Use It Politically or Lose It

Hie thee to the Knesset, Yossi Shain advises the protesters.

Oren Majar
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Oren Majar

Around the world there is a creeping fear that the great western economies are collapsing. Here in Israel protesters are demanding no less than a complete change of the government's social policy. The team launched by the prime minister, headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, has just started to reveal the chasm between the protesters' demands and the budget constraints. Clearly, to meet them even in part, the nation's priorities need to change.

Yossi Shain: Where is the money to come from? That’s political.Credit: Haaretz

Prof. Yossi Shain of the Tel Aviv University's political science department heads the Diplomacy and Political Leadership programs. Changing the nation's priorities is a political issue, he says. Therefore, while the protest movement already has changed the public debate, it inevitably will pass from the streets to the Knesset.

"The protesters will have to organize into a political force and get into politics," says Shain, one of the people leading the debate on governance at the Israel 2021 conference.

Is Israel a different place now than it was before the protest began?

"Something fascinating happened here," Shain said. The public debate has moved from corruption and misconduct - for instance, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan saying how much he identifies with the people protesting about the cost of living while building a house in the expensive town of Savyon - to what can be done about it.

Daphni Leef: Spurred change.Credit: Moti Kimche

"The public debate is focusing on the middle class that wants to live better," Shain says. The socioeconomic debate has far-reaching implications, he believes. People have begun debating government involvement in market forces and ways in which the market forces have become warped, for instance. "These are discussions taking place elsewhere in the world too, such as Britain and the U.S."

Can Trajtenberg's team help?

"The question bound to come up is where the money will come from to make the economy equal or just," Shain predicts. For the time being, shouting "The people want social justice" is working. "Who could object to that? The demonstrators say, 'Let's embrace everybody.' The problems of employment and housing are universal. Even the head of the Yesha Council of settlements says he supports lowering the price of cottage cheese."

But that brotherly idyll can't last. Inevitably the question of resources arises and with it, the political demons. The question of resource allocation hasn't been tackled at all, Shain points out. The demons are lurking, and they include who gets money.

Tommy Lapid, symbol of rift.Credit: Alberto Denkberg

"To what degree are the middle-class protesters in Tel Aviv similar to the lower-middle class people, who bear a heavy load but less of a tax burden?" Shain presses.

Former social activist Charlie Biton, for instance, lent his support to the protest, notes Shain. But a lot of people agreed with the criticism that popular singer Margalit Tzanani voiced, calling the protesters a bunch of rich spoiled brats. She later recanted. Nor do the politics end there, of course.

"The poor people want money too, but if these poor are also Haredi, should they receive support from the third child onward? Should having children be encouraged at all?" Shain presses. A mother demonstrating with her baby carriage may not have had five kids because she and the father earn NIS 14,000 to NIS 18,000 a month together, and they don't think they can afford more children, but in other parts of the country, other considerations prevail, he said.

"These questions bring us back to the 1990s, to the rift expressed through Tommy Lapid," he says, referring to the journalist-turned-politician who founded the Shinui party. "It was a time of culture war between the observant, the Haredim, the national religious movement and the 'normal Israelis,' people who believed Israel wants to be a capitalist, democratic, free nation with liberal civil rights.

"One of the signs of the times was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whispering into the ear of Rabbi [Yitzhak] Kedouri, 'The left forgot what it is to be Jews.' When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, it wasn't because territories were being returned. It was because of the argument over normality versus Jewish tradition," Shain says.

To put things into proportion, the protest hasn't persuaded everybody, he notes. The religious and Haredi communities hit the streets en masse to protest Supreme Court rulings. While these communities have not voiced opposition to today's street protests, they haven't joined, says Shain.

"I did hear they're planning a big protest against desecration of the Shabbat during a big protest rally in Jerusalem, though," the professor adds.

Nor has the Russian community in Israel - some 20% of the population - reached a decision. They're on the fence, says Shain. Representatives of that community say the real issues are being fudged.

"The term 'social justice' smacks of socialism to them. They're liberal but nationalistic," he says.

Ultimately, it isn't people squatting in a tent in the center of a boulevard who will reset the national agenda. Also, its leaders haven't touched on the most sensitive of issues, such as the vast sums pouring into the territories.

The protest organizers don't want to be too provocative; they want to create unity, Shain explains. But exciting as the times may be, the people will have to furl their flags, fold up their tents and talk sense. And that is when it will become completely clear that the solutions are political.

"The demonstrators will have to forge a political force, to get into politics. I don't know whether Daphni Leef wants to run for Knesset but that's where decisions are made," Shain says. "What she and her friends have done so far is not trivial. To get people out onto the streets repeatedly, while forces are trying to divide them" is not trivial at all.

"But ultimately it isn't the street that makes the rules," Shain says. "It can influence matters only so far." The tent movement can't just go on and on: It's one thing to miss work for a month; it's another not to come in for two years. "There is something inebriating about having the masses behind you, but masses can also become very amorphous. In democracies, revolutions happen through the voting booth, and decisions are made in the Knesset."