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Finally, Israelis have their eyes on the right ball

15/05/2013

The social justice movement in Israel is alive and kicking. Several instances from the past year prove that despite all the bleak predictions following the summer of 2011, a dramatic shift took place in people’s psyche, and millions of Israelis have set their priorities straight and refuse to be distracted by security-related events like Operation Pillar of Defense or the crisis in Syria.

The first strong signal came with Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last November. The operation, which took place two months before the general elections, naturally focused public discourse on terrorism, Hamas, and security. For the first time, residents of Tel Aviv got a taste of what residents of the South were experiencing almost daily – the sounding of the alarm, running to the nearest shelter, waiting for the rocket to land, praying it will not land on your head.

But surprisingly, Operation Pillar of Defense did not mange to steer public discourse away from social problems, which continued to be the main issue of the elections.

Social solidarity and disappointment with the government reigned high, as Israelis were angry about the continued neglect of Israel’s periphery and inner-city neighborhoods, and were not impressed with the traditional fear-tactics used by PM Netanyahu, whose party runs on the security ticket. In fact, Likud plummeted in the general elections, even if it still ultimately formed the government.

Similarly, Israelis did not seem shaken by the government’s repeated warnings about the dangers the crisis in Syria poses to Israel. In fact, the public has largely ignored the Israeli airstrikes on Syria and subsequent government deployment of Iron Dome batteries in Northern Israeli cities, refusing to be alarmed by the escalating security situation.

Instead of preparing for a round of violence, Israelis chose to focus on something completely different: the prospect of Bank Leumi forgiving a major debt owed by Nochi Dankner, one of Israel’s tycoons private company. The size of the ‘haircut’ was estimated at somewhere between 100-200 NIS. Anger spread in the social media and then reached traditional media as well as the street. The severity of public reaction was enough for Bank Leumi to reverse its decision and back out of Dankner’s debt arrangement.

These signals are not limited to civil society alone. Battles over the government budget and proposed cuts did not skip Israel’s sacred cow – the Ministry of Defense:

“Nobody thinks there isn’t fat to cut from the Defense Department,” “I know the threats against Israel are real threats, but for 65 years Israel is under threat – first it was Nasser, then Saddam Hussein, then Nassrallah. . . “It’s not an economic discussion but a discussion of values.”

None other than leader of HaBayit Hayehudi party (The Jewish Home) Naftali Bennett said these things, at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting as the cabinet met over the budget.

Last Saturday, 10,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Rishon LeZion, Ramat Gan and Modiin to protest the export of Israel’s newfound natural gas reserves and proposed austerity measures. Unlike the 2011 rallies, one could spot signs about the cost of the settlements and other signs criticizing anti-democratic legislation. The event invitation on Facebook read: “Instead of an impossible budget which raises VAT and income tax, which robs regular and freelance workers, housewives and senior citizens – the people demand to stop free handouts to Israel’s tycoons, return Israel’s natural resources to the public and stop pouring money on isolated settlements. . . .“

Amid public outcry over the specially installed bed on plane requested by PM Netanyahu, estimated at 5 million NIS (roughly $127,000) and cabinet approval of the new budget, one should not expect the cry for social justice to disappear anytime soon. Despite the approved defense cuts, the budget is still far from serving the interests of the middle and lower classes. Unlike 2011, the current wave of protests may be smaller, but more focused. It will be characterized by greater cooperation between civil society and the Knesset and a more experienced and synchronized leadership. We are also likely to see more explicit language about the relationship between social justice and the cost of West Bank settlements.

Poetically speaking, the targeted missile that ended the life of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas military chief, did not ultimately kill the reawakening of the social protest.