A Pessimistic Take on the Likely Outcomes of the Protests in Israel

The protests in Israel have gathered so much momentum that over the weekend they culminated in one of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history. And they should be celebrated.

They represent a form of people power, as people from a variety of backgrounds, religions, classes, and ethnicities come together to demand that Israel pay more attention to how its impressive economic growth is causing critical socioeconomic problems at the local and individual level. As one measure, the gap between rich and poor in Israel is among the largest in the OECD.

As well, for those who might be nostalgic for the days of yore, the protests are a call for Israel to eschew the market-, consumer-, and individual-oriented economy and philosophy that overtook it in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, the focus on "social justice" seems to harken back to the socialist-collectivist framework that shaped Zionist politics before 1948 and Israeli politics after it.

The protests have even managed to bring together (some) Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is widespread social and economic discrimination practiced by the state against its Arab citizens, both intentional and unintentional. In recent years, leaders of the Arab community have demanded change in a manner that has put off many Jews and undermined the possibility of a common struggle. That the protests have managed to overcome this is heartening.

Having said all that, we need to be tempered in our reactions. Israeli politics is not easily swayed in new directions even by major "shocks," and particularly by public opinion -- which policymakers have traditionally ignored. In all cases of large demonstrations against the government, the seemingly impressive public protests in the end achieved very little in the way of fundamentally new ideas or policies.

The demonstrations against the Labor government following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War -- because Labor had failed to anticipate the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack -- ended with a commission of inquiry that in turn led to the sacking of some military commanders. It also eventually led to the resignation of Labor Prime Minister Golda Meir. But another Labor government, led by longtime party officials, easily replaced her. And the military went on to fail to forecast the eruption of the First Intifada in 1987.

Comparable (but larger) protests against the 1982 Lebanon invasion and its aftermath, particularly against Israel's passive role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, also resulted in few concrete changes. Another commission of inquiry found the government "indirectly responsible" for the murders, and recommended the permanent firing of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon not only refused to resign at first, but when he eventually did he simply became a Minister without Portfolio in the same government.

The current wave of protests is likely to end similarly, for three reasons. First, as has been pointed out already, social justice in Israel is difficult to envision while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues. It is absolutely true that Israel cannot just leave the West Bank and hope for the best: too many details need to be worked out, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians. But still, Israeli policy in the territory, and particularly the actions of individual Israelis -- both security personnel and settlers -- are a direct cause of social, economic, and even moral inequality between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Israel cannot achieve social justice for itself while denying it to others under its control.

Second, although Jewish Israelis want, by a large majority, a two-state solution, the details are more fuzzy, conditioned upon Palestinian actions, and subject to change. This is particularly so while relations with the Palestinians are poor. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest that these relations will improve any time soon; indeed, the exact opposite is likely. With the Palestinian game at the United Nations seemingly on track, divisions between Hamas and Fatah as deep as ever, and Hamas continuing to call for the erasure of Israel, Israel is more likely than not to hunker down and reinvigorate a siege mentality that subsumes all other concerns under the security rubric.

Third, there is no party in Israel capable or willing to take up the cause of social justice and promote it at the political level and thereby ensure its continued relevance. Of the three possible big parties, Likud certainly won't. In the past Likud portrayed itself as the champion of the economically-marginalized Mizrachi, who helped vote it into power for the first time in 1977. Today Likud is entrenched in the political system and so doesn't need to do the same anymore. It now aggressively advocates a free market that cannot tolerate the kinds of demands being made. And its positions on the West Bank, settlements, and policy toward the Palestinians are well-known and not going to change for these reasons.

The Labor party, whose platform has traditionally combined a more socialist-oriented economic policy with dovish policies toward the territories, has all but taken itself out of the political game. Partly because of circumstances beyond its control and partly because of its own mismanaged organization (including the defection of former leader Ehud Barak), Labor is a shell of its former self and there is nothing to suggest it can return to that former glory any time soon.

That leaves Kadima. Although it is probably the best chance these protests have for seeping into the political arena, Kadima was founded virtually for the sole purpose of advocating withdrawal/separation from Palestinian areas; this is what united its members from across the political spectrum. Expanding on its political platform could well weaken it through internal disputes and differences over social and economic policy.

None of this is to say that the demonstrations are unnecessary or should be dismissed; or that they should not be continued and their cause(s) promoted; or that they don't mark a significant even in Israeli history. Nor that there won't be any change in Israel; the government has already created an economic team to look into what can be done to address the protests' demands.

But unfortunately there is good cause to be pessimistic about the possibility of them leading to real social change, either in Israel or in the West Bank.