WASHINGTON — Israel is becoming more Middle Eastern every day.
The country that just experienced a public panic over the price of cottage cheese is now in the midst of massive “tent city” street protests over housing prices and poor economic conditions. Just last weekend, more than 150,000 Israelis took to the streets to air their grievances as part of the July 14 protests.
Like the uprisings taking place across the Arab world, Israelis are protesting their country’s internal conditions, not external threats. And just as is the case for each Arab country, Israel-watchers are now wondering if Israel’s government will fall.
It’s important to recall that when Tunisia and Egypt erupted in protest, the people’s demands stunned the world. They did not, as was customary, call for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They did not call for jihad against America. Instead, they demanded political freedom and economic prosperity, an end to corruption, and a different future.
Similarly, Israel’s street protests are not about ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are not about the status of Jerusalem or maintenance of the settlements. Instead, they are about the economic vice that many young Israelis feel they are living in.
Like much of the Arab world, Israel’s economy and its failure to provide prospects for a better future to so many of its population are fueling anger in the streets.
Also similar to the Arab Spring is how these Israeli protests are bringing together people from all walks of life, across all political spectrums. There are Likudniks and peaceniks, old and young, Arab and Jew. These are truly national protests, not organized by one political faction or one economic interest, as has so often been the case in Israeli protest history.
Instead, just as the protests across the Arab world seemed to have appeared from nowhere, organized by Internet activists with a powerful social agenda, so too are the protests in Israel being organized by multiple activists through the Internet, with broad based support in the streets.
These protests may come as a shock to American Jews who aren’t actively tracking the ins and outs of Israeli society. There is a common assumption in the United States that Israel is a prosperous country that provides comfortable lives for all its citizens. But while much of this is true, one must peel back the cover and look at what’s really going on inside of Israel’s economy and social life to understand why there is such angst there.
Israelis, despite having one of the most advanced economies in the world, live in an economically stratified society. Their country is exceedingly expensive and is squeezing the middle class.
Why is this so?
First, the Israeli cost of living is very high. For example, 20 percent of Israelis spend over half of their disposable income on rent. Today, the average apartment price in Tel Aviv is 32 percent higher than last year, and the average price of a four-bedroom apartment is $670,000. In a country where the average personal income is roughly $30,000, it just doesn’t add up.
Second, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, one-quarter of all Israelis are impoverished. In fact, Israel has the second highest poverty rate among leading Western countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Lastly, Israel’s income inequality is one of the highest in the West, ranking fifth worst amongst the 34 OECD countries.
In other words, Israel’s economic situation is ripe for protest.
So while Israel’s economic conditions are what have led to today’s street protests, the broader context of both the Arab Spring and the stumbling peace process is what makes these protests so fascinating.
Arabs have taken to the streets to change their conditions. They have risen up against oppressive political systems against stunning odds. And while the future of their countries is not yet clear, what is clear is that they have rejected the political status quo in their countries and are creating changes through people power. These changes, while initially about internal concerns, will inevitably have an impact on their countries’ foreign policies.
Likewise, Israelis have had enough of their economic conditions. They are rising up against a political order that, regardless of who’s in charge, has consistently implemented economic policies that haven’t effectively addressed their cost of living, poverty level, or income inequality.
And just as these Israeli protests are being made against an ostensibly solid government, this can change overnight. We’ve learned this from the Arab Spring. What seems to be a solid government one day can turn to mush the next. And if it does, both Israeli domestic and foreign policy will not be the same.
So hold onto your hats, as it may just be late spring in Israel.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)