Israel: the whirlwind and the butterfly wings

Perhaps someone forgot that Rothschild blvd used to be Rehov Ha'Am: The People's Street, before it was renamed after the tycoon, an irony that seemed to come full circle in that humid summer.

28 January 2013

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Poll after poll was saying the same thing: Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu was to win a landslide victory, with the Labor party as runners-up. But really, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the new-dimpled face of the Israeli Right was supposed to be the true, if understated champions of the Israeli elections this year. It was supposed to be a new mandate for the right wing. January 22 came (and what a nice day out it was), and the rumours began early in the afternoon that there would be some kind of upset, something about the earlier polls had been left unsaid. Netanyahu's camp was pushing supporters to get out to vote, and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid began murmuring celebration.

Something else seemed to be going on: polls and pre-election statistics hadn't quite captured the undercurrents. Maybe someone forgot about the politically charged summertimes Israel is slowly getting used to. In 2011, the call for social justice came in the form of tents occupying Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv's Wall Street. The demands, under the blanket of, “the nation demands social justice”, were oriented around housing costs, tax reforms, expanding public education and public transit - in other words, these were demands for social provision. Perhaps someone forgot that Rothschild blvd used to be Rehov Ha'Am: The People's Street, before it was renamed after the tycoon, an irony that seemed to come full circle in that humid summer.

Netanyahu's Knesset formed a committee, tossed the issues aside when the tents came down and forgot about activists, and the story was supposed to be that the activists forgot about the government, too. Many of the polls assumed dismal turnouts of younger voters, whether from apathy or boycotts. But with the final tally, it seems quite obvious that the voices of these movements were, and continue to be, alive and well. Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, whose parties emerged with 19 and 15 seats respectively (second and third only to Likud-Beitenu) are journalists-turned-politicians born from the consciousness of these very movements. Maybe political participation begins at the ballot box, but it ends in the streets. Yachimovich and Lapid put the issues of the protests from the summer squarely onto their agendas: the economic reforms demanded in 2011 and the inclusion of orthodox Jews in the military, prominent in last year's protests.

Israelis will find that taking care of the domestic social justice questions will only go so far without an intense deliberation on their relationships to Palestinians. The summer protesters stood not 45 km away from Ariel, one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank (and one answer to the questions regarding housing costs). With Israeli consensus on the issue of Palestinian negotiations (namely, a two-state solution, a divided Jerusalem) at 67%, any sense of urgency is however hard to find in the mainstream.

There's another sound beginning to rumble though. It started in December as a group called Real Democracy. Hundreds of Israelis who chose to donate their votes to Palestinians throughout the West Bank (those who didn't hold Israeli citizenship but whose lives are shaped by Israel). It's a project that began on facebook, and, perhaps so long as peace processes stall, is just one of a growing number of tactics that call into question these surprises that appear like whirlwinds formed from what not so long ago was the flutter of butterfly's wings.

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