Whither the social protest?

Now that the Gilad Schalit roller coaster is over, it is time for the country to turn its attention back to the social protests.

March of the Million  (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
March of the Million
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Now that the Gilad Schalit emotional roller-coaster is safely over (at least in terms of Gilad’s return home), we can redirect our attention to more mundane issues, such as the question of where the social protest is going, if anywhere.
The protest was born out of a real sense of distress among younger, educated, mostly Ashkenazi members of the middle class who are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. However, it’s not completely clear who (if anyone) is pulling the movement’s strings behind the scenes.
What does seem clear is that all sorts of groups, such as various professors with social democratic or radical leftist agendas, and the leaders of the “National Left” movement, have hitched a ride on the protest for their own political and/or ideological reasons.
The only one of the acknowledged leaders of the protest who appears to have a clear idea where he’s going is student leader Itzik Shmuli. But while we know he has political ambitions, we do not know where exactly he stands politically.
My guess is that he is close to the National Left, headed by Eldad Yaniv.
Daphni Leef and Stav Shaffir seem to be way out of their depth.
Be this as it may, it is clear that unless the energies of the protest turn to political venues, the results will be meager at best. Though it is not clear whether Eldad Yaniv is effectively one of the behind-the-scene sources of inspiration for the protest, he does seem to represent many of its active participants, at least on one issue – the belief that the Knesset, in its current make-up and modus operandi, is passé and about to undergo a revolutionary change.
In a recent article in Haaretz Yaniv referred to the current MKs as “120 lazy bums.” He bases his “observation” on the length of the Knesset sessions (which incidentally are not much different than those of other parliaments), and the fact that the Knesset did not view the ongoing protests as sufficient reason to cut short its summer recess.
Instead of a full-blown debate about the protests, lawmakers made due instead with a few short, inconclusive recess sittings initiated by the Opposition, which debated motions for the agenda relating to the social protest in the absence of Netanyahu.
Besides demonstrating total ignorance regarding the roles of the Knesset and its members, it is not clear what, exactly, Yaniv expected the Knesset to do. To immediately start working on legislation that would have changed the government’s social and economic policy by 180 degrees? This is not realistic given the fact that most MKs are more concerned with legislation that deals with welfare benefits to specific social sectors rather than the general evils of an unbridled market economy that has turned into a “corporate pyramids” economy that somehow fails to benefit society as a whole.
Furthermore, for some inexplicable reason Yaniv expects the 19th Knesset to look completely different in terms of its make-up from the current Knesset, even though the voters will remain more or less the same.
What the leaders of the social protest can try to achieve is to get young voters who previously sat on the proverbial fence to vote for parties that support change, and to try to get people to vote on the basis of a social agenda – an almost hopeless task in Israel.
But even if this happens, the resulting political change will be marginal, and is unlikely to change the balance between thecenter-right camp and its religious supporters, and the center-left, predominantly secular camp, which on certain issues enjoys the support of the Arab parties.
Yaniv predicts that the first legislative act of the 19th Knesset will be to change the electoral system, which he believes (on what basis?) will turn the whole Israeli democratic system inside out, and bring salvation.
All serious studies show that a while electoral system reform might bring some benefits, large sections of society would remain under-represented.
What is certain is that a mixed system of national and regional elections (which Yaniv favors) will not necessarily increase the power of the sector from which the social protesters emerged.
What is needed now is not pipe dreams, but a serious and realistic political strategy to ensure that a majority in the Knesset will support at least some of the changes demanded by the protesters.
At the moment the only game in town (much to the chagrin of the protesters) is the Trajtenberg proposals.
Even if the government were extremely eager to implement the proposals made in this report (which it is not), Knesset approval is required. Referring to the MKs as “120 lazy bums” is not a good start.
The writer is a member of the Labor Party and is currently engaged in research and lecturing on the Knesset.