Israel's Social Justice Movement Fades Silently Into Political Obscurity

Radical Transformation Gives Way to Modest Reforms

Sea of People: Israelis watch massive protest that drew 450,000 people on Sept. 3. Adjusted for Israel’s population, that’s the equivalent of 18 million Americans.
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Sea of People: Israelis watch massive protest that drew 450,000 people on Sept. 3. Adjusted for Israel’s population, that’s the equivalent of 18 million Americans.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 31, 2013, issue of January 10, 2014.
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For lower-income Israelis, it was the second blow. Several months earlier, they lost out when Lapid increased Israel’s sales tax by 1%, a regressive taxation felt most heavily by those at the bottom of the income scale.

Finally, just three days before Lapid’s income tax decision, the faded power of the once-popular social democracy cause was driven home by a separate event: In a primary vote, Israeli Labor Party members shunned the Knesset’s social democracy champion as their party leader, and replaced her with a much milder figure.

Shelly Yachimovitch won the top spot in Labor shortly after the 2011 summer of protest, and put all her money on the social democracy issue. She sidelined peace with the Palestinians as a Labor party issue, won that year’s primary, and spent her time as opposition leader fighting for big changes on the domestic front.

But today’s Labor party has rejected her, choosing instead Isaac Herzog, a wealthy Tel Aviv lawyer and, in contrast to the iconoclastic Yachimovich, a bastion of the ruling elite — he is the son of Israel’s late former president, Chaim Herzog.

Herzog has less interest in social causes and is returning the Palestinian issue to center stage. Almost immediately after election he headed to Ramallah to discuss the peace protest with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And the public likes the new Labor — two polls published on November 29 indicate that it gained popularity worth at least 2 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the changeover.

Amir Paz-Fuchs, a social scientist who focused heavily on the social democracy movement after the protests, said that Lapid’s decision and Yachimovitch’s defeat are “symptomatic of the fact that the movement is heading towards the end of the road.”

Paz-Fuchs, the head of a project on privatization and state ownership at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, added: “It’s as if Netanyahu on one hand and the Chamber of Commerce on the other hand held their breath and waited for it to pass, and it did.”

Licking its wounds, the Yachimovich camp in the Labor Party recognizes that it put all its eggs in a basket that ultimately fell apart. “The social protest movement melted somehow,” Labor lawmaker and Yachimovich loyalist Nachman Shai told the Forward. “We thought at the time that maybe it would push Labor to power or make for a larger party. But it didn’t work out.”

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