Along Tel Aviv’s most expensive boulevard, where apartments sell for millions of dollars, hundreds of Igloo-shaped tents line the streets. They first appeared on July 14, when a dozen or so young Israelis, responding to a Facebook invitation, set up camp to demand affordable housing. The demonstrations soon spread -- tens of thousands joined in solidarity and added a whole host of social issues to the protest, from conditions in public hospitals to the cost of raising children.

Commentators and politicians disagree about the reasons behind the protest. But they agree that it represents the most powerful social unrest Israel has seen in decades. Never before have so many Israelis taken to the streets over social issues; huge demonstrations have historically been confined to security and peace debates. Now that the peace process has stalled and overall security is relatively stable, the protests have dominated the news cycle and changed the national conversation. 

With over 300,000 protesters in the streets this weekend, the demonstrations seem to have no end in sight. Yet even so, the protesters’ grievances remain vague and unfocused. Some call for an end to Israel’s decades-old privatization process and an expansion of the welfare state. Others demand an end to cartels and import taxes -- cornerstones of free-market philosophy. The unifying factor among them is anger toward the status quo. And as the protests widen, they could spark a massive social and political shift in Israel.

For all of their import, the protests look and feel like something between a music festival and a political commune. There is a collective kitchen and an eating tent serving three meals per day for the hundreds of demonstrators camped out in Tel Aviv. An area for "elders" -- those living in the tent city for more than two weeks -- features signs saying "here lives a Ph.D. graduate and a waitress," "Revolution is done with Love, or not at all," and "All of Israel are tents." A compost corner gives the campsite a funny smell.

Given the carnival-like atmosphere of the protests, originally made up of young Tel Avivians, many Israeli political figures were initially dismissive. The demonstrators were and are still being called everything from "spoiled left-wingers" to cheap "Che Guevaras." Had the protests remained in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most liberal city, those labels would likely have stuck. But tent camps have risen across the country, from the border with Lebanon to the heart of the Negev Desert. According to a recent Haaretz poll, 87 percent of Israelis support the protests. A Channel 10 survey found that 85 percent of Likud voters also back the demonstrations.

The demonstrators, then, are not just "sushi eaters" from Tel Aviv, as one Likud politician called them; they are middle-class Israelis -- taxi drivers, doctors, and mothers who are angry about a variety of issues, including working hours, the rising cost of living, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Since the 1970s, Israel has experienced extensive deregulation and privatization, shifting from a welfare state with relatively controlled market prices to a free market focused on encouraging competition.

This shift has ostensibly strengthened Israel’s economy. Most recently, Israel emerged from the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, and, according to the Bank of Israel, boasts 4.8 percent growth and six percent unemployment this year. But economic success has contributed to inequality, creating unprecedented wealth for some yet failing to benefit the middle class. According to Meitav Investment House, a respected financial firm in Israel, the price of groceries has risen 16 percent since 2007 and the cost of fuel has risen 19 percent. Deregulation has allowed cartels and monopolies to stifle competition in many sectors. For example, two large manufacturers control the baby formula market in Israel. When they raised prices earlier this year, the cost for baby formula rose by 15 percent nationwide, outraging consumers. Thanks to artificial pricing set by the government, olive oil is more expensive in Israel than in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that olives are grown in Israel. And many argue that privatization has led the government to neglect social services such as public transportation, education, and health.

Housing prices, however, are the main catalyst of middle-class revolt. The majority of Israel’s land is held by the state, under the control of an administrative authority that Netanyahu himself recently described as a "cartel." The administration sells the land to highest bidders in a convoluted process that often takes months. This difficulty with building new housing comes at a time when Israel’s population is increasing, foreigners are purchasing more homes in the country, and the government has decreased publicly funded housing.

As a result, according to the Israeli Housing Ministry, an average home in Israel costs a million shekels (roughly $250,000), the equivalent of 132 average salaries put together -- before tax. That ratio is one of the worst in the world; the accounting firm BDO reported that in the United States, by comparison, the average home costs about 60 average salaries. Bank of Israel data suggest that housing prices have risen 60 percent since 2007, while employee salaries, according to Meitav Investment House, have risen only six percent.

All in all, middle-class Israelis feel that they are working harder, earning less, and paying more. They blame Israel’s so-called tycoons, who own Israel’s largest corporations and whose faces appear on posters at the demonstrations with the words 
"We Mean You." And they blame Netanyahu, who, in previous stints as prime minister and finance minister, has been a major proponent of Israel’s neoliberal economic policies.

But the protest against Netanyahu is not just about contrasting economic visions; it is about the growing gap between Israel’s upwardly mobile middle class and the lethargic political system. Whereas Netanyahu, according to Israel’s Channel 2, does not text message or use a computer in his office, the protesters organized themselves through Facebook. More important, they are feeding off of regional and global activism in calling for equal economic opportunity and dignity. The demonstrators are still debating their exact demands. But it seems an agreement is slowly emerging on the need for a "New Deal" for Israeli society. This may include tax reform and reduction, an opening of markets to achieve competitive prices, greater and improved regulation of the housing market and more government subsidized housing, and more extensive state support for social services.

The protests are focused on economics, but their most significant impact may be in Israel’s political arena. The leaders of Israel’s current government -- Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- have been major figures in the country’s politics since the early 1990s, and their careers have focused on security. The protests have shifted Israel’s public discourse away from security to social issues, away from the comfort zone of the old guard. Although there is a leftist tone to the tent demonstrations, the protest leaders have maintained support from across the political spectrum and have attempted to maintain a nonpartisan line. Likud leaders understand the danger. Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s education minister and one of Likud’s major figures, warned a Likud ministers’ forum last week that "in the last 20 years, every time the elections were on economic and social issues, the Likud lost," only winning "when the issue was security and negotiations."

Left-wing Israelis are coming to the same realization, discovering that their salvation might come not from demanding an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but by representing the struggling middle class. Already, some in the protest movement have attacked the public funds that Israel devotes to the settlements at the expense, they say, of those living in Israel proper. The right wing realizes that should popular sentiment turn against the settlements for economic reasons, it could set the stage for a dramatic political shift and, ultimately, the resurrection of the Israeli left. That is perhaps why right-wing movements themselves have joined the protests and set up their own tents in Tel Aviv.

Despite the potential of the protests, the demonstrators have yet to establish a unified leadership and clear goals. The young age and strong Tel Aviv affiliation among the protesters may alienate the more conservative middle class in Israel’s periphery. And the leaders that have emerged are inexperienced and thus remain vulnerable to Netanyahu’s political maneuvering.

But despite Netanyahu’s efforts to outflank the demonstrators -- at times he attempts to dismiss the protests and at others he seems to embrace them and meet their demands -- the movement has continued unabated. Netanyahu thus faces a difficult path ahead. He can surrender to the protest movement and sacrifice many of the policies that he has enacted. Or he can attempt to co-opt the Israeli center with a renewed attempt to negotiate with the Palestinians. He may also try to ride out the protests and hope that all will pass. Yet the continued momentum of the protests indicates that Israelis may take their activism beyond their tents and express their desire for change at the ballot box.

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  • NADAV EYAL is a senior columnist for Ma’ariv Daily and the Chief Editor of International News for Channel 10 TV.
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