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Israel escaped an Arab Spring-style uprising in 2011 – but only just

Israel is already facing a difficult 2018. Most of the rest of the world seems far more ready than usual to condemn its policies – from the proclamation of Jerusalem as its capital to the deportation of asylum seekers – spelling trouble for the Israeli goverment’s preferred image as Middle East’s sole democracy with global friends. In fact, the last time this image was so noticeably under threat was seven years ago.

As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared his country “an island of stability”, remarkably secure amid revolutions. As he saw it, Israel was the Middle East’s only stable state, a “prosperous country” where “everybody is equal”.

But as it turned out, Israel’s populace disagreed. And in summer 2011, Netanyahu’s government faced what became known as the “Housing Protests”.

These protests began as an outcry by young Israelis against escalating housing costs. Throughout July and August 2011, tents were pitched in cities across Israel as a symbol of the pinch young people felt. These were dubbed “tent cities” by Daphni Leef, the original protest leader. “We are earning less and paying more,” explained one activist as further tents were erected. “We want a solution that allows us to live in a reasonable place at an affordable price.”

Suddenly, housing costs were firmly on the agenda. But there were other, deeper socio-economic problems in the mix, too, spread across Israel’s ethno-religious spectrum: a widening gap between rich and poor, accusations of corruption, and unemployment rates of up to 60% in both Orthodox Jewish and Arab communities.

By August 2011, the movement had widened from a property protest to a movement against inequality and cronyism. Four per cent of Israel’s population was protesting, and in less than a month, Netanyahu’s approval rating tumbled from 52% to 32%.

Going through the motions

Netanyahu responded with a housing plan to tackle accommodation costs. The best approach, he proclaimed, “is to make sure there are more available, affordable housing.” The plan would add up to 50,000 smaller apartments to Israel’s housing market over a two-year period, with discounted land for contractors of student housing and smaller constructions. Rental prices were to be government-supervised.

Netanyahu formed the Trajtenberg Committee to address protest demands. The committee’s focus areas included “changing the country’s priorities to ease the economic burden on the population”, “expanding access to social services”, and “increasing competition to reduce prices”, and “implementing the housing plan the government has already launched”.

Taking it to the streets in Tel Aviv. EPA/Oliver Weiken

While Netanyahu presented the proposal as a “genuine solution”, the plan had its critics. The committee’s leader, economist Manuel Trajtenberg, admitted to “mixed feelings” regarding how effective the committee could be in pushing change.

Protesters and political opposition leaders accused Netanyahu of staffing the committee with a “one-sided table of ministers who are disconnected from the public”. Labour Party member Isaac Herzog saw Netanyahu’s move as a common tactic during the Arab Spring: paying mere lip service to protestors’ grievances without fully addressing them.

“Instead of adding experts on social welfare and representatives of NGOs that are familiar with the crisis,” he said, Netanyahu simply protected himself by building “a bizarre and bloated staff” to create the impression that he was listening.

Momentum lost

In the end, he was able to stick it out. The protests continued to grow through September 2011, but by October, they were being curbed by the police; the tent cities were dismantled, and many Israelis questioned whether the protests would ever translate into political action in Israel’s Knesset.

Asked about upcoming Knesset elections, pollster Dahlia Scheindlin was pessimistic: “Even though we had the most impressive turnout in the street, I don’t really think the energy and enthusiasm is going to carry over.” Sure enough, by October’s end, the demonstrations were dwindling, with activists even cancelling events.

Crashing in a tent city. EPA/Oliver Weiken

At the month’s end, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset. He emphasised Israel’s stability during “the most dramatic events of our time”, and made no mention of the Housing Protests. He did acknowledge that basic food prices were being monopolised by Israel’s largest dairy producers – and a subsequent boycott of cottage cheese, a staple breakfast dish, forced price reductions.

Despite their socio-economic discontent, most Israelis did not see the protests as equivalent to the Arab Spring. “This is a middle-class protest,” emphasised one activist. “People in Egypt didn’t have a lot to lose. They had no civil rights and no trust in their government.” Perhaps for this reason, Israel’s unrest was never dubbed a “spring”, but rather a social justice movement.

In the summer of 2012, the first anniversary of the Housing Protest raised the prospect of fresh unrest – but discord between the activist groups ultimately split the movement into two separate marches. As Leef explained, the internal arguments within the movement distracted it from its original focus on social problems, and rallies became “a source of friction”. The movement’s disintegration was no doubt welcomed by the Netanyahu government, which continued to celebrate Israel as a beacon of “unity at times of trouble”. Nonetheless, with fresh protests against government corruption at the start of 2018, this image may be under threat once again.

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