Not only Arab countries in turmoil; protests wrack Israel

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 3, 2011 

TEL AVIV, Israel — While the world has been focused on the anti-government movements that sprang up during the Arab Spring, the largest protests in Israeli history have been sweeping the country for the past two months, threatening to destabilize the government with calls for extensive change.

The protests began with a Facebook petition over the cost of cottage cheese. They now include a litany of demands, including a return to the days when the government took a more active role in subsidizing costs. Protesters also want changes in the tax system, more subsidized government housing and more spending on health and education.

Last weekend, more than 150,000 people participated in a nationwide march to protest high housing costs. The organizers are calling for another march this weekend and promising an even larger turnout.

Israeli officials admit surprise at the strength and staying power of the protesters, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded this week by canceling a scheduled increase in the price of gasoline that was to have gone into effect Tuesday.

Analysts think it's the first Israeli political movement motivated entirely by domestic concerns.

"These aren't protests about war and peace, about the Palestinians or Israel's neighbors. These are about the day-to-day life that Israelis lead, and what they want those lives to look like," said Rena Masler, a 23-year-old student and political activist.

For three weeks, Masler has pitched a tent alongside hundreds of other Israelis on Rothschild Boulevard in this coastal city, Israel's largest. Home to some of the country's priciest real estate, Rothschild features a leafy promenade that's now covered in tents, filled with protesters inspired by the complaint of a young, single filmmaker who was fed up over the high cost of renting a home.

Hundreds of others have pitched tents in similar protests in cities across the country.

According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the cost of renting an apartment in Tel Aviv has risen 60 percent in the last four years. The paper said the average Israeli increasingly paid up to half of his or her salary on rent.

"I don't expect to have the home of a millionaire, but as a student there are no housing options. I live almost an hour away from school, because it's the only place I could find an apartment I could afford," Masler said.

She pointed to her parents, who fled to Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1940s. They lived on a kibbutz, Israel's communal farms, before purchasing an apartment subsidized by the state for young couples.

"This was a country that when it was socialist took care of its own. Where are those values now?" she asked.

Many of the young protesters have pointed to their parents and grandparents as examples of true social welfare by the nation of Israel. When Israel declared independence in 1948, Jews flocked to its kibbutz living and its experiment with socialist Zionism.

Early Israeli governments were strongly influenced by socialist values. They built vast low-income housing projects and subsidized apartments for young couples across the country.

Israel has slowly ended many of those projects, and Netanyahu's government considers itself firmly ensconced in capitalism.

At a protest over the weekend, however, hundreds of thousands of Israelis carried signs calling for a "social welfare state."

"We want social welfare, and yes, that means more socialism. Bibi (Netanyahu) and his people have made their billions and now 10 of them control the entire state. We want the government to remember how this country was founded and what our values were then," said Shai Dahlan, a 36-year-old father who took part in the protests.

Netanyahu's popularity has dropped to 32 percent, the lowest since he's been in office, according to polls conducted by Israel's Channel Two news. Political analysts say that a future party that focused on social welfare issues would draw a significant number of votes away from Netanyahu.

A separate poll by the Smith Research group said that as many 20 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, could go to a new, "socioeconomic" party.

Labor and union groups across the country are planning strikes throughout August. Netanyahu has said he'll negotiate directly with the protesters, though many said their demands include new elections and a new prime minister.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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