone, behind" wrote Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of the social protest in Israel, just before Saturday night's rally, the last demonstration in this phase of the social protest that swept Israel this summer.

On Saturday night 400,000 Israelis filled the streets in the largest demonstrations in the history of Israel. After 50 days of demonstrations and marches and after dozens of tent sites appeared across the country, the demands for "social justice", solutions to the housing problem and to the sky-rocketing cost of living, were heard loud and clear.

After Saturday night's rallies, some of the tent sites were being dismantled. The National Union of Israeli Students, one of the most prominent bodies in the protest, made a decision to take down its tents, and enter a new phase in the protest, based on deliberation with the government and with Trachtenberg committee, which was established by the government to deal with the demands of the protesters.

Shortly after the mass rally in Tel Aviv, the city authorities were quick to act, issuing eviction notices which were handed to the remaining tent dwellers in Rothschild boulevard. Itzik Shmuli, leader of the National Union of Israeli Students called on municipal authorities and the government not to forcefully evacuate the remaining tents, as many of their occupants are still await public housing solutions, and are "holding on to the poles of the tents to avoid falling [into] the abyss".

Other protest organisers announced that there is no official call to fold the tents and expressed their objection to the issuing of eviction notices. They added that while the path of deliberation is welcome (and expressing no objection to cooperation with Trachtenberg committee), they will continue to keep the protest going in other directions as well.

It appears a new discourse has emerged out of this summer's protest. A discourse that might lead to some important changes in Israeli politics. The aspirations and demands for a more comfortable standard of living, it is predicted, will play a role in changing government policy (even though until now, many of the original complaints of the protesters have not been met).

"The economic challenges remain daunting", explains the editorial by JPost, adding that as long as they persist so will the momentum of the protest continue. But how will the change happen? Hagai Segal ("In love with the protests", Ynet) points to a poll by the Israeli radio station "Reshet Bet" which suggests that Israelis would still vote for the same coalition if elections were to take place. He argues that this suggests that Israelis "want their social justice within the existing government framework" and the Trachtenberg committee. According to Segal, this path towards change remains plausible since the government has realised by now that the protest should not and cannot be ignored.

Manuel Trachtenberg himself expressed his commitment to change within the existing framework, and said in a joint press conference with Shmuli that "Israeli society has strong and healthy foundations, but there is a need to push for change within this framework and there will also be a series of concrete steps which lead together with the general perception to a better place".

Nehemia Shtrasler ("Israel's social unrest means the people are back on top", Haaretz) argues that the protest already had an effect on both government policy and private companies. He bases his claim on a 19 Agotot per liter reduction in fuel prices due to a reduction of the fuel companies profit margin, as well as a reduction in the prices of 20-30 basic products in chain supermarkets. Many would say, however, that this does not express the kind of change in priorities that the people on the streets were hoping for.

Shtrasler further argues that other changes are on their way- such as Netanyahu's promise to build cheap housing and the future work and recommendations of the Trachtenberg committee. But most of all, "the balance of power has changed. The public understands it has power both vis-a-vis the government and vis-a-vis the monopolies and the cartels. The political discourse has changed, and it will have an influence on the results of the next elections", he predicts.

Veteran Israeli commentator and Australia/Israel Review correspondent Amotz Asa-el has some useful predictions about what realistically can be adopted by the Ntenyahu government in response to the protestor's demands:

"The first victim will be the corporate tax, which under Netanyahu's leadership was gradually reduced from 36% in 2003 to 25% and was planned to settle at 18% by 2016, a level that would have been the lowest in the OECD. Now this process will be halted, to show that burdens are being shifted to the haves, and to fund new social spending.

After the corporate-tax retreat will come the capital-gains tax, which will likely be raised. And then will come the defense budget, whose size, nearly 15% of the budget, is second to nothing in Israel. And finally, income taxes within the highest brackets' might be raised, albeit moderately. At the same time, the value-added tax, currently at 16%, may be sharply cut."

Asa-el also goes on to argue that the protest movement warrants a re-think of some element of the economic conservatism that has characterised the approach of PM Netanyahu as both Finance Minister and now Prime Minister:

"In heeding such expectations, Netanyahu might feel deep inside that he is sinning to his own conservative faith. He shouldn't... a marginal budgeting shift from military to social purposes, and a partial shift of the tax burden from the middle class to the richer echelons, would hardly redefine the government as the arbiter of supply and demand that Netanyahu, like all conservatives, insists it should not be.

Rather, it would simply mean that a new commodity came to be demanded, a commodity named social compassion, a commodity that only the public could effectively demand and that only government could effectively supply."

Other commentators have chose to focus on the effects of the protest within the Israeli society. Yair Lapid ("The new people came out yesterday to say:"No more."", Ynet) argues that a "new people" (using Shmuli phrase "we are the new Israelis" from Saturday's protest) emerged out of the protest, who understand that they are no longer invisible in the eyes of their government, and that they hold power to make a change.

"The new people are not trying to destroy the regime", Lapid writes, "Rather, the opposite is true: they are trying, with all their might, to force the government to do its job."

While the tents coming down slowly but surely (with the help of city inspectors) and the Trachtenberg committee starting to write its report, concrete results and solutions are still not visible. However, what can no longer be ignored is the effects of the new discourse, new-found power and solidarity within Israeli society. "Our demand from the committee is to feel and see the hope that suddenly grows in the state of Israel" said Shmuli to Trachtenberg. And this hope and solidarity might well be the key to substantial social change in future.

Or Avi-Guy

 

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