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Israel's 'Occupy' movement struggles to get its groove back

Israel's social protest movement is struggling against divided leadership, a stronger government, and the perception that last summer's protests accomplished little.

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In the year since, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has actually strengthened itself. Analysts suggest the social protests weakened the opposition Kadima party, and prompted it to join government rather than face defeat in an early election called by Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the protest leaders themselves have splintered, with some flirting with the possibility of joining political parties. Itzik Shmueli, the chairman of Israel’s university students association, apparently accepted assistance from the powerful business interests that were the target of the protests. 

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And while a source of the protest movement's initial success was that it bridged traditional left-right political cleavages by deliberately avoiding foreign policy issues such as the costs of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, there are some the protesters who believe that this time around, they need to broach the argument that money spent on Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be better spent on social causes in Israel proper.

"We have to talk about the occupation, which was absent from last year’s protest so as not alienate people," said Yuval Ben Ami, at a march last month. "Money is thrown into a welfare state in the West Bank while we are struggling."

Dwindling numbers

Sami Peretz, editor of "The Marker," the business section of the Israeli newspaper editor Haaretz, said the legacy of the protest movement is mixed. "I prefer to talk about the influences rather than achievements,’’ he says.

The movement helped slow price rises at retail stores and helped spur a commitment from the government to subsidize pre-school day care, he says. Its message of solidarity also put pressure on Netanyahu to fulfill the government's obligation to get captured soldiers out alive and secure Sgt. Gilad Shalit's release from Hamas captivity in Gaza, Peretz says.

While the protests last summer showed that the middle class could exert pressure on the government, Mr. Peretz said, the same Israelis are still sitting on the sidelines this time around. Many have dismissed this year’s protests as confined to Israel’s far-left. 

"I’m not sure that the middle class is in the streets as last year. What you see now is many nano-movements, trying to come up with an agenda," he says.

The new digs of the tent encampment can be found at a park on Tel Aviv’s outskirts. It is surrounded by highways on all sides, and the din of the traffic helps stifle noise from protesters. Though a bus and train station are across the street, it strikes a lonely contrast to the rows of tents nestled in the city center of last year. Only a handful of tents have been erected, compared to dozens last year.

But Irit Kobo, one of the camp inhabitants, remains upbeat. "The public is disillusioned because they lost hope after last year. They need to see a small success, and they will get some of that hope back."

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