After The Tents, What’s Next?
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After The Tents, What’s Next?

Israeli social protest movement’s future unclear; activists dismiss Trachtenberg committee recommendations as ‘piece of paper.’

Tel Aviv — Hours before police dismantled the last of the tents of the Rothschild Boulevard encampment that sparked nationwide protests, Koby Kornblut and other activists were already packing up equipment into a nearby pickup truck.

Despite several court appeals for an injunction, leaders knew the end was near for the encampment that turned Tel Aviv into an Israeli urban Woodstock and symbolized a grass-roots push to change Israel’s socioeconomic policies.

By the time the police came this week, the colorful protest art had been dismantled and most of the tents were either pulled up or abandoned. Half of the few dozens residents were homeless.

With the encampment gone and the mass protests of the summer quickly fading into memory, protest leaders and other Israelis are wondering whether the demands to ease the cost of living for Israel’s middle class will endure. Or will the protests remain a figment of nostalgia with no tangible results?

Change is possible “if we have enough staying power. Struggles take time,’’ said Kornblut. “What we are dealing with now is how to remember that there is a struggle.’’

Protesters are already struggling to chart their next step. There has been speculation that some would create their own political party to run in the next election. For the time being at least, a new encampment is being planned for outside the Knesset in Jerusalem to keep the pressure up on lawmakers.

“We are all asking one question: Where to now?” wrote Danny Dor and Lia Nirgad on the protest movement’s website. “We suggest: the Knesset.”

Despite the shift in media focus in September to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations, protester demands for socioeconomic change have returned in October. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried (unsuccessfully) on Monday to get his cabinet to approve the policy recommendations of a committee on economic reform headed by professor Manuel Trachtenberg.

The reforms advanced by committee — which included tax hikes on the rich, state funds for pre-k education starting at age 3, and proposals for more affordable housing — were rejected by the protest leaders as “just another piece of paper.” But, in a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, Trachtenberg sounded like their advocate as he criticized Israel’s government for distancing itself from the people.

“We must not miss this chance that has been created by the social protests of the summer of 2011,” said Trachtenberg, according to the Haaretz website. “And there won’t be a second chance through peaceful nonviolence. The report is a real effort to translate the language of the protest to the language of action.”

Over the summer, the protesters succeeded in galvanizing the middle class by demanding government action to counter rising real estate prices, corporate cartels and high education costs. By staying away from foreign policy issues like the cost of government investment in settlements, left-wing protesters from the bohemian encampment in Tel Aviv were able to reach across Israel’s political divide to many blue-collar backers of Netanyahu, stirring worry in his Likud party.

The results were mass demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousand of Israelis into the streets across the country. Protesters are talking about holding another evening of mass protests at the end of the month.

But there have been other achievements beyond the protests. In recent weeks, Israel dairy manufacturers have lowered their prices in response to a consumer boycott called for by the protesters. The chairperson of Israel’s largest dairy company, Tnuva, resigned amid a government investigation into the company’s pricing.

“Is there staying power? I think the answer is ‘yes.’ It’s pretty clear you don’t need the tents to keep it going,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

He said that he expects Netanyahu to successfully push through the Trachtenberg reforms by the end of 2011. Implementation will begin next year. The question he said is whether or not the protesters will be satisfied by the reforms, and whether they decide to call people into the streets again.

Of course, if Israel is involved in a major conflict with its neighbors or is involved in a peace initiative, it will be more difficult to mount a new protest movement. Regardless, many Israelis agree that socioeconomic issues will remain at the top of the agenda for some time.

The effect has already been felt in the Labor party, which elected Shelly Yachimovitch — former journalist who has focused on social economic issues — as its new leader two weeks ago. Within days, a poll by Haaretz showed Yachimovitch and the Labor party surging to the No. 2 spot behind Likud, while the centrist Kadima party lost seats.

Though the parliamentary majority of right-wing hawkish parties was not affected, Lehman Wilzig suggested left-wing parties might find common cause with religious parties like Shas on social issues.

“Socioeconomic issues have reached a much higher salience. Even if this high socioeconomic issue salience doesn’t affect the [election] results, it could make a difference in the formation of the government,” Leman Wilzig said. “Primary voters in Labor went to the polls … they said this is a strong wind, let’s bring our most authentic socioeconomic (Yachimovitch) leader to the for so we can get the most votes.’’

Sever Plocker, a business columnist for Yediot Ahronot, said the socioeconomic issues give the Labor Party a “real chance’’ to revive itself with a campaign that emphasizes the issues of social justice.

“They are the founding fathers, and they saw Israel as an exceptional society, as much more equal,’’ he said. “They can go back to their traditional issues.’’

Others have been more critical of the social protest movement. Despite their successes, said Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, the protest leaders have failed to communicate a coherent alternative policy agenda to the Trachtenberg recommendations.

“They talk in a broad way about changing the capitalistic system back into a system of social solidarity. They have never articulated what they mean about a revolution or a change of system,” she said.

“At this point the best we can hope for are policy changes that might be adopted … As far as a political realignment, so far as I don’t see it.”

Back on Rothschild on the night before the Tel Aviv encampment was cleared, Harel Meydani, a resident of the tent city, expressed optimism that the movement would spur political change even if he wasn’t sure exactly how.

“I see us as the guard dogs. We can’t be politicians because we aren’t built for it,” said Harel Meydani, a 27-year-old resident of the encampment hours before the tents were cleared. “The politicians are no longer alone … the next elections will be social elections. Everyone will raise the banner.”

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