The people of Israel speak

Olmert's pooh-poohing couldn't detract from the achievement of the gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

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May 4, 2007 10:35
2 minute read.
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The spin machine had belittled the importance of Thursday's demonstration in advance. From the morning, Ehud Olmert's remaining supporters were sent to the radio news shows with the same message: We have the highest regard for the protesters, but with all due respect, you can't rule a country from the streets, we still have an elected government. But this sudden respect for the representative system couldn't detract from the achievement of the gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. Neither did the number of demonstrators matter that much - 100,000 or 200,000 was immaterial once the square was full. What mattered was the class and community they came from - or, rather, that there was no joint identity to them. The multitude that thronged the square weren't a group of typical demonstrators. The great majority had probably never participated in a political gathering in their lives before. For one evening, too, the professional demonstrators shed their partisan colors and joined together. Uri Avneri, the first Israeli public figure to embrace a Palestinian state decades ago, rubbed shoulders with young settlers. The knitted skull-cap, religious crowd who populate every right-wing demonstration were in a clear minority, as were the Peace Now regulars. Most of the thousands were just regular secular Israelis of all ages and backgrounds. The event's great success was in the way it transcended politics as usual. The politicians were there, but remained in the fenced enclosure behind the speakers' platform. The leaders of both ends of the opposition, Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin and National Union leader Efraim Eitam, gave joint interviews. NRP MK Nissan Slomiansky said that most of the usual religious activists decided not to turn up so as "not to give the event an 'orange' image" (- orange being the color of the ribbons worn by the demonstrators against disengagement two years ago). Obviously the numbers would have swelled further if the easily mobilized settlers' camp had been out in force. But as one senior settler who stayed resolutely in the background stressed, "This time, it's our turn to stay on the sidelines." Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza head Bentzi Lieberman, who arrived quietly towards the end of the speeches, said that the organizers had approached the council for logistical assistance. "We decided it wouldn't be a good idea to be identified with the demonstration, even though we definitely support its aims. Some of our people advised, though." The organizers' lack of experience in large-scale events was evident. There were no bus arrangements. Thousands of private cars searched in vain for parking spaces near the square and the speeches started an hour late, but the logistical incompetence only highlighted the determination of the diverse crowd to make their voices heard. Organizer Uzi Dayan must have ruefully reflected during the evening that if only 20 percent of those present had voted for his Tafnit party in the last elections, he would be in the Knesset now. But the failed politician might have found a new niche as a leader of a popular protest movement. What is left to be seen is whether Thursday wasn't just a successful one-night stand. Despite the fiery speeches calling for Olmert's resignation, few of those present really believed that they would have an immediate effect. The prime minister is currently in a total-defensive mode, and just as he brushed off the nascent rebellion within his party, he won't be budged by one demonstration, no matter how large. The question now is whether the public anger can be kept hot for what will probably be a months-long campaign. How many of the thousands in Rabin Square will turn up again and again?

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