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Middle east

The Israeli summer of discontent

Text by Charlotte WILKINS

Latest update : 2011-08-07

As the protests in Israel intensify and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets up a committee to assess the situation, France 24 takes a look at the reasons behind the demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets since mid-July to protest against the rising cost of living in their country.

Angry at the widening gulf between rich and poor as well as the escalating costs of everything from basic foodstuffs such as cottage cheese to the price of real estate, it’s the Israeli middle classes who are feeling the squeeze.

"Discontent amongst middle-class Israelis is the result of a socio-economic policy that has been executed for over a decade", says Nirit Moskovich, spokesperson for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

"There is a huge percentage of people living off their overdrafts…who can’t afford medical care…who can’t afford to educate their children".

On Saturday, a quarter of a million people protested throughout Israel in the biggest economic-related demonstrations the country has ever seen.

"Nobody ever thought that the Israeli middle-classes would leave their air-conditioned living rooms to protest in the heat of summer", says Noam Shalev, a film producer in Tel Aviv who joined in the commercial capital's demonstrations.

It all started with cottage cheese

What began as simmering discontent took online momentum when the price of cottage cheese, a household essential in Israel, skyrocketed in June. Consumers logged on to Facebook to protest, a debate took place at the Knesset and soon 90,000 Israelis had promised to stop buying the dairy product entirely.

"Cottage cheese was double the price in Israel that it was in New York," says Shalev. "But the cows weren’t getting more expensive, so why should the cheese be?"

On July 14 a young woman called Daphne Leef, 25, was evicted from her apartment when the lease ran out. Unable to find affordable accommodation in the capital, she declared "enough is enough," and pitched a tent in an affluent tree-lined suburb of Tel Aviv.

Within hours, more tents followed and by the end of the week some 400 tents lined Rothschild Boulevard with an atmosphere that Shalev describes as "very convivial….Facebook meets Woodstock".

"Everyone is talking, laughing, enjoying themselves…there are tent cities cropping up all over Israel today," he says.

National housing law contested

On July 8, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer warned that Israel must deal with a potential “housing bubble” that was fueling inflation. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the price of a three-room flat has risen by more than 40 per cent since 2007.

But Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu fanned the flames of discontent by dismissing the demonstrations as "populist protests and describing the protesters as "Ashkenazi leftists eating sushi and smoking nargilas."

He continued with his plan to pass a National Housing Committee law that ignored the demands of protesters calling for affordable housing.

"Why not explore the peripheral land markets like the Galilee mountains?" says Shalev. "We are such a tiny country."

Protest leader Daphne Liff says of Netanyahu, “He talks about free land and who’s going to get it -- the contractors and rich businessmen…what he’s offering us is nothing less than fraud.”

The higher cost of middle-class living

The middle-class protestors feel unable to keep up with the increasing cost of public services and the taxes necessary to pay for the Israeli defense force and the resettlement program.

"Budgets for public services, such as health care or education, have got smaller and smaller, forcing the middle class to pay more in order to acquire them, and the lower class to forgo them," says Nirit.

"My parents didn’t have to pay for my school fees. Now I have to spend thousands of shekels on school fees, new textbooks [and] extra-curricular activities for my two daughters," explains Shalev.

On top of that, with his taxes Shalev estimates he's bankrolling approximately five more people in his "virtual extended household"  that includes "Israeli soldiers, settlers and the ultra religious types who live off social security."

Finally, Shalev suggests peace with the Palestinians as a solution to the country’s economic woes, so that instead of "always preparing for the next war" or planning more settlements, more of the defense budget could be earmarked for social programs.

But he adds that protesters don’t want to make peace a part of their demands for fear of alienating right-wing supporters.

Bibi unresponsive

Much of the anger has been directed at Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in power for two-and-a-half years with no real economic change taking place.

"He has aggressively pursued an economic policy that favours the wealthy, including increasing privatization, lowering progressive taxes and cutting welfare payments," says Nirit.

"If you look at when Netanyahu was either minister of treasury or prime minister, you can see that the socio-economic gaps increased under him," she adds.

Netanyahu called Sunday for a committee of economic experts, chaired by Manuel Trajtenberg, a professor at Tel Aviv University and the former chief of Israel's National Economic Council, to hold ''a broad dialogue with various sectors in the community.''

Netanyahu said the committee will focus on reducing the cost of living and changing the country's economic priorities.

"Forming panels will lead nowhere," says Shalev. "We have a saying in Israel: if you want to bury something, you say, 'let’s create a panel.'"

With Netanyahu’s slow and inadequate response to his people’s demands and plans for even bigger demonstrations next Saturday, the protesters show no signs of melting away.


Date created : 2011-08-07