08/18/2011 12:00 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2011

Is Israel Beginning to Change?

The protests sweeping Israel at the moment are truly remarkable. Not since the Sabra and Shatila massacre three decades ago have so many Israelis taken to the streets. Like in neighboring Egypt and Syria, the protests are completely owned by the people, with foreigners and outside powers playing small or no roles at all. In fact, the world, including both Israel's friends and enemies, has yet to react to the protests. Again, as was the case earlier in both Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the region, no analyst would a month ago have foreseen massive uprisings in Israel of all places, the only country in the Middle East believed to be stable in the wake of the Arab Spring, even if it was well known that there were large discrepancies between rich and poor in Israel.

Yet it has happened, and once more this spring and summer everyone can see the limited value of expert knowledge and prediction. Now, there are indeed many differences between the protests in Israel and elsewhere in the region, not least that Israel is the only democracy in the region, a fact which is proven by the peaceful nature of the protesters and even more so by the peaceful nature of the police. In a free society's marketplace of ideas, there is no need for any side, including the state, to use violence.

It is also clear that the protests in Israel do not follow traditional party lines. Instead, they appear to be uproars from mostly young people who work hard but believe they get too little back from the state in terms of everyday welfare services like good education, decent housing, proper healthcare and daycare. Of course, when the protesters embrace slogans like "We demand social justice", it is easy, especially for Americans, to put a left-wing stamp in the face of those who demand change. In a way this is correct, because in traditional party politics, social justice is definitely a slogan of the left, no doubt about that.

But when looking more closely at what the protesters want; good education, decent housing, proper healthcare and daycare, these are not left-wing issues, at least not anymore. Basically all of Europe's richest countries (I am not thinking of South Europe) have exactly what Israel's young are demanding right now; free or heavily subsidized healthcare and education, and various programs in place for keeping down costs for daycare and housing. These European countries have had these welfare systems in place for decades, irrespective of whether they have had right-wing or left-wing governments. Basic welfare issues are simply not left-wing or right-wing anymore, they are issues every politician will have to deal with. Only reactionaries, like the Republican Party in the U.S., who live in a bubble of debts, continue to deny this.

Now the really interesting question for an outsider like me, who has, with great sadness followed Israel's internal politics for many years, is how the protest movement will affect the peace process with the Palestinians. One can be sure that a certain man in the Oval Office, a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels, and perhaps a few Arab leaders hope and pray that a new Israel is slowly emerging with leaders who will be ready for major territorial withdrawals. This will certainly not happen overnight, but in the eyes of an outsider like me, the protest movement represents an enormous potential for change, and for peace, for Israel.

When Israelis get out of their protest tents and start debating whether three security guards are more valuable than three teachers, whether a settlement is worth a hospital, whether a new missile defense system actually saves more Israeli lives than a new healthcare system, a completely new political debate might open up in Israel. In the best of worlds, this could be the road out of the occupation, out of the international morass in which Israel now finds itself, because a serious argument can now be made by Israelis for Israelis that the army and the settlers should get out from most of the West Bank, not to please Obama and not because of terror, but because Israelis want and need the resources the occupation require.