Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Understanding Israel's Tent Movement

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The Israeli tent movement which began on July 14 as a grass-roots economic protest over housing costs has grown in strength and spread to many other cities in Israel and dominated the news there.

Thousands of Israeli protesters are camping in tents in the middle of central streets in major Israeli cities as a means of protest. Over the weekend police estimated that more than 100,000 people demonstrated in 10 cities across Israel. The protesters shouted: ''the people want social justice!'' and demanded that Prime Minister Netanyahu step down.

According to an article in the Age, polls have shown broad public support for the ‘tent protesters' and a sharp drop in  Netanyahu's approval rating. This has put pressure on Netanyahu to address demands for greater state involvement to remedy the cost of housing, gaps between rich and poor and complaints from many middle-class Israelis that living costs are outstripping their salaries.

The tent movement leadership has prepared a document with a list of demands, which they will present to the Prime Minister. To view the Haaretz article on the demands click here.

So far Netanyahu has not met the protestors. A source that has spoken to Netanyahu said that the Prime Minister "is convinced that the protesters are acting purely out of political motives" and that they want to "boot him out of office."

However, on August 1 Netanyahu pledged ''to change our priorities'' and announced that he would appoint a team of ministers and experts to formulate a plan ''to ease the economic burden on Israeli citizens''.

Also on August 1 Netanyahu spoke at a Knesset session and stated: "the problem is not free competition but rather the absence of full competition, which ultimately harms the citizen."

Netanyahu has also warned against ''populist steps that could bring the country to the situation of certain countries in Europe, which have reached the brink of bankruptcy and mass unemployment''.

While some commentators have argued that protestors have a ‘left wing agenda' others have noted that protestors are from across the political spectrum. An article from the Washington Post republished by the Age stated:

"The protests have drawn people from across the political spectrum and have taken place outside Israel's established political parties and their leaders. The demonstrations have united hawks and doves, those on the right and those on the left, who have traditionally lined up according to their stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And while the protests represent a groundswell of public sentiment, they have not shaken Mr Netanyahu's broad-based right-wing coalition, which maintains a solid majority in parliament."

On August 1 protest leaders met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who expressed support for the movement. Peres told the protest leaders: "I am happy that you placed your love for Israel above all". He also said: "You are not a generation of protests rather a generation of love" and that "what is required now is discussion, not negotiation".

It has been suggested by some in the media that the Israeli protests were inspired by the Arab Spring, for example an article in the Washington Post stated:

"The movement, which has mobilized Israelis in ways that weighty questions of war and peace have not, shows the influence of the Arab Spring, emulating not just its organization methods but also some of its slogans."

"Protesters in Jerusalem who marched on parliament Sunday demanded Netanyahu's resignation and shouted, "The people want social justice!" in an echo of Arab protesters' cry: "The people want to topple the regime!"

However as noted Israeli blogger Shmuel Rosner has written, this analogy amounts to "a new world of idiocy", as Israelis have democracy and enjoy freedom of assembly and freedom of press - protestors are seeking greater social equality, not greater freedom. He points out:

"it's not ‘Arab'. And it's no longer ‘spring'. And it's not about changing the nature of the regime. And it's not about wanting democracy - Israel is already democratic. And the government doesn't shoot people demonstrating against it, or thinking about doing it, or debating whether it should be done. And the country's economy is doing very well, thank you.

And every day of the week there are probably more people at the airport leaving for vacation abroad than people demonstrating in the streets. And there's no courage needed, no risk involved, no dangerous defying of the government. And demonstrations are supported by members of the ruling coalition, by ministers, by mainstream parties."

Rosner also offers some realism in an attempt to hose down some of the media hype about the ‘tent movement', offering comments on the following six questions:

1. Is there a housing crisis in Israel?
2. What do the protesters want?
3. Is the Netanyahu government going to fall?
4. When will this end?
5. Is it all politics?
6. But do Israelis not support the protesters?

On the second point regarding what the protestors want, he notes:

"I don't think they know what they want. Some want the Netanyahu government out - this will not happen very soon. Some just want to air their frustration with the high cost of living - that's understandable but not very effective. All in all, Israel's middle class suffer because of many reasons: high cost of defense; high percentage of people with low income (mostly ultra-Orthodox and Arab) that the middle class pays for; not enough constrains on the very rich and powerful. The middle class wants a larger share of the pie. The government will have to take this into account - but it will not be easy to achieve."

On the sixth point, public support, he points out:

"According to polls they do. But how can anyone not support the cause of 'affordable housing'? We all want affordable housing, preferably a penthouse in central Tel Aviv. The devil is in the details, and these are too complicated for the public to answer with yes-no poll questions."

To read all Rosner's insights into what this movement is and is not, click here.

 

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