The social protests that began two and a half weeks ago have been propelled forward on waves of unprecedented public support. When Eldad Yaniv of the National Left movement and other social justice activists struck those first eight pegs into the ground and put up small tents, they could not have anticipated the wildly supportive reception that awaited them. It was clear even then that this movement was a broad initiative funded by the New Israel Fund and other groups, and was not limited to the issue of high housing costs.
The second demonstration did not have more participants than the first. Each drew a little more than 30,000 people. But what the second demonstration did have was a tailwind. It's not every day that you watch four or five ordinary people turn into leaders overnight, pursued by Channel 2 anchorwoman Yonit Levy and her television crew from a tree along Tel Aviv's historic Rothschild Boulevard. This kind of thing gives one a delusional sense of power. But the unknown leaders failed to discern the limits of their power.
On Monday, the protesters lost some of their momentum. They failed to articulate demands that would serve as a reasonable basis for negotiations. Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histradut trade union federation, was stunned when the protest leaders demanded that their meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be filmed. Kadima assisted them behind the scenes. Their meetings with Israel's political elite, from President Shimon Peres on down, had a magical effect on the new leaders. They seemed intoxicated. This, in turn, led the Likud party to believe that the protests' time had passed.
The scope of their demands was flawed. To sum it up, they wanted everything, and they wanted it now. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer entered the fray on Monday, explaining in his polite but authoritative manner that, yes, the government made a mistake in favoring the Value Added Tax over income tax, but those who try to seize too much seize nothing. The Israeli economy is in good shape, and if Fischer hadn't lowered the interest rate to zero at the height of the worldwide recession, those same protesters might not be demanding affordable housing but “bread and work.” Everyone knows that Fischer's words command the highest respect, both in Israel and abroad.
Most of the protesters are among Israel's best and brightest young people. They feel oppressed but they don't have that destructive socialist urge to “change the foundation of the world.” They seek changes that are just and proportionate. The VAT is a bad tax. The tycoons' control over the Israeli economy is even worse.
Demagogic slogans have crept into the protests, and it's time to bring back some perspective. Fischer is right. In the choice between unemployment and a housing crisis, a brick wall is far easier to deal with than an empty stomach.
It would be a mistake for the government to seize any turning point in the protests in an attempt to stall necessary reforms. Acting miserly with subsidies, beyond the dictates of responsible economic policy, would be wrong, as would be closing its eyes to the tycoons' continued dominion over our economy. It is the tycoons who make life more expensive for everybody.
Six years ago, the residents of the Gaza Strip settlement of Gush Katif, our “brothers in orange,” as we called them, were not only thrown out of their houses, but were thrown out without receiving the support, embraces, understanding and financial compensation they deserved. The youth of Gush Katif led the struggle, and those wonderful young people still carry the wound in their hearts. The current activists in Tel Aviv will soon fold up their tents. It behooves the government to act so that these protesters will not be added to the nation's wounded.