All That Glitters /

Why Aren’t Israel's Social Protests Returning?

Almost three years after the summer protests, the situation has only gotten worse. For the answer, look to the politicians, interest groups, media and the people themselves

What is going on today in Israeli society is strange, and even a bit surprising.

On one hand, every day the public receives new data on the deterioration of its economic situation: a rise in inequality, increases in the cost of living and housing, and a drop in government support. But while less serious complaints sent half a million people into the streets to protest in the summer of 2011, today almost no one is demonstrating, or even attempting to protest. The social protest movement has almost completely disappeared, at a time when public awareness of economic processes and the interest groups that are raking in enormous profits from the public is actually much greater.

It is clear that the tent encampment protests changed the political map in Israel. In the summer of 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared for his job and did all he could to calm things down. The deal to free captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was also reached because of the protest movement: Netanyahu felt he must bring the people something that would draw the public’s attention away from the protests. The social protests also dictated the results of the last Knesset election. Using a campaign based on the values of the protests (“Where’s the money?”) Yair Lapid succeeded in winning 19 Knesset seats for his brand new Yesh Atid party, and a few of the protest movement’s leaders entered the Knesset.

The scar the protest movement left on the political establishment has still not healed. Social matters are still high on the agenda of Knesset members, and the unions in the public sector are stronger than ever − while the government is even weaker than before. In the private sector, many workers have decided to unionize, even at the price of a battle with their employers. These are things that simply never would have occurred if not for the social protest movement of 2011.

The ebbing of the spirit of the social protests of 2011 is partly a natural process. Every wave of excitement and new hope is destined to weaken, certainly if the chances of its being realized are poor. But almost three years after, now that the streets are still quiet, why are the protests not starting up again? Where is everyone? In other words: What − or maybe who − killed the protest movement?

The answer is not clear cut or simple. It is composed of a number of reasons and a number of parts, and there is no agreement on the importance of any specific component − not among those who were part of the protest movement or those who closely followed it. Nonetheless, it is possible to start with one surprising conclusion: The Israeli political left is responsible for killing the social protest movement.

1. The left strangled it: From the beginning the protests were not identified with any party or clear political agenda. The movement was an amalgamation of a number of different groups that banded together around the concept of “social justice.” But after a short while the left and the Labor party saw the tremendous pressure the protests were putting on Netanyahu, and found a way to join in. A few weeks after the first tent went up, the protests took a sharp turn to the left and lined up with the messages of the left, led by MK Shelly Yachimovich, head of the Labor party at the time.

The minute the social protest movement became identified with the left, it was only a matter of time until it was killed off. Anyone who did not consider themselves left wingers could no longer join the protests − and these are the people who make up three quarters of Israel’s population. Outside the greater Tel Aviv area the game was over: Right-wing voters could not join such a movement.

2. Lack of leadership: A few weeks after the tents went up the protestors lost their leadership, which started falling apart from the inside because of internal conflicts as to the way forward and personal disputes. The political establishment’s “divide and conquer” method worked: Some of the leaders wanted to move to the left and bring down the government, some preferred to focus on the original issues, and others desired to build their own political careers. Without leadership and figures the protestors could identify with, it was hard to send a coherent message and have people follow.

3. The press put the social protest movement to sleep: In the first few days the Israeli media supported the protests and became excited by it. Everyone, including popular media outlets such as Channel 2 and the Yedioth Aharonoth group, gave the protests great and supportive coverage and put it high on the public agenda, with unprecedented strength. At the time, it was good for all of them: The story was fascinating and drew a high rating, many of the reporters and editors were also excited about the protests, and most importantly, the protests attacked Netanyahu’s government and Netanyahu personally. This was the perfect agenda for a number of media outlets, who attacked the prime minister at every opportunity.

But the minute the movement went on to deal with the tycoons and the banks, and when calls were heard to boycott large companies, including those with large advertising budgets; the media’s excitement withered. Since then the press has continued to be wary, is slow to advance any sort of protest and prefers to sell reality shows to the public.

4. Municipalities cracked down: The municipalities learned to stop any signs of a protest sprouting while it was still in its infancy. When Daphni Leef tried again to erect a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, city inspectors showed up immediately and removed the “hazard” from the public space. The police are also alert: Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said not long ago that he is worried the protests will resume and with violence this time, because of layoffs and unemployment. It is safe to assume the police will act to arrest and disperse any shoots of protest with what it calls “determination,” and certainly will not allow a new Woodstock to take place in the central boulevard of the big city.

There are also those who were involved in the protest movement who say the protests faded away because “the public simply became tired of it,” “the public was in despair,” or the “terror attack in Eilat returned the security situation to the front.” But it seems that all these explanations are lacking. The frustrations that brought the masses out onto the streets in the first place three years ago have only become worse, and such a long period is enough time to enlist new forces.

A better explanation is that a broad protest movement can break out in Israel only about those issues that are not identified with any political party. When painful issues are raised, new ideas and exciting alternatives are proposed for the existing social system − and on the condition that the political parties do not steal them for their own use, only then there will be a chance for a significant protest movement to rise again.