Eradicating poverty is Israel's cause du jour

By Nathan Jeffay, March 1, 2012

It is not often that Mohammad Barakeh and Zevulun Orlev find themselves fighting the same battle. Politicians with the mostly-Arab Hadash party and the pro-settler Jewish Home respectively, they are usually found trading barbs across the Knesset.

But now, the two have united to establish a Knesset caucus combat poverty. Politicians from two other parties closer to the political centre - Kadima and Labour - are heading the group with them.

The fact that political opponents are putting aside their differences for this issue illustrates that after years of neglect, socio-economic issues are finding their way to the centre of Israel's political discourse.

A year ago, the politicians now involved in the caucus would have certainly said they were troubled by poverty, but did not have the enthusiasm to commit the time and energy to a joint venture against it. So what has changed?

Basically, the protests of the summer made social issues trendy. The tents in which thousands demonstrated have long ago been folded away, and pundits discuss whether the activists got good returns on their demands. While it is hard to identify the concrete gains of the protests, the atmosphere has certainly changed in Israel.

The fact that poverty is uniting and motivating politicians from far-flung ideologies is just one example. Israel's trade union confederation, the Histadrut, is more concerned about social justice for the lowest earners than it was before the summer - to the extent that organised a general strike earlier this month to fight for rights of cleaners, security guards and other workers who are employed on contract as opposed to payroll. It earned them some concessions, but it was the willingness to fight that was more significant.

The newfound social awareness has buoyed consumers. The social movement can be said to have begun with the June protests against the price of cottage cheese, but things have come a long way since then. Now, any product that Israelis deem overpriced merits a protest. In the latest, consumers are boycotting confectionary giant Strauss after a photograph emerged of chocolate bars selling in America for half of what they cost in Israel. The atmosphere is reminiscent of that in the UK in the late 1990s when newspapers were decrying "Rip Off Britain".

The big question is whether this momentum on social issues can be kept up when an election is called or when there is a downturn in the security situation.

Last updated: 3:12pm, March 1 2012