Taking Stock / It’s Up to Us to Change Our Lives

Rescue won't come from the political echelon. The people must have a change of heart.

Monday marked four months since the first tent was pitched on Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv, birthplace of the "social justice" protest that swept the nation. Since the last mass demonstration in Yitzhak Rabin Square, more and more people have been suggesting that the spirit of protest is waning, that the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets feel that the protest failed to achieve its goals. Some say the protest leaders have made unwise moves.

It's easy enough to take potshots at the untrained leaders of the grass-roots protest and the directions they have taken. But it's hard to overstate the impact the protest has had, and will have, on Israel's economy, society and democracy. The Israeli protest movement can claim some resounding victories. It also faces opportunities - and threats - that must be discussed.

March of the Million - Moti Milrod - 3.9.2011
Moti Milrod

The successes

1. Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, shut down the nation - but this time, the first time in Israeli history, it was to fight on behalf of contract workers or temps. The Histadrut draws its power from Israel's biggest guilds and unions, which include some of the best-paid, most nepotistic workers in Israel. Suddenly this umbrella union remembered the quarter million to 400,000 workers trampled by the system.

Employment of temps or subcontracted labor is nothing new, yet it never seemed to bother Eini before. Daphni Leef, Stav Shaffir and the hundreds of thousands of protesters suddenly cornered him, depicting the Histadrut as the representative of the strong and well-connected. For the first time, Eini found himself forced to call a general strike and shut down the nation for a good cause.

Some fear that the protest leaders will take matters to dangerous places; for instance, impelling the government to breach the budget or pursue ill-advised economic policies. Yet even they must acknowledge the influence these protest leaders have achieved among people who, until four months ago, had been concerned chiefly with coddling the economy's most powerful entities.

2. The Trajtenberg report, the result of the commission appointed in August to study Israel's socioeconomic problems and propose solutions, probably disappointed a lot of young couples who had hoped Israel's bloated real estate prices would drop on the spot. They also expected other instant improvements; in health care, for example.

Yet the report did achieve real change - in Israel's public discourse and economic narrative. It ripped the cover off the worst-kept secret in the land: Israel doesn't have true capitalism. It has crony capitalism that does well by the powerful business groups and guilds. It's a capitalism in which executive salaries often don't reflect a free market of talent but rather a market characterized by force, exploitation and manipulation.

Some politicians and regulators have abruptly changed their behavior in the last two months. Some have begun to expound on the interests of the millions of Israelis who aren't connected.

More importantly, future politicians and regulators will be made of other stuff. They won't be able to ignore the warped way Israeli democracy smiles on the powerful and tramples the weak. The protest leaders attacking the Trajtenberg report have failed to grasp the power of its assertions.

3. Hundreds of thousands of self-employed Israelis who have been struggling to break even in recent years discovered to their astonishment that their difficulties aren't their fault. They aren't losers or bums after all, as they've been told for the last 10 years. The problem is that they've been left outside the economic order.

They have suddenly realized that large swaths of the "free market" aren't free at all, and there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are spared these economic difficulties - not because of their talent or hard work but because of their contacts. They are starting to grasp that their difficulties aren't fated; they're the outcome of the way the Israeli economy and democracy are structured.

If anything, their difficulties are likely to worsen in the years to come. But they are an electoral force, just as dangerous to the powers that be as the most aggressive business groups and unions.


4. Thousands of decision-makers - in government, business, the press and elsewhere - had gotten used to dealing with a small number of known elements. Suddenly they are discovering the might of the faceless, angry masses. Whole communities that had been invisible and manipulable by public relations are becoming players in what had been the sole fief of the decision-makers.

As the protests in the street die down, some people will continue to ignore these communities. But the smarter decision-makers will have grasped that the economic and democratic game is changing, here and elsewhere too. If they don't adapt to the changing world around them, they will render themselves irrelevant.


5. A few days ago I met with a Knesset member who had formerly been a minister. Most of his utterances over the last five years had been confined to security and diplomacy. At the start of the meeting he said that after decades in public service he'd concluded that his engagement in these matters had been useless: The new Israeli politics should confine itself to economics alone.

Since the establishment of the state in 1948, economic issues and the quality of life had been a marginal topic in politics. Center stage was the province of the generals, who spent their lives in a bubble, cut off from ordinary Israeli life. Hidden by the smoke screen of "security," politicians and decision-makers could make their decisions that by commission or omission robbed our future.

Politics is undergoing a tectonic upheaval. The politicians and decision-makers need to accept that Israel has come of age and many of its people refuse to swallow the garbage handed them by the politicians. Between the wars, we have to live.

The failures

1. Economic and social topics are filtering through to the center of the public discourse, which is crucial - but not enough - to make the politicians and decision-makers change course.

The protest has been crucial to this change. But it isn't enough to merely change the discourse: Its quality needs to improve. This is where the protest leaders have failed. The people who identify with the protest are ripe for the movement to advance, but the protest leaders are stuck on socialism versus capitalism, privatization versus government, left versus right - things that aren't relevant anymore.

The stereotypes of free market versus socialism, neoliberalism versus social democracy, privatization versus nationalization serve the people who live well on the status quo. Instead of discussing how to improve public services and make Israel's economy fairer and more competitive - which would lead to crucial reforms at the expense of fat-cat incumbents - the debate has been reduced to brandishing voodoo dolls with the faces of communism and the eradication of the free market versus violent piggish capitalism.

2. In the first months, the protest tried to be inclusive, embracing all movements that wanted change. Over time it became more focused, targeting government and the budget. It seems the protest capitulated, wittingly or not, to powerful economic forces; it came nearer the powerful unions and spat out anybody who wanted to change the high cost of living which is an artifact of the regime by the monopolies and oligopolies.

The protest leaders keep talking about increasing the budget, but they don't dwell on who will pay the bill, or how. Should taxes be raised? Perhaps we should expand the government's budget deficit?

Where would the extra budgets go - to welfare? Or to cronies? Absent real change, would these higher budgets really improve welfare services? What are the risks in widening the deficit? These are important questions that have been cast from the protest discourse.


3. Amnon Rabinovitz, 28, a civics teacher in Jerusalem, remarked last week at the Digital Life Design conference that the real revolution has to be in the heart. That sounds naive, but he's right. The protest leaders are missing the point by aiming all their rhetoric at the prime minister, not because of his political color but because the government isn't much different from other Israeli governments.

The great chance of the protest isn't in changing the behavior of politicians, who are fated to be replaced anyway. It's in changing the behavior of the public. In its apathy, the public is responsible for creating politicians who act - unprofessionally and with conflicted interests - only for the short term. If the public wakes up and the discourse changes, the incentives for the politicians will also change, and so will their behavior.

Change in the economy will not come from political revolution but from change in society, and that must originate with the public, not some leader arriving from another planet. The protest has given us a chance to change people's hearts. Rhetoric aimed only at the government won't change the people's hearts or spur them to take an active part in instituting the changes so badly needed in Israeli economics and society.