Jewish spring?

Print edition : February 22, 2013

A protest in Tel Aviv on September 3, 2011, against rising housing prices and social inequalities in which an estimated 300,000 people participated. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party, outside his home in Tel Aviv on January 23. Photo: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a statement at his office in Jerusalem on January 23. Photo: DARREN WHITESIDE/REUTERS

An Israeli woman casts her vote in Tel Aviv on January 22. Photo: Dan Balilty/AP

A woman walks past election campaign posters of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Sderot, Israel, on January 7. Photo: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

During a protest against high housing costs on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard on August 2. Photo: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

Disenchanted with Netanyahu’s neoliberal economic policies, an assertive Israeli middle class votes for change, giving the centrist Yesh Atid party a greater say in shaping the national agenda.

IN TUNE WITH THE LARGER TRANSFORMATION OF WE- st Asia, Israel has proved through its remarkable parliamentary elections that it is not immune to the winds of change that are sweeping across the region. Contrary to the widely expected right-wing surge, Israeli voters have, instead, catapulted to a position of great advantage a centrist party and a charismatic leader who is now set to shape the national agenda.

The remarkable success of Yair Lapid, a former television star whose Yesh Atid party, entering the electoral fray for the first time, got an out-of-the-blue 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament), marks the assertion of a young and energetic Israeli middle class that is finding it difficult to communicate with the established parties of the Right and the Left, which are unable to speak the language of the youth. In the convoluted arithmetic of government formation, where the mandate has been divided among several parties that range from the Left to the ultra-Right, Yesh Atid’s tally is indeed impressive. With the ballot count done and dusted, the Right and the Centre-Left are evenly matched. The split vote has firmly pitched Lapid as a pre-eminent king-maker.

The astonishing results have pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, on the defensive. From having 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset, Netanyahu’s coalition has only managed 31 seats, a precipitous drop, with far-reaching consequences. The Prime Minister is still the frontrunner for a third term. But most people agree that, forced into dependence on parties pulling in different directions and belonging to the Centre and the ultra-Right, he risks leading an inherently dysfunctional government. Many wonder if another election that would further consolidate the middle-class vote, buoyed by its current success, is not very far down the road.

Lapid made skilful political capital out of seething middle-class discontent, which has tellingly exploded in the past. In 2011, young, educated, middle-class Israelis, burdened by rising housing rents, inflation and a decline in living standards, thronged Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in cascading protests. Occupants of the tented city that had emerged in Israel’s commercial capital were demanding the reworking of their social contract with a government that still boasted of high growth rates and a booming economy but which seemed to have lost touch with most ordinary Israelis.

The protests, which in hindsight had an enduring impact, were triggered by the sharp escalation in housing rents. Over the last one year, rents for two- and three-room flats in the Israeli capital have gone up by 11 per cent. Consequently, high rents are taking away an unduly large slice of the disposable income of most middle-class Israelis, grievously hurting the quality of their lives. It was the surge in rents that prompted 25-year-old Daphne Leef to establish a Facebook group calling for a protest camp. Her call did not fall on deaf ears—on July 14, 2011, around a hundred young men and women, mainly from affluent families, pitched their tents on Rothschild Boulevard, setting off the first wave of protests.

With Daphne Leef’s call on cyberspace striking a chord, the number of protesters swelled. Within a week, several hundred tents had mushroomed at the venue, their presence turning into a healthy show of street power. As it caught the imagination of the Israeli youth, around 300,000 people streamed through the streets of Tel Aviv chanting the simple but ringing slogan: “The people want social justice.”

At the root of the middle-class revolt lies Israel’s enthusiastic pursuit of a neoliberal model of economy, the perfect and proven recipe, tested the world over, for causing mass hardship and creating marked social inequalities. Israel became one of the first countries in the world to subscribe to the so-called “Washington Consensus”. In 1985, an Economic Stabilisation Plan was drawn up in the wake of the perilous economic crisis of the early 1980s. During that period, inflation had jumped to 450 per cent, setting the stage for the adoption of drastic measures. What followed was not only a new monetary policy but also a wholesale attack on the concept of the welfare state. Huge public spending cuts were initiated, wages were frozen and workers’ rights were undermined.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Netanyahu has accelerated this process. Israel’s crown jewels in the public sector, such as the El Al airlines, have been sold to private players. A similar fate has befallen the telecom giant Bezeq. At the core of Israeli economic policies lies the belief that the rich must be made richer through tax cuts to stimulate growth. It is therefore unsurprising that despite boasting high growth levels, nearly one-fifth of Israelis are poor. Statistics provided by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that in terms of cost of living, Israel is as expensive as France. However, Israel’s minimum wage is only half that of France.

The crisis of Israel’s political legitimacy is also equally palpable. The Democracy Index published by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010 concluded that only a quarter of the respondents trusted political parties. Just a little over 33 per cent said that they had faith in the Knesset.

In Israel, where the middle class is heavily taxed, several questions with significant political implications had begun to arise. Many questioned why settlers in areas occupied during the 1967 war were being heavily compensated, while some of the most creative and talented Israelis found it hard to afford a decent lifestyle.

Channelling discontent

With elections nearing, Yesh Atid, away from the gaze of most pollsters, became the vehicle for channelling the middle-class discontent. As results began to pour in, the party’s supporters remained firmly riveted to the concerns of the perceptively pained middle class. Yifat Kariv of Yesh Atid told YNet News: “There is a feeling that the country has returned to our hands, to the hands of the silent majority of the middle class.”

In his lively address late in the night, Lapid, to thunderous applause, called for the formation of a new governing coalition in Israel with moderates from the Right and the Left joining a centrist nucleus. “I urge the senior members of the political system to form as broad a government as possible that would unite the moderate forces from the Left and the Right, so that we will be able to bring about real change in the State of Israel,” he said. The telegenic former TV presenter has also been the star advocate for reforming a law that allows ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to defer their participation in military service, a call that resonated well with his young liberal supporters, who demand a fairer distribution of responsibility.

Well aware that they were playing with a weaker hand, leaders of the Likud-Beiteinu, for the moment, seemed to bow before Lapid’s agenda-setting platform. “The young public did not vote for us at all,” observed Likud’s Silvan Shalom in a conversation with Army Radio.

In a message posted on his Facebook page, Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, an established hawk not well known for deeper introspection, nevertheless conceded that the results would “force the next government to focus on internal matters, and mainly equal share of the burden, changing the form of government and affordable housing”. His dovish call that “if the Palestinians show they are willing to meet and restart negotiations we would be happy to meet with them, with no precondition,” has also raised plenty of eyebrows.

In view of Yesh Atid’s spectacular success, the response of the Centre-Left parties has been varied and nuanced. Zahava Gal-On of the leftist Meretz party saw in Lapid’s “wonderful achievement” an opportunity “to give a promise to the public in Israel that the extreme right-wing government will be replaced”. On the contrary, the Labour Party, reduced to the third position with 15 seats, turned inwards, pointing at Yesh Atid for the shrinkage in its political space. “Yair Lapid took the whole kitty, not only from the Labour Party but also from all the parties. His votes, after all, did not fall out of the sky,” said Labour Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel in an interview with Army Radio.

The churning within Israel seemed to have undermined the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, which has won 11 seats but was expected to do much better.

With the Israeli election results entering uncharted territory, the official Palestinian response has shifted between caution and bravado. In Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority which is less than an hour away from Jerusalem, the formal response to the elections has been lukewarm. “I am not going to say that now the chances of peace are going to be drastically improved or that we are going to see a sort of left-wing coalition and a peace camp that will take over and produce instant peace,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). “You are not going to have a saviour, suddenly producing instant peace.” While she did not rule out the possibility of gradual change, the Associated Press quoted one adviser to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, as saying that there was hope that, politically weakened by the vote, Netanyahu would become more vulnerable to American pressure to halt the settlement building.

Both the Americans and the Palestinians are demanding a halt to fresh Israeli construction in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to revive the stalled peace talks. Leafy Israeli settlements connected by international quality roads, islands of prosperity for Israeli settlers and eyesores for Palestinians, dominate many hilltops of the West Bank along most of the route from Jericho to Jerusalem, a drive of 45 minutes.

Many settlements are separated by a forbidding grey security wall, visible from the main highway, which insulates them from segregated Palestinian villages and towns. Not a bulwark for Israeli security, the wall generates the distinct and distasteful overhang of an emerging apartheid state where Palestinians are the victims.

Despite its reservations, the Palestinian Authority wants to engage Israel’s leadership in transition on a fresh footing. Agency reports suggest that President Abbas has directed officials of a committee that he had formed last December to draft a public letter that would be sent to the new Israeli lawmakers and the media. The letter would seek to convey to the Israelis that the Palestinians are ready for a peace deal that would be in the interest of both sides.

In Cairo, the new home in exile for many of its leaders, Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior luminary of the Palestinian Hamas, adopted a confrontational tone. He attributed the decline in Netanyahu’s electoral fortunes to the brief Gaza war of November 2012. “Netanyahu gained fewer votes than in the last election because he failed to confront the Palestinian resistance during the last Gaza war,” said Abu Zuhri in a statement.

Mixed Palestinian response

In the streets of East Jerusalem, the area dominated by Arab-Israelis, Lapid’s rise has evoked a mixed response. Many in the old city attribute his emergence to the economic hardships that have befallen the Israeli middle class and not to a politically driven urgency to resolve the Palestinian issue. “One can only hope that a process of change that has begun in Israel will eventually, out of a necessity for peace, cover a broader foreign policy agenda,” said Mohammad Salah, a teacher at a local school.

Some others like Abed Harb, an electronics engineer-turned-real estate developer, are cautiously optimistic. They point out that change is required not only on the Israeli side but also within the ranks of the Palestinian leadership. “Both the Fatah and Hamas are fast losing their legitimacy,” he said, pointing to the two Palestinian factions that have been at loggerheads since 2007. “We need an Arab Spring in the Palestinian territories so that a new leadership change from below can emerge before we can aspire for meaningful change. To me that is still a long way off,” he observed.

Many Arab-Israelis seem to have concluded that the narrow Palestinian elite has done exceedingly well for itself at the expense of ordinary Palestinians, who are beginning to sense the need for leadership change. If that is true, then the Israeli elections may only be the tip of the iceberg—a precursor to a larger process of change that is unlikely to remain confined to Israeli borders.