Yes We Can, or Else: Two Years to the Biggest Social Protest in Israel's History

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Two years ago, on July 14, 2011, 10 youngsters annoyed at rental prices in Tel Aviv set up tents on the city's ritziest boulevard. Without meaning to, they had set in motion the biggest social-justice protest in the history of Israel.

The 10, headed by a 25-year-old film student named Daphni Leef, became instant celebrities: hailed, vilified, publicized, and sometimes ostracized as what started as a protest against soaring housing prices became The Protest.  It led to the biggest mass rally in known Israeli history.

On September 3rd, 2011, half a million Israelis – 10 percent of Israel's adult population – hit the city streets.

Yet the Israeli protest seems to have fizzled. The "summer of discontent" led to a winter of disillusion and a subsequent summer of dejection.

"New politicians" who promised revolution, such as Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, are widely considered bitter disappointments.

"Changed? Nothing's changed. Everything costs more and Bibi's still at the top," says Udi, a Tel Aviv taxi driver, who has no intention of going out to protest again. What might change things? "Revolution, like the one they just had in Egypt," he suggests.

Did The Protest change Israel, or did it leave the status quo unscathed?

Some say the ascension of television personality Yair Lapid proves that The Protest changed the political discourse. Others see Lapid as ultimate proof of its failure to make a difference.

Never mind peace, living costs too much

Ask two economists or pundits if Israel has changed and you'll get three opinions. Is economic reform taking shape? Depends who you ask. Some warn that unless the government acts decisively and soon, Israel will face an explosion a-la Tahrir Square, not the happy hippie festival of the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard two years ago.

"Israel's economy, or more accurately the direction of Israel's economy, has completely changed since The Protest," says Avi Simhon, a Hebrew University professor who ran for the Knesset with Likud in the recent elections and had advised the former finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, on economic affairs. He also sat on the public committee Benjamin Netanyahu set up after the elections to seek ways to lower the cost of living.

What the protest did achieve was to make the leaders realize that the public's priorities had changed, Simhon says. "Before The Protest, they thought foreign affairs were the highest priority to the public. Socio-economic issues didn't feature in the media before, but now they're at the heart of the political discourse."

Never mind peace: it's all about the cost of living these days. The second-biggest winner in the last election was Lapid's party Yesh Atid, which ran on a platform of change. It won 19 seats.

Tzipi Livni's movement, running on peace, won only 6 seats, Simhon points out.

Before the Protest, policy makers were leery of taking on powerful business figures, Simhon says. "Now, they'd rather mess with the rich and not with the public. This is a huge change."

So why the discontent? The problem was unrealistic expectations of immediately improvement to the quality of life. But knowing what we know now doesn't change GDP overnight, just the attitude, he explains. "There are no silver bullets. If we compare Israel's economy to a ship, what the protest did was alter the course of the ship. The ship is still, in effect, sailing in the same waters, but it is now sailing in the opposite direction. In the future it will reach a different ocean, but it's a long process," Simhon sums up.

A little less whipped

Elah Alkalay, vice president of business development at IBI Investment House, feels the Protest led to a feeling of "Yes We Can!, a sense that we're all less 'whipped' by the system."

It's a sea change that has affected the way corporations behave. "They've started investing time and money in avoiding mistakes, because they know consumer boycotts happen fast," she says.

Not all change was upside, she adds. Tel Aviv stocks were hurt as the Protest increased the risk in consumer-related stocks, Alkalay points out. Still, she sums up, "The good far outweighs the bad."

And if it doesn't? Dror Strum, an economist and director of The Israeli Center for Economic Planning, frets that the lackadaisical response to the issues raised by The Protest could engender another protest, this time much more violent.

"The Protest changed a lot more than meets the eye," he says, "But it also started a process of escalation."

Something troubling is happening to Israelis, Strum says: "They have stopped believing in the rules of the game. If once they believed in the game, and hated a few players who got too strong within it, now they're starting to think the referee is wrong, and that's dangerous."

Not long ago, Israelis were considered pretty indifferent when it came to consumer issues. Now, says Dr. Eitan Orkibi of Ariel University, you can't open an Israeli news site without seeing at least a headline or two about some protest or other.

He for one is pleased that ostentation by the rich has taken a body blow, but insists that it's early days to judge whether the protest "succeeded" or not. But in any case it forgot somebody behind, two important, disenfranchised groups: the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. "It didn't give a voice to those who needed it the most, and that's a shame."

A cost-of-living protest in Tel Aviv in 2012.Credit: David Bachar
Social protesters in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2013.Credit: Gabriela Davidovich