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Thousands Protest Widening Inequality in Israel, But Calls Ignore Occupation and Palestinian Rights

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In Israel, tens of thousands have joined nationwide protests against high costs of living and growing income inequality. Protesters have set up more than 40 tent encampments scattered across Israel, with as many as 120,000 people turning out to demand lower taxes and increased access to education and housing. In Jerusalem, some 15,000 gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We go to Tel Aviv to speak with Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and co-editor of 972 Magazine. “What’s happening in Israel is nothing short of revolutionary,” Reider says. “We see left-wingers, right-wingers, Palestinian Israelis, Jewish Israelis, ultra-Orthodox, LGBT activists, all coming together to protest against certain issues that they all have a common problem with. The issue of occupation, however, has been largely missing from the protests, partly as a strategic choice by the organizers.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Israel, where tens of thousands of people have joined nationwide protests against high costs of living and growing income inequality, setting up more than 40 tent encampments scattered throughout Israel. Yesterday representatives of the 10 camps released an agreement outlining their demands to the government, which include lowering taxes, increasing access to education and housing. Police estimate as many as 120,000 people turned out nationwide to support a movement that’s been picking up momentum in recent weeks. In Jerusalem, some 15,000 people gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Thousands also marched in the capital Tel Aviv.

ZEEV SHALEV: [translated] I am here at the tent camp because I don’t see myself continuing to live in a country that exploits its citizens, doesn’t provide solutions for housing, education, transportation, and basic conditions for its citizens. And I am not moving from here until this situation changes.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about what’s happening in Israel, we’re going to Tel Aviv to speak with Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist, co-editor of 972 Magazine. That’s He’s been covering the protests. His work appears in Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post and other publications.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Dimi, describe what is happening and the significance of these protests, and how it relates to the ongoing crises in the Occupied Territories.

DIMI REIDER: Well, I mean, first of all, great to be on the show. I’m a great fan for many years.

What’s happening in Israel is nothing short of revolutionary, not in the sense of necessarily toppling down the regime, but in terms of how people relate to each other, engage with politics, engage with the issues on the agenda. We see—like you mentioned, we see protest camps spreading across the country. We see left-wingers, right-wingers, Palestinian Israelis, Jewish Israelis, ultra-Orthodox, LGBT activists, all coming together to protest against certain issues that they all have a common problem with. The issue of the occupation, however, has been largely missing from the protests, partly as a strategic choice by the organizers.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is that?

DIMI REIDER: Well, I mean, the—it would seem that the idea behind the strategic choice was that it’s probably the most single divisive issue of Israeli society, and if they were to begin protesting against the occupation, they wouldn’t have gathered even a fraction of that support. You know, we’ve been—you know, the Israeli left has been protesting against the occupation for decades, and the numbers of our supporters keep dropping. I think they wanted to reach out to as broad as common—to as broad a common denominator as possible. And for that, at least temporarily, they need to shift the occupation aside.

I mean, other than that, if they would link the socioeconomic issue to the occupation, which—there is, of course, a connection, but if they would link to it in their propaganda and in their protests, they would enter—they would start playing in the field of military and military discourse about security. And it’s a discourse that civil society protesters, especially decentralized young people, can’t win against the government and the military. Now, you know, the occupation is there, and the protesters would have to face it sooner or later, but for now they’re trying to gather momentum by concentrating on the issues that unite them rather than the issues that divide them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of these encampments that have been set up?

DIMI REIDER: Well, it’s—you know, as someone who’s been active myself politically for nearly a decade and then covering the political scene as a journalist for quite a few years, it doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen before. I mean, first of all, it breaks down—it completely excludes all the usual suspects from the game. It excludes the politicians. Most of the politicians have not been welcome guests in the encampments, and politicians from the Likud—politicians from the Likud were largely chased out of the camps, except for one or two who are perceived as being socially responsible and working for this social justice issue. And organized movements, like the [inaudible] organization, were either politely left out or kind of incorporated into the movement without giving them too much clout. So, it’s a decentralized political movement that insists on calling itself apolitical, insists on—insists that it’s nonpartisan. Decisions are made by consensus through popular assemblies. It very much resembles not only things that have been happening in the Arab world, but also the popular assemblies and the popular movement in Spain.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about that? How does what’s happening in Israel relate to these protests of the indignados in Spain, the thousands of people that have turned out throughout Spain, what’s happened in Greece, what’s happened in Egypt?

DIMI REIDER: I think it’s very—well, first of all, Egypt is a huge, huge inspiration for young Israelis here. I mean, we have signs on the main camp in Rothschild calling it Tahrir Corner. We have chants of “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” in the protests. And, you know, generally, while the establishment here is very cautious and very—you know, had a very negative approach to the Egyptian revolution, in fact, as we just learned today, even offering Mubarak political asylum, the younger generation, especially young professionals, were very much inspired by what was happening there.

AMY GOODMAN: Dimi, explain what you just said about offering Mubarak political asylum.

DIMI REIDER: Oh, there was—former minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said today that Israel had offered Mubarak political asylum during the revolution, but Mubarak declined because he was a patriot.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, stand in the opinion polls right now? And there’s a major protest right outside his house.

DIMI REIDER: He doesn’t stand. He’s in freefall. You know, when he came back from his speech to Congress a couple of months ago, he had a general approval rating of I think like something like 52 percent. Over the past two weeks, it dropped to 35. In surveys, 87 percent of Israelis said they support the tent protests, and they think it’s a legitimate and genuine popular movement, while only 13 percent said that they support the Prime Minister. And even within his own party, just yesterday there was a survey that said 85, I think, percent of Likud voters support the protests, and 78 percent of his senior—of the voters for his senior coalition partner, Shas, support the protests. So he’s not doing very well at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has his response been to these protests? I mean, he has made news in the last few days saying he’ll negotiate on the ’67 borders with Palestinians if they drop their statehood bid at the United Nations next month.

DIMI REIDER: Yeah, well, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Where does he stand on both issues, on the protests around income inequality, around the—what’s happening in Israel, and on the issue of a Palestinian state?

DIMI REIDER: Well, I think that on the first issue, his response, first—he first tried to appropriate the protests, to say that, you know, “Nobody understands the issue like I do. I’ve seen the problem years ago, and I’m going to fix it in a few months.” And he tried selling the so-called National Housing Committees law, that just passed this morning in the Knesset, as the solution to Israel’s housing problem. Now, Netanyahu is ideologically hard-wired Thatcherite. He cannot conceive of a solution other than more privatization. So his solution, you know, while people are marching in the streets and sitting in front of police force men, chanting for a welfare state, he was saying that the problem is that there is not enough state land has been privatized, and we need to privatize more and bring in more entrepreneurs into the market, to increase supply, and therefore lower the prices. Now, this didn’t go down well with the protesters.

He next—not himself directly, but some of his ministers and some if his party members, have tried to delegitimize the protests, saying that they’re organized by, you know, Israel-hating anarchists, draft dodgers, etc., etc. That didn’t work, either. He tried to buy out the powerful National Union of Students from the movement by offering student-only subsidies. They thanked him politely and said they’re morally obligated to stay within the struggle. So, so far, his attempt to confront or to somehow engage with the protests have failed.

In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he hasn’t made headlines in the foreign media regarding his agreement to talk about '67 borders. It hardly made any news here. So if he was hoping to distract from the protests, that didn't really work. People here—journalists here speculate that he still has some avenues left to try and distract from the protests. I mean, one, the more positive development that he would suddenly achieve a breakthrough in the negotiations to swap 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for captive soldier Gilad Shalit and try to get some popularity there. It’s probably—if he is considering that, it’s probably not going to work, because then the protesters will see that not only are they capable of getting him very, very anxious, they are also capable of completing that deal, that most Israelis support, despite his—you know, despite his objections and reluctance, and it will probably only give them more energy.

Another much less pleasant option is that he will try to either provoke an escalation on one of Israel’s many fronts or to overreact to any provocation from the other side. So we are watching very anxiously to see if there are any incursions planned or if the air force is bombing in Gaza or—as you know, there was an exchange of fire with Lebanese troops the other day. Most people in the tent protests are kind of—they’re pretty much aware of that possibility, so there’s a lot of cynicism regarding the possibility of escalation. There’s even now a pretty big group on Facebook, where the protests are being organized, a group saying that we will continue protesting even if there is an armed conflict.

But, you know, September is looming. It’s already being used to fearmonger. And we had the chairman of the Knesset Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs, Shaul Mofaz, say yesterday that the IDF will probably need to recruit its reserves in September. And, you know, many of the protesters camped out are reserve soldiers, who would be faced with either refusing the draft or joining the—rejoining the army [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Dimi Reider, we have to leave it there, because we’re going end the show in Egypt, where Mubarak is going on trial. I want to thank you very much for being with us, Israeli journalist, co-editor of His work appears in The Guardian, Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post, other publications.

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