Last Wednesday the Knesset voted on the reforms proposed for the Israel Lands Administration. If you happened to drop by parliament that day, you couldn't have failed to notice that the place was thronged by kids.
Not children, actually, but young adults clustered at the entrance to the building in Jerusalem, brandishing placards and howling against the reform.
This young group was the spearhead of a large campaign opposing the ILA reforms. The opposition included 260 representatives of social organizations, who stopped Knesset members en route to the plenum, urging them to cast a vote against the bill.
The activists were receiving orders from the "war room" of the anti-ILA reform campaign which was based, of all places, in the bureau of Laborite member of Knesset Shelly Yachimovich.
This is clearly one of the biggest social welfare-related struggles in the country in recent years, and it crossed political and other lines, uniting thousands of activists from various organizations, youth movements, environmental movements, as well as MKs from the coalition and the opposition alike. These included: Labor's Yachimovich, Habayit Hayehudi's Daniel Hershkowitz, Uri Orbach and Zevulun Orlev; Meretz's Nitzan Horowitz; and Hadash's Dov Khenin.
Even though those involved in the campaign are not professional lobbyists per se - although they gave the impression of being a real protest movement - the impact they wielded was significant.
Campaign activists sent hundreds of personal emails to MKs, spoke to them on their cellular telephones, visited their offices, flooded their mailboxes with letters and even sent them bags of sand. Plus protest groups stationed themselves outside the homes of the Labor cabinet ministers - all to remind them before they entered their government Audis and Volvos that Israel's land must not be plundered.
The result of this campaign was clear on Wednesday in the plenum: Five Labor ministers and two deputy ministers were absent, and the remaining Labor members included the four "rebels" (Eitan Cabel, Amir Peretz, Yuli Tamir and Ophir Pines-Paz), as well as Yachimovich and faction chairman Daniel Ben Simon, who voted against. And all this happened despite the coalition agreement that stipulated that these MKs would support the land reform.
Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who had voiced his objections to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also absent from the plenum. Other MKs who cast a nay vote included Likud MKs Tzipi Hatovely and Danny Danon, and Deputy Minister Ayoob Kara. The absence of majority support for most of the bill's clauses forced Netanyahu to postpone the continuation of the vote, which will apparently take place this Wednesday.
It seems that the prime minister misjudged the intensity of the popular struggle against the legislation and the campaign's influence over the MKs.
One of the campaign's organizers has been Uri Metuki, of the Dror Israel movement (established by alumni of the Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement). For years he has been involved in encouraging discharged soldiers to settle in peripheral areas, and has advanced many educational activities in the youth movement. A few months ago, when he learned that the ILA reforms included the sale of land, he felt that this ran counter to Zionism and all the values he teaches.
"Ever since Netanyahu's general ideas were publicized," says Metuki, "we have shifted into emergency mode. We view the whole subject of selling land as very problematic. On May 4, we held our first demonstration against the scheme. We were then a group of about 10 activists from the Young Guard youth movement, the immigrants' movements and Dror Israel, and we held a small demonstration opposite the Prime Minister's Office against the sale of land. Unfortunately, the ministerial committee decided to recommend approval of the proposed reforms and the ball started rolling."
Thus, while drafting of the bill proceeded, the activities of Metuki and his colleagues intensified.
"A few months ago I received an email from a friend," recalls Niva Lichtman, 24, of Haifa. "At first it looked like junk mail, but something caught my eye and I read on. I quickly realized I had no option but to assume an active role against the sale of land."
Lichtman began participating in the demonstrations and explaining the issue to anyone who would listen: "I spoke to oodles of people, to get them to understand what was going on, including MKs and parliamentary aides. I sent around loads of responses on this subject that were posted on the Internet. To my mind, the problem was and still is a lack of awareness."
Chemistry professor Gerardo Byk of Bar-Ilan University also joined the struggle.
"I came here from Argentina 30 years ago," says Byk, "but I still remember donating some of my bar-mitzvah money to buy land in Israel. True, it was a symbolic act, but it is something I will never forget, and when [others] are deciding to sell land today, it stings."
Byk says he does not object to the reforms per se - rather to the very sale of land itself: "I am sure many Likud voters did not know this was what Netanyahu wanted. There is a lack of public awareness, and if people knew, they would raise a hue and a cry - this [issue] is close to many people's hearts."
Last Monday, two days before the Knesset vote, the social and environmental organizations set up a "situation room" in the offices of Adam Teva V'Din - the Israel Union for Environmental Defense organization, from which members contacted as many MKs and ministers as possible to dissuade them from voting for the reform. Among those who crowded into the offices were representatives from Life and Environment, the Association for Citizens Rights in Israel, Green Course, Friends of the Earth Middle East, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, Association for Distributive Justice, the Heschel Center and the Shatil Project all crowded into the union's Tel Aviv offices.
"The coalition [we] created is very unique, as it brings together social and environmental organizations. It's not every day that all the leading organizations form a combined front. It was very easy to set up the headquarters and work together, thanks to the fact that people grasped that this is a critical and irreversible issue," says Green Course director general Gil Yaacov.
Yaacov says that now that the vote has been postponed, further activities are being organized.
"This week we will call on the entire public to sway the decision makers," he continues. "We will contact every MK and push for the [issue of the] reforms to be opened for an in-depth discussion rather than approved right away."
Nadia Mogilevsky, the lawyer for the Association for Distributive Justice, spoke directly to MKs and was appalled to discover how little they knew about the bill.
"I spoke with MK Yaakov Litzman's aide," she relates, "and he asked me about the coalition's position. I thought he was talking about the coalition of [anti-reform] organizations, but he was talking about the coalition in the Knesset. I left my conversation with him with a feeling that he had no idea what the law was about and cared only about the coalition's position. I was completely astounded. There were a few Likud members who caught on to what was happening and opposed the law. I think they realized that the significance of the reform is the transfer of built-up and open spaces to private ownership."
Despite the multitude of organizations involved in the campaign, there was an orderly division of labor. The youth movements' members were sent to speak to the MKs from the political camp to which the youths belonged, and all pulled their weight. Some MKs do not recall any similar struggle with such strong grass-roots opposition.
"This is a rare instance of values defeating politics," said Yachimovich. "These volunteers really care about the state, and know how to bridge their differences. The grass-roots work directly influenced the ministers and thinned the ranks of the coalition. The campaign against the privatization of land is a popular struggle, devoid of economic interests."
Even so, Netanyahu's threat to fire ministers and deputy ministers who vote against the bill, and to block approval of the "Smoliansky Law" [which will enable Nissan Smoliansky of the National Religious Party to return to the Knesset and replace Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz of Habayit Hayehudi] could spur rebellious MKs ultimately to toe the line.
"The next battle will be harder," admits Yachimovich, "because the coalition is threatening the MKs who object to the reform bill. Even if we have practically no chance of winning this struggle, we will fight to the last second because this is a most just social struggle."
The prime minister wants to start the vote on the ILA reforms this Wednesday, and continue, if necessary, next Monday.
Those who oppose the legislation claim that, according to the Knesset regulations, the vote cannot be held on Wednesday, but rather only on Thursday, but the Knesset will be closed that day for the fast of Tisha B'Av.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) is examining legal opinions to determine whether the vote can be held on Wednesday.
For his part, Ya'alon is looking for a compromise that would enable him and most of the Likud MKs to support the bill. He is meeting with Likud and Habayit Hayehudi MKs, and has suggested altering the legislation so that land will be leased it for 99 years or sold for only 50 years.
In the meantime, Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak has told Netanyahu that his party's MKs will support the bill.
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