Israel's Social Unrest Means the People Are Back on Top

The balance of power has changed. The public understands that it has power both vis-a-vis the government and vis-a-vis the monopolies and the cartels. The political discourse has changed.

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Public pressure has effected change. National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau has capitulated and been forced to sign an order lowering the gasoline retailers' profit margins by 19 agorot per liter. This is a significant decrease, and one that Landau truly did not want to sign. Over the past two years, he has become an enthusiastic supporter of the wealthy and of large monopolies, and he has forgotten his role representing the public.

In fact, in early 2010, Landau took steps to dismiss the chairman of the Energy Authority, Amnon Shapira, simply because he dared to instruct the Israel Electric Corporation, a monopoly, to reduce its tariffs after cheap natural gas was introduced to its production system. Later, he waged war on the Sheshinski committee to prevent it from raising taxes, to the degree that it recommended, on oil exploration companies. Now he has stood behind large fuel corporations and for months prevented their exaggerated profit margin from being lowered - that is, until the social protest movement defeated him.

For many years, the large fuel companies collected an excessive profit margin, accumulating enormous profits at the expense of the public. But in January, after the price of gasoline passed the NIS 7 mark, public outcry erupted, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Landau to examine the fuel companies' profit margin. Landau appointed a committee that determined the margin must be lowered by 21.5 agorot per liter - but then he refused to accept the committee's recommendation, accepting all kinds of fabricated claims proffered by the fuel companies.

The companies also approached ministers and Knesset members from Likud, asking them to put presure on Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to save them from the abhorrent decree, but Steinitz declined. The companies frightened their employees by threatening that, if the margin was lowered, they would have to become more "efficient"- which is to say, they would be dismissed - and the terrified workers held a demonstration. Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, also intervened to prevent the margin from being lowered. Eini of course knows how to speak in lofty terms about the high cost of living, but when it comes to actions, he supports the big workers' committees and, in this case, the committees at the Paz, Delek and Sonol companies - and, through them, the wealthy people who control those companies.

However, when the pressure continued to mount, Landau discovered the real culprit: the treasury. According to Landau, the Finance Ministry is "the biggest tycoon that exists," since it takes 53 percent of the price of gasoline in taxes. It is true that the Finance Ministry takes a great many taxes, but where do these taxes go? They are earmarked, for example, to provide many billions of shekels for the cost of the settlements, an expenditure that Landau actually supports. They are earmarked for the increase in the Israel Defense Forces' budget, so that it can be ready for any operation or war forced upon us, since Landau is not prepared to even dream of any peaceful solution to the conflict that entails giving up territories. The taxes also go toward supporting new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which Landau also is in favor of, since they vote for the Yisrael Beiteinu party. If all this is so, why does he complain that the taxes are so high?

One thing is certain: Without the social protest movement, the fuel companies' profit margin would not have budged by even one agora. Until the drivers started raising their voices, the Fuel Authority kept quiet, and so did the Finance Ministry. But it is not only the fuel companies who understand now that the rules of the game have changed. The entire economy understands. The supermarket chains would not have dropped the price of cottage cheese from NIS 7.3 to NIS 5.9 were it not for the social protest organized on Facebook. Nochi Dankner, who has the controlling share in Super-Sol, would not have met with a group of young people who threatened a boycott and would not have promised to bring down prices. The CEO of Super-Sol, Efi Rosenhaus, would not have hastened to meet with a few students from Tel Aviv University and vowed to lower the prices of 30 items by 20 percent. And lo and behold, Mega too is lowering the price of 32 basic products.

Of course, we have not forgotten about the promises made by Netanyahu immediately after the protests began to build cheap housing, nor have we forgotten about the Trajtenberg committee, which is planning to introduce changes in the areas of taxation, competition, cost of living and apartment prices. In other words, the balance of power has changed. The public understands that it has power both vis-a-vis the government and vis-a-vis the monopolies and the cartels. The political discourse has changed, and it will have an influence on the results of the next elections.



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