Israeli activists shift from Palestinian cause to pocketbook concerns

Tent-city protests over surging living costs started last week in Tel Aviv, the traditional hub of peace activism, and spread throughout the country. Housing prices have spiked 30 percent since 2007.

Nir Elias/Reuters
An Israeli protester sleeps inside his tent Monday on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard as he takes part in a demonstration against high housing prices.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure this week from a wave of left-wing protests that started in Tel Aviv, the country's traditional hub of peace activism.

But instead of complaining about moribund peace talks with the Palestinians, the bohemians are protesting the government's alleged failure to control surging housing costs.

At a time when many here worry about growing isolation because of international recognition of a Palestinian state, the protests underscore how much the Israeli public – particularly the rising generation – has turned away from geopolitics to focus on bread-and-butter issues.

"In general, young people are shying away from politics and don’t want to take a stand on Israeli-Palestinian issues," says Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based public opinion expert and political consultant. "They feel like it’s a hopeless cause. It also smacks of old people's issues. It’s not sexy."

To be sure, there are peace activists among the demonstrators. But rather than congregating in Rabin Square, a symbol of the left-wing peace movement, the Tel Aviv protesters have set up a tent city along Rothschild Boulevard, a tony thoroughfare that has become synonymous with high-end real estate.

In nearly a week since the first tents went up, taking a cue from Egypt's Tahrir Square, the protests have spurred a no-confidence motion in parliament and forced Netanyahu and his finance minister to scramble to show they are taking action to counteract a more than 30 percent increase in housing prices since 2007.

But despite government concessions, the protests have spread beyond Tel Aviv, with tent cities sprouting in far-flung cities and suburbs throughout the country.

Widespread fatigue with talks about an ever-elusive peace agreement, together with a relative low in Israeli-Palestinian violence, has given new momentum to such pocketbook issues.

"There’s all the time discussion of the occupation. But the real occupation is not the occupation of Gaza or the West Bank. It’s the economic occupation," says Amit Adler, a writer and spokesman for the Facebook-organized protest. "It is all a distraction. We want to focus on the real issues. It’s the economy, stupid."

Several weeks ago, a Facebook page griping about high prices for cottage cheese helped spur a nationwide consumer boycott.

Protesters blame their economic woes on an alleged failure of the government to regulate Israel’s two-decade transition from the early Zionist ideal of a controlled socialist economy to today's freewheeling capitalism.

The emphasis on domestic issues rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict mirrors protest movements in the Arab world, which are focused on securing greater economic prosperity and political rights.

"For years, what filled the political discourse [in Israel] has been diplomatic discussion. There was no socioeconomic discussion," says Yonatan Lezi, a history student at Tel Aviv University. "While people all the time talked about the Golan Heights and Syria, the society has changed drastically, and no one has held a discussion of these issues, or made any demands."

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