The moment the right firmly took hold of Israel
This month marks five years since a group of young Israelis moved their belongings to the middle of a popular Tel Aviv boulevard to protest at the rising cost of living. What began as an artistic protest – the Israelis set up an entire living room, complete with a television, in the middle of the boulevard – grew rapidly. Within weeks, thousands of Israelis had turned the tree-lined boulevard into a carnival, with people living in tents in protest at Tel Aviv’s skyrocketing rent prices. The international press rushed to cover Israel’s “Arab Spring” movement and discuss how social media organising had arrived in Israel. Five years on, the tent protests mark the death of the Israeli left and the end of any Israeli peace partner.
Liberal Israel supporters warmly embraced the promise of the tent protest movement. Gershom Gorenberg captured the initial popular attitude towards the movement in a piece for the American Prospect, writing: “Israel's summer economic revolt is the sequel to the Arab Spring, both overdue and unexpected … After years of comatose economic politics, anger is in larger supply than awareness of alternatives.” 3
There was genuine hope in the air but that belied the cognitive dissonance that pulsates through Tel Aviv when it comes to the Palestinians.
From the beginning, the tent protest leaders rejected discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there were small pockets of anti-occupation activists, they were generally pushed out by the majority of protesters who felt they were disenfranchised by economic inequity. Moreover, this small group of activists rejected the Tel Aviv protests to focus on their work with Palestinians. Many of the mainstream tent protesters said that it was their time to demand changes to Israel’s economic structure. Not everything in Israel, they told me, had to be connected to the Palestinian issue. On one level, they had a point, at least at the beginning of the movement. Their protest had begun as a specific civic act directly connected to high rents in Israel’s largest city.
As with most social issues in Israel and Palestine, however, the conflict is never far away. As more and more Israelis joined the protest and encampments popped up in other cities (including, ironically, in Israeli settlements in the West Bank), it was clear that the conflict could not be avoided. Protest leaders chose the slogan “the nation demands social justice” while maintaining a stubborn resistance to debate the occupation. The irony of demanding social justice while administering and profiting from a military occupation that deprives millions of their human rights seemed to escape most of the protesters.
One criticism that was regularly levelled against the tent protesters was their failure to demand affordable housing for Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. This week, the Palestinian village of Khirbet Zanuta in the southern West Bank lost a decade-long Israeli court battle. Israeli settlers in the area argued that the village sits on an archaeological site; and soon the military will raze the village. Similar cases have taken place all over the West Bank, and during the tent protests the plight of these villages was entirely absent from the calls for change.
Without jumping too deeply into the mechanisms of the tent protest, five years later we can learn many lessons from this Israeli movement. Despite sending one of its organisers to a Labour seat in parliament, the movement achieved very little. Rents remain out of control in Tel Aviv, and the gulf between Israel’s rich and poor deepens by the day. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel is home to one of the most unequal economies in the developed world.
More importantly, Israel’s right wing, led by politicians such as Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liebermann and Ayelet Shaked, has nearly taken over the political leadership. At the time of the demonstrations, I wrote that the failure of the tent protesters to confront the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians demonstrates that there is no sector in Israeli society that is willing or able to genuinely acknowledge the occupation and pursue peace. Five years on, the absence of a viable Israeli partner for peace is clear.
Across Israel’s political spectrum, the only political constant is continuing the occupation. The mainstream left, which now includes some of the tent protest leaders, has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to take meaningful steps to end the conflict. In the 1990s, the mainstream left included Israelis who appeared to be serious about peace. We know they set up tents to protest at their economic situation and refused to acknowledge their role in the occupation as if it wasn’t their issue.
That is the legacy of the tent protests. They were the ultimate confirmation that there is no peace partner in Israeli society. With a new American president on the way and an international community suffering from grave economic and political instability, this knowledge shouldn’t go unnoticed. For peace to be achieved, outside pressure will have to be exerted on Israel to force it to change course. We can’t rely on Israelis to make the sacrifices by themselves.
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