The government has lost the people's trust. Those who want social change must seek political clout through elections.
hat began as a housing intifada has become an all-inclusive protest. The policies of privatization and the free market are today on trial. The trial is in the streets. The protestors demand that Netanyahu change his entire approach. Bibi, for his part, zigzags between embracing them and scorning them. He pays lip-service to some of their demands while twisting them to suit his Thatcherist worldview. He asks the leaders for a detailed list of proposals. He sets up a panel of ministers to hear them and make recommendations. His real purpose, however, is to dilute the protest and send the tent-dwellers home.
Meanwhile, the list of demands has grown. It has become a social-democratic platform putting the worker's good before the profits of the rich. The protest leaders seek to restore the "welfare state," which has been systematically dismantled since the Stability Plan of 1985. They want the wealthy to pay more taxes. They want an end to privatization. In particular, they want to eliminate calculations of profit when it comes to housing, education, health and welfare. These claims stand in clear opposition to the ideology of Netanyahu, who sees the rich as the engine of economic growth—social services be damned.
Netanyahu views the state as inefficient and wasteful. Only the successful entrepreneur knows how to run things, saving on labor power and salaries, lowering costs and closing unprofitable lines of production. The best thing about him, in Bibi's view, is that he is free from political constraints, so that his considerations are purely economic, regardless of social consequences.
This ideology is not an Israeli invention. It was formulated in the 1960's by Milton Friedman and adopted by America's Republican Party during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Netanyahu, a born Republican, wants to outfriedman Friedman.
Does it make sense to demand that Netanyahu carry out a policy which is diametrically opposed to his worldview? In doing this, the protest leaders sow confusion and weaken the movement. What is the point of going to Bibi with a well-formed social platform, when no tent-dweller trusts him—and not just because of his failures in social policy. Look at his political policy! For two years now his coalition has given a free hand to antidemocratic, racist legislation. At a time when the topic of social policy gains a broad consensus, the issue of peace and the relation to the Arabs continues to divide the public, while the right-wing holds a big parliamentary majority.
The protest leaders chose the tactic of ignoring the peace issue and focusing on Netanyahu's soft belly: his covenant with the tycoons. But the man is no schizophrenic. He is a right-wing nationalist and an economic conservative, two ideologies that go hand in hand. Like nationalists and conservatives throughout the world, he rattles the saber of war, hates foreigners, despises trade unions, and loves the big money for all the creature comforts it can give him. Thus the very power of the protest is its weakness. While Bibi presents a consistent social and political platform, the protest movement makes do with a social platform only, devoid of politics. And because the life-or-death issues in Israel are not housing, education and health, but rather "security," Bibi keeps the upper hand.
The protest leaders take care not to anger the right-wing, because they are under the illusion that the social and political issues can be kept apart. The right, in contrast, does not hesitate to connect them. As they always tell us, Israel isn't Sweden, and our protest movement cannot make do with politics-free platforms as in the Swedish model. We are in the thick of a nationalist conflict and ongoing occupation, while within Israel more than a million Arab citizens endure across-the-board discrimination. These are issues one cannot ignore. Like the others who live in the country's periphery, the Arab public has been most harmed by the dismantling of the welfare state.
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, a neoliberal prophet, acknowledges that the political question cannot be avoided. Recently, asked about the heavy costs of not making peace with the Palestinians, he replied: "If in another decade Israel finds itself in a situation that is not good, it won't be from neglecting the protest of Summer 2011, but rather from neglecting peace in Summer 2011" (Interview with Sever Plotzker, Yediot Aharonot, July 31, 2011).
The time has come to say clearly: The government has lost the people's trust. It should return the mandate. Those who want social change must seek political clout through elections. This means turning to the voters and asking them to empower a party that will carry out a political platform. True, the toppling of Bibi is not a solution in itself. Given the absence of a strong, socially-minded leftist party, there is a risk that Kadima under Tzipi Livni may come to power. Kadima favors the same neoliberal policy and opposes the conditions for a peace agreement. Livni, we recall, was a senior member of the previous government, which also has responsibility for the situation that has bred the current protest.
But if the protest movement succeeds in bringing on new elections, it will burn into the public mind an imprint of just how powerful the regular citizen can be, a fact that will influence every future government. The call for early elections is not just a message, it is an opening for the formation of a broad-based movement with a comprehensive social and political platform, a movement that can attract the trust of the public. A political coalition that calls for equality and social justice including an end to the occupation will bring about a change in consciousness.
Finally, a word about the democratic revolutions in the Arab world. The millions of Arab youth have reshuffled the deck, and a real peace between peoples is now for the first time conceivable. But social justice in Israel will not be enough: the Arab youth will test us by our relation to the Palestinian people. Those Arabs who are demanding democracy in their countries expect the people of Israel to do right at last by the Palestinians. This will be a condition for peace and mutual relations. Here then is the big challenge for the tent-dwellers. Netanyahu is doing all he can to perpetuate the nationalist conflict. It's the drug that keeps his Likud alive. The time has come to be rid of him, so that Israel can join the democratic process that is gripping the region as a whole.