Israel's tent protests transition to next stage: political fight

A day after their main Tel Aviv encampment was dismantled, it's unclear whether Israel's tent protesters can translate the summer's street momentum into lasting political change.

Nir Elias/Reuters
A tent camp on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard is pictured in August. The symbol of the protest movement, the tent encampment was dismantled yesterday by police.

Some two months after sparking mass demonstrations across Israel, the social protest movement that rattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an uncertain future as it transitions from the street to the political realm.

The symbol of the protest movement, the tent encampment on Tel Aviv Rothschild Boulevard, was dismantled yesterday by police. Hours later, Mr. Netanyahu tried but failed to convince cabinet ministers to support a package of economic reforms inspired by the protestors.

While the protest movement gathered impressive energy in cities from Tel Aviv to Beersheva, analysts are divided about whether it has the capacity to leave a lasting mark on Israel’s government, politics, and economy.

"Even though we had the most impressive turnout in the street, I don’t really think the energy and enthusiasm is going to carry over," says Dahlia Scheindlin, an independent pollster and strategist in Tel Aviv, referring to the country's next parliamentary election.

But others disagree.

Protesters changed the dialogue

Over the summer, the protesters succeeded in galvanizing the middle class by demanding government action to counter rising real-estate prices, corporate cartels, and high education costs.

By staying away from foreign-policy issues like the cost of government investment in West Bank settlements, left-wing protesters from the bohemian encampment in Tel Aviv were able to reach across Israel’s political divide to many blue-collar backers of Netanyahu.

With such diverse participation, the movement succeeded in shifting Israel's domestic discourse away from an exclusive focus on the conflict with Palestinians, bringing more attention to pocketbook issues.

"They’ve achieved a lot in terms of changing the dialogue," says Sever Plocker, a columnist at Yediot Ahronot who believes that in lieu of a war or a major peace initiative, demands raised by the protestors will continue to be the focus. "If we assume the geopolitical situation stays the same, socioeconomic issues will top the next election."

Netanyahu's proposed reforms

Netanyahu yesterday unsuccessfully urged cabinet members to approve a package of economic reforms including a tax hike on top income earners and public funding for preschool education. Mr. Plocker noted the prime minister is backing the reforms of the so-called Trachtenberg committee commissioned when Israel’s streets were awash in protest, even though they run counter to the free-market economic philosophy Netanyahu and his party subscribe to.

Another sign of the impact of the demonstrations, analysts said, came when the chairperson of Israel’s largest dairy company, Tnuva, resigned amid a government investigation into the company’s pricing.

But now that the protests have died down, is there any sign that they could prompt a realignment of the Israeli political balance?

A recent poll in the liberal Haaretz newspaper suggested that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition wouldn’t suffer any erosion of its power. The major shift was a migration of support from the centrist Kadima party – the current leading opposition party – to the left-wing standard bearer Labor Party, which elected a new chairperson two weeks ago.

The way forward

Protest leaders have said they are still undecided whether they should remain outside of the political system, set up their own party, or join existing ones. The real test of the movement, isn’t its staying power in tents, but its ability to force politicians to make the political sacrifices to enact socioeconomic reform, wrote Sami Peretz, a columnist for the Haaretz business paper.

Hours before the Tel Aviv encampment was cleared, Harel Meydani, a resident of the tent city, expressed optimism that the movement would spur political change even if he wasn’t sure exactly how.

"I see us as the guard dogs. We can’t be politicians because we aren’t built for it," says Mr. Meydani, a resident of the encampment. "The politicians are no longer alone… the next elections will be social elections. Everyone will raise the banner."

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