Taking Stock / Permanent Revolution

The protest leaders now entering politics have to change the people's awareness. But that's a long battle, reflected by Benjamin Netanyahu's popularity at the polls.

The young leaders of Israel's protest movement were caught unawares. They hadn't expected early elections; they won't have time to establish their own party and will have to join an existing one. With no other choice, they're negotiating with Labor, Kadima and even Yair Lapid's new party.

If you're one of the 90% of Israelis who identifies with the social-justice protests, my advice is not to hold your breath in anticipation of political change. These young people may have gotten hundreds of thousands of Israelis out onto the streets, but they're about to discover the political rules of the game.

Protest leaders - Salman - 8.5.12
Emil Salman

Soon enough, like Israel's ministers and Knesset members, they will become the pawns of Israel's power groups, tycoons and people with contacts in the right places. They don't want change; they like the social and economic agenda just the way it is.

The protest leaders now joining politics don't seem to grasp either their role or popularity. They weren't supposed to become just another voice or political faction. We have plenty of those.

Their job was to change the people, not politics. Their job was to lead change in concept, awareness and participation. If the concepts change, the politics will follow.

Last week the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee deferred discussing the Open Skies treaty, a reform intended to allow new players to join the aviation industry. It would lower prices for consumers and (so goes the theory ) revitalize the weary Israeli tourism industry and business sector relying on international travel.

Without blinking, without any discussion, the Economic Affairs Committee decided unanimously to postpone the debate. Protests. Iran. Elections. The cost of living. Whatever the issue at stake, some things never change, and one of them is the Knesset, where nobody wants to butt heads with El Al's 6,000 employees or take on any powerful union.

The main issue irking Israelis is the high cost of living

A survey commissioned last month by the Jezreel Valley academic college on the social-justice protests found that the main subject irking Israelis (62% ) is the cost of living. Israel's cost of living is jacked up by the dozens of monopolies, cartels and conglomerates, and by taxes, none of which improve services much but all of which fund the pork barrels and ills of the public service.

The MKs put off the debate on Open Skies, as they have on other key economic issues, because they are cleverer than one might think. They know that Israel's balance of forces hasn't really changed. They know who they need to serve, and it isn't you and me.

Never mind all the commentaries on the looming election, which has been brought forward to September. It won't have much of an effect because change in Israeli society is a long drawn out affair. The probability of us seeing any change in politicians' attitudes, motivations and interests by September is slight. First the people have to change. Then politics can change.

There's no question that the concepts are starting to change, thanks to the protest movement. The usual smoke screens and illusions about security issues and the peace process are giving way to topics such as resource allocation, the cost of living and the culture of government.

But as said, these things take a very long time.

Some protest leaders hope to shorten the process by joining the next Knesset. That's typical of Israeli leaders - no patience for long-term plans.

In recent weeks, people on the left have been wondering about something they see as a contradiction. The masses support the protest movement and its ideas. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been taking off in the polls. How can that be? The left-wingers put it down to things like clannishness, emotion and family tradition.

But that's only part of the story.

In the past the contradiction could have been explained by people allowing security to trump everything else, as their fingers trembled in the voting booth. Matter over mind, as it were. But that can't be claimed anymore.

The survey by the Jezreel Valley academic college shows that, indeed, security isn't the number one consideration anymore, it's near the bottom. People care about economics.

So how to explain Netanyahu's strength in the same breath as the broad support for the social-justice protests?

There's another way to explain it: The people are supporting Netanyahu because they see no alternative.

The rhetoric of Labor's Shelly Yacimovich, Yair Lapid and Kadima's Shaul Mofaz hasn't won any hearts and minds. These politicians haven't convinced the people they know how to lower the cost of living, narrow social gaps, improve education, improve the public sector and shatter the elites' iron grip on the economy.