Israel''s summer of discontent is maturing. Last week we reached the peak of romantic anticipation of upheaval from below. Young reporters on the popular news and commentary programs were ecstatic in reporting the daily expansion of tents, marches, and proclamations. Older commentators expressed their own sense of the injustices involved in high prices and unfair taxes.
Initial reports about last weekend''s demonstrations emphasized the round number of 150,000 participants. Later indications were closer to 100,000. Still impressive, but an early sign of media sobriety.
More recently talk show hosts have ridiculed representatives of the protests for their simplistic slogans. To paraphrase one extended challenge:
We are all in favor of social justice and equality. What do you want? Do you really think that the Knesset and Government will give way to Internet referendums that will decide about proposals offered by you and other protesters?
Political reporters have described how the protesters lost what they were claiming as their political neutrality. "Leftist" and "anarchistic" appear in the adjectives used. Opposition parties Kadima and Meretz are active in encouraging the protesters, sometimes behind the scenes. Kadima has supposedly been providing signs used by marchers, while the party leader, Tzipi Livni, has refrained from meeting with protesters. Either she is concerned about being pelted with garbage as was another politician who approached a tent city in order to speak with the protesters, or she is playing along with the protesters'' claims of having no links with conventional politics.
Media personalities have signaled to the protesters that they cannot achieve everything. Their demands are expensive, and there is only so much money. Especially vulnerable are demands to reduce taxes while assuring the provision of decent and affordable housing, eliminating university fees and improving other social services.
Government officials seem to have found the postures from which they intend to deal with the protests. President Shimon Peres has met with representatives of the protests and proclaimed their demands just, but indicated that there must be further meetings with senior officials in order to define specific goals.
Stanley Fischer, the widely respected Governor of the Bank of Israel, also indicated in general terms the justice of some demands, but emphasized the fragility of the national economy. He compared the stability of Israel''s economy, showing growth and low unemployment, with those of Europe and the United States, and stressed that it will be difficult to find the resources being demanded.
Prime Minister Netanyahu signed on to some of the demands. He has been working to assure early accomplishments, and put in motion further meetings between himself and ranking officials, some of which may be open to representatives of the protesters. Some Likud MKs were less friendly to the protesters at a meeting of the party''s Knesset delegation. They described street people as leftists, anarchists, and nargilla smokers who want to bring down the present government.
Protesters themselves are showing the strains of disagreements. Radicals are demanding meetings with government officials that would be televised to the country in real time. Moderates are urging sensibility about the procedures of discussion and negotiation, best done outside of public view. There are problems in ratcheting down from generalized demands to detailed lists, and reckoning with the limitation of resources. Ha''aretz headlined above the fold on the front page what it claimed was a document with the protesters'' list of demands.
1. A phased reduction of value added tax from 16 to 5 percent
2. Enactment of a law to regulate the rents charged for apartments, and to begin construction of public housing
3. Ceasing the implementation of the reforms favored by the Netanyahu government concerned with privatizations and the streamlining of planning for new construction
The transformation in media reports and commentary, as well as official responses to Israeli protests is parallel in some respects to those emerging from our Arab neighbors. There as well, early romanticism has given way to realities more in line with each country''s history and culture. The Egyptian military shows few signs of moving from the position of power it seized upon the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Syria''s president is behaving more like his father than a soft-spoken, English-educated reformer. His death toll has not reached the ten to thirty thousand estimated to have been killed by Dad''s forces in 1982, but it is moving in that direction.
Neither the Israeli nor the Arab protests are close to finished, or to any resolution that can be described as their accomplishments. However, one can be hopeful, and even optimistic, about Israel''s capacity to absorb some demands, adjust the allocation of its resources, but not depart from the ways of an orderly democracy for the sake of the social and political revolution demanded by the most outspoken of protesters. Arab countries are doing their own thing, much different from ours. But like ours, they are consistent with their own ways of operating.
We are all a long way from the Paradise described by our mutual ancestors, and are unlikely to get there in the near future.