Israeli Protesters See the Gas Deal With Tunnel Vision

The protest against the natural-gas deal is focused on its economic aspects at the expense of other, equally urgent issues.

A protest against the gas deal is held in Tel Aviv, December 5, 2015. A protester dressed as batman spreads his wings. In front of him a sign says 'did anyone shout robbery?'
Ofer Vaknin

Everyone’s busy with natural gason the street, on Facebook, in the media. Every Saturday night, there are demonstrations against the government’s natural-gas deal, a wide-ranging discussion is taking place in the media, and the financial press is either mobilized for or against the arrangement. The monetary stakes are high, and the entire public seems to be taking an interest and forming an opinion on this complex subject. The anti-deal activists apparently took an accelerated course in economics and in the structure of the energy market, and they have an answer to every question.

This looks like progress – an “upgrade” of the social protest demonstrations of four years ago. One of the messages of the leaders of the current struggle is that, in contrast to that earlier campaign, the struggle against the natural-gas deal is focused and has clear goals.

But there is no reason to be pleased that the activists are targeting one issue now, however important it may be. During the 2011 demonstrations, there was a sense of solidarity among the participants vis-a-vis a range of struggles conducted under the aegis of the protest against the housing shortage and the high cost of living. It was understood then that the multiplicity of voices had an effect and that this was the path to empowerment as well as unity. Nurses, teachers, social workers, contract employees and others – all called for social justice, collectively and separately (each group in its own struggle), from one platform.

Even if we set aside the fact that the question of the occupation never seems to enter into these discussions (though setting it aside is actually impossible), over the past few months, economic and social issues key to Israeli democracy have been sacrificed on the altar of the campaign against the natural-gas deal. Currently, more than 90 percent of the items posted at “Social Justice Situation Room” – a Facebook page (in Hebrew) created to act as a megaphone for the whole gamut of social struggles – refer to the natural-gas issue. The housing crunch has apparently been resolved.

Ten days ago, the National Planning and Building Council approved a phosphate-mining project at Sde Barir, adjacent to the Negev town of Arad. According to the Health Ministry, this will be a disaster for local residents. Their struggle should be the “little sister” of the campaign against the gas deal. Normally, the battle against phosphate mining gets little media coverage. However, one would expect those leading the struggle against the gas deal to exploit the media attention they’re drawing to empower the people in Arad.

Nevertheless, there were no speakers from Arad at last Saturday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv. While every sentence uttered in the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee about the natural-gas framework agreement is quoted on Facebook protest pages, not a word has been posted quoting from the deliberations of the national building council concerning the phosphate project at Arad.

The leaders of the campaign against the natural-gas deal are largely silent about the health dangers posed by the production of the fossil fuel. The protesters are not openly questioning the assumption that the gas has to be extracted and used to power the Israeli economy. Opposition to the government arrangement is primarily economic – “highway robbery” is the activists’ term for it – and at this stage it is concentrating on the monopolistic aspect.

One might think, from the discussion, that if the gas market were oligopolistic (i.e., one in which a small number of companies operate, rather than just one), the situation would be different from that of the cell-phone market a few years ago. But both markets have high barriers of entry and are subject to government regulation, as a result of which there are few players in them.

The spokespersons of the anti-natural gas campaign have forgotten that social justice is not only a matter of economics but is also health justice and environmental justice. Instead of making far-reaching demands in the realm of natural resources – such as for the government to invest in renewable-energy infrastructures – the leaders of the effort remain focused exclusively on the gas issue itself, and that is the entire basis of their campaign.

In 2013, along with the demonstrations opposite the home of the gas baron Yitzhak Tshuva, protests were held opposite the home of the then-finance minister, Yair Lapid. The present finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, who was roundly criticized by the activists for his silence on the issue last summer, succeeded in having the state budget passed last month without one iota of opposition or even a public discussion about it. The social-justice organizations were preoccupied with the gas deal.

One has to wonder whether, unintentionally, the struggle over the natural gas project – which, like the threat of a nuclear Iran, with all the attendant differences, is being portrayed as a battle for Israel’s future – worked in fact to give the government an opportunity to divert public attention away from the budget, ahead of its passage. Clearly, the Arrangements Law, which passed together with the state budget, is no less anti-democratic than the gas deal. The difference is that whereas we will not feel the effects of the gas agreement for many years to come, the budget and the Arrangements Law impact on our lives here and now.

The politics surrounding the gas deal and the protest against it contain all the ingredients of a Hollywood film: big money, international pressure, intrigues and schemes accompanied by false arrests, threats, the silencing of cabinet ministers and even accusations of conspiracy. The opponents make use of these materials, and offer up a narrative of an epic contest between good and evil, between boundless greed and those who want only the good of the Israeli economy.

They are also telling themselves a romantic tale, to the effect that the huge natural-gas reserves (whose very discovery is a “miracle”) possess the potential to help repair the Israeli economy and to erase its deeply embedded inequality. And not only the economy: The natural-gas struggle is described as being nothing less than the final rearguard battle over the remnants of Israeli democracy, even though the leaders of the opposition are not demanding any structural change in the country’s economy or politics – not even on issues related to natural resources.

One possibility, for example, could be to demand enactment of a Basic Law on Natural Resources, which would set constitutional limits on every government agreement involving the country’s resources. Another would be to press for a national referendum on the gas deal.

The struggle against the arrangement is not aimed at changing the public’s basic approaches to social and economic issues, but rather at uniting different factions of that public around a single cause. The protest strives to build bridges between settlers and Tel Avivians, between capitalists and socialists, and even between supporters and opponents of the prime minister. But as usual in conciliatory campaigns of this sort, using clean language that says “neither right nor left” involves something of a surrender by one of the sides.

The social-protest movement gained the support of more than 80 percent of the Israeli public. Partly separatist groups, such as the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, took part in it, but the settlers shunned it – in their view it was too leftist, too redolent of Tel Aviv. But leaders of the current movement against the gas deal consider the settlers’ support very important. To prove to the public that this is not a left-wing protest, they have invited settlers to address the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, given interviews to the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon, and have tried to hold parlor meetings in settlements.

This activity would be welcome, if it were not accompanied by the neglect of Israel’s Arab citizens. In the summer of 2011, quite a few Arabs spoke at the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. This past summer, Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union), one of the representatives of the social-protest movement in the Knesset, accused the Joint Arab List of betrayal, when she concluded, incorrectly, that its representatives had struck a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the transfer of the powers of the antitrust commissioner to the economy minister (a move necessary for the bypassing of the commissioner’s opposition to the gas deal). That transfer has taken place, but it’s not the fault of the Joint Arab List. This is testimony to the abyss that separates the coalition against the gas deal from the Arab public.

The story of the natural-gas deal is symbolic of many ills in Israeli society: the selling of the state to tycoons, the weakness of the country’s democratic institutions, the corruption embedded in the parliamentary system, the right- and left-wing toeing of the line. Unfortunately, it’s not only this issue that encapsulates the state’s retreat from its responsibility: It’s possible that the fight against the deal, the largest social-protest movement since 2011 (and the forgotten protests of the summer of 2012), reflects the backtracking by that movement from the modes of activity and the dialogue that contributed to its relative success.

I am against the gas deal; I took part in the protests in front of Tshuva’s home in 2013. From this “podium,” I want to raise the following question: Does the method by which the natural-gas struggle is being waged attest to the fact that the 2011 social-protest movement actually failed in what everyone seems to agree was its greatest success – changing public discourse in the long term?

This coming Monday, December 14, at 7:30 P.M., a symposium will be held on the blind spots of the anti-gas struggle, at Hamidrasha Gallery, 19 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv.