Beit Shemesh, Israel — Eli Vanunu has been active in Likud politics for 30 years, and in the last election helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party win in this bedroom community halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But as anti-government cost-of-living protests have swept across the country, he’s broken ranks to join a tent city demonstration at the entrance to Beit Shemesh featuring signs calling for affordable housing. Frustrated that his daughter has been priced out of the local housing market, he’s also become a liaison to leaders of the tent city in Tel Aviv who have targeted Netanyahu as a cold-hearted capitalist cut off from the Israeli rank and file.
“I call on Benjamin Netanyahu, to sober up and act,” Vanunu said. “People understand that this government can’t continue to operate the way Netanyahu is operating.”
Vanunu isn’t alone among dispirited Likudniks. As leaders of the Tel Aviv-based socioeconomic protest movement fanned out to smaller cities around the country over the weekend, attention has shifted to the people who have been the party’s loyal backbone since the days of Menachem Begin: working- and lower-middle-class Israelis of Middle Eastern origin for whom the protest themes ring true.
Does the current wave of economic malaise threaten to drive a wedge between Likud and a tried-and-true constituency?
“I am sure of it — I hear this every day in the tent,” said Vanunu. “Activists don’t want to hear the words ‘Benjamin Netanyahu.’”
Last Saturday was the first time since the start of the month-long campaign that there was no mass demonstration on the streets of Tel Aviv. Instead, organizers concentrated efforts on bringing tens of thousands to rallies in Beersheva, Haifa, Afula and Netanya. Smaller protests were held from Eilat to Nahariya.
The focus outside of Tel Aviv was meant to drive home the point that the call for “social justice” had resonance regardless of partisan, class or geographic boundaries. If at first the demonstrators were dismissed as the left-wing bourgeoisie of Tel Aviv, the goal now was to embrace the “peripheriya” — the regions beyond the metropolitan areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — and the centrist middle class.
Though the combined turnout of 70,000 was only a fraction of the high point of a week before, Israel’s media hailed it as a success anyway for organizing the largest demonstrations in recent memory in cities like Haifa or Beersheva.
“For years no one has seen such a massive gathering of people in this quiet city, aside from the massive funerals for terror attack victims during the second intifada,” wrote Ahikam David in the daily newspaper Maariv, describing the turnout in the northern city of Afula. “Many of them called on Netanyahu to wake up yesterday and booed him.”
Ever since Menachem Begin rose to power in 1977 on an alliance with working-class Sephardic Jews who suffered discrimination at the hands of the so-called socialist Ashkenazi elites, the Likud has held the upper hand in Israeli politics. The division between the upper-middle-class left of Tel Aviv and the working-class “periphery” has persisted mainly because of disagreements over foreign policy.
For weeks, the protesters have doggedly kept their focus on domestic issues and avoided making the link — previously an unconscious reflex among the Israeli left — between the economic hardship and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.
Arguing that its members are “neither left nor right, neither urban nor periphery,” the protest movement organizers have succeeded in attracting allies from across Israel’s political divide.
“No diplomatic protest of the left ever succeeded because it didn’t get the legitimacy of the periphery. And no economic protest of the periphery ever got a stamp of approval without the backing of the center,” said Daniel Ben Simon, a Knesset member from the Labor party.
“Last Saturday night was the first time since the upset of 1977 [Begin’s victory] that there was a unity of purpose,” Ben Simon continued. “Therefore, the greatness of the Rothschild protest [in Tel Aviv] is that organizers realized that for this protest to succeed they need the real poor. The Likudniks. Shas. From that perspective, it was a connection of genius. I don’t remember anything like it. … I was surprised.”
Ben Simon said that the appeal of the current protest movement is worrying Likud parliament members and ministers.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Netanyahu government is in immediate danger. To be sure, it is far from clear if the protest will be translated into a realignment come next elections.
That’s because the main opposition party — Kadima — does not subscribe to the protesters’ socioeconomic worldview, which advocates for more government intervention. Moreover, traditional left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz have been decimated over the last decade and still have not chosen new leaders.
Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said that in 2006, the Labor party was able to make inroads against Likud and Netanyahu because then-Chairman Amir Peretz, an immigrant from Morocco, played up socioeconomic issues.
“The issue is whether social economic issue will replace security as the main consideration of the voters,” Rahat said. “It’s possible, but now it is only on the margins.”
Rahat said he believes that Israelis will continue to vote based on foreign policy, with religious observance being the most reliable predictor of votes. That means the mostly traditional Middle Eastern working class will stick with Netanyahu and Likud.
“If [the protests] will make a change it will be a small one, of a couple of percentage points here or there, which isn’t enough to change Israeli politics.
“Traditional people will vote for the right,” Rahat continued, “and I don’t think this protest can change it.”
But that doesn’t calm Likud stalwarts who believe that the movement elders like Netanyahu have ignored the voices of grass-roots activists who have described socioeconomic malaise as an Achilles heel of the movement.
“We are the seismograph in the field; we are in the streets,” said Shlomo Madmon, a Likud leader from Kfar Saba.
“[Netanyahu] is talking about strengthening the economy, but it is one big bluff. Once the Likud’s ideology was based on the “Greater of Land of Israel” and both banks of the Jordan [i.e. laying claim to the biblical lands on the eastern side of the Jordan River]. Now people aren’t interested in the number of tanks; people want to live.”
In the tent city of Beit Shemesh there are signs that echo the slogans of Tel Aviv, such as “people before profits,” and there also are localized slogans alleging discrimination in land development on behalf of the fervently Orthodox.
The Likud solidified a loyal following with the Begin government’s “Build Your House” incentive program that focused on the middle class and private building. Now residents like Vanunu complain that Netanyahu also signed off future building of tens of thousands of homes exclusively to the fervently Orthodox parties.
Not all Likudniks in Beit Shemesh buy into the criticism. They say that the policy of the Netanyahu government is no different from that of those led by other political parties. It was Netanyahu, they say, who led Israel’s economy through the 2008 financial crisis. Without him, Israel would be in bad shape.
“The people who began this are leftists,” said Avi Vaknin, 45, who said he believes the prime minister is best suited to lead the economy. That said, Netanyahu has to change policy.
Otherwise, Vaknin said, “It will be chaos. The protests will spread through the country and people will be swept away. He has to change if he wants people to like him.”