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Revolt or summer fever? Israel ponders tent protest

July 27, 2011

A cyclist passes Israeli protesters as they sleep near their tents pitched on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard July 18, 2011, as part of a demonstration against high housing prices. – Reuters Photo

JERUSALEM: As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined emergency housing reforms in a televised address, many of the protesters who had prompted the measures by camping out in Israeli cities twirled their hands in derision.

The dismissive signature gesture, borrowed from anti-government demonstrations in Spain, means “just more spin”.

Activists have set up tent camps and held often rowdy sit-ins in urban centres this month in a leaderless, apolitical protest movement to demand lower rent and land prices.

No one expects the kind of upheaval that has rocked the Arab world as citizens rise against authoritarian rulers, and few see a serious challenge to Israel's conservative ruling coalition.

But the urgency of Netanyahu's response on Tuesday suggested worry at the top as middle-class Israelis, burdened by high taxes and wearing military conscription, mobilise over a range of grievances they blame on the government.

Ben Caspit of Maariv newspaper discerned an eruption of anger among those long taken for granted by Israeli leaders as the country shifted from founding socialism to free markets.

“It is the middle class that is fed up with carrying the entire country on its shoulders and seeing everyone else -- sectors in society that get financial help from the government, the interest groups, the coupon-clippers, the rich and the connected -- party on the beach,” wrote Caspit.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrialised nations that Israel recently joined, says 39 percent of Israelis find it “difficult or very difficult” to live on their income. The OECD average is 24 percent.

Property prices have jumped 50 percent since 2008 as population growth outstripped construction, and rents have also rocketed in prime areas.

Israel enjoys healthy economic growth, with a 5 percent spurt forecast this year and unemployment of just 5.7 percent.

Yet the OECD found in 2010 that polarisation between rich and

poor was one of the highest in the world.

So while Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has pledged to halt the rise in housing prices by year's end, this may be outpaced by protests that have also been reinforced by a four-month-old doctors' strike over pay and conditions.

Following a successful boycott of dairy products that led to a drop in prices, campaigners are proposing to target other products and state services, such as electricity.

Duration of Protest Questioned

Pundits question the durability of such action, not least because it lacks a clear leadership and political affiliation and has drawn much of its energy from student activists on summer break from their studies.

“It is difficult for me to assess its seriousness, its depth, its life expectancy,” wrote Nahum Barnea, dean of Israeli commentators, in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“They have nothing, save the authentic feeling that their situation, as young middle-class Israelis, is terrible, unfair, crying out for change,” he said.

“This is a non-political, anti-political loathing. The question is still open whether at a certain point it will become a political lever that will turn things around in the country.”

Though Netanyahu, a champion of privatisation, took pains to display sympathy for the demonstrators, his cabinet secretary suggested the government's patience could soon fray.

“It's possible the protest organisers want protest and not a solution,” Zvi Hauser told Israel's Army Radio on Wednesday.

Such views appeared to find public support. A caller to Israel Radio who identified himself as “Yossi from Tel Aviv” counselled the activists to reserve their rancour for the ballot box in the next general election, scheduled for 2013.

“Do they realise how dangerous revolutions can be?” he said. Public backing for the demonstrations is currently above 80 percent, surveys have shown.

Without a clear objective among the activists, some commentators say student leaders, satisfied with Netanyahu's pledge of more and cheaper campus housing, may break ranks.

Should the protests endure, there could be long-term damage to Israel's system of governance, already strained by tensions between Jews and Arabs, and between left-leaning voters and those who support continued settlement of occupied West Bank land where Palestinians, with world backing, seek statehood.

“The middle class props up democracy. As soon as it erodes, revolutions begin, economic growth stops and democracy is harmed,” said David Nachmias, professor of government and public policy at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya.