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ISRAEL: Protest tents launch Israel's summer of discontent

July 31, 2011 | 11:27 am

Two weeks into Israel's housing protest, demonstrations are sweeping the country. More than 150,000 people took part in protests nationwide calling for socioeconomic change and demanding "social justice." And what started with the odd tent has become the summer of Israeli discontent.

Young Israelis feel they are victims of the country's strong economy and decades of security-heavy priorities. The Israeli economy boomed, but its young middle class has bombed, caving under price hikes, taxation and increasingly privatized public services such as health, education and child care. The leadership admits there are problems but say protesters' complaints are exaggerated.

The economic trend was no accident, protesters say, but a calculated economic ideology coupled with conservative politics. Decentralizing Israel's economy was necessary but privatization has run amok, critics say, with the government outsourcing its commitments to the majority of its citizens, who now demand government reaffirm its vows to the greater public.

Israel1 "Re-vo-lu-tion!" cries bounced off walls in Tel-Aviv, Beersheva, Haifa and other towns Saturday night. 

So here's a Revolution 101, an incomplete dictionary to the cousin of the Arab Spring: the Israeli Summer. Naturally, there are millions of possible definitions.

A is for Arabs. It took some time, but Arab citizens of Israel joined the protests. Chronic under-budgeting has left many in the lower rungs of the country's socioeconomic ladder with more than half below the poverty line and a shortage of 60,000 housing units in the sector comprising 20% of Israeli society. A rare opportunity to join a social cause striving to be inclusive, not exclusive.

B is for Babies. Baby products and child care are too expensive, keeping women from professional development and young families in constant debt. Thousands marched with strollers and baby carriages last week, demanding, among other things, work schedules that are better synchronized with child-care calendars so parents can actually work.

C is for Competition. There is none, protesters say, that's why prices are high. 80% of the nation's economy is controlled by a few dozen powerful family empires who prevent real competition.

D is for Dollars. A placard calling for dollar-linked rent suggests a young demonstrator beneath, who doesn't remember that it actually was dollar-linked until a few years ago, when the dollar was at its highest. 

Israel4 E is for Education. "Cheap education costs dearly," said one protester's T-shirt in Jerusalem on Saturday. Public education teeters on the brink of financial and educational bankruptcy, many have charged for years. E is also, obviously, for Economy. People are demanding a comprehensive economic policy once and for all, not patchwork troubleshooting.

F is for Finance. Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, is a longtime confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He might wind up paying the political price, though this will solve little. The director general of his ministry resigned Sunday. 

G is for Government. Years of economic policy just exploded on Netanyahu's shift. While he's a genuine free-market ideologue, three decades of other governments contributed to the situation. Now people demand increased government involvement. Reluctant at first, Netanyahu has appointed a government team to engage in dialogue with the protesters. G is also for Gasoline, whose price is up 23% in the last five years and was the focus of a protest earlier this year. It was supposed to go up again this week but the government lowered the tax Sunday, effectively freezing the price for a few weeks.

H is for Housing. What started it all, housing prices, are a symptom of the larger economic problem. Apartment prices went up 55% and rent by 27% over five years. The Israel Land Authority controls the overwhelming majority of the country's lands, selling it to the highest bidder, while the country's infamous planning bureaucracy moves slowly. Protesters want government housing projects, not only upmarket private construction. H is also for Health. Public healthcare, the crown jewel of socialist Israel of yore and generally enviable, is falling off its feet -- specifically the doctors, who are on strike. Another one of the country's public services suffering decreased government budgeting.

Israel3 I is for Island of stability, Netanyahu's definition of the country amid the regional turbluence. His comments a while back that "there's no protest here because Israel is a democracy" are now mocked in this clip.

L is for Left vs. Right. Israel's political left wing has largely abandoned economic policy issues and focused mainly on peace- and security-related matters. Lefty politics are associated more with the peace process than with economic justice and the Labor Party's management has left the country with neither. L is also for the Labor Union, whic has joined the push amid concerns it will claim credit for the grass-roots push for change it was rather late in joining. Others charge the union is partially to blame for the problems, being prone to political arm-bending and spending most its considerable clout defending large and powerful workers' associations but few others.

M (that one's easy) is for Money.

N is for Netanyahu. Few people would want to trade places with the prime minister these days. N is also for Nation-building. Young protesters say they feel like they're rebuilding the nation. A rally sign in Jerusalem pledged to build a state by September. They probably didn't mean a Palestinian state.

O is for Ouch, a.k.a. Occupation, which many charge has siphoned Israel's resources for the last four decades. 

Israel2 P is for Protesters. The number of  demonstrators -- 150,000 -- is about 2% of the population, the equivalent of 6 million Americans, proportionately. P is also, obviously, for Politics and Polls. It is too soon to tell how the protests will affect Netanyahu's standing and that of his government but most of the public supports the demonstrators and are not pleased with Netanyahu's response so far.

Q is for Questions. Lots of them. Answers take time.

R is for Revolution! And Rethinking economic policy. How far back should Israel go? It was right to decentralize the economy, many say, it just went too far. As for the man wearing a Stalin T-shirt handing out 19th century manifestos in downtown Jerusalem, that could be too far back for some.

S is for September, and Summer. With the Palestinians set to seek recognition of statehood from the United Nations in September, this summer offered the last window of opportunity for a while to raise civic issues before public discourse reverts back to its default settings, the conflict.

T is for Tahrir. Tahrir Square this ain't, some have scoffed in dismissing the protests at first, but others feel it is. The Tel-Aviv tent town has been dubbed TahriRothschild (link in Hebrew), merging the Cairo scene with a street named for the Zionist philanthropist. Egyptians might disapprove but have nonetheless inspired its neighbors. "Tahrir, not only in Cairo," was a banner carried by one protester. Another held a banner with the single Arabic word "go," as in "go away," the same call sounded against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but in plural. T is also for Timing. See S for that one.

Israel5 U is for Unity. A unity government is usually a clear sign that the country's in some trouble or another. Keep your eyes open for that one. U is also for University. Israel's university students sparked the protests but promise the public they will not take a settlement and leave the other protests hanging. It's also for United Nations, next stop for the peace process. Netanyahu will need to clear his desk for that one.

V is for Vacation. Summer vacation means free time for students and youth, the rank and file of the protest. And what Israel's leaders and politicians probably won't have this year. Canceling parliament's summer break is being considered, and whether it's better or worse to have politicians in session at a time like this depends on one's politics.  

W is for What do protesters want? "The people demand social justice," is the battle cry.

(Yes, there are a few missing letters. No need to force them. And apologies for poor phone pics too.)

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos: Scenes from the rally in Jerusalem on Saturday night. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times

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