If there had been any doubt regarding the importance of the protest that began more than a week ago on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard and reached a peak with Saturday night's demonstration in the city - it disappeared under the zigzagging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his circle. This ranged from denouncing demonstrators as "leftist extremists" and "foreign-funded radicals," to giving them a public bear hug yesterday. The reactions of politicians from all the parties, who have rushed to formulate draft bills and regulations for housing reform, prove that the protest is not the mere caprice of spoiled kids who aren't willing to live outside the Tel Aviv area, as the housing minister claimed.
Like the protest over high gasoline prices and the boycott of cottage cheese, from the start the tent protest reflected discomfort on the part of the middle class. This pillar of Israeli society carries most of the burden of citizens' duties to the state: It works, pay taxes and serves in the army. For the past several years members of the middle class have grown increasingly frustrated, feeling - justifiably - that they are being passed over in the distribution of resources. While the prime minister and the finance minister boast of Israel's success in the face of the deepening financial crisis in Europe and the United States, the economic fruits of this success are being picked by sectors of society with higher political priority: They enjoy rock-bottom prices on housing, education and welfare, while the wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very small group, with ever-expanding political influence.
The tens of thousands of demonstrators who turned out Saturday night were therefore not speaking only about the housing crunch. As with their counterparts in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and the courageous revolutionaries who overthrew the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, these young, educated professionals also expressed significant discontent with the distorted priorities of their government. They too demanded a more just distribution of resources, a commitment by the state to the well-being of its citizens and even restoration of the welfare state.
Even if representatives of the right escalate their verbal assaults on the Rothschild demonstrators, and even if the cabinet suddenly dispatches a "supertanker" to put out the flash fire - there is no escaping the truth of the protest. This is a welcome awakening. It must not remain in the public square, and must receive expression also within the political system.
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