In less than one month demonstrations in Israel over rising costs of living exploded into a mass protest movement, showing its formidable strength on Saturday with close to 300,000 taking to the streets.
Massive protests addressing socioeconomic issues had “never been seen,” wrote Israeli daily Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy.
Israeli journalist Eitan Haber writing in the top-selling Yedioth Ahronoth Newspaper, while seeing the protesters’ social demands as only secondary to an array of other concerns – such as the Iranian nuclear bomb – concedes that the scale of the protests is “impressive.”
Indeed, as reported by Ynet, the protests spanned from the southernmost port city of Eilat to as far north as Kiryat Shomna on the Lebanese border, encompassing numerous cities in the middle, the bulk flooding the streets of Tel Aviv.
Addressing the demonstrators at the Tel Aviv rally, the head of the National Student Union Itzik Shmuli said "there have always been demonstrations and rallies to protest the past, yet this is the first time hundreds of thousands of people are gathering time and again to tell our leaders: We demand change.”
The sheer mass of demonstrators prompted the Israeli government to take action. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he formed a cabinet-level committee led by economist Manuel Trachtenberg, the head of Israel's National Council for Higher Education.
The new committee is to consult with employers groups and the powerful Histadrut union, as reported by AFP. According to Trachtenberg, the new committee’s recommendations will be presented to the committee for economic and social affairs and then to government.
Tax cuts and the breakup of cartels to benefit the middle class were mentioned on Friday by Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who might take a cabinet position.
The public discontent, a challenge to the right-wing Likud-led government, started when demonstrators erected tents in classy Israeli city centres to protest expensive housing prices. Netanyahu responded by promising to speed up housing construction, discount government land for home-buyers and increase student accommodation.
However, Netanyahu’s support for a the National Housing Committees bill – passed by parliament – to ease regulations on building contractors angered protesters further, who claimed the result would be more construction for the wealthy. They dismissed Netanyahu’s argument that the legislation was addressing their demands by increasing housing to bring down prices.
Soon after, and as the protests gained momentum, it became obvious that the platform of demands expanded to include social disparity. The large banner in Saturday’s rallies said it all: "The People Demand Social Justice."
Protesters started calling on the government to decrease the cost of living in general.
Furthermore, they supported last month’s protests in the education and healthcare sector, demanding improvements and expansion in these areas. Doctors had gone on strike over working conditions and deteriorating medical services.
As the protests grow with a solid support base, the popularity of Netanyahu’s coalition government dwindles, forcing it to take the grievances of protesters seriously and ignoring conservative voices that insist the demands are practically impossible to achieve.
A Haaretz poll conducted in July showed that 87 per cent of respondents expressed support for the protests while Netanyahu’s approval had dropped from 51 per cent to 32 in just two months.
Kahlon said a solution was required, even if it "cost billions,” a statement with considerable weight as the Western world is haunted by the debt troubles of the US and some European countries, such as Greece and Ireland.
The Israeli protests have been said to slightly mirror those of Egypt and the Arab Spring, what with the use of similar slogans on banners, such as “Leave!” in Arabic, as used in all of the Arab uprisings to date, another reading “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
It is clear, however, that the demonstrations in Israel are posing demands for government to carry out, and not to oust the government to per se.
For example, the Jerusalem Post published an article titled “Protest leaders deny movement has become politicised,” where they quoted Shmuli as saying: “we [protesters] aren’t asking for a change of personnel in the government or a change in the coalition in the parliament that was elected by the people. We are young people who are demanding a change in the cruel economic policies … we are demanding an economy that takes into consideration the suffering of people and not one that only crunches numbers.”
In Haber’s column, he was also quick to highlight this point, saying that “last night [Saturday] most of the speakers, surprisingly, were careful to respect the prime minister.”
The argument that economic demands are political in nature notwithstanding, the mass protests in Israel are far from Arab uprisings which, while springing from pressing social needs, strive to break entire regimes as a necessary precondition for achieving social equality and lowering the cost of living.
Netanyahu’s appointment of the committee was taken coldly by protesters, who were criticised and were sceptical as to the effectiveness of the move, but have not rejected it completely.
Senior Likud members, reported Yedioth Ahronoth, view Netanyahu’s committee as “puzzling and possibly counterproductive.”
While the sit-in continues, the Tel Aviv mayor hinted Sunday that they will force evacuate the sit-in tents, saying that “all protests eventually end.”