There is no doubting the success of those who organized demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere on behalf of social justice. Activists and their friends in the media are reporting that more than 300,000 participated. Police estimates are 200,000.
Whatever the accuracy of one or another, the pictures were impressive. The event scored high in Israel''s ranking of demonstrations. The standard is the 400,000 said to have demonstrated in 1982 against the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. That atrocity was done by Christian militia, but with the IDF and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon close by and not intervening.
Photo by: Reuters
This demonstration is a long way from achieving anything. The demonstration in 1982 may have served to spur the IDF''s withdrawal from deep into Lebanon and Sharon''s dismissal as Defense Minister, but the IDF remained in Lebanon for another 18 years. Ariel Sharon never served again as Defense Minister, but Prime Minister Sharon ended his political career only with a stroke which has left him in a coma since January, 2006.
The hurdles still in the way of this year''s demonstrators achieving social justice include:
What do they want? What will they succeed in drafting as their demands? Who will do the drafting, and present them for the government''s consideration? What will be the nature of the government that decides on these issues? What sectors of the population and economy, if any, will prove vulnerable to the pressures and lose the advantages they currently enjoy?
By any measure, this is a profound list of questions with no simple or obvious answers.
Among the puzzles are:
The political weight of incumbents and those who provide their support at the polls. The demonstrations seen on television and assessed by commentators were orderly in the extreme. They appear to be disproportionate from the educated and economic upper crusts. Not the wealthiest, but far from the poorest.
Rather than potential revolutionaries, they are the people who voted for parties that lost the last election (i.e., Labor and Meretz), or did not win enough Knesset seats to form the government (i.e., Kadima). They will have to do better next time, and may not have an electoral opportunity for another year and a half.
On the other hand, Israeli democracy is alive and kicking, even within parties currently in the government. Ranking Likud politicians are saying that the Prime Minister must take account of the demands. Binyamin Netanyahu has no lease on the Prime Minister''s office and residence. His free market ideology and personal traits (arrogance, quickness to promote simple solutions, and a wife who intrudes in matters of state) are inviting party colleagues to smell opportunities for improving their own chances of survival and advancement by causing problems for him.
Some West Bank settlers support the call for social justice. One also hears of protesters who demand a transfer of money from settlements to social needs, but there are also voices among the protesters who urge the separation of "politics" from their cause. In Israeli code, "political issues" are those involving foreign affairs, especially the issue of Palestine. In other words, the settlers may not be the principal target of protesters who think in terms of where to find the resources for their demands.
A Knesset member from a right-wing settlers'' party, outside the government, joined the criticism of the Prime Minister. From inside the government, a minister affiliated with Israel Beiteinu is opposing the Prime Minister''s effort to reduce the cost of dairy products by allowing more imports. Along with his implicit political threat was a voice from Israel''s powerful technocracy. A senior economist with the Bank of Israel said that dairy imports would not reduce the overall prices paid by consumers, and would cause significant problems for Israeli farmers and towns in the periphery of the country.
Protest leaders have also noted their support for dairy farmers.
What all this means is that the price of cottage cheese may remain high, even though it triggered the initial protests and then ripples into housing, the cost of child care and a number of other social concerns.
The ultra-Orthodox population is less favored by those who fly the flags of social justice. Their black hats and long dresses were not apparent in pictures of the protests. A common theme of those making demands is those who work, serve in the army, and pay taxes, but do not receive appropriate rewards.
You can read all of that as anti-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox).
The problem: 16 members of ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, and the reluctance of any party leaders to target them so openly as to prevent a future alliance in forming a government. There is also the practical problem, which resonates with many who are uncomfortable with anything close to the ultra-Orthodox; how to deal with a population of large families, dependent on government aid, unwilling or unable to make a quick switch from what they perceive as a holy life of study to the worldly life of work?
Israelis'' demands for social justice are not occurring on an island isolated from other issues. Standard and Poors downgrade of US government bonds is causing concern that the politics and government of the world''s richest country may not be any more responsible than those of Greece.
And September is only next month. Palestinians may be even more worried about their future now that Israelis are obsessed with social problems. A majority of countries may recognize a new state, but the Palestinians need Israel''s cooperation for it to work well.
The United Nations representative in Israel claimed on prime time TV that the Palestinians are ready for a state, but he worries about the continued rivalry between the West Bank and Gaza. Although he is tied to the support for Palestine expressed by Muslims and others, he noted that the world wants a two state solution and not a three state solution. Readers of the New York Times, a newspaper that is also generally favorable to Palestinian aspirations, should take note of a recent article that expressed considerable doubt about the Palestinians'' capacity to manage themselves.
This is not a time for firm predictions.