Renewing the social contract

Some ideas expressed by the demonstrators are naïve and even childish, but they have brought a breath of fresh air into this hot summer.

Tent city housing protest 4 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent city housing protest 4
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The tent demonstrations that popped up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and then spread to other parts of the country are an exciting development in the eyes of many of us, who have become pessimistic and a little cynical with age. At long last, the predominantly secular, social-liberal section of Am Yisrael – which carries more than its share of the country’s security and economic burdens, and in recent years has been delegitimized by right-wing circles and accused by religious circles of immoral hedonism – is proudly raising its head.
The leaders of the demonstrations are neither hardcore politicians nor experienced social activists, and some of the ideas they have expressed with great enthusiasm are naïve and even childish, but they have brought a breath of fresh air into this hot summer.
One of the basic assumptions behind the demonstrations is that democratic society is based on a tacit social contract between the state and its citizens, according to which, in return for the citizens abiding by the state’s laws and agreeing to fulfill their duties to it (like paying taxes and serving in the armed forces), the state has an obligation to guarantee and actively promote individual and collective social security, social justice and effective forms of social solidarity. Besides direct assistance to the weaker parts of the population, the state is expected to ensure that its middle classes are able to obtain affordable housing and maintain a decent standard of living.
The problem is that our current prime minister believes market forces can supply most of the goods, and that the state’s responsibility is mainly to create the background conditions that will encourage private entrepreneurs to do the job (for a profit). Privatization is the key word. In addition to the neo-liberals, the current government consists of sectorial parties that might believe in direct government action, but their main concern is for their own constituents, not society as a whole.
There is also an objective difficulty, which is that the financial cost of realizing the social contract in an optimal manner is enormous. In Israel, the problem is more acute than in other countries, due to the fact that around 25 percent of the state budget is earmarked for debt repayment and service (much of it related to the cost of the Yom Kippur War), and another 15% for defense. There is also a problem regarding the distribution of the money allocated for “Social Services,” which is currently over 30% of the budget. True, much of this goes to pay salaries in the health and education services, but most of the demonstrators will tell you that in their opinion, the state is spending a disproportionate quantity of this money on projects that benefit the haredim and settlers, and that the predominantly secular middle classes are expected to foot the bill while receiving much less than their share of the benefits.
AGAINST THIS backdrop, what are the chances that beyond influencing the short-term national agenda, the current flood of demonstrations will lead to a real long-term change? Since the current government is committed to a neo-liberal economic agenda and is unlikely to diverge from it more than is absolutely necessary, and since the sectorial nature of most of the coalition members is a given, the real test will come at the next general elections, which will take place in one to two years.
The main question is whether the momentum of the demonstrations can last that long, or even beyond the summer vacation. Furthermore, even if it lasts, no general election in Israel was ever fought and won over social and economic issues. Even if the demonstrators are not made up exclusively of members of the so-called “peace camp,” in the final reckoning, Israelis vote on the basis of their views regarding the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not their socioeconomic inclinations. The fact that Israel confronts some very serious political issues connected with the UN recognition of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, and Israel’s growing ostracism in the world, will ensure that the next elections will almost certainly focus once again on diplomacy and defense.
The question now is whether despite everything, enough voters will let social and economic issues dictate the way they vote, and whether the parties that reject the neoliberal ideology will manage to convince those among the 35% of the population who stayed away from the polling stations in the past two general elections – and who care about social justice – to get off the fence.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.