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(photo credit: Associated Press)
'They're behaving like a bunch of crybabies."
This was the most common reaction among my fellow reservists while watching the news on TV in the lounge of the outpost we were manning - in response to the pictures of protesting reservists calling for the immediate removal of the government.
The negative response wasn't due to a lack of agreement on their part with the protesters' claims or demands. It was rather the result of a feeling that there was something slightly odd about reservists who, after weeks of combat, instead of rushing back home to their families, found time to march on Jerusalem. Indeed, nearly all the men - thousands of them - returning this week to civilian life were much more eager to spend the last days of the summer vacation with their kids.
If the opinion polls and Web site talkbacks are anything to go by, there's no lack of public support for the various protest initiatives. But signing a petition circulating on the Internet is one thing, and standing outside for hours in the August heat is quite another. Even after the two ad-hoc groups - the families of fallen soldiers and the reservists - joined forces, they still found it difficult to gather more than a handful of bodies at some of the events they organized. In fact, what characterized these was that the demonstrators were almost outnumbered by members of the media.
Anger and disillusionment among the Israeli public right now may be widespread, but it has yet to translate into a storm on the Knesset. Furthermore, if such a grass roots explosion didn't erupt this week, it certainly won't in the next, since the school-year will have started. Then come the period that has come to be known as "the holidays." And before you know it, the cease-fire will have been in effect for more than two months. Everyone will have resumed his previous life, other than the bereaved families, of course, and a few diehards.
THE MEDIA always love an authentic, spontaneous public outburst. It's a much sexier way of bringing real problems to the fore than serious reportage. Three years ago, Vicky Knafo's solitary march from Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem generated so much media attention that one would have thought that the plight of single mothers was a new phenomenon. Knafo became an icon for a couple of months, but when the interest in and hype surrounding her finally died out, nothing had changed. For a few weeks she camped out in the Rose Garden next to the Knesset, where a few supporters joined her. Eventually, however, the media circus folded its tent, and she became a has-been.
Over the years, the garden and pavement between the Knesset and Prime Minister's Office have seen many lost causes ignite with fervor (the stuff great headlines and instant celebrities are made of), and burn out with a flicker, either when something more interesting comes along or when most of the participants are persuaded to leave in return for empty promises. From the young idealists who demanded a change in the government system a decade and a half ago, to the family members of cancer patients hunger-striking for the subsidization of a life-saving treatment, all enjoyed a brief, brilliant moment in the limelight, only to return to the darkness.
THE TRUTH is that mass protest movements don't have much of a history in Israel. Menahem Begin launched the mother-of-all violent demonstrations in the streets around the old Knesset building in 1952, but it didn't change anything: Israel still accepted reparations from Germany. And though the Left likes to believe that the 400,000 (a mythical number with no relation to reality) protesters in Malchei Yisrael Square forced the same Begin to agree to a commission of inquiry into the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre, this had much more to do with international pressure than anything else.
The only movement capable of routinely mobilizing hundreds of thousands of civilians is that of the settlers, and even it didn't prove effective, as last year's disengagement proved.
The only example of a civilian movement bringing about a major policy shift was the "Four Mothers" group, who managed to generate the public pressure that led to the decision to retreat from the security zone in southern Lebanon. But "Four Mothers" was anything but a mass-movement. Its success was due to a combination of media manipulation, active assistance from a few well-placed journalists, and Ehud Barak's political opportunism.
The lethargy of the Israeli public can be traced to a variety of sources, among them the lack of social cohesion characteristic of a nation of immigrants, but also the lack of an idealistic student body, the core of protest movements in the West.
Student politics in Israeli universities is all about putting the first foot on the ladder leading up to a lucrative career. The only time thousands of students take to the streets is when they embark on one of their periodical campaigns to reduce tuition fees. Students here feel that they've done their bit by going to the army, and leave the protest business to high-schoolers and the older generation, feeling themselves too busy with the daily struggle for survival to have any free time for demonstrating.
Any reporter who has spent time covering life in Jerusalem knows that he's going to see the same faces at every demonstration, whether it's about the rights of the Beduin or clemency for Aryeh Deri. Aside from those directly involved in the matter at hand, there are always the regulars whose whole purpose in life, it seems, is to stand opposite the Knesset with a sign and loudspeaker. Some of these are people who have nothing else to do with their time; some are professional demonstrators from the Movement for Quality Government. The rest of the public has real jobs, and even for causes we deeply identify with, we tend to rely on the usual suspects to fill our place.
WHAT MIGHT make this cause any different? Is there a chance that from this week's humble origins, a storm of national anger will erupt that will sweep away everything in its path?
Whatever happens, the effect won't be immediate. Over the last few weeks, the most common comparison made has been between the current situation and the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. From a distance of more than three decades, it's almost axiomatic that the war brought down the eternal Mapai government. The historical reality is that it took half a year for what began as reserve officer Moti Ashkenazi's lone protest to develop into a popular front. Two months after the war, the same Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were reelected by the same electorate that was supposed to bring them down. Public pressure forced them to resign four months later. But the war wasn't enough to do it. It was a process of malaise - a deep feeling that the establishment that had founded the state had served its purpose and was outstaying its welcome - that eventually led to the Likud's first victory in 1977.
For the widespread resentment over the management of the latest war in Lebanon to turn into a virtual coup d'etat, it will have to be accompanied by a deeper dissatisfaction. Though the current leadership couldn't be described as popular at the moment, elections aren't necessarily in the air. Alongside the protest this week, another common remark could be heard: "What do they want? People are fed up with having elections every year."
For a movement to gain real public resonance, it has to have clear objectives. The demand now for the immediate resignation of Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz is not only too vague and knee-jerk-like; it doesn't suggest any real replacements. Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu would both love to jump in, but still carry the stigma of past failures and as former prime ministers, particularly Barak. And no other candidate has presented himself.
But despite the current uncertainty surrounding the protest movement, the dynamics are in place. Whether it's the mismanagement of the war, the continuing neglect of the disadvantaged, an as-yet-to-be-appointed social affairs minister or the proliferation of corruption and sexual harassment cases, it's beginning to look like the start of a real revolution.