Israelis Pitching Protest Tents in the Streets Should Learn From This Man's Experience

‘It’s almost never the case that a protest movement repeats itself,’ says Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who led the government's response to 2011 social protests, and laments that not enough of his suggested reforms were implemented

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Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, in 2020.
Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg has bad news for the idealistic young activists who have begun pitching protest tents in recent days, hoping to recreate the social justice movement that rocked the country in 2011.

“Unfortunately,” as far as he’s concerned, they may as well pack up and head home and not waste their energy on a futile endeavor.

With the imminent dissolution of the Bennett government and the near-certainty of a new election in the fall – the fifth in less than three-and-a-half years – the protesters’ ability to spark the kind of political action that might seriously address the economic pain that has brought them into the streets has evaporated. There is simply no address for them to bring their complaints about the skyrocketing costs of housing, nor anything else.

“If we’re heading for elections in the fall, we can expect the country to be totally paralyzed for a year,” Trajtenberg says. “There won’t be a budget or any possibility of passing legislation that could even begin to tackle the social and economic issues that need attention.”

According to him, “the one thing that is really needed right now is exactly the thing we don’t have: political stability. To solve difficult social and economic problems, you need a government that has a relatively long horizon to embark on long-term and ambitious policies. When you have these repeated elections, the leaders’ horizons are only one or two years ahead at best. For the past four years, this country has gone from crisis to crisis, from election to election. And that’s really the worst possible thing that can happen if you’re trying to tackle these fundamental issues.”

For Israelis, Trajtenberg’s name immediately stirs memories of the 2011 mass protests, when an unprecedented number of Israelis took to the streets demanding that the government led by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the country’s social ills.

Trajtenberg, a former chairman of the National Economic Council, was tasked with heading a government-appointed committee on socioeconomic reform, which met with leading protesters and emerged with a comprehensive report bearing his name.

It contained recommendations for reforms in education, housing, labor laws, and taxation to address their concerns.

Protesters pitching tents in Tel Aviv on Sunday as luxury apartments are built in the background.Credit: Hadas Parush

Although the focus of the protests in 2011 and 2022 are similar – the high cost of living, with a focus on a lack of affordable housing – the situations into which they were born are utterly different, he explains.

Back in 2011, Netanyahu had a “very, very strong” hold on power, but the “neglect” of social issues meant that anger was bubbling up in the population regarding the cost of living.

“All the efforts of the Finance Ministry regarding economic policy at the time were fully concentrated on macroeconomics: reducing the debt to gross domestic product ratio, avoiding inflation, addressing the balance of payments, and so forth. At the same time, they were neglecting micro issues like housing, transportation and education. So, the protests were well-placed and really made that government change focus.”

Protesters pitching a tent in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Manuel Trajtenberg suggests they should head off home instead.Credit: Hadas Parush

This time around, he says, the immediate source of economic pain is coming from overseas and out of the hands of Israel’s leadership. “What we’re seeing now is, first of all, the resurgence of inflation. For 10 years or more, inflation was either at zero or extremely low. Its rise is a global phenomenon that is affecting us as well, driven by higher prices for imports.”

In Israel, he continues, “the problem is that this inflation is coming on top of a very high cost of living to begin with. That’s the reason people are reacting so strongly. … People were already overburdened. When on top of that you have a resurgence of inflation, people have gotten to the point where they say ‘enough is enough.’”

A tent protester holding a sign complaining about rental costs, in Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard on Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush

Government intervention required

When it was released in the fall of 2011, Netanyahu hailed the Trajtenberg Committee’s report as “a landmark for Israel’s economy and society,” predicting it would lead to a future in which “Israeli citizens could buy and do more with their money.”

While Trajtenberg says the reforms that followed the report succeeded to a limited extent, he believes that if Netanyahu had implemented the recommendations more fully, the situation would be much better – particularly when it comes to housing.

“There were some areas in which our recommendations were carried out; that’s one of the reasons inflation isn’t hitting us as hard as it could right now. But with housing, the government tried all sorts of gimmicks, but never really applied itself to solve the issue in a fundamental way as we recommended. The housing crisis has more than doubled in the ensuing decade, so it’s no surprise we’re seeing these protests.”

He continues: “You look around Tel Aviv and see luxury towers being erected for the wealthy. What we really needed was for building budgets to be directed toward affordable housing: long-term rentals of modest apartments. And when it comes to purchasing, we need mortgages that families pay not according to market prices but proportionally – no more than a third of their income. This is possible: it has happened in New Jersey, in New York. It happens in many places in Europe. Of course, it requires government intervention. But that’s what we really need.”

New housing being built in Tirat Carmel, northern Israel. Not enough affordable housing is being built in Israel, Trajtenberg says.Credit: אמיר לוי

The flagship demand of many of the current protesters – rent control – is a waste of time, according to Trajtenberg.

“Rent control is no solution. It doesn’t really work anywhere in the world,” he declares.

Another cost currently choking young Israeli families, transportation, was also included in the committee’s recommendations, but not sufficiently implemented. “It was clear back in 2011, with the complete reliance on private cars and the lack of adequate public transportation, that the situation was going to get worse and worse,” Trajtenberg says. “And now we’re seeing it in full force, with high gas prices and terrible traffic jams that are also a drain on the young families, requiring them to own two cars, a need to live in more expensive areas near their workplace, and the time they spend stuck in traffic. And as we know, time is money.”

Tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Tel Aviv in 2011.Credit: Hagai Frid

‘We will lose everything’

Another economic burden for Israelis, early education costs, were mitigated after 2011. However, Trajtenberg says the free education beginning at age 3, that came as a result of his report, was designed to expand to include day care for younger children – and that never happened.

A “tragedy” of the fall of the Bennett government, Trajtenberg believes, is that its “back to basics” approach had pointed to a desire to address the kitchen table issues that were affecting Israelis – housing, transportation and education – and was likely to have taken a new wave of social protests seriously.

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg meeting with then-Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in 2011 after he published his committee's report.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“This government passed a budget that did include many measures that dealt with our economic problems. Now, because of the current political instability, we will essentially lose everything. Any progress that has it made will disappear.”

But even without the problematic current political circumstances, he thinks the odds of the current protests being able to recreate the impact of the 2011 protests were always slim.

“Mass protests can’t really be generated in that way. Nobody could predict the explosion we had in 2011, just like nobody would have predicted the Black Panthers movement in the early 1970s or the Arab Spring. … It’s almost never the case that a protest movement repeats itself; they are very generational and of the moment.”

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