Israel's 'Social Protesters' Live in a Fantasy World

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.