Fanny Carrier, AFP
Last updated: 21 January, 2013

Israeli left struggles to harness economic discontent

In 2011, record numbers of Israelis took to the streets to protest the cost of living, but on the eve of general elections it remains unclear if the left has been able to harness that discontent.

The movement, which began as a demonstration over housing prices, evolved into a much broader protest over the cost of living and income inequality, and peaked on September 3, 2011, when half a million Israelis took to the streets.

The centre-left Labour party has recruited several members of the movement and has centred its campaign on the economic situation — a concern that ranks higher for most Israelis than the Palestinian issue or the threat posed by Iran.

Stav Shaffir, one of the protest movement’s most prominent voices, is now running in the eighth slot on Labour’s electoral list.

“We feel that we pay a lot, that we do everything, that we serve in the military, we pay a lot of tax, we try to be the best citizens possible but we don’t get the minimum (social) security from our government,” she said ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“When you look at people’s lives in Israel, you see that people wake up and immediately feel the pressure,” she told AFP.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli households spent around 3,500 shekels ($930/700 euros) a month on rent in 2011 — about 25 percent of their wages, up from 23 percent in 2007.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on the overall health of the economy, which maintained 3.3 percent growth in 2012, along with an unemployment rate below 7.0 percent and an inflation rate of 1.6 percent.

But as the election campaign drew to an end, final figures showed the 2012 deficit had doubled projections, and swollen to 4.2 percent of GDP, meaning a budget packed with tough austerity measures is looming.

Shaffir and other activists insist that the economic indicators mask a tough reality for most Israelis. The unemployment rate is comparatively low, but “half of the workers in Israel today earn less than 5,800 shekels ($1,550/1,170 euros a month),” she said.

“That’s not an amount that you can live on.”

“We know that if we want to have children here, it’s a matter of money, and we don’t have that money,” she said.

“We don’t have that money for the best kindergarten, we don’t have the money to get them the best education, to get them the best clothing, to get them the best food.”

Her message appeared to resonate at Gevim kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, where a few dozen voters had turned up to hear her speak.

Polls show Labour is to take the second highest number of mandates, winning between 16-18 out of the 120 seats in parliament, up from the eight it currently holds.

But the mantle of defender of the middle class is not Labour’s alone, with parties ranging from the new centrist Yesh Atid, to the far-right national religious Jewish Home focusing their messages on economic discontent.

The protest movement has largely lost momentum, however, meaning Netanyahu can still be confident of reelection, likely at the head of a rightwing government.

The protest movement “was a coalition of different people with different interests. It was not something with a focus,” said Ben-Zion Zilberfarb, an economics professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“Now they are spread all over the parties, it’s a wide range of people. No party succeeded in taking all the protesters and putting them in one place,” he added.

But even if the movement’s energy doesn’t translate exclusively into votes for Labour, Shaffir says she considers it to have profoundly changed Israel.

“Every election (until now) was only talking about security, and threats, fears and terror,” she said.

The protests “changed the discourse in Israel… We are today in a different place as a society.”