The Protest Movement's First Real Failure

The government's decision to increase the deficit shows protest leaders are misguided and sticking to their comfort zone instead of making real change.

The leaders of Israel's social-justice protests were pretty pleased with themselves last week. First of all, they made the front pages and prime-time TV news again, after being ignored for weeks. Second, they could claim a big "achievement": The prime minister increased the deficit for 2013 and for following years as well. The deficit wasn't supposed to be greater than 1.5% of GDP in 2013. Now it will be 3% of GDP, which is about NIS 29 billion.

Meanwhile, Haaretz published a survey carried out by the Dialogue Institute showing that two-thirds of the public supports the social-justice protest. It also found that broad support on the right side of the political map, and among the religious, which had been tagged as opponents of the protest movement.

But does the public support the protest leaders? Is the public happy about the deficit increase?

In practice there is a vast, growing gap between the public's support for the goals of the protest, and its support for its so-called leaders. These leaders are stuck in the summer of 2011, in their language and modus operandi; but time has moved on and these don't work any more. The public wants to see development, solutions, ideas and action, not the same old slogans.

No, the people identified as leaders of the protest have not won the hearts of the protest's supporters. The protest is much bigger than they are. Some thought to join political parties, but canned that idea when the elections were put off for 2013 (the original date ). It was clear they profoundly misunderstood (or didn't want ) their role as "protest leaders."

The economic agendas and deeds of the parties in Israel reflect the vectors of power and money in Israeli society. The protest's most important job is to say things that don't serve the interests of the incumbent powers that be, who control the Knesset, the parties and the cabinet. The role of the protest is to suggest new ideas that reflect the interests of the unrepresented public.

Yet most of the protest leaders have been looking for shortcuts and they're being very careful not to tread on anybody's toes. They want everybody to support them, even those living high on the hog as things stand. For this reason, they prefer to mark only one enemy, the government, and to ignore the circumstances that led the government to act the way it does. In essence, they are ignoring the political and economic forces that drive government policy.

Netanyahu's decision to increase the deficit because he's afraid of the public's reaction to tax hikes, reforms and cutbacks is the first glaring failure of the protest leaders' strategy. Instead of applauding their achievement, the protest leaders should be asking themselves who exactly is supposed to finance that deficit. And when the times comes that the deficit can't expand any more, and no new taxes can be imposed, and no cutbacks can be made, what is the government supposed to do then? That's what the protest leaders should be asking.

The answer is a no-brainer, actually. When the crunch comes the government will increase tax on the middle class and will cut stipends to the poor. That's what it always does and that is what it will do in the future as well. Barring reforms that tackle the hubs of power in both the public and private sectors, the only option the government will have will be to squeeze the unprotected middle class even more.

The fact that none of the protest leaders asked any of these questions last week and the fact that they seem unconcerned by a permanent deficit that shows no sign of diminishing bolster the suspicion that, nearly a year after the protest erupted, its leaders prefer to curl up in their comfort zone of emitting catchy slogans high on sentiment and low on sense.

The protest has its achievements. The government's moves in recent months show that the public discourse really has changed and that unrepresented masses are making their voice heard. They have no lobbyists and own no newspapers, but they have a weapon all their own: taking to the streets.

Taking to the streets is a powerful tool; it is an awesome one, but it has remained unfocused, and therefore ineffective, because most of the marchers have no idea what ideas the marches are supposed to be supporting.