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Only a radical change will do

Israel has always been portrayed as an oasis of democracy in a sea of Arab dictatorship, so the timing of the country's protest movement is particularly embarrassing for its ruling elite. When 400,000 Israelis rallied last week calling for affordable housing, jobs, education and lower prices, the world was given a reality check. Thanks to an effective public relations machine, many people in the west believed that Israel's is a society at the apex of economic progress and prosperity. The reality is more like the emperor's new clothes; like Ben Ali's Tunisia, in fact.

As the protest movement has gathered momentum in Israel, it has exposed not just the myth of prosperity but also that of equality. Like the fat cats who live off banking profits in western countries while the rest of us face serious austerity measures because of the crisis caused by irresponsible bankers, Israel's oligarchs thrive while public services shrink and collapse. Right until the end days of Ben Ali's rule, the French and many in the west were singing the praises of his regime's enlightened policies. Beneath this polished veneer there was a well-concealed crisis of chronic poverty, unemployment, corruption and sleaze. Under the Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition Israel has crept steadily towards similar crises. Speak to Israeli citizens about the services and facilities available in hospitals, ministries and universities, and the reality hits home.


Financial analysts blame the current crisis on a lack of competition and the concentration of key markets in the hands of a few business magnates. Real estate, energy, telecommunications and cable TV are prominent examples that have been monopolised by a few giant companies.

What lies at the heart of the current protests, therefore, is a deep sense of betrayal. The founding charter of the state of Israel had promised "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; and freedom of religion, conscience language, education and culture". That all of these are denied to the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel is not surprising. At best they are seen as a strategic threat and at worst as enemies. What is shocking is the scale on which such rights are denied to Israel's Jewish citizens. Those who clamour for affordable housing in Tel Aviv ask why a shortage exists when there are empty housing units in the (illegal) settlements across the West Bank and Jerusalem. Yet the Netanyahu government continues to build more settlements only for them to remain empty.

There is no explanation apart from petty vindictiveness in order to spite the Palestinians and deny them access to their land, and score a few political points with settlers' groups in the process. That's why Netanyahu's government builds more housing units in the occupied Palestinian territories with funds that could otherwise be used to build houses in Israel itself to solve the housing crisis there.

Despite this, the demands of the protesters in Israel remain limited. We haven't heard any cries for an end to Israel's occupation and colonisation of the West Bank. Nor are we any closer to hearing calls for an end to the apartheid system that has taken root in Israeli society, to the detriment of the one-quarter of the population who happen to be Palestinians.

There appears to be a moral limit to what the people on the streets want, with protests staying linked to prices, the cost of living and corruption. To many protesters, it seems, their troubles stem from bad government policies, not the inherent nature of the state of Israel itself.

Meanwhile, western commentators have concluded that the crisis in Israel is an extension and consequence of the global economic melt-down. It has been noted that the dramatic fall in shares in some of Israel's biggest conglomerates are related to the uncertainties of the global market and the spiralling debts accumulated by the Industrial Development Bank of Israel. That is true up to a point. The question now is whether Israel's international benefactors will insist on structural reform as a precondition for future economic and political support, as is always the case with developing countries who mismanage their economies.

More crucially, can Israelis still reasonably expect the current level of largesse from America, which itself is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy? The truth is that neither the Americans nor the Israelis will be able to continue living above their means if China decides it's too risky to lend any more to such profligate debtors. And it would be almost impossible for Europe to intervene with the Euro now on life-support from France and Germany.

Politically, an early election and a humiliating defeat for the Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition would not solve Israel's problems. The contradictions and divisions are too intrinsic and pervasive. While Israelis maintain a façade of unity against the dispossessed Palestinians, their culturally disparate communities of Russians, Ashkenazis, Sephardis and Ethiopians are at each other's throats most of the time. Israeli academic Shlomo Sand said in his book The invention of the Jewish people, "Just as Israel was unable to decide on its territorial borders, it did not manage to draw the boundaries of its national identity." [p286]

This will not happen, because the national discourse is informed by ideas such as those written by the British Zionist Redclifffe Nathan Salaman. He said of the Yemenite Jews, "they are not Jews. They are black, with an elongated skull, Arab half castes…The true Jew is the European Ashkenazi." [Ibid., p267]

If this is the Ashkenazi view of their co-religionists, what chance does a Palestinian Arab have? Those who are cautious about defining the nature of the protest movement in Israel are justified in being so. Israel's Palestinian citizens, one-in-four of the population, know better than most that these protests are not about universal rights; they are about the rights of Jews in Israel.

There can and will be no meaningful change in Israel until the government commits itself to fulfilling the rights of all its citizens. Israel is not immune from the forces currently reshaping the region. The Arabs should not wait until its internal contradictions play out before putting pressure on the Zionist state. They must act to ensure that the change which occurs meets their aspirations, needs and legal rights. A solution, when embraced, must be applicable from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. In short, Israel's economic and social woes will only truly end when the occupation of Palestinian territory ends.

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Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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