Protests no crisis of the state
New York Post
14 August '11
Sorry: The huge tent protest in Tel Aviv isn’t likely to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, let alone threaten Israel’s stability.
Since mid-July, protesters have occupied tents along prestigious, historic Rothschild Boulevard in Israel’s largest city. Their beef? To borrow from perennial New York candidate Jimmy McMillan: The rent is too damn high.
Social-media-empowered students, egged on by leftists demanding a reversal of Israel’s market-oriented economy, started the protest this summer. Last week, more than 300,000 filled the streets of Tel Aviv in one of Israel’s largest demonstrations ever. On Saturday, tens of thousands marched in cities across the country.
Countless early-to-mid career Israelis, with good educations and seemingly well-paying jobs, struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Amid an economic boom, the vast middle class can’t afford some of modern life’s necessities.
Why? Let’s look at cottage cheese -- a staple of the Israeli diet that provided the revolutionary spark for this summer of discontent.
In mid-June Israelis were stunned by a significant hike in the price of cottage cheese. Using Facebook (another staple of Israeli life), consumers called for a boycott. The media loved it, running with a “The Arab Spring is Finally Here” theme. The “cottage revolt” was the hottest story of the early summer.
Some blamed capitalism: Once government-controlled, the consumer dairy market is now governed by cruel market forces.
But is it? Three conglomerates -- Tnuva, Strauss and Tara -- control Israel’s dairy market. But rather than compete, these big cheeses seem to act in cahoots. A strong dairy-farming lobby helps them by successfully resisting imports. With no real market competition, dairy prices rise arbitrarily.
They’re not the only aspect of Israel’s life controlled by a small number of tycoons. Once, the government and its political cronies strangled the economy, stifling healthy competition. Now wealth cronies choke it.
Even this isn’t the complete picture. Yes, a few tycoons controlling the construction business are one big reason that rents are out of reach for many. But another reason is the government, which still owns a corporation that controls the country’s real estate. (Israel has yet to shed its socialist past.)
Also, Israel -- and especially its most fun-loving city -- is a victim of its success. In recent years, fabulous Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s most attractive places to live, summer and vacation -- and wealthy locals, as well as Europeans and other foreigners, have driven the real-estate market to the stratosphere.
French Jews, especially, bought up beachfront land and other real estate. In part, it’s an insurance policy -- a shelter in case the French economy tanks or Gallic antisemitism grows even worse. But for now, they live there for just a month a year.
So the rent is too damn high.
Yet, while many tent protesters would love to cast a wider political net, they recognize a simple truth. Once saddled with Palestinian solidarity or any other unrelated issue, their protest is bound to lose the sympathies of middle Israel.
Some of them, and their cheerleaders in the Israeli media (which, curiously, are largely controlled by the very tycoons at the heart of the problem) thought that the protest would topple Netanyahu. But while recent polls show some popularity loss, the right, for now, remains the strongest political bloc in the country.
Even some of the protesters realize that only a true market-based economy can drive housing prices down. Plus, Netanyahu, throughout his career, has been a potent force for undoing the socialist mistakes of Israel’s founders. (Last week the government named a committee to look for solutions.)
Israel’s detractors in the West and the Arab world -- along with the hardcore lefties among the Tel Aviv protesters -- hope the country will implode under the tent revolt. No chance. This is no Tahrir Square, where people with no say in government yearn for a bit of freedom. This isn’t even Tottenham, where some bums yearn for free flat-screen TVs and new iPhones.
To date, Israel’s protest has been mostly peaceful -- on both sides. That’s democracy. Citizens petition their government; the government tries its best to correct course -- and if it fails, there’s always the next election.
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