They are young and they are driven. They got half a million Israelis out on the streets demanding social justice. Now they want their votes.
The leaders of a grassroots social protest movement that swept Israel in 2011 have shot to the top of a rejuvenated Labour party that polls say will at least double its power in a Jan. 22 general election that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud is forecast to win.
“The next stage is to continue what started in the streets, to bring that to the ballot … so that we can translate it into achievements in budgets, laws and a change of policy,” said 32-year-old Itzik Shmuli, who as head of the student union was one of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement.
It began with a handful of youngsters who pitched tents along Tel Aviv’s luxurious Rothschild Avenue to protest against high housing costs. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated weekly across the country.
Inspired also by the Arab Spring that swept the region, the protesters, chanting “the people demand social justice”, dominated headlines in Israel in the summer of 2011, and posed a new challenge to the government.
Political parties soon saw potential vote magnets in the movement’s leaders, who were often portrayed in the media as idealists with just the right mix of innocence and savvy to promote a message of hope and change.
Shmuli quit the student union this year to win the number 11 spot on Labour’s list of parliamentary candidates, running a distant second to Likud in the upcoming election.
“The answer the government gave was a thin, cosmetic and cynical one. They did not want to truly deal with the problems raised by the protest,” Shmuli said.
Israel has a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and a growing economy, but business cartels and wage disparities have kept many from feeling the benefit.
In parliament, Shmuli and his allies hope to push affordable housing, reform the education, welfare and health systems and to narrow the gap between rich and poor in Israel, which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said is among the highest in developed countries.