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Sep 2011 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Israelis are accustomed to grumbling about everything – the government, the cost of living and, above all, the weather. They are not - or at least have not been in the past - accustomed to doing anything much about any of them. This is in contrast to the French, for example, who are habitual habitués of demonstrations and turn out onto the streets in large numbers almost at the drop of a hat. The Arabs of the surrounding countries have caught on to the idea and are demonstrating in impressive numbers, in many cases displaying admirable courage in doing so.

Of course, there have been exceptions to the apathy of the average Israeli, and I still remember the lengthy and vociferous demonstrations that followed the Yom Kippur War, when ‘the people’ managed to dislodge the incumbent government and force an election. But that was purely political, and incidentally proved to be the beginning of the end for the Labour Party in Israel, a trend that eventually emerged in many other Western countries.

The demonstrations evident at present in Israel (or perhaps recently by the time this article appears), despite the stifling heat and obvious discomfort of many of the demonstrators, seem to be of a different cast. Perhaps they are politically motivated, but to all intents and purposes they appear to focus entirely on the issues that affect the average man or woman in the street – the cost of living, the price of housing, the wages of professionals and the level of taxes.

One cannot help but sympathise with the demonstrators, many of whom are young people struggling to make their way in life. But the protests extend to all generations and classes (except the wealthy, of course). And there’s the rub: it’s all about economics and the need to keep the country on an even economic keel.

Netanyahu, as a consummate politician and free-market adherent, is trying to hold the stick at both ends, appeasing the masses while not rocking the financial boat, which is a bit of a tall order (forgive the mixing of metaphors!). He may throw a couple of sops to the general public in the form of concessions here and there, possibly even the reduction of a tax of some kind, but cannot risk incurring the displeasure of the markets. The main solution he seems to be proposing is to set up a commission. Stanley Fischer, the widely-esteemed Governor of the Bank of Israel, has spoken of the justice of some demands while mentioning the fragility of the national economy more or less in the same breath.

The global financial crisis, which is still fresh in people’s memories and continues to have repercussions in countries and banking systems all over the world, together with the political brinkmanship involved in the recent US vote on the budget, all cast a long shadow over any economic measures taken in Israel. It would seem that the average demonstrator is either unaware of these considerations or declines to take them into account.

The question that remains to be answered is what will cause the demonstrators to go home and the tent-dwellers to strike camp. In Spain, the encampments were disbanded only after new elections were called. In Egypt, at least initially, only Mubarak’s resignation appeased the masses, but other considerations then assumed greater importance. The Tunisian president had the prescience to flee while he still could, and neither Bashar al-Assad nor Muammar Gaddafi has given up yet.

Although the so-called Arab Spring may have helped to inspire the demonstrations to some extent, since Israel is a democracy even the political opposition will be heard if there are enough marchers and their demands resonate. At least there is no likelihood of demonstrators being gunned down indiscriminately. The worst that can happen is that a new election will be held - which might not be such a bad thing, after all.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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