Analysis: Revolt or summer fever? Israel ponders tent protest

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 28, 2011 2:04 AM
Analysis: Revolt or summer fever? Israel ponders tent protest

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined emergency housing reforms in a televised address, many of the protesters who had prompted the measures by camping out in Israeli cities made derisive hand gestures.

The dismissive signature twirling gesture, borrowed from anti-government demonstrations in Spain, means "just more spin."

Activists have set up tent camps and held often rowdy sit-ins in urban centers this month in a leaderless, apolitical campaign for lower rent, land prices and other consumer costs.

No one expects the kind of upheaval that has rocked the Arab world as citizens rise against authoritarian rulers, and few see a serious challenge to Israel's conservative ruling coalition.

But the urgency of Netanyahu's response on Tuesday suggested worry at the top as middle-class Israelis, burdened by high taxes and the backbone of the conscript military, mobilize over a range of grievances they blame on the government.

Ben Caspit of Maariv newspaper discerned an eruption of anger among those long taken for granted by Israeli leaders as the country shifted from founding socialism to free markets.

"It is the middle class that is fed up with carrying the entire country on its shoulders and seeing everyone else -- sectors in society that get financial help from the government, the interest groups, the coupon-clippers, the rich and the connected -- party on the beach," wrote Caspit.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrialized nations that Israel recently joined, says 39 percent of Israelis find it "difficult or very difficult" to live on their income. The OECD average is 24 percent.

Property prices have jumped 50 percent since 2008 as population growth exponentially outstripped construction.

Israel enjoys healthy economic growth, with a 5 percent spurt forecast this year and unemployment of just 5.7 percent. Yet the OECD found in 2010 that polarization between rich and poor was one of the highest in the world.

So while Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has pledged to halt the rise in housing prices by year's end, this may be outpaced by protests that have also been reinforced by a four-month-old doctors' strike over pay and conditions.

DURATION IN DOUBT

After a consumer boycott of cottage cheese led to a drop in dairy prices last month, campaigners are proposing to target other products and state services, such as electricity.

Pundits question the durability of such action, not least because it lacks political thrust and has drawn much of its energy from student activists on summer break from university.

But their ranks could soon be stiffed by Israel's labor federation Histadrut, which on Wednesday said it would pitch in "with all means" next week unless Netanyahu negotiates directly with the demonstrators. Past Histadrut strikes paralyzed Israel.

"It is difficult for me to assess its (the protest's) seriousness, its depth, its life expectancy," said Nahum Barnea, dean of Israeli commentators.

"They have nothing, save the authentic feeling that their situation, as young middle-class Israelis, is terrible, unfair, crying out for change," he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

"This is a non-political, anti-political loathing. The question is still open whether at a certain point it will become a political lever that will turn things around in the country."

Though Netanyahu, a champion of privatization, took pains to display sympathy for the demonstrators, his cabinet secretary suggested the government's patience could soon fray.

"It's possible the protest organizers want protest and not a solution," Zvi Hauser told Israel's Army Radio.

Such views appear to be finding support among the public, though more than 80 percent of Israelis, according to opinion polls, have so far backed the demonstrations.

A caller to Israel Radio who identified himself as "Yossi from Tel Aviv" counseled the activists to reserve their rancor for the ballot box in the next general election, due in 2013.

"Do they realize how dangerous revolutions can be?" he said.

Without a clear objective among the activists, some commentators say student leaders, satisfied with Netanyahu's pledge of more and cheaper campus housing, may break ranks.

Should the protests endure, there could be long-term damage to Israel's system of governance, already strained by tensions between Jews and Arabs, and between left-leaning voters and those who support continued settlement of occupied West Bank land where Palestinians, with world backing, seek statehood.

"The middle class props up democracy. As soon as it erodes, revolutions begin, economic growth stops and democracy is harmed," said David Nachmias, professor of government and public policy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

(Editing by Dan Williams and Paul Taylor)