The Protest That Served Netanyahu

The people demanded 'social justice' but they got a paralyzed system whose component parts do not dare disagree with basic conventions. No one talks about peace or completely shaking up the Israeli worldview.

When all is said and done, it is possible that the waves of protest that swept across Israel in the summer of 2011, actually played into the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a surprising conclusion. After all, when the prime minister saw the streams of demonstrators last year, he was terrified. According to reports, his first question was: "Who sent them?"

Netanyahu is not familiar with political moves that arise from grassroots and are not organized with deceptive precision by hired strategists on behalf of people with vested and foreign interests. When Netanyahu recovered from the shock, he tried to dismantle the protest.

The first move was the release of the abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit - an ironic development, since Shalit's return was not one of the objectives of the social protest. His portrait did indeed appear here and there at rallies, but it symbolized a loose connection with the general talk about "solidarity." The deal for the release of Shalit, in return for masses of Palestinian prisoners, was made in direct contradiction to Netanyahu's declared policy until that moment. He has not supplied a reason for it to this day and no explanation of this kind was demanded of him from the public, the vast majority of whom were satisfied with the return of "the son of all of us." When the deal was approved, the prime minister made do with some mumbling about "changes in the Arab world," recreated his wife's emotional appeal ("Bibi, think as if he were your son" ) and continued on his way.

He had no intention of taking to heart the recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee, which he himself appointed even before the aspirin of Gilad Shalit's release. Very few of the recommendations were adopted (not surprisingly, without sufficient preparation and infrastructure - for example, free education from the age of three ), while others were rejected or just dissolved into thin air. The issues of mandating core subjects in schools, reducing the monstrous defense budget, or finding solutions to the housing problems, were not dealt with at all.

It was reported this week that Professor Manuel Trajtenberg is a candidate for a top position in Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. Sometimes one has the suspicion that all that is left of the 2011 protests is that Shalit has become a contributor to Yediot Ahronoth's sports pages while Trajtenberg is running for the Knesset alongside the former Shin Bet security service head and businessman, Jacob Perry. Since the fading away of the protest movement, its leaders - whether out of frustration or in an attempt to convince themselves - tend to stress that the protests had a dramatic effect: They changed the public discourse. That is correct. We cannot take away from the protest movement the issues and the language which, thanks to it, were placed on the public agenda. However it transpires that this effect is complex. One of its results, in fact, is the spin about Iran.

Netanyahu understood that "regular" defense issues, such as the status quo in the discarded south of the country - issues about which he anyway could not provide any good tidings - were no longer able to keep the price of cottage cheese or housing off the public agenda. In order to do that, something serious, something "absolute" had to be found. For example, bolstering the claim that the Iranian nuclear program posed an immediate existential threat. Just try talking to him about cottage cheese now.

The best proof of the limitations, or even the dangers, of this new discourse can be found in the stagnation that has enveloped the political map as the elections draw nearer. If indeed the earth really had trembled here last summer, it would have been possible to expect significant fluctuations - voters moving from one bloc to another; surprising coalitions; new parties that went beyond the status of mere curiosities or the next ordinary center-party of the day. None of that took place. What did happen? For the first time in the history of the state, the rivals of the incumbent prime minister have conceded in advance any pretension of providing a comprehensive strategic alternative to him and instead are standing at the head of niche parties that are prepared to take care, under him, of "social" affairs close to their hearts. The people demanded "social justice" and a "revolution" but they got a system that was paralyzed and immobile, whose component parts do not dare to disagree with basic conventions. They all talk about justice. No one talks about peace, nor do they talk about completely shaking up the world view of Israelis.