On July 14, 2011, 25-year old video editor Daphne Leef pitched a tent in Tel Aviv’s Habimah Square to protest high rental rates in the city.
Within a day, she was joined by others on the adjacent Rothschild Boulevard; a day after that, the National Union of Israeli Students enlisted in the effort and soon after, other protests popped up around the country demanding “social justice.”
The government did what it always does in a crisis: It formed a committee, this time to address cost of living concerns. But protesters were not assuaged. By September, demonstrations ballooned into the “March of the Million,” which really was an estimated 300,000 protesters in Tel Aviv and some 160,000 in 19 other cities.
For months, the protests and their leaders dominated the news cycles. Individuals whom the vast majority of Israelis had never heard of before became household names, with Leef at the fore.
Five years is enough time to look back at the protest movement and consider what it has wrought. Rental rates have gone up over 30 percent, food prices increased over 10%, and Benjamin Netanyahu is still prime minister, so the immediate aim of the protests – lowering prices being the stated goal, getting rid of Netanyahu being the implied one – did not come to fruition.
Leef faded into near-obscurity when the protests dissipated, choosing to stay out of politics, but there are four current MKs strongly connected to the summer’s events: two of the protests’ leaders, Stav Shaffir, then-National Union of Israeli Students chairman, and Itzik Shmuly; economist Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg who led the government-appointed committee; and Prof. Yossi Yona, head of the protester-appointed committee that presented recommendations for economic change. All four are in the Zionist Union, “and for a good reason,” according to Shaffir.
Electorally, there’s no debating that though the faces of the protest went to Labor (Shaffir and Shmuly in 2013), which evolved into Zionist Union (through which Trajtenberg and Yona were voted in last year), Yesh Atid drew the most votes from the protests. Seven months after Leef pitched her tent, the new party received 19 seats, running on the slogan “Where’s the Money?” and saying it represents the middle class and its economic interests.
In fact, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid released a video this week, a sort of victory lap and call for continued support.
“Five years after, many people are asking themselves if the protests failed or succeeded,” Lapid said.
“The answer is it still depends on us.
I haven’t given up on the values that brought us out to the streets. The protests defined the goal, and politics is the tool to reach them,” adding that Yesh Atid expresses the spirit of the demonstrations.
But if there’s one thing all of these MKs connected with the protests have in common, it’s that they’re in the opposition.
So has anything really changed in the way Israeli politicians relate to social issues since the summer of 2011? Shmuly was the first protest leader who called to cooperate with the government to turn the demonstrations into practical action, yet he was pessimistic about its outcome.
“The only significant difference is in awareness,” he said. “The economic discourse became more open to everyone. It used to be only experts who talked about it, and now it’s everyone.”
However, pointing to the spike in prices, Shmuly added: “You can’t pay for groceries with awareness.”
Trajtenberg gave a similar answer, but with a glass-half-full outlook.
“The protests were undoubtedly the most significant socioeconomic event in Israeli history, and one of the most significant in the last decade in the world. Six or seven percent of the population took part; no other economically significant country experienced a phenomenon like that,” he said in the Knesset this week.
The economist pointed to topics on the public and political agenda that he did not think would have made as big a wave had the protests not happened, like the battle against the government’s natural gas deal, policies relating to education and early childhood – free education for three- and four-year-olds was one of his committee’s recommendations – and the law limiting financial executives’ salaries, which the Supreme Court froze this week.
“In legislation and extra-parliamentary political activity, the protest and its spirit made a big difference,” Trajtenberg argued.
For Shaffir, the spirit of the protests was translated into other parties using its language, like Yesh Atid’s “Where is the Money?” Likud MKs talking about social justice, or the new Social Equality Ministry.
“Real political change is when the people on the street see their demands realized in the place where decisions are made, in politics,” she stated.
Asked if there was, in fact, political change following the protests, Shaffir simply said “no, because it’s the same prime minister.”
Netanyahu “cynically takes advantages of Israeli society’s feelings about security…it’s a manipulation,” Shaffir argued. “That’s one of the things that has been very frustrating in the two elections after the protests.”
Shaffir blamed the politicians who sought the protesters’ support for not being well-rounded enough to win an election: “Yesh Atid, Kulanu and Zionist Union mainly focused on economic issues, which is a mistake, because we live in a place with serious security challenges, and the public wants a person with hands on the wheel who knows what to do. We need to combine the two. “ Despite the makeup of the current Knesset indicating otherwise, Shaffir theorized that the idea that most Israelis are right-wing is a lie. She said most Israelis support the aims of the social protests, but that the like-minded politicians are split between too many parties to win an election.
Shmuly expressed a sense of betrayal by the protesters, saying they care about social issues on the street, but security in the voting booth.
“People can’t expect a change if they shout about social policies, the deficit, investment in social services and housing policies, but then in the moment of truth, because they hear ‘the Arabs are going to the voting booths en masse’ [a Netanyahu comment from Election Day 2015], they forget all the problems they complained about and vote against those who want a change.
“There’s something absurd about people expecting a change in socioeconomic policies without changing the people who make those policies,” Shmuly concluded.
Trajtenberg argued against the idea that voters in the end make a decision based on security issues.
“At different times, some areas are more dominant in the public discourse and others less, but neither socioeconomic or diplomatic-security issues will go away,” he said. “The balance just shifts. It’s not a total knockout where the public cares only about security issues.”
Trajtenberg gave a personal example to explain why socioeconomic matters remain a priority for voters.
“Most young families can’t buy a home,” he said. “End of story. That’s not an abstract matter. I have three married daughters, two have small children, and they deal with economic issues every day. They can’t escape it. So it’s true, when there’s terrorism, people think about that first, but the other problems are always there. They won’t disappear. These are the concerns of daily life.”
As for the impact of “social” parties, Shmuly said he is sure that Lapid and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – whose Kulanu Party also ran on a socioeconomic platform – have genuine intentions, but in the end, once they entered Netanyahu governments, they “did a few nice things” but became the contractors for the prime minister’s conservative socioeconomic policies.
“You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” Trajtenberg quipped in English about the prime minister. “The protests tried to shift his direction, but to his credit, the prime minister has a clear socioeconomic view that he does not change. He learned it in the US in the 1980s, in [then-president Ronald] Reagan’s time. He always talks about smaller government and lowering taxes; that’s his agenda…He’s very dominant and involved [in economic policy].”
Trajtenberg said he only agreed to lead the committee responding to the protests because Netanyahu promised him certain changes would be made, but that any recommendation that Netanyahu’s government implemented was only because the prime minister felt forced to do so.
None of the Zionist Union MKs was willing to concede that right-wing economic policies could also address the social issues brought up by the protests.
Shmuly argued that “the Right doesn’t have the right recipe to get us out of this mess. Netanyahu doesn’t care enough, and the thing that symbolizes that disconnect the most is when he talked [before the last election] about the difference between quality of life and ‘life itself.’ There are 1.8 million Israelis under the poverty line. Our generation has no chance of buying homes. That’s life itself, too. These aren’t privileges…Even the OECD, the government’s Delphic Oracle, said Israel’s social services budget is dangerously low.”
Trajtenberg said specific issues can be dealt with, but that under Netanyahu’s stewardship, the overall problems will remain.
“Housing prices started going up in 2008-2009,” he said. “The government did nothing. The protests came, and I gave them a report with a serious chapter on housing, hoping they would do something. They didn’t.
That, in my opinion, is unforgivable.
They knew what they had to do. It’s because there is no leadership at the highest level adopting [the recommendations].
To make the necessary changes, you need to be energized, not just to give instructions. If the faith and attention is not there, it won’t happen. It’s as simple as that.”