Netanyahu Does It Better

Experts in the fields of social-welfare and economics have repeatedly warned that the disparities in wages and the harm to the weaker communities are a ticking time bomb and soon unrest will develop into a full-fledged rebellion.

The reporters with cameras and microphones and recording devices rush off to the social-protest demonstration - the conference of the underprivileged. Okay. Rakefet from the PR firm Zalman & Kalman has told everyone "this time it's for real," and they have come to see how the poor, the homeless, the single mothers, the handicapped and the deprived have finally raised the banner of rebellion against the rich and smug. When the expectant crowd arrives in the field, it meets a Reform rabbi, a Mizrahi single mother and sociology lecturer who have come along just to show solidarity. Everyone is drinking coffee and eating wafers and complaining that the social-welfare protests never get off the ground.

Why is that? After all, the experts in the fields of social-welfare and economics have repeatedly warned that the disparities in wages and the harm to the weaker communities - or to be politically correct, the "weakened elements" - are a ticking time bomb and soon unrest will develop into a full-fledged rebellion. And what has happened? Nothing.

Even the ultra-Orthodox, whose child allowances the government slashed, did not take to the streets in protest. On the contrary, support for Benjamin Netanyahu in the ultra-Orthodox street did not flag even after he spoke disparagingly of large families. The rabbis shouted, the politicians protested, but the upper ultra-Orthodox decile, the one that counts, said they actually thought Netanyahu was right.

A prevalent view among social-welfare experts blames this failure on the charm of neo-liberal conservatism. No one wants to be identified with the "weak" or the "weakened." Everyone prefers to dream of getting rich, an always possible dream in a free-market economy. The weakening of the weak and the stroking of the middle class can diffuse the little that is left of social solidarity among this class. The stroking's a little bit for real, and a lot through its new definition as the class that only the "parasites" - strong workers' committees, unemployed, ultra-Orthodox and other large families - are keeping from the good life.

Another view maintains that social protest is not translated into action in a divided society whose only common denominator is the fear of terror. Some scholars add to this the growing gap between the collapsing social-welfare society inside the Green Line, and the loss of a sense of belonging and security, plus the close-knit social network and flourishing sense of security and belonging that exist inside settlements. These explanations, astute as they may be on their own, are insufficient to explain the great failure of social protest.

Another explanation should be taken into account - the privatization of social protest and its conscious disengagement from politics, of which the most obvious example is Vicki Knafo. How did it happen that this charismatic, angry woman who had nothing to lose, and who represented the hard core of poverty in one marching moment of courage was turned into a celebrity?

At a crucial stage, when the single-mothers' protest gained considerable media momentum, and the finance minister and his staff felt under pressure, Knafo was faced with a choice - paint the struggle with clearly political colors, in other words, to use the terminology of the left and join, say, the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow or a feminist organization like Ahoti [My Sister], or be branded. That is, become a doll in a game of images.

Knafo chose the second option, and instead of hoisting a clearly political banner, she made use of the services provided by Shatil, a nonprofit organization that provides consultation, funding and guidance services for social-welfare organizations - on condition that they are not political. The result was that while Knafo's struggle had better photo-ops and was voiced more articulately, the storm abated and its essence was forgotten, leaving only the gimmick.

When even the gimmick began to fail, Shatil began to set in motion Agenda, an Israeli center for media strategy that provides social-welfare organizations with tools to use with the media. Last week, it even brought in Robert Bray, a special media consultant from the United States, a spin-doctor, who without having lived even a minute in Israel already knows exactly what TV ads need to be tailor-made for every problem.

The social-welfare organizations, which have not succeeded so far in uniting around a single goal, and especially not around a political core which they fear more than a disease, will now become involved in a final whirl that will herald their end and cause irreversible harm to the crucial dispute between the different social and economic approaches. Instead of conducting the dispute outside the system, they will now be preoccupied by a hollow, post-modernist and PR-oriented war of words, arguing that whatever doesn't get media coverage doesn't exist.

But the media is not the main issue. The recent failures prove that what is not based on a union of political strength, protesting victims, and a world view provided by an intellectual elite - as in the social revolutions of 1968 in France and South America - no gimmick can breathe life into. After all, at that game, Netanyahu really is much better.