Israel's Social Protest Is Succeeding

The 'March of the Million' proved to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fear for the country's economic, democratic and social future that they have power.

Irrespective of how many people showed up at last night's protest, two questions can be answered: Has the protest succeeded, and where do we go from here?

boy protesting - Reuters - 04092011

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The protest succeeded because it proved to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fear for the country's economic, democratic and social future that they have power. They have been watching with concern as the country's political, economic and communications infrastructure makes most of the decision makers beholden to a handful of strong, organized private-sector groups, leaving them outside the game. Now they know they have strength.

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The protest succeeded because we crossed the Rubicon. The public understood that its indifference is a weakness. First the weakest sectors realized this - those who can't make ends meet. Later the stronger groups will realize this too, when they realize the country's economic and social path is not sustainable, and that one day these injustices - the corruption, the low productivity, the ties between big business and government, the economic concentration in the hands of a few and the low rate of work force participation - will come undone. Even for those who thought they were protected, connected.

The protest succeeded because the public realized it has power. It saw this in the cottage cheese protest and in the appointment of the Trajtenberg committee; it saw how the prime minister, who had forgotten that the committee examining economic concentration existed, suddenly started expediting its work. The public understood that it can address things that the politicians can't due to the economy's structure.

The protest succeeded because overnight, the narrative changed - the narrative that we have an excellent economy and anyone who complains is probably a loser who doesn't know how to play. Now people are going outside and saying: We're not losers, we can't make ends meet, we're looking 10 or 20 years ahead and we fear for our pensions and our job opportunities. We despise this culture of big business-power-news outlets. Unfortunately, they're right, and the economic and political outlook isn't particularly promising, unless you're in the top percentile or tenth of a percentile - and that, too is temporary.

The people understand that in 10 or 20 years, it will be much harder for their children than it has been for them or their parents.

The protest succeeded because all the decision makers - in the public sector, the political sector and in journalism, or so I hope - saw the warning light: There's a massive group that isn't being represented, that isn't part of the public discussion, and it's not happy about being ignored.

The challenge is addressing this group over the long term - and not through populist steps that will be wiped out in the next recession.

The protest succeeded because all the decision makers know they're in the spotlight. The public is no longer stuck on security matters and reality TV, and many people are fed up with the debate over left-right-settlers-occupation-loyalty. They want to see a more effective public sector, competition, lower prices.

The protest succeeded because the decision makers are welcoming it - at least the intelligent, honest ones. They're also fed up with being held captive by the current system. Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg wants the protest to succeed, because he knows that if it doesn't have a massive impact, his committee won't either, because change will come only through steps the current political-economic-communications configuration hasn't allowed.

Structural change will be very painful for specific sectors but improve things for the population as a whole. Only if hundreds of thousands take to the streets can difficult reforms be pushed through. Without long-term structural change, there is no chance of advancing the economy or equality.

How do we continue from here? The public needs to understand that if it goes back to judging politicians and decision makers based on empty slogans, then these people will continue behaving exactly as they have until now. If the public doesn't learn, get involved and keep an eye on the decision makers, there won't be any change. Only when the public discussion changes will the public sphere change.

We've taken the small first step on a long road, because when you think about something big, think about the long term. Anyone who expects change by tomorrow morning doesn't understand the process, doesn't understand that he himself is the change, and believes there are magical solutions to painful, complicated and deep problems.