Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Netanyahu govt. in trouble over domestic policy

By Benjamin Kerstein

It is an accepted if oft-forgotten truism that political fortunes can change with dazzling speed, especially in a country as volatile and contentious as Israel. No one, however, could have predicted the sudden change in the fortunes of the current Israeli government. It has come, politically and metaphorically, out of left field.

For most of the last two years the Netanyahu government has been remarkably stable and untroubled. It has weathered a contentious relationship with the Obama administration and incidents like last year’s Gaza flotilla with relative aplomb, and Netanyahu’s poll numbers have been accordingly high.

Now all of it seems to be coming apart, and not because of security concerns, war, or Israel’s relationship with the United States or the Arab world, but because of the most basic social and economic concerns. Massive protests have broken out across the country calling for reforms in housing, education, and other social services.

Thousands of doctors have gone on strike calling for better working conditions and improvements in the public health system. The streets of Israel are suddenly burning with rage and frustration and Netanyahu is their chosen target.

None of this would matter, of course, if the protesters were merely a vocal miniority, but evidence now indicates that this is not the case. According to Haaretz, figures from a recent poll “indicate that if elections were held today, both Kadima and Likud would lose four Knesset seats, while Labor would double its parliamentary strength.” This would effectively topple the current rightwing coalition and hand control of the country to Kadima and Labor, in effect, to the center-left.

More telling still is that

Asked whether the tent protest stemmed from real distress or was a political protest against the government, 81 percent of the respondent replied that it stems from real distress, while 87 percent said they supported the protest.

The doctor’s strike was supported by similarly enormous majorities. Moreover, opposition appears to be scant, indeed “only 9 percent of those interviewed said they did not support the protest.” It appears, then, that the protests have not been successful because of the passion of their participants or the excellence of their organization or even because of support from the media.

Instead, they seem to have captured the sympathies of Israel’s silent majority. And that majority is, in a country like Israel, particularly extraordinary. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that 80 percent of Israelis have never before agreed on anything, ever.

Netanyahu seems to have gotten the message. He is already attempting to rush major housing reforms through the Knesset. No one doubts the prime minister’s formidable skills as a politician, and with 32 percent of the public satisfied with his performance thus far and another 14 percent undecided, he has a base to build on.

Nevertheless, it will not be easy for him to emerge triumphant from the current crisis. The single-issue protests seen thus far are swiftly becoming a general demand for a turn away from the neoliberal economic policies Israel has followed for several decades, and Netanyahu is the Israeli politician most identified with those policies. He is a true believer in the free market, and he may not be able to temper that belief with a pragmatic response to the demands of a public that no longer seems to share it.

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