Borderline Views: Translating protest into power

To transform protest into real power, political organization, creation of a political party can turn demonstrators into voters.

Tel Aviv protests flag 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Tel Aviv protests flag 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
What started with a small tent protest on Rothschild Boulevard just over two weeks ago has become a mass demonstration throughout the country. The tens of thousands who marched on Saturday evening give a clear voice to the public’s dissatisfaction with government and the lack of any clear social policy aimed at creating a future for those who wish to contribute to society. These are not the poor and disenfranchised from the development towns, they are not the haredim who spend their time in study and rely on the state to support them, neither are they the well-organized West Bank settlers who know how to work the political system and use a mixture of protest and political coaptation. They are young, educated, middle- class citizens who have spent three to four years in the army or other forms of national service, but who find that they are unable to get their foot onto society’s ladder of opportunity. In short, they see themselves as contributing to a state that ignores and neglects them.
It is one thing to demonstrate en masse, and quite another to transform protest into real power. That requires political organization, the creation of a political party and the ability to translate numbers of demonstrators into votes. And for such a party to attain any influence in the Knesset, it would require a minimum of 10 seats. Assuming approximately 40,000 votes for every mandate, this would mean at least half a million votes.
According to neutral police estimates, Saturday night’s demonstrations involved up to 150,000 people, many of whom were children and ineligible to vote. Nor could it be expected that every person would automatically vote for a new party. The establishment of a new political party would, without doubt, reveal internal tensions and frictions, as individuals vied for the few places of influence at the top of the list, and diverse groups would disagree about the manifestos, agendas and socioeconomic priorities.
THE QUESTION remains whether it is truly possible to create a political party in Israel whose agenda is purely social and economic, and which does not adopt a position concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future of the Palestinians. This has never proven possible in the past. Be it Meretz and the Labor parties of the Left, or the Herut party of Menachem Begin, all of which put forward social agendas, they were first and foremost defined by their political agendas vis-à-vis the conflict – a very convenient excuse by our politicians not to expend energy on issues relating to the socioeconomic context, arguing that while these issues are truly of great importance, the state has to focus on its physical survival before it can enjoy the “luxury” of dealing with its social fabric. At the best, some parties such as the Likud and Shas have adopted populistic policies aimed at placating the poorest sectors of society, but none have paid any attention to the middle-class, hard-working citizens whose taxes support just about everything – poverty neighborhoods, West Bank settlements, the defense burden – except their own needs.
And if the current demonstrations were, eventually, to result in the emergence of a single political party uniting the Right and Left, there is every likelihood that within one to two terms in the Knesset, it would be swallowed up by the professional politicians, and end up being forced into coalition arrangements that would obscure its true social identity. With the singular exception of Shas, this has always been the case with parties that have challenged the two-party hegemony of Labor-Likud – a hegemony that exists despite the fact that the country’s proportional electoral system does not enable the numerical dominance of two parties.
Today, however, there is a major difference. There is no left-of-center opposition. Both the Meretz and the Labor parties are spent. Neither represents any real opposition to the present government, and neither has any alternative social message. Even in their period of demise, they are identified with the country’s elites, against whom today’s demonstrators are venting their anger. The controllers of the Israeli economy have, in recent years, begun to transfer their allegiances to the laissez-faire policies of the new Likud – the one represented by Binyamin Netanyahu and Yuval Steinitz – reducing even further the ability of a small and spent Labor Party to have any influence. As for Kadima, it simply isn’t heard. It doesn’t have any policies – political, social or economic – and it is hard to believe it will remain on the scene much longer.
All this would suggest that there is a real opportunity for political realignment. It would appear to challenge the recent findings of the Israel Democracy Institute that we live in a society taken over by apathy and a loss of belief that citizens can actually make a difference. But it’s a message we have heard before, though and it has never materialized in the long term. There is less chance of real change than there is of summer passing, of the government introducing some limited changes in the mortgage laws and minimal reduction of indirect taxation (with the burden simply transferred elsewhere), and the students returning to their studies once the vacation is behind us. Not surprisingly, the main activism commenced only when university exams were over, and it’s not surprising that those students still engaged in exams (Moed bet) are not involved in the protests.
THE CURRENT demonstrations are not, as some commentators argue, equivalent in Israel to the revolutions that have been taking place in the Middle East – and there, too, any long-term gains appear to be dissipating. For now, it remains a legitimate venting of anger that, if allowed to run its course, will probably go down as a summer of discontent that brought some minimal social and economic changes. Unless both Shas and Israel Beiteinu were suddenly to bolt the government – extremely unlikely, as neither of them represent the tens of thousands taking part in the demonstrations – this government is stable. It will make all the right sounds, will agree to hold an emergency debate during its recess, but does not feel itself unduly threatened. And as we move into autumn, the attrition of time will have its own effect.
It’s a sad comment on the state of Israeli politics and its vibrant democracy. But the ability make real political, social and economic change has to move well beyond the pleasant and polite Saturday night demonstrations and temporary tent encampments of the middle class. Their claims are more than justified, but the jury is still out on their ability to transform their protest into a real change in the social and economic priorities of this country.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.