The Arab Spring and the Protest Movements in Europe

Roni Ben Efrat (left) in Messina

Roni Ben Efrat (left) in Messina

A lecture by Roni Ben Efrat in SABIRMaydan, in Messina, September 28th.

Topic: The difference is between those who have rights and those who don’t: United against the system of inequalities, is there any chance to win?

Part 1: The difference is between those who have rights and those who don’t: United against the system of inequalities…

In the summer of 2011 in a series of mass demonstrations, over a million people marched in the streets of Tel Aviv. Thousands of youngsters camped on Rothschild Boulevard occupying “the” city center for three months.

Although Israel is often painted as a monolithic fortress of sweeping national consensus, that summer a new face of Israel appeared on the scene demanding “social justice”. This slogan was no doubt been influenced by the squares of Madrid and Egypt, demanding: “Eish, Hurrira, Adala Ijtima’ia!” (Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!). Yet, a fundamental difference exists between the squares of Egypt and Tel Aviv:  while the Egyptian and Tunisian youngsters called for “Isqat al Nizam” (down with the regime), the Israeli leaders of the social movement demanded that the Israeli government – right wing as it was – should bend to their demands. Their logic was: we elected you and you have to “work” for us! (instead of working for the tycoons).

The background for the huge protest movement was the major inequalities which developed in Israel in the past 25 years, as a result of its economy turning from a welfare economy, with collective responsibility (at least to its Jewish citizens) to an extreme privatized enterprise, geared to benefit a tiny elite of tycoons. This process affected of course the low classes, who reached pauperization, but affected the middle classes too, who saw themselves pushed down the social ladder with no prospects for affordable housing, or job security, now or in old age.

Yet, two issues were absent from the movement: 1. The question of inequality and poverty of the Arab citizens of Israel (over 53% are below the poverty line). 2. The question of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the Israeli context, a social movement that does not integrate these two questions will be very limited politically. It sends a clear message to the regime that it does not intend to go all the way to change it. This is in stark contrast to Egypt and Tunisia where the revolutionary forces succeeded in toppling the regimes and opening a new page in the history of the Middle East – for good or for bad. All the upheavals we are witnessing today, in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, are a result of that “big bang” of the Arab spring.

The rationalization of the young protest leaders for NOT putting upfront the issue of the occupation, not adopting the slogan “One Justice for All”, not calling Bibi to “Go Home”,  was that this direction might divide the movement. They said that Social Justice is not divided into “Right” and “Left” – everyone is suffering – and that the political debate should be pushed aside. This position was being advocated by the Labor party behind the scenes, but was adopted by all the leadership, even the more leftist parts.

The movement had a deep impact on the Israeli discourse and psyche. It was an incredible learning process. A deep distrust of the “elite” and the “power” has been scorched into the consciousness of people and is apparent until today in numerous ways. But, the avoidance of challenging the ruling power resulted in a diverted course. The elections that followed that protest in 2013 resulted in the most right wing government ever. Because the movement failed to make the connection between Social Justice and the Occupation, the extreme right-wing settler party “The Jewish Home” headed by Naftali Bennet (12 seats) could adopt the protest discourse and tag it on to its anti-Arab, and pro-settlement agenda. The protest discourse was also hijacked by Yair Lapid, of the “Yesh Atid” party, representing the politically conservative middle classes (19 seats).  The Labor party, which adopted the agenda of social justice with no political agenda, won only 15 seats. Some of the leaders of the Protest movement joined Labor and became members of Knesset. Except for very small social gains, mainly free kindergarten from age 3, the basic demands have been ignored: poverty, insecurity, and lack of housing remain prevalent.

The collapse of the peace talks, and the third war on Gaza, clearly showed that Bibi Netanyahu’s right wing agenda has to be tackled socially and politically.

Part 2: …is there any chance to win?

If the Protest movement enjoyed an over 85% consensus among Jewish Israelis the July war on Gaza, too, enjoyed an overwhelming consensus, including those parties who are supposedly for the peace process.  It was as if Israelis ignored the fact that Netanyahu had de facto killed the talks with Abu Mazen and created a deep political vacuum. It was as if all the wise pundits forgot that they themselves had forecast a new round of violence as a result of the void in the political venue.

We can conclude the discussion after the war between Right and Left in Israel like this: The Right says that the war proved that Israel has to continue the blockade on Gaza, hence also prevent the West Bank from falling] into the hands of Hamas or even more extreme forces. That’s not new of course. The new part is in the argumentation of the Left: Labor and Merez say that after the war “a window of opportunity” has opened (partly as reaction to the Arab spring) which includes Sisi and his generals in Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Abu Mazen. So, the same Left that talked about social justice and was reluctant to stand up to the Right wing and to racism, today welcomes all those forces of darkness, which are trying to defeat the forces of democracy in their own countries.

Today the Arab world is divided between two reactionary forces: Saudia Arabia, supporting Sisi, and other Salafist radical forces in Syria and Iraq, while the Qataris support the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas as a more moderate version of Islam. The argument between these two axes is how better to crush any democratic process in the Arab world. The same division of action appears between Fatah and Hamas, the first working with Saudi Arabia and Sisi’s Egypt, the second with Qatar.

The progressive forces in Israel are completely alienated from this discussion. The lack of a strong Arab Spring today – which could and should be an alternative to regimes such as Sisi, Assad and the other kingdoms and princedoms makes it more difficult for us to point toward a potential alternative.

Unfortunately the Arab Spring skipped over Palestine, and the most progressive demand was a call to unite Fatah and Hamas. But, what we see today is that as the war revealed the weakness of the Israeli left, it also revealed the weakness of the Palestinian side. It remains to see what remains of the current conciliation between Hamas and the PA, negotiated in Cairo.

For us, as a political force in Israel, the major obstacle to peace is the settlers and the settlements. Their existence prevents any political solution and the focus of any struggle should put that in the center.

Going back to the Arab Spring, for us it was an opening of hope because it presented a third alternative, other than the secular dictatorships (Egypt, Syria) or the fundamentalist forces of political Islam. The call for Freedom, Democracy and Social Change could be a common bridge between Arabs, Israelis and international progressive forces united by a vision of a new society, where everyone has the same rights and opportunities to live a meaningful life. This alternative is still open and waiting for forces to pick up the glove.


About Roni Ben Efrat