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Israel’s ‘Occupy’ movement struggles to get its groove back

Israel’s social protest movement is struggling against divided leadership, a stronger government, and the perception that last summer’s protests accomplished little.

Inspired by Arab Spring protests, they captured Israeli hearts and minds last summer by setting up a tent city on Tel Aviv’s main boulevard and leading hundreds of thousands in peaceful demonstrations across Israel to lobby for a redistribution of the economic pie.

Now, as Israel’s version of Occupy Wall Street returns to the streets for a second summer, it is struggling to get its groove back. A “million-man march” has been called for July 14, but their leaders are divided, the city has banished their symbolic encampment from the city center, and there’s a perception that they achieved few tangible results despite the buzz last year.

“Last year, the protest movement was based on a fad,” said Yoav Yishai, an economics student at Tel Aviv University as he marched through blocked off streets with thousands of protestors on June 30 in Tel Aviv. “Because last year nothing happened, it is hard to think [the demonstrations] will have the same impact as last year.”

The organic growth of the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard last summer inspired Israelis, shining a spotlight on frustrated but engaged youths.

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The encampment attracted curiosity seekers and spawned solidarity tent cities around the country, which enabled the protests to dominate the media agenda for several months. By highlighting Israel’s high cost of living and the yawning gap between the upper and lower classes, the demonstrators struck a chord with middle class Israelis beyond the confines Tel Aviv’s liberal European Jewish elites. 

But this year it is still struggling to gain attention and traction. Noah Fisher, a visiting activist from Occupy Wall Street, said the Israeli and US movements face similar challenges. 

“The American dream has hit a wall and the Israeli dream has hit a wall,” he said during a protest last month says. “When you go about changing a system on a structural level you don’t get results in a week.”

New hurdles

At its peak the protests drew some 450,000 Israelis into the streets and put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive. But recommendations for reform by a government-commissioned committee headed by noted economist Manuel Trachtenberg are so far largely unimplemented. Some protestors’ sense that the government ignored the demands has spawned a more confrontational atmosphere.

Last week, police manhandled the movement’s figurehead, Daphni Leef, when she tried to set up tents on Rothschild boulevard. A day later a march turned ugly when thousands of demonstrators clashed with police and vandalized banks, prompting dozens of arrests and accusations by government ministers that the protestors are “fringe anarchists and communities.” The protesters accuse the police of sparking the violence. 

“We are not violent, but we are very angry,’’ said Yossi Yonah, an economics professor at Ben Gurion University who spoke at a rally Saturday night. “The government is impervious. It tried to fool us for the last year.’’

In the year since, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has actually strengthened itself. Analysts suggest the social protests weakened the opposition Kadima party, and prompted it to join government rather than face defeat in an early election called by Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the protest leaders themselves have splintered, with some flirting with the possibility of joining political parties. Itzik Shmueli, the chairman of Israel’s university students association, apparently accepted assistance from the powerful business interests that were the target of the protests.

And while a source of the protest movement’s initial success was that it bridged traditional left-right political cleavages by deliberately avoiding foreign policy issues such as the costs of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, there are some the protesters who believe that this time around, they need to broach the argument that money spent on Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be better spent on social causes in Israel proper.

“We have to talk about the occupation, which was absent from last year’s protest so as not alienate people,” said Yuval Ben Ami, at a march last month. “Money is thrown into a welfare state in the West Bank while we are struggling.”

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Dwindling numbers

Sami Peretz, editor of “The Marker,” the business section of the Israeli newspaper editor Haaretz, said the legacy of the protest movement is mixed. “I prefer to talk about the influences rather than achievements,’’ he says.

The movement helped slow price rises at retail stores and helped spur a commitment from the government to subsidize pre-school day care, he says. Its message of solidarity also put pressure on Netanyahu to fulfill the government’s obligation to get captured soldiers out alive and secure Sgt. Gilad Shalit‘s release from Hamas captivity in Gaza, Peretz says.

While the protests last summer showed that the middle class could exert pressure on the government, Mr. Peretz said, the same Israelis are still sitting on the sidelines this time around. Many have dismissed this year’s protests as confined to Israel’s far-left. 

“I’m not sure that the middle class is in the streets as last year. What you see now is many nano-movements, trying to come up with an agenda,” he says.

The new digs of the tent encampment can be found at a park on Tel Aviv’s outskirts. It is surrounded by highways on all sides, and the din of the traffic helps stifle noise from protesters. Though a bus and train station are across the street, it strikes a lonely contrast to the rows of tents nestled in the city center of last year. Only a handful of tents have been erected, compared to dozens last year.

But Irit Kobo, one of the camp inhabitants, remains upbeat. “The public is disillusioned because they lost hope after last year. They need to see a small success, and they will get some of that hope back.”