Israel rocked by protests

Moshe Machov

The Arab revolutionary awakening has rattled Israel's leaders. To lose one major ally may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two in quick succession looks like a disaster.

Not long before the Arab spring, Israel had seriously damaged its relations with an important regional ally, Turkey. Having regional ambitions of their own, Turkey's rulers were not amused by Israel's bullying on the high seas and its truculent refusal to apologise for murdering nine Turks on board the Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Then, by the end of January 2011, the entire Arab world was in turmoil, and Israel was evidently about to lose its key Arab collaborator, Hosni Mubarak. This was ominous for Israel's entire strategy as regional hegemon, local enforcer on behalf of its global imperialist senior partner. On the underside of this gloomy cloud, Israel's prime minister Binyamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu detected a silver lining. At least in the short term, the decline in US control of the Arab world can be turned to Israel's advantage as a selling point for the unique value of Israel to the west. While a revolutionary tempest rages all around it, Israel remains tranquil, a reliable "island of stability, economically and diplomatically" in a sea of instability. This sales slogan was repeated as a mantra by Bibi and his hasbarah (propaganda) machine.[1]

He spoke too soon. On July 14, eight Israeli students set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard, in a prosperous part of Tel Aviv. They were protesting against exorbitant rents and the unavailability of affordable mortgages. The protests spread like wildfire. Tent cities sprang up in a much less prosperous part of Tel Aviv, and in dozens of other towns. Demonstrations held every Saturday escalated, including a joint Hebrew-Arab demonstration in Jaffa on August 13,[2] and by mid-August hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets - the largest protest movement and most massive demonstrations in Israel's entire history.

Very soon, the demands raised by the protestors became more general. By far the most popular slogan, chanted and displayed on banners and posters, was "The people demand social justice". Other popular slogans were: "The answer to privatisation: revolution", and (my favourite): "The market is free, we are slaves". Demands are raised for "A welfare state", for reducing indirect taxes (VAT) and increasing direct taxes (such as income tax) on the rich.

Mutual solidarity ties have been established with current struggles: that of the social workers who have just ended their strike - many of them frustrated with their compromising union leadership; and the physicians, whose five-month strike ended on August 26 and who had also set up a large tent in Rothschild Boulevard (inhabited mainly by young interns). The substantial salary increases conceded by the government are largely due to the social protest.

The protest is supported by 90% of Israelis. It is led mainly by students and white-collar workers who are described by the media, somewhat misleadingly, as 'middle class'. In fact, the demands raised by them indicate that they feel they are being proletarianised, and display solidarity with the poor. The prevailing spirit is that of egalitarianism, self-activity and grassroots direct democracy.

A 'Vision document', prepared and circulated by leaders of the movement, lists six "principles", the first of which is "minimising social inequalities (economic, gender-based and national) and creating social cohesion".[3] The mention of "national" inequality is especially noteworthy: it refers to the discrimination against the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, approximately 20% of its population. Initially, this is as far as the protestors were prepared to go on the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel's military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territories were deliberately not mentioned, because this issue was felt to be too divisive.

Savage neoliberalism

The Israeli protests are overtly inspired by the Arab awakening, especially by the movement in Egypt. Many posters say simply: "Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu", and one of the frequent chants is "Tahrir Square is here in this town" (the Hebrew is more punchy, and it rhymes: Kikkar Tahrir - kan ba'ir). There is much admiration for the courage of the Arab masses. A typical appreciative remark made by an Israeli journalist: "At long last we have learnt something from the Arabs!"[4] During a screening in the Rothschild tent city of a video on the Cairo protests, the crowd cheered and joined the chanting with "The people demand social justice".

However, in content these protests are more akin to those in Greece and Spain: the main demands are socio-economic. The political elite is excoriated because it serves the super-rich and is indifferent to the suffering of the poor and the anxieties of those being impoverished.

The background to this is the fundamental change in Israel's socio-economic and political structure since the late 1970s. A proper discussion of this would require a long essay, but here is a brief outline.

Before the change, Israel had what can be described as a heavily subsidised, bureaucratic, state-capitalist welfare economy. This was analysed and described in detail in an article I co-authored in 1970 with two comrades.[5] At that time, only half of the Israeli economy was in private hands. The rest was equally divided between two public sectors: that of the Histadrut (corporatist trade union federation), and the state - both dominated by the Zionist labour bureaucracy. The internal capital accumulation (the reinvested surplus value) was virtually zero, but there was a large, unilateral inflow of capital: part collected, mainly in the US, by Zionist fundraising 'charities'; part as German reparations;[6] and a growing part as US government loans and grants - payment for Israel's role as regional watchdog. This inflow, essentially a western subsidy, was mostly channelled through the ruling Labour bureaucracy, which allocated part for investment in both the private and public sectors, and part for maintaining a relatively high standard of living and public welfare, resulting in a distribution of income that was less unequal than in most capitalist countries. Thus Israeli society, including the working class, was directly subsidised thanks to the regional role of the Zionist state.

The difference between then and now is dramatic. Almost everything in sight has been privatised (including the kibbutzim, former paragons of collective property and production, albeit ethnically exclusive). Welfare expenditure has been drastically slashed. On the other hand, internally generated capital accumulation is robust (even during the present global recession), but wealth is extremely concentrated: about 40% of the economy is owned by 10 tycoon families.[7] In Israel's extremely harsh neoliberal economy, income distribution is highly unequal. The Gini coefficient, a standard statistical measure of inequality, assigns to Israel's income distribution a score of 39% - higher than that of Egypt (34.4%). For comparison, the figures for Sweden, UK and US are 25%, 36% and 40.8%, respectively. On another measure, the ratio between the average income of the top 10% and that of the bottom 10%, Israel scores 13.4; in other words, persons in the highest 10% income bracket have on average an income 13.4 times greater than the average income of the 10% bottom bracket. The corresponding figure for Egypt is only 8 (Sweden, UK and US score 6.2, 13.8 and 15.9, respectively).[8]

Israel still receives a hefty subsidy from its imperialist senior partner. But by far the largest part of it - US military aid of about $3 billion to $4 billion per annum - bypasses the civilian economy and underwrites Israel's military expenditure and the expenses of colonisation. The civilian economy, of course, benefits indirectly, because a substantial part of it is geared to military-related and colonisation-related activity. However, Israeli workers no longer feel that their standard of living is subsidised thanks to Israel's regional role and its colonising ventures. On the contrary, many feel that government spending on colonisation and pampering the settlers is at the expense of social spending inside Israel.

Predicted provocation

Nevertheless, the protestors at first hesitated to bring up the connection between their socio-economic demands and larger political matters, such as occupation and colonisation. However, these issues, which were avoided because they might be divisive, were eventually forced on them by events. When the protests escalated, it became clear that the government would need some military or 'security' conflagration in order to divert attention from socio-economic conflicts and try to exploit the patriotism of the majority of protestors in order to put an end to the movement. One such event is expected after September 20, when the Palestinian Authority is planning to seek UN recognition and membership for the aborted, stunted embryo of the Palestinian 'state'. It is known that Palestinian grassroots organisations are planning massive anti-occupation protests following that date. Although these are intended to be non-violent, Israel will no doubt respond with its customary brutality, and raise the temperature perhaps to explosion point. This would serve as the required diversion. But September 20 is too far away. Something more immediate was needed, and indeed predicted. For example, radical video-blogger Lia Tarachansky posted on August 5 a video, towards the end of which she stated that "many predict Netanyahu will try to squash the movement by starting a military operation". She further pointed out that indeed "Early on Thursday [August 4] Israel escalated its air attacks on Gaza".[9]

Such escalations are a standard Israeli ploy for provoking an armed confrontation. These air attacks, so long as they are not massive, are rarely reported by the media, as they are considered, and claimed by Israel's hasbarah, to be routine targeting of "terrorist bases".

Sure enough, two weeks later, on August 18, eight Israelis, civilians and soldiers, were killed by persons unknown who crossed the Egyptian-Israeli border in Sinai, near Eilat. The perpetrators were alleged by Israel to have come all the way (about 250km) from Gaza, although no real proof was produced. And no-one in the media thought to connect this incident with the Israeli escalation of August 4.

Israel responded to this incident by more massive and deadly bombing of Gaza, and, as usual, Palestinian militants responded with missiles shot into Israeli towns. Though unguided, these missiles caused some damage, killed one Israeli civilian and injured several others. So here we have it: escalating military clashes, as per requirement.

Torchlit demo

Did it work for Bibi? Not really. The protesters decided not to cancel the next demonstration, scheduled for August 20. But as a mark of respect for the victims of the August 18 incident, a majority decision was for holding a silent, torchlit march. In addition to the usual social and economic demands, the silent protestors carried anti-war slogans, such as "No to the war of peaceful [ministerial] armchairs" (a reference to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, whose official name was the oxymoron, 'War for the peace of Galilee'), and "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies". In that march, red flags outnumbered blue-and-white national ones.

Members of a small, sectarian Trotskyist group chanted slogans against war and the arms industry. This was resented by the vast majority, including many leftwing radicals, not because of the content of the chants (which was only opposed by a few rightists) but because that group ignored the majority decision to keep the march silent.[10]

In the mass meeting at the end of the march - held while the sectarians were standing apart from the crowd of demonstrators, and shouting their slogans - one of the speakers was an Arab from the Galilee. He told the crowd about a demonstration of solidarity with the movement that had taken place in the Arab town of Arabeh that same day, and was received with applause. He went on to speak about the problems in the Arab sector, saying these should be part of the protest - applause again. That was too much for 10-15 rightwingers who tried to burst forward and silence him. Quietly but firmly, members of the crowd stopped them; and then the crowd numbering 5,000 or more started chanting in response: "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies".

It is doubtful whether military provocations will put a stop to the protests. However, it is quite likely that the movement will split into at least two camps. One will continue to avoid 'political' issues. The more radical camp will make the connection explicitly. One thing is certain: Israel is no longer socially tranquil. Class struggle is on the agenda.


  1. 'PM calls Israel an "island of stability" in the region' Jerusalem Post January 31 2011. "During his meeting with Merkel, and in a subsequent press conference, Netanyahu stressed the fact that Israel is the only stable country in the Middle East and therefore the west must bolster ties with it. 'We are an island of stability in the region,' Netanyahu told Merkel" (Haaretz February 1 2011). "Israel is lucky its prime minister is Netanyahu, who is experienced and has made Israel an island of stability and security - economically and diplomatically" (Indy News Israel February 9 2011).
  2. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT7RkhwOqQs.
  3. Haaretz August 9 2011.
  4. This remark was reviled by Tony Greenstein as "racist", on the grounds that "Arabs have always had a great deal to teach Israel's Jews" ('Support the Israeli protest movement without illusions' Weekly Worker August 11). The journalist, of course, did not deny this; she only expressed satisfaction that Israelis are finally prepared to learn. Sadly, comrade Tony is unable to see the difference.
  5. H Hanegbi, M Machover, A Orr, 'The class nature of Israeli society' New Left Review No65, January-February 1971. Other versions of this article were published elsewhere. See for example http://matzpen.org/index.asp?u=other&p=chap2-05.
  6. See http://tinyurl.com/etznn.
  7. 'Israel's connected conglomerates' Financial Times August 17.
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality.
  9. Watch this video at http://tinyurl.com/3qt24nc.
  10. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=rifO6k-XGqM. The man with the megaphone shouts: "Why should I care about Arabs?" See also http://tinyurl.com/3ro6sfs