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Where is the social protest movement in the Israeli elections?

Did the revolution lose its sex appeal? Did the J14 leaders enable politicians to ignore them? Whatever the reason, it is clear that the main benefactor of this state of affairs is Prime Minister Netanyahu.

By Ilan Manor

J14 protest in Jerusalem July 30, 2012 (Activestills)

With the elections just two weeks away, it has become apparent that the 2013 elections are no different than the ones held in Israel since the late 1980s. Once again, the debate revolves around a flailing peace process, a possible solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the security challenges facing the State of Israel. The line between the Israeli left and right wing has remained in place.

Following the advice of the BBC’s fictitious Basil Fawlty, owner of Fawlty Towers, who cautioned “don’t mention the war,” most political parties have ignored or marginalized issues that were dominant during the social justice protests that swept through Israel during the summer of 2011. These included issues such as the high cost of living and the increasing financial burden placed on the shoulders of the Israeli working middle class.

Thus far, the impact of the social justice protests has been limited to the Labor Party, which placed both Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, two of the protest’s leaders, in prominent positions within the party’s list of candidates for the Knesset.

However, while these two figures attracted much media attention following Labor’s primaries, they have now all but vanished. While veteran party members such as Yitzhak Herzog are routinely sent to the television studios, Shaffir and Shmuli have been confined to Labor’s Facebook page. Even Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, has changed her tune and abandoned social issues which were prominent in the party’s campaign. Her statements are currently limited to reiterating the fact that she sees herself as a candidate for the premiership and that Netanyahu can be defeated.

It would seem that the social justice movement that so many Israelis demonstrated in favor of has lost its political sex appeal. In other words, the revolution has been trivialized. The question is why?

It’s possible that the fault lies in the social justice movement and its leaders. While these called for a reallocation of national funds and a change in national priorities, they were careful not mention what priorities would be abandoned or how the national budget would be redistributed.

Out of fear of losing their widespread support amongst Israelis from both sides of the political spectrum, the leaders of the movement refrained from explaining that the funds would have to come from the settlements whose infrastructure and security represents a substantial portion of Israel’s budget. The fact that creating a new welfare state would also mean the end of the occupation of the West Bank was “an inconvenient truth.” By labeling the protests “nonpolitical,” they enabled politicians to ignore them.

Another possible answer is that Israelis are still more supportive of the occupation than of a welfare state that would actually be of long-term benefit to them. How else can one explain the surge in popularity of the right-wing Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett? Recent opinion polls have shown that Bennett appeals to both the national-religious movement as well as young secular Israelis – the same ones who were at the forefront of the Social Justice protests. This is remarkable when taking into account that the party’s campaign centers mainly on the possible annexation of the West Bank and the future of the territories.

Lastly, it is also possible that 2011’s protests were more of a perfect storm than a genuine shift in the priorities of the Israeli middle class. The protests in Tel Aviv erupted soon after the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir square. While sitting in front of their televisions, Israelis to felt an urge to take to the streets. Then came a succession of strikes by social workers, doctors and teachers that set the scene for the outburst of a much wider national social protest.

Whatever the reason for the disappearance of the social protests from the 2013 elections, it is clear that the main benefactor of this state of affairs is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Labeled as an ally of Israel’s tycoons, Netanyahu has now regained his popularity amongst many Israelis. From a sitting duck to a mighty duck, the Prime Minister seems to be heading for a third term in office. And as Mr. Fawlty tells his dinner guests, “If you don’t like duck…then you’re rather stuck.”

Ilan Manor is working on his MA in mass media at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine and The Jewish Daily Forward. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.  

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  • COMMENTS

    1. The Trespasser

      Because a stupid and rich girl is really not the person to lead the popular movement, especially if some 50% of it aren’t too bright or particularly needy.

      Reply to Comment
      • I think that limiting the analysis to Mrs. Leef is somewhat lacking. While she was the symbol of the protests she was not the only leader or the only one to decide what should and should not be said by the leaders of the protests. Trying to understand why the spirit of J14 has not endured calls for a more in-depth analysis. I am not ceratin even I have been able to anwer this question in my article. I simply shared my limited analysis.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >I think that limiting the analysis to Mrs. Leef is somewhat lacking.

          Of course, but she was the loudest and the only one known to a wide public, which diminished the entire cause.

          >While she was the symbol of the protests she was not the only leader or the only one to decide what should and should not be said by the leaders of the protests.

          That was one of major problems. TOO MANY LEADERS. There is a proverb (can’t remember where I’ve heard it): Two Jews – three opinions – four political parties. Too truth.

          >Trying to understand why the spirit of J14 has not endured calls for a more in-depth analysis.

          I came there hoping to find… well, something. But there was nothing except for great atmosphere.

          Well, here’s my two cent analysis.

          1 – Because J14 leaders/members were/are not ready to die for their cause. Reasons to that are numerous – the cause it’s really THAT important, it hardly touches all layers of Israeli society, etc., etc.

          2 – There was no definite, clear goal. “Social Justice” sounds nice but is too vague to implement.

          3 – Leaders of movement really lack relevant education and see themselves way above professional, so to say, revolutionaries as Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Cromwell and Mao.

          Arrogant and ignorant can’t hope to win the fight against the system.

          It takes determination, devotion, knowledge and cunning. Haven’t seen much of those on Rothschild boulevard.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Lawence

      There is no quantitative analysis presented in this article. The election hasn’t taken place yet. The questions raised by the author are fine and appropriate. The answers are totally impressionistic. Therefore, the article is disappointing.

      Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      Security will always trump any other issue in Israeli elections.
      Its all very well protesting about the cost of living etc.
      But if the choice is the destruction of your country versus the cost of living, its a no brainer as to which one will win.
      Abbas recently brought up the venerable name of Haj Amin Hussaini(erstawhile Mufti of Jerusalem and good friend of Hitler) as a hero. Included to confirm the area as tough neighbourhood, Abbas is supposed to be a moderate peacenik.

      Reply to Comment
    4. The populace wants security, which trumps everything. If you say that increasing State funding within Israel would require reducing funding in the Bank, then there must be some sense that such reduction won’t regenerate the bombings, which just have to be a ready memory. That is, one must talk about the Palestinians as people (not “a people”), people who want improvement as much as Israelis want a better living standard. There has to be a sense that the majority of Bank residents are not evil. If you read comments on this site, you know that national right ideology is devoted to claiming Palestinians, as an entity, cannot be trusted. Individual trust must be built.

      One could argue that the settlements could at least be frozen, with aboslutely no new ones of any size allowed, as a start. But then how much savings does that bit actually entail? Exactly why do Bibi et al think these settlements help security? Or do they now give no reason, just the necessity of Greater Israel, a safer Israel.

      To trade an apparent sure thing–safety–for risk, a gamble, is always difficult. Bibi et al win because they control the discourse–you argue against them, not they against you.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        You are misrepresenting the national right ideology. The claim isn’t that the majority of Palestinians are evil. It is that the majority of Palestinians hold political positions that will force whatever entity that emerges to be hostile to Israel. This doesn’t require for the majority to go blow themselves up. All it requires is for the majority to believe that the goals of those blowing themselves up are legitimate. Given a ‘moderate’ Palestinian president that continues to attend events where suicide bombers are sanctified there is really nothing that works towards changing this perception. Even the security cooperation is maintained under the guise of working towards the ultimate Palestinian goals on which there doesn’t appear that much disagreement between Fatah and the most radical Palestinian movements.

        Reply to Comment
        • You are doing what I predicted, coloring an entire class of over a million with the social organization of a few (the bombers); moreover, there has been no evidence of suicide bombing for some time (the Tel Aviv bus is a weak indicator, but not well thought out–which doesn’t make it ok, by the way). Abbas is so devoted to population control that he refuses, as far as I know, to support the nonviolent Wall actions, and generally is against demonstrations unless planned by his people. There is just no evidence that Abbas is anything like Hamas. By saying “there doesn’t appear that much disagreement between Fatah and the most radical Palestinian movements” you make it impossible to partition risk–everything becomes risky, so continue as now. This fits exactly the secuirty world view I think generally frames the electorate. All risk is bad. The vanguard settlements are not risky, for they extend control via IDF protection, a marriage between Torah Ideology, IDF security, and, ultimately, building interests. Every Palestinian protest or arrest out there just confirms this lock in. Because risk is fused with the memory of suicide bombing (understandably), there is, a priori, no State funding which could be diverted from the Bank to social needs. A J14 demand, then, has no outlet through the Bank, security a Wall on budgetary matters. That leaves taxation; but, for now, there seems an alliance between the neoliberals and the Bank expansive right. J14 therefore cannot exist, so does not.

          Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      Actually, it was Basil Fawlty’s wife who was going to be away from the hotel who warned Basil “whatever you do, don’t mention the war” to their German guests.
      He did anyway, ending up goose-stepping in front of them. The British have not forgotten the war, decades later.

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      (1) Uri Elitzur, in the Makor Rishon newspaper last week showed that the claim that “money that is spent on the settlements could have been diverted to social welfare spending” is largely incorrect. Most of the money is spent on various infrastructure and social programs for the 350,000 Jews living in the settlements, and if they had never moved there, most of it would have been spent on them wherever they might have lived within the Green Line. In addition, the population there is made up of people who pay a higher than average amount in taxes due to their socio-economic status and although they are only 5% of the population, their men do one-third of all the miluim (army reserve duty) done in the country.

      (2) Part of the reason for the failure of the J14 movement is that it fell victim to what has knocked out so many grass-roots movements in Israel….once their leaders get some publicity, they decide to cash in on it and run for the Knesset, instead of devoting themselves OUTSIDE OF THE KNESSET to the cause they claim to believe in. The most egregious case was the father of Gilad Shalit using his “fame” to try to get himself elected to the Knesset (fortunately, he failed which speaks well for the Labor Party members who voted in the party primary). If people are not willing to really put out effort over a long period of time for an ideal or goal they believe in, little will be accomplished. This, I would blame the leaders of the movement who sold out for personal advancement for much of the failure of the movement.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Philos

      Ilan, two comments if I may. One, I think calling J14 “the revolution” is using too much editorial license. A revolution would have been a mass movement of Jews and Arabs fighting for the end of Zionism in Israel. That would be revolutionary. The criticisms of J14 have all been vindicated: it was shallow, unfocused, and quintessentially middle-class, meaning that it did not dare challenge the establishment or its norms.
      .
      Two, the popularity of Naftali Bennet among secular young people is not a function of the occupation being popular but is rather a function of Israelis aversion to reading, especially reading party manifestos. When young people say, “I don’t know who to vote for,” I have not heard anyone say “Read some manifestos.” Sadly, I usually hear, “Al tazeyen et ha’sechel.” Indeed, working in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tel Aviv University and eavesdropping on undergraduate conversations during lunch and my coffee break leaves me with little faith that after 64-years democracy has set any real roots in Israel. Nobody reads, nobody cares, that miserable bastard Gideon Levy was right all along.

      Reply to Comment
      • Hi. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I think we are witnessing a shift in the behavior of Israeli voters. While I agree that not many read manifestos, this in itself is interesting as these are the same young people who took to the streets during the summer of 2011. My generation, often accused of being the “I generation” (Ipad, ICQ, I deserve) was the one who led the charge that summer. The fact that “none care” or read manifestos is another example of the fact that the spirit of J14 did not endure. Secondly, I think that nowadays, Israelis vote for people and not for parties. When asked who they are going to vote for most people use one word answers: Bennet, Livni, Yachimovitch. That’s why Bennet appeals to so many young secular Israelis. They look at him and think he is a blend between the new and the old, the traditional and the modern, the IDF officer and hi-tech wizard. They don’t take time to think what other people will be elected on his coattail. Ilan

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Hi Ilan, thanks for your thoughtful response. Also with regards to Bennet we should include the very modern tendency to equate wealth or success in business with intelligence or political moderation, which is widespread among young people throughout the developed world.

          Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      The social protest was dead by mid-2012. Why would it influence elections in 2013?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Paul J

      The ethos of the social protest hasn’t disappeared, its ethos is reflected in Labor and Yest Atid, (and to a lesser extent Meretz). These three parties are together polling 30% vote in the election, perhaps as much as 50% in Tel Aviv. I walked with “angry” demonstrators who are now enthusiastic about their political choice of Yair Lapid or Shelley. J14 hasn’t gone anywhere, you saw what you wanted to see in the 300,000 demonstrators….the overwhelming majority were there not not because of immoral Zionism or the Occupation, but were there because of a sense of economic (primarily personal) grievance etc…

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        It is really beyond me how people could be stupid enough to entrust commies with economy.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Paul J

      Labor is broadly centrist on economics, Shelly Yacomovich has however expressed too many economically illiterate ideas, her economic ideology hovers somewhere between petty national protectionism to Statist Corporatism.
      Meretz is altogether more coherent as a rational free-market social democratic party. I couldn’t possible attempt to define Yesh Atid, “me me me” economics.

      Reply to Comment
    11. ToivoS

      The occupy movement like j14 also evaporated quickly leaving behind only the tiniest residue. The one thing that they had in common was that they were explicitly non-political. Certainly with occupy, they rejected centralized organization which like it or not is fundamental to political opposition movements.

      At the time of their greatest influence it was hard to imagine the movement going anywhere. But it was still surprising to see how fast it disappeared.

      Reply to Comment
      • ToivoS and XYZ, above, seem to point to the same conclusion: there is little sustained social organization outside of the parties. Perhaps that is a consequence of decades of neoliberal policy. In the US there is the Tea Party, which fused an elite with those much lower, economically; but the TP has been called the “secular arm of the Christian Right,” and religion is still a potent social organizer here. I suspect that the same kind of near party exclusivity happens in (similarly) parliamentary Germany, where even youth organization is party oriented. In both Israel and Germany, relatively elite organizations exist, but not as independent electoral forces. In Israel, party schuffling, splintering and creation suggest a disconnect, relative to voters, with voters acting as a veto when they flee or migrate variously. The only evidence I have seen of voter input into parties is on the right, in Likud and the overt religous right, through determining party lists. This might mean that the election cycles are failing to measure a pent up demand, for the demand has no way to enter the parties proper. If that demand is real (if reflected by J14), one could then expect, in the future, a rather seismic shift with little notice.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          I don’t agree with your conclusion that the weakness of extra-parliamentary political activity is due to “years of neo-liberal policy”. The existing Israeli political infrastructure was set up in the 1920′s and the various parties that existed then were all-encompassing entities. They each had their own labor organizations, their own settlement movements, their own sick funds, their own banks, their own schools, their own sports and recreation organizations. A person’s identity was tied up with which party they supported and voted for. As late as the 1970′s it was necessary to have a Labor Party membership card in order to get a job in many government-owned companies. Thus, the idea of operating outside the mainstream political framework for any sort of non-politcal reform of movement was unthinkable.
          While the discipline of belonging to one party has broken down, the tribalistic feeling of belonging to either the right-camp or left-camp or religious camp is still very strong and few people cross over that line and they still look to the political party leaders to determine public policy. That is the excuse leaders of protest movements give for running for the Knesset as soon as they have made a name for themselves….”only when you are in the Knesset do they take you seriously”.

          Reply to Comment
          • That, as you say, Labor membership was necessary for many government jobs was a wrong and, I suspect, helped bring Begin the Prime Minstership. But the neoliberal dismantling that Begin began ends in one place. At first, the excluded find entry. But the organization you detail (and I didn’t know) is slowly dismantled all around in favor of money contract and purchaisng power of individuals. Nothing, it seems, has arisen as an alternative means of sustained socio-political organization outside strict religion. This last has happened in the States, too, to some degree. I actually don’t know how one could forage and sustain, between election organization outside of the parties which would have kept J14 alive. I don’t see this as a criticism of Israel, but just standard outcome in Western economic development. Extremity helps sustain social ties, but once dismantled daily economics makes it hard to build them back. There is a book, “Bowling alone,” which might be interesting. I do wonder if, however, the J14 pressure is still out there but not capable of being measured given elite control of agendas–parties are made top down, pushing that pressure aside. But if it is still out there, it will likely surface again, unexpectedly.

            Reply to Comment
    12. One more comment. There is a commonality between the suppression of J14 one year later with the arrest of early tent protesters, the present indictment for incitement to riot of its hapless founder, and the Executive’s disregard of a High Court order which clearly intended neither expulsion nor dismantling of the E1 tents. The Executive is saying, in all three instances, that it will determine acceptable social gathering and response based on its own, self made definition of stability. This necessity common to strict conservatism is, I think, enabled by the occupation which defines necessities everywhere. The occupation has entrained a form of thinking which has krept into Israeli State social policy.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Social protest is alive and well at the Da’am (Solidarity) Workers Party headed by Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka — all but ignored by the media, apart from an article or two in Haaretz. Da’am is the future (of cooperation); Bibi et al. are the past (greed, violence, might makes right).

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Events of last 6-7 decades had proven that communism is a dead-end.

        Reply to Comment
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