The protest movement in Israel can potentially shake the foundations of the current regime, as it has done in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Will Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv marking 45 years of Israeli Occupation succeed at forming the basis for a movement that explicitly connects the social struggle with the political one?
By Yacov Ben Efrat
The demonstration of June 9 marking 45 years of Occupation connects the struggle against the Occupation with the struggle for social justice, sharpening the debate over whether the “social” should be linked to the “political.” Last summer’s protests were careful to distinguish between the two. In the protests’ virtual world, it was permissible to talk only of “social” issues. To avoid any “political” stain, the protest leaders wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and concluded the vigils with Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, in a show of consensual patriotism.
In the real world, however, political parties weave the two issues together inextricably. The Likud, with its neoliberal agenda, promotes its vision of settling all of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel). Shas, in favor of a kind of welfare state for Jews, holds to a rightwing worldview. The Labor Party, supporting a neoliberal social program, emphasizes its desire for making peace with the Palestinians. Among all these, only the social protest tied itself in knots to avoid “politics.” That is why it is so unstable, so open to manipulation, as both Left and Right try to co-opt it for their political use.
A sweeping victory for the Right
The protest’s insistence on avoiding “politics” is without doubt a victory for the Right. It must be remembered that, for years, governments of both Left and Right have strengthened Israel’s hold on the occupied territories through support for Israeli settlements, thus contributing to the power of nationalist religious factions among Palestinians and Israelis. The lack of hope for a political solution, and deep disillusion with the “peace process,” were fertile ground for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Since the Second Intifada, Israelis have also moved rightwards, and a new consensus has formed. The latter has now enabled Netanyahu’s rightwing government to create an almost wall-to-wall coalition of 94 Knesset members. The extremism developing among the Palestinians is great news for the Right.
The activists of the social protest understand that the Right supports an extreme neoliberal agenda and acts for the sake of the wealthy, thus increasing socioeconomic disparities. They know that the direct victims of this agenda are also those traditionally voting for the Right – the workers, the residents of poor neighborhoods and the neglected peripheral towns. Therefore, they surmise, the way to conquer the Right is to attack its weak point, its social agenda, thus pulling the electoral rug from under its feet. Indeed, the popularity of the protest movement certainly stems from the distinction it made between “social” and “political” and from its exclusion of Arabs and the Occupation from public discourse. Thus it succeeded in shaking up the government which rushed to issue the Trajtenberg report. But here the protest bumped up against a glass ceiling in its inability to turn its street-level popularity into electoral strength.
Welfare state with Occupation?
The main aim of the social protest is to bring back the welfare state – an aim common to protest movements around the world, including Egypt and Tunisia. But Israel is not a “normal” country. The Occupation and the continuous state of war create an unusual situation, which raises the question: does the “social” vision embrace a welfare state side by side with the Occupation? Or is it a vision of a “normal” state, based on redistributive justice?
Unbidden, the awkward question arises: can there be a welfare state which controls 4.3 million Palestinians lacking basic rights? Ignoring this question, or trying to avoid it, is like the attempts by all Israeli governments to reject any solution to the “Palestinian question,” from the Labor-Meretz government which signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Hadash’s support, up to the current government.
The Oslo Accords were the political expression of the neoliberal worldview. They brought Israel into the global arena and set “market forces” free. The economy was privatized and transferred into the hands of tycoons. The Histadrut (trade unions federation) sold off its companies and acquiesced in the destruction of organized labor. At the same time, Palestinians were forbidden from working in Israel. They lived under closure, and migrant labor was shipped in to replace them. Some of the occupied territories were handed over to the Palestinian Authority, which served as a subcontractor for Israel, strengthening the Occupation in return for generous financial aid from the West. Thus, during the almost 20 years since Oslo, poverty rates in Israel skyrocketed while unemployment rates in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip reached 50%, bringing the Palestinian people to the brink of starvation.
Can Israel avoid taking responsibility for the welfare of the people under its control? Is it possible to be sensitive to the needs of weakened populations in Israel, including migrant laborers, while remaining indifferent to the suffering of the occupied? Is it possible to fight racism against the Sudanese asylum seekers while ignoring racism against the Palestinians? Is it possible to differentiate between racism against Arabs and racism against Africans?
Of course, there is a difference: Israel is mired in a national conflict with the Palestinians, while the migrant laborers and refugees are innocent victims. But Israel had an important role, if not the decisive role, in creating and maintaining the national conflict, expressed in its refusal to solve it. Its claims that “there is no negotiating partner” are pathetic attempts to avoid responsibility.
The protest is blind to borders
The protest movement in Israel can potentially shake the foundations of the current regime, as it has done in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. This is its significance. The vanquishing of the economic rightwing will no doubt be the end of the political rightwing too. The struggle for social justice and against the tycoons and their minions in the government connects Israeli society with the rest of the world, in particular the Arab world. The hostility toward rampant capitalism, the disgust with the cozy relations between capital and the regime, the struggle against corruption and the struggle for organized labor – these issues unite young people around the globe and erase animosity between nations, as they discover that what they have in common is greater than what divides them. The struggle against Netanyahu’s government connects with the Palestinians’ struggle against the Fatah government and Hamas. The protest constitutes common ground that could be a bridge to peace and the end of the Occupation.
It’s true that the protest movements in the Arab world concentrated on the daily needs of citizens, on fair wages, housing, education, health and authentic democracy, and not on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel’s protest movement marched down the same road, addressing the suffering and needs of citizens, and thus won over their hearts. But here in Israel, the Occupation determines the social and political agenda. Therefore, the protest’s message must be made clear if it wants to generate real change.
There is an enormous difference between, on the one hand, concentrating on social demands while ignoring “political” issues, censoring the word “Occupation,” and, on the other hand, granting legitimacy to the debate over the link between the two. Censoring the Occupation is tantamount to handing the rightwing a victory. It pushes the periphery straight into the hands of the Right and delegitimizes the Left. Intelligent public debate, along with tolerant education against racism and against the evils of the Occupation, including its destructive effects on Israeli society – these must be promoted by every person, organization or party aspiring to social justice.
The government’s recalcitrant policies, as well as the PA’s powerlessness to ensure basic conditions for a life of dignity, will forge a new “Palestinian Spring.” It too will demand social justice and democracy. It will insist that the Israeli protest movement address the Occupation. It will insist that the movement participate in struggles against the rightwing and the settlers, who seek to suppress the Palestinian people. At present, the false “quiet” enables Israeli protestors to play a game of sterile social justice.
The Occupation is out of sight, flickering into view on rare occasions such as “price tag” attacks. But the day is coming when we will no longer be able to close our eyes, and then the Palestinians’ demand for freedom and social justice will reach us louder than ever. On that day we will be faced with a choice: to march with history or stand in its way.
Yacov Ben Efrat is secretary-general of Da’am – Workers Party. The piece was originally published in Challenge, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger.