More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Social-protest leaders strengthen Netanyahu
he start of the Knesset’s winter session marked the end of the protest season. With President Shimon Peres looking on, and with social protest leaders in the gallery, Benjamin Netanyahu opened with a social-political speech which left no doubt as to where he’s headed: on the one hand he declares war on the Palestinian Authority (PA), and on the other he embraces the leaders of the social protest. After his nightmarish summer, the prime minister has managed to stabilize his political position, and he has discovered the formula for keeping the coalition intact until October 2013.
A day earlier the government had met in Safed to inaugurate the medical faculty of Bar-Ilan University. At the same time, in a lightning operation, it also approved the section on taxation in the Trajtenberg report. This approval enables it to begin an economic policy based on electoral considerations. What US President Barack Obama cannot do with his contrarian congress – tax the rich and lighten the load on the middle classes – Bibi does with ease, breaking earlier promises to reduce taxes. This is the bone on which the protest movement is supposed to suck.
At the same time, Netanyahu threw another bone – this time towards the right – and declared war on the PA because it had dared to ask for membership in UNESCO, and even received it, without Israel’s approval. Immediate punishment came in the form of the accelerated construction of 2000 housing units in the settlements and delays in transferring funds to the PA. Thus the Knesset has managed to be the most rightwing, bigoted Knesset we have ever seen. While taking pity on the Jewish population and understanding the dire straits of the Jewish middle class, it is cruel, hardhearted and racist towards the Arab population. This is a Knesset which seeks peace at home while undermining the foundations of peace abroad. This is a Knesset which the protest leaders have decided to lobby and "supervise," showing their faith in its parties, no matter how right-wing they are, as long as they adopt a social agenda.
Just two days before the parliamentary session, the protest leaders stood before the demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square with an impressive show of strength. The masses crowded the plaza and put their trust in the protest movement, which refused to go home even after the government adopted the Trajtenberg report. However, despite the presence of the masses, the “spark” was missing, as Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz. The protest leaders looking on during the opening Knesset session reflected better than anything how they have lost their way. These leaders were handed a long rope by the Israeli public, but instead of tying it round the neck of the person responsible for bringing Israel to this dire situation, they threw it to a drowning Netanyahu, and he used it for political gain. Bibi couldn’t believe his luck when the protest leaders returned again and again and asked him to listen to them instead of calling for him to resign.
Anything except politics?
The protest leaders believe there’s no point in calling for early elections, because the alternatives are no better than the present government. They are also wary of politics, for fear it will frighten and divide the public. Thus “politics” in Rabin Square was reduced to nothing more than a call for all social protest activists to join the ranks of the parties – all parties – in order to effect change from within: Yisrael Beitenu, National Union, Likud, Kadima, whatever – they’re all kosher. Because when it comes to social issues, there is no left and right, and any party which may implement the protest agenda must be supported. In other words, the occupation, racist legislation, and the flat refusal to make peace with the Palestinians are not the protest movement’s business. The government is to be trusted as long as it supplies “social justice.”
This absurd drama doesn’t stop here. A day after the festive opening of the Knesset, Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared before the Finance Committee and adopted the protest leaders’ main demand as it appeared in the Yonah-Spivak report. (Yossi Yonah and Aviah Spivak were charged by the protest leaders to produce an alternative to the Trajtenberg report.) Barak demanded that the state budget be increased, so that the requirements of the protest movement as well as those of the Defense Ministry be met. Thus Barak linked himself to the protest in his opposition to the Trajtenberg report, which recommended reducing the defense budget and transferring the funds to the middle class. To ensure that all were well and truly scared, Barak gravely explained that “situations could develop in the Middle East in which the State of Israel would have to defend its interests and take care of critical issues without being able to rely on foreign, regional or other forces to assist it.” The Iran hint was clearly supposed to impress his audience.
It’s not only Barak and Netanyahu who are using the protest to promote their own political interests. Labor Party leader Shelly Yechimovich and her friend, Histadrut Chairperson Ofer Eini, are brazenly doing the same. It will be recalled that November 1 was to be a day of reckoning, after the protest leaders and the Histadrut jointly announced a “people’s strike” in the name of the wretched manpower (contractor) employees. But after Eini appeared as the knight of the protest movement, and Yechimovich chalked up a few points at Kadima’s expense, the “people’s strike” didn't happen: instead a public-sector strike has been announced by Eini, under his exclusive control. The protest leaders have been made to look ridiculous, and the only thing left for them to do is to supervise the public’s representatives in the Knesset. The “spark” was missing because the protest movement became a tool of politicians who squeezed it dry. Real protest must unequivocally point out who is responsible for the social crisis, have the courage to demand the price of neglect, and call on the government to step down.
After the scheduled rumors about Iran, it turns out that the problem of social justice pales in significance next to the danger of war hanging over our heads. How can we place our trust in corrupt politicians who sold the state to the tycoons and who aren’t even granted a minimum of faith by the defense establishment itself? You can’t lead the public by the nose time after time. The public voted with its feet against this government throughout the summer: according to the polls, 87% supported the demonstrators, whose number reached an unprecedented 450,000. But the protest leaders hesitated to translate this support into a call for new elections, and now, with war talk in the air, the moment may be past. A call for the government to step down is not just political wheeling and dealing – it is a democratic act, a clear demand which can change the global agenda. The protest leadership’s failure to make this demand appears to have led to a dead end.
In light of the racist legislation from this “social” Knesset, and in light of the cynical use of the protest movement to promote an extreme rightwing worldview regarding the Arabs (and perhaps a dangerous and irresponsible adventure in Iran), the time has come to draw clear lines between, on the one hand, democracy, social justice and peace, and, on the other, fascism, predatory capitalism and war. The fear of touching on “defense” issues makes the protest movement a hostage to the nationalistic politicians. Every rocket fired from the Gaza Strip and every declaration from Iran undermines the movement and makes it appear irrelevant. A real protest must raise the peace flag as well as the social flag. It must scrutinize every political party not just regarding its attitude towards Jewish demands for social justice, but also regarding its attitude to the demands of Arab citizens for social justice and the just demand of the Palestinian nation for independence.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger