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Protests for Social Justice: A Green New Deal for Israel?

For the first time in recent memory, Israel is asking itself some tough questions about the direction that its society is heading.  Last Saturday about 300,000 people marched in Tel Aviv and demanded “social justice” with parallel events in every town and hamlet. The participation of the country’s leading rock singers symbolized the mainstream nature of the ongoing protest. Despite the international economic turbulence and recent slump, Israel is a country whose economic performance -- according to conventional economic indicators -- has been exceptional during the past four years: steady economic growth, low unemployment and accession into the exclusive OECD club of national prosperity. And yet, the majority of Israelis feel that something is very wrong in their country, where the gap between “have” and “have not” continues to grow and the middle class is unable to attain a reasonable standard of living under the present salary structure and tax system.

The unprecedented mass movement started as an individual act of frustration, less than a month ago when 25 year old Daphne Leef, a Tel Aviv professional, could no longer afford to stay in her apartment when her rent was raised. She decided to pitch a tent in the green park that lines Tel Aviv’s high rent Rothschild Boulevard. When she posted her individual act of protest online -- facebook magic did the rest. Not only was she joined by hundreds of other Israelis, mostly young people in the Rothschild tent city, but dozens more tent cities sprung up along the country that became centers of demonstrations, study groups into social policy and solidarity.

The ad hoc, mass social movement that emerged has captured the imagination of the public, enjoying over 80% support and sparking daily protests among different sectors that are unhappy with the way the present national pie is divided. Mothers push baby carriages down the street calling for reduction in costs of baby products; Dairy farmers protest against unfair competition from the import of subsidized European milk products; a doctors strike enters its fourth month of strike after interns and residents refused to agree to their present terms of employment.

The diffused nature of the protest suggests that there is something wrong with the recent Israeli economic surge. When it is distilled down – the discomfort comes down to the role that government should play in regulating Israel’s economy. The present Netanyahu government is an extreme model of a capitalist economic ideology embraced by previous Israeli administrations: Let the invisible hand of the market take care of Israel’s problems – and let the “rising tide raise all boats”.  But the shift to an extreme, privatized, free market economy has created a tiny cadre of tycoons while leaving the Middle Class without affordable housing. Taxes are shockingly low for corporations and shockingly high in the form of indirect, regressive taxes that make everything else so expensive. Clearly, Israel’s unusual defense needs to dominate the national budget. But social services are increasingly privatized and most of the public has lost critical parts of what was always “national commons”: education, health care and transportation  for all.

For over a year, the “Green Movement”, Israel’s green party has been leading a team of academics, activists and economists with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, in crafting a new economic program for Israel, that would apply the lessons learned and the concepts of the “Green New Deals” from around the world, which emerged from green think tanks and political parties after the economic crisis of 2008. The first draft of Israel’s detailed proposal: “The Economics of Tomorrow” was released this week. Activists are making their way across the country, speaking in the evenings to growing crowds in the nation’s tent cities, explaining the ideas, and offering hope.

The Economics of Tomorrow has much in common with many of the other conventional social democratic proposals that are on the table. It envisions government intervention to once again build public housing, increase minimum wage, increase corporate taxes, etc. But it differs in its recognition, that for Israel’s economic policy to be stable, it must recognize that production is dependent on finite natural resources. Economic development cannot undermine the ecological resources, public health and landscape of this small, but holy land. It also relies on the notion that conventional economic indicators are fundamentally flawed. Rather than measuring human happiness and welfare, the present criteria for GNP and ostensible success leave no room for valuing equity, quality of life and environmental quality. These are hardly new ideas to green parties around the world. But this is the first time that an Israeli political party is putting them on the table during a national discourse.

The outline of the program can be seen on the website: Naturally it calls for a change in the tax structure –so that it can reward “good” activities (like work) and discourage “bad” activities (like pollution, emitting greenhouse gases or driving private cars into crowded cities).  The Economics of Tomorrow calls for a revolution in Israel’s energy sources: Today solar and renewables produce less than one percent of the electricity despite the abundance of sun and solar technology entrepreneurs and local technology.  If it turned to the sun, Israel could become the first carbon neutral nation on earth. Clean tech initiatives which remain a virtual orphan in terms of government assistance is identified as a major economic potential that deserves support. The program says a very strong “Yes” to affordable housing – but only if it isn’t sited on sensitive open spaces. And only if it is designed to meet green building standards which will ensure that its residents will be able to afford their electricity bills down the road.

Selling this new green vision will not happen overnight. With over two years until the next planned Israeli election, there is time. And the Israeli public is ready to listen to something new – something other than the old, suffocating Socialist economy that left individual initiative stifled for Israel’s first thirty years. But Israelis are looking for an economic strategy that has a heart – and something with a vision for the future. There is a reason for optimism. A turning point in the present protests occurred when Prime Minister Netanyahu hastily pushed through legislation that circumvented Israel’s vaunted planning system to get residential construction plans approved more expeditiously by special stream lined committees that were dominated by government agencies and left the public out. “Increase supply – and you’ll bring the housing prices down” was his simplistic formula.

But the protesters didn’t buy it. As they sat in their daily study sessions and conferred with academic experts and social and environmental NGOs, they understood that without criteria, the new system would only serve to open up protected lands and create houses and large apartments for the wealthier sectors of Israel (Israeli real estate remains a very promising investment in an international climate that has become increasingly volatile and uncertain). They also understood that public involvement, transparency and environmental assessments are essential to ensuring the sustainability of the country’s future development. So they protested the new law vociferously. Although they may not yet be familiar with the details, they intuitively sense that there is another way to solve Israel’s social and economic challenges. A green new deal – the economics of tomorrow.

Alon Tal and Racheli Tedhar Kener are the co-chairs of Israel’s Green Movement
This article was first published at the website of Heinrich Boell Foundation Israel.