Talk of austerity measures, budget cuts and street protests seem more European than at home east of the Mediterranean. Saturday night’s protests in Tel Aviv mirrored the images seen from cities such as Athens and Madrid in recent years.
Israel has not escaped the effects of the global economic crisis, leading to a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of GDP last year. Politicians say extreme measures are needed to avoid total economic collapse.
Those measures were revealed last week in the form of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s budget proposal for 2013 and 2014. Massive spending cuts and widespread tax increases were not easy reading for most Israelis.
So it came as little surprise here when several thousand people turned up in Habima Square, armed with drums, road cones, loudspeakers and countless banners.
The groups were not clearly affiliated, and ranged massively in views. Many were liberal leftists – socialist groups calling for a more humanist way forward.
It took a short while to persuade Nir Nader to talk specifically about the budget. To him – a senior member of a socialist party – the cuts are just another example of social injustice by the government.
“This government is not just a government of the budget and the economy, but also the settlements, and the racism. It’s a government that leads a very very fascist line, and we are against it,” he says.
The issue of the budget crosses all political divides. Even those who support settlements and a strong military are reticent to agree to higher taxes to pay for them.
Just a few metres away, Boaz Arad was keen to chat. He is a spokesperson for a liberalist right-wing group. He supports capitalist policies, and as such opposes all tax hikes – regardless of what they fund.
The government spends far too much money on religious affairs, he says. “Jews and Arabs and Christians can manage their religion in the United States for example without having this special government office to take care of it … so there is alot of redundancy in the Israeli government that we can get rid of.”
Others in the square pointed to the country’s new offshore gas projects, saying they could gather more income from such resources rather than what they see as lining the pockets of private company owners.
Chants started to spread across the crowd calling for the nationalisation of gas projects.
But the loudest, and most repetitive chants, were those slamming Lapid. He has taken most of the anger in recent days – and not unsurprisingly.
During government elections earlier this year, Lapid campaigned on a pro-middle class platform, saying the government could no longer use the middle classes as an ATM machine.
Just a few months later, his budget is being seen as toughest on the middle classes. The Israeli media and online world are full of accusations of political cynicism.
But opposition to the proposals is much more nuanced than one class, as Saturday night’s protests showed. The business community, working families, professionals and most segments of society are going to be affected.
As the budget is debated and voted on in the coming weeks, however, the protesters have no central leadership, united ideas or alternatives. So noisy anger will likely be drowned out by what the politicians call an absolute necessity.