This week the Palestinians
Asked the UN
For recognition of
The State of Palestine.
They will not be put off
This week the Israeli
Social protest leaders
Committee of experts
To pursue their demand
For an Israeli welfare state.
They will not be put off
Netanyahu has nothing to offer
To either of them.
(Advert placed in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, by the Israeli left-wing peace campaign Gush Shalom)
The mass Israeli protest movement for social justice, which has been gathering in strength since July, has been seriously set back in the aftermath of an Islamist terrorist attack. On the day Gush Shalom was placing its Ha’aretz advert, in an attempt to link the struggles for Israeli-Palestinian peace and the fight for a more equal Israel, Islamists from Gaza were busy helping Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli government off the hook.
Israeli officials say Palestinian fighters entered Egypt through tunnels from Gaza. They then travelled 200km through Egypt’s Sinai, entering Israel near Eliat on Thursday 18 August. Six Israeli civilians, two soldiers, seven Islamists and five Egyptian policemen were killed by gunfire and explosions.
Following the attacks the series of mass protests set to take place across Israel on the evening of Saturday 20 August were cancelled. One of the organisations coordinating the movement, the Israeli National Union of Students, stated: “[The protest movement is] lowering its head on this difficult day [of mourning for Israeli dead].”
This was the first weekend for five weeks with no Saturday night demonstrations. Veteran Israeli activist Uri Avnery commented, “Since the beginning of the [Israeli-Arab] conflict, the extremists of both sides have always played into each other’s hands… Netanyahu and his colleagues have already ‘liquidated’ the chiefs of the group which carried out the attack, called ‘the Popular Resistance Committees’.
“What now? The group in Gaza will fire rockets in retaliation. Netanyahu can — if he so wishes — kill more Palestinian leaders, military and civilian. This can easily set off a vicious circle of retaliation and counter-retaliation, leading to a full-scale war. Thousands of rockets on Israel, thousands of bombs on the Gaza Strip. One ex-military fool already argued that the entire Gaza Strip will have to be re-occupied.
“In other words, Netanyahu can raise or lower the flames at will. His desire to put an end to the social protest movement may well play a role in his decisions.”
A coalition has emerged of those protesting against the high costs of housing, childcare, fuel, electricity and food.
Over 40 tent camps have been established around the country. The core protest, based in the well-off Rothschild Boulevard area in Tel Aviv, now has more than 500 tents.
The protests, mainly led by youth and partly organised using the web, look a little like the recent Arab uprisings, but in content are closer to the “Indignant” movement in Spain; it bears some features of the movement the AWL advocated and attempted to build in the 1990s in defence of the British welfare state.
250,000 marched in Tel Aviv on 7 August, followed by massive local marches on 14 August. A quarter of a million, from an Israeli population of only 7.5 million, is the equivalent of two million in the UK. Such mass demonstrations make those on the British left who view Israel as a society without a “real” working class or class struggle look foolish.
According to opinion polls the protests attracted the support of around 90% of the population and have badly shaken Binyamin Netanyahu's government.
At first Netanyahu dismissed the protests, which started with demands for affordable housing.
The upheaval began in mid-July, when the landlord of 25 year-old Daphni Leef raised her already high rent. There are no rent controls in Israel, and an acute shortage of public housing means soaring rents. 20% of Israelis now spend more than half of their disposable income on rent.
Instead of paying the new rate she created a Facebook event announcing that from 14 July her new home would be a tent in central Tel Aviv, on Rothschild Boulevard. She invited others to join her, not knowing if anyone would.
However her protest did not fizzle out. It quickly spread, drawing in wide sections of the population who brought their own demands for social justice.
The Israeli union federation, Histadrut, has rallied to the movement under the banner “Workers support the Protests”. Histadrut Chair Ofer Eini said to a rally of thousands of trade unionists, “we lost our compassion and became a capitalist country. And not only a capitalist country, but a piggish capitalist country.” Pnina Klein from the Movement of Working Women & Volunteers, called the government “a disgrace to the state of Israel in the way it abandons Israeli children [to poverty, with one-third of all children living below the poverty line].”
British trade unions — such as Unison — who are considering breaking links with the Histadrut over the Palestinian issue should look at the Histadrut’s role in this movement. Unison could learn a lot about how to defend the welfare state from the Histadrut.
Netanyahu has now responded — aiming to buy time, dissembling as normal — by appointing a “panel of experts” to meet protest leaders and to look at their grievances. Netanyahu is a right-wing nationalist and, in economics, he is a Thatcherite. He has no intention of giving anything to the Palestinians or the Israeli welfare-state protesters.
The protesters countered by forming their own 60-strong advisory council, composed of some of the most prominent university professors, including an Arab woman professor, and headed by a former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel.
Originally the protesters were firmly anti-political. That mood has, to some degree, given way as concrete reforms have been demanded, including progressive taxation and workers’ rights. Writing in Ha'aretz the author Amos Oz suggests that, “The resources required for establishing social justice in Israel are located in three places: First, the billions Israel has invested in the settlements, which are the greatest mistake in the state’s history, as well as its greatest injustice.
“Second, the mammoth sums channelled into the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, where generations of ignorant bums grow, filled with contempt toward the state, its people and the 21st-century reality. And third, and perhaps foremost, the passionate support of Netanyahu’s government and its predecessors for the unbridled enrichment of the various tycoons and their cronies, at the expense of the middle class and the poor.”
Opinion polls show great support for radical welfare reforms. 82% of Israelis believe that free medical care should be provided even to patients with no health insurance; and 79% believe Israel must invest more money in the education system.
Israel was once one of the more equal societies in the world. It has become one of the most unequal of all the advanced states. Since the 1980s a series of governments have attacked welfare provision and privatised services.
The average income after tax for the wealthiest 20% of Israelis is 7.5 times higher than the poorest 20% of society (2008).
The gap between the rich and poor in Israel has been steadily increasing. 25% of Israelis — or 1.7 million people — live in poverty, (the average in advanced Western countries is about 11%). 57% of ultra-Orthodox Jews and 54% of Israeli Arabs live in poverty.
Israeli education has been cut. Expenditure per student in primary school is 36% lower than the average in the rich OECD countries. Poorly funded state education has led to the expansion of private education for the children of parents who can afford it.
Since market reforms to the health service were made in 1994, many medical services have been cut. Costs of treatments have soared, meaning many are not able to access adequate health care. For example, around one third of the population does not use dentists and the percentage of elderly people who are completely toothless is estimated at over 50%.
In 2010, the subsidising of the water prices was completely halted, and the cost of water increased by 40-50%.
Israel’s social safety net for the unemployed is especially flimsy: unemployment insurance in Israel is one of the poorest in the West, both in terms of eligibility requirements and in terms of the money provided. In 2010, only about 25% of the non-working population in Israel was eligible for unemployment benefits. The budget cuts in professional training have created a situation where today there are almost no professional training programs provided by the State. (Statistics from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel).
Israel’s new progressive movement has been, at least temporarily, set back by the Islamist attack. Debate about the need for state-provided welfare in Israel has been replaced with patriotic flag-waving.
Every extra Hamas-launched missile fired into Israel creates fear which helps the Israeli right. Every Israeli death means it is harder for those who are arguing inside Israel for welfare, not arms spending.
Israeli workers are not the only losers. Rational, democratic voices among the Palestinians and inside Egypt have suffered too. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, under nationalist Fatah leadership, has despaired of the stalled “peace process” and is making an initiative at the UN to have a Palestinian state recognised. The PA, in contrast to the Islamists, wants peace and a “two States” solution — an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem (occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War) alongside Israel. Apparently they have the support of over 120 states for their perfectly reasonable — but largely symbolic — UN recognition.
The Israeli government, however, is deeply hostile to the PA’s UN move, saying it will lead to violence. Islamist terror and killing helps the right-wing in Israel prevent a democratic solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And in Egypt, the killing of Egyptian policemen by Israel during the pursuit of militants who had carried out attacks on Israeli citizens, has provoked Islamist/nationalist demonstrations in Cairo.
Although the current military-led Egyptian government has repeated that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 will be respected, there is an Egyptian foreign policy shift which includes a harder line against Israel. The Egyptian authorities have made angry noises; alarmed, Israel appears to be backing off.
One aim of the Gaza Islamist militants — and their supporters such as the SWP in Britain — is to draw Egypt into conflict with Israel. Such politics are poisonous and are a diversion from the burgeoning class struggle in Egypt.
Renewed Egyptian-Israeli hostility — or even worse, war — could only benefit the right in each state.