The half-million middle-class Israelis who took to the streets calling for social justice last summer will be a force to reckon with in next year’s election even as some of the demanded changes are implemented.
That was the view of Manuel Trajtenberg, a Tel Aviv economist and chairman of a committee that released a 270-page report in September that he said “translated the clamor of the people into a language that government can do something about.”
The committee, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a month earlier, was formed to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s economic problems.
Among its recommendations: approval of 196,000 apartments, 20 percent of them set aside for affordable housing, within five years; increasing the corporate and capital gains taxes; reducing the price of subsidized food products; discounting public transportation for students and operating express buses from the periphery to central Israel.
At a press conference organized here by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Trajtenberg said that unlike many of the other mass protests that took place worldwide this year, those in Israel were different because the protesters “were able to articulate demands.”
“There is a generation of young people in Israel who discovered that they have a voice and can take charge of their destiny,” he said. “Once that is discovered, it is hard to take away. I am convinced that the next time there is an election in Israel, this is going to play out very strongly.
Trajtenberg said many of the recommendations in his committee’s report cannot “happen by decree; they have to change the DNA” of the country.
“What we did in the committee is to engage the protesters and the government, and it was a big reason why the protesters backed off,” he added. “We were on Facebook and Twitter, and held public hearings that went on for hours. And people could send questions through the Internet when there were public meetings. This had never happened before.”
A member of the committee, Rafi Melnick, provost of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, agreed in a phone interview that “what happened last summer was a major event in Israeli society.”
“We don’t know exactly what the political repercussions will be from these events, but I anticipate it will have a large impact on the next election,” he said.
Trajtenberg said that when he saw “a huge demonstration” on the streets of Israel a week after terrorist rockets were fired at southern Israel this summer, he knew that this was a movement “that wasn’t going away.”
He acknowledged that he has been asked if he would be interested in entering the political arena; he did not rule it out.
“Jewish people in the States who are concerned about Israel should see this not as a threat but as a huge opportunity,” Trajtenberg added.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “knows that his political future will depend on how voters see the implementation of the recommendations a year from now. The next election will be at the end of 2012 or the spring of 2013. Certainly a year from now we will be in the middle of the election season and street protests could resume unless the issues are addressed.”
He pointed out that different groups of protesters had different concerns. The students, for instance, called for more rental housing and divorced themselves from the political leaders of the protest movement. Other groups marched for reduced tuition for education.
“It will be hard to rebuild the momentum [of last summer] unless the government does not move at all,” Steinberg said. “And so it is not automatic that there are groups ready to go back to the streets.”
He noted that Shelly Yachimovich, who was elected in September as the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party, won in a campaign that stressed socioeconomic issues rather than security concerns. In the process, she attracted thousands of young voters to Labor, a party that had become known in Israel as the “alter kockers party” — Yiddish for “old folks.”
“We are the only ones on the political map who can present a real, deep, social democratic alternative to the capitalistic extremism that Netanyahu has championed,” Yachimovich, 51, insisted.
During her six years in the Knesset, the former newspaper reporter initiated laws requiring employers to provide chairs for their cashiers, favoring Israeli-owned factories and companies over foreign ones, and extending maternity leave to 14 weeks.
Steinberg said he found Yachimovich better at articulating the socioeconomic issues than the Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni, a party that he suggested may lose a lot of its strength in the next election.
“It is very disunited and it does not have much of a platform or leadership,” he said.
Thus, the Labor Party, which in the last election in 2009 won just 13 of the 120 seats in the Knesset after having once been the dominant party in Israeli politics, may be revitalized in the next election.
Trajtenberg said his committee’s report put forth a set of principles and made recommendations regarding such things as affordable housing, taxes and the lowering of tariffs so markets become more competitive and prices lower.
“The government in October accepted the report in principle,” he said. “The prime minister when he ran for office ran on a platform to reduce taxes. We said reverse course and he agreed to it.”
As a result, instead of the tax rate going down to 37 percent by 2017, the Knesset increased the tax rate to 48 percent from 45 percent.
“That’s pretty dramatic,” Trajtenberg said. “It’s like the Republicans here saying they have to raise taxes.”
But he pointed out that another recommendation of his committee, calling for an additional 2 percent tax rate on the rich, was removed from the Knesset bill before the vote.
Melnick said he was surprised about that.
“I don’t understand how that happened,” he said.