It started with an ordinarily looking Facebook page, advocating a boycott of a common Israeli cottage cheese for its costly price (£1.50 for 250g). Then a few social activists set up tents in Tel Aviv’s chic Rothschild Boulevard, protesting against the rising housing prices. Before you knew it, a wave of protests gripped the whole country, and tens of thousands took to the streets.
The four-week long Israeli summer of discontent, involving protests by diverse groups such as working mothers, doctors and students, is unprecedented as well as baffling: in a country long torn between left and right on issues of war and peace, economics is all but absent from the public discourse.
The messages of the protestors are vociferous, though sometimes contradictory. Some promote strengthening the welfare state, while others advocate lowering taxes. But the common denominator of them all is the sense that the burden weighing on the backbone of Israeli society – the urban secular middle-class – is just too heavy.
The Israeli economy has indeed weathered the global crisis quite successfully. Growth in 2011 is estimated to be at an enviable 5 per cent, and the level of unemployment is at a historic low of 5.7 per cent. At the same time, the cost of living has soared, and Tel Aviv is currently more expensive to live in, according to Mercer’s 2011 survey, than Milan, Paris and New York. Israelis are in a constant state of overdraft – an average household here earns the equivalent of £2,000 a month, but spends £2,250.
Opinion polls show that more than 80 per cent of Israelis support the protests, but also no weakening of the governing coalition if elections were held today. Some see this as an advantage. Hanoch Marmari, former editor in chief of Haaretz newspaper and currently director of “Save Israeli Democracy”, an independent civic initiative aimed at improving the Israeli parliamentary system, says that in the last 20 years “we witnessed the withdrawal of exactly these middle class Israelis from the political process, which was considered too ugly and not rewarding enough”.
This vacuum was filled by small and well-organised lobbying groups – such as the ultra-orthodox, the large trade unions, the West Bank settlers and the super-rich – who managed to extract ample benefits from the state. “I don’t know how long this will last,” says Marmari, “but I hope that this outburst of renewed energy will be used to create needed and deep structural changes.”
Sensing the public anger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a 15-member committee to suggest solutions within a month. These committees are nothing new here, but this time around, it seems Israelis have run out of patience and finally want some results.