The attempt to revive the “social protest” in Israel this summer has so far failed to attract the large crowds that characterized last year’s demonstrations. The protests are succeeding in hitting the headlines in Israel, however, after demonstrators clashed with the police in Tel Aviv, and a number of acts of vandalism took place.
These protests reflect a curious situation in which successful security policies are enabling a section of Israelis to live in a kind of fantasy world.
The protests reignited after police arrested one of the symbols of last year’s demonstrations, Daphne Leef. The arrest appears to have been entirely legal. Leef and some of her colleagues attempted without permission to establish a tent camp in an affluent area of Tel Aviv.
But while apparently above-board, the apprehending of Leef triggered fury among the core of activists of the social protest movement.
The following day, more than 6,500 people converged on the city’s Habima Square in an unlicensed demonstration. The protest quickly degenerated into a riot. Two main traffic arteries were blocked. Protesters then broke into and vandalized branches of the Hapoalim, Leumi, and Discount banks.
An additional demonstration in Tel Aviv this weekend attracted around 10,000 participants. Rallies elsewhere in the country were much smaller.
There are two main reasons for the failure so far of the revived protest to attract a mas following:
Firstly, despite the slogans of the protesters, Israelis are generally aware that in uncertain times, their own economy is doing quite well. There was moderate GDP growth of 3% last year. The Bank of Israel forecasts 3.1% growth this year, and 3.4% next year. Inflation remains stable at around 2.4%. Unemployment in 2011, meanwhile, was at its lowest for 32 years – averaging 5.6% of the adult workforce.
With exports hit by the slowdown in global trade, these are respectable figures. There is as a consequence a generally solid public confidence in the current stewards of the economy. The protesters point to some real remaining issues and problems, yet have no apparent coherent suggestions for how to rectify them.
The second, more fundamental reason why the “social protests” appear to have lost relevance is because they ignore some more urgent aspects of reality. Last year’s demonstrations took place at the height of the media-generated illusion that peaceful protest was about to bring profound, democratic change to the Arab world. Today, this fiction has been laid bare.
All around, the Middle East is roiling.
In Egypt, a representative of an Islamist movement committed to Israel’s destruction has just won the presidency.
In Syria, the Iran-led regional bloc is engaged in a brutal life or death struggle with a largely Sunni uprising against it. There is a real concern that long-range missiles and even chemical weapons could be transferred into Hizballah-controlled Lebanon if the Assad regime senses that the endgame is drawing near.
From Gaza, the local representatives of Sunni Islamism have been in recent days raining down rockets and missiles on outlying Israeli communities.
In the midst of all this, the activities of a small group of individuals who want to pretend that there is a socio-economic crisis in Israel and that breaking the windows of banks is an appropriate response to it are unsurprisingly failing to find a huge public echo.
The much clearer overt presence of far-left elements and pro-Palestinian slogans in the protests this year is a further deterrent to broader sections of the population.
The fundamental issue facing Israeli society is whether it can continue to function and flourish as a small enclave of democracy, Jewish sovereignty, and economic success, at the edge of a hostile sea of dictatorship, failure, and political Islam.
At the center of this is the question of whether policies can be enacted which keep the dangers sufficiently distant to enable the citizenry to live normal lives, raise families, and pursue economic interests.
In the 2000-2006 period, the ability of Israel to achieve this came into serious question. Islamist insurgencies erupting out of Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank made the conflict an unavoidable presence for Israelis.
This is no longer the case, if precariously. The Second Intifada was broken militarily. Hizballah to the north and Hamas to the south, The Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the Syrian civil war, all are — at least for the moment — being kept from impacting on the comfortable daily lives of the inhabitants of Israel’s center.
The full restaurants, high levels of tourism, and flourishing cultural life are among the more pleasant fruits of this. Still, most Israelis maintain a strong sense of the surrounding dangers. They understand that if they can pursue normal lives, this is not a reason to relax their guard, but rather a reason to maintain it.
The social protesters, of course, represent that element which does not understand this. In the manner of adolescents, they think that security and prosperity just sort of happen by themselves. So they want to play at being in Europe or North America, advocating other-wordly policies, vandalizing property, attacking police.
With their evident detachment from the realities of the neighborhood, they are one of the more ridiculous manifestations of Israel’s success in keeping the wolves relatively far from the door.
Yet one of the prices of freedom is that not all of its recipients will use it well. The same apparently goes for security. The very possibility of citizens who are giddily unaware of the sober realities their country faces is itself a paradoxical proof of Israel’s continued success in maintaining itself as a fertile enclave on the edge of a wasteland.