THE BLOG
31/07/2011 09:13 BST | Updated 30/09/2011 06:12 BST

Israel's Housing Protests: A Black Swan Event?

Netanyahu's brutish political fighting stance has always been about smothering the peace process, bamboozling the international community and low blows when it comes to settlement expansion. However, this unprecedented domestic crisis could prove to be the knock-out punch he never saw coming.

Over 150,000 protesters have taken to the streets of cities and towns across Israel for the second weekend running armed with a fistful of social and economic grievances, most notably anger at the Jewish state's asymmetric housing market that, but for the wealthiest, condemns most to a future lived in very small apartment with very large debts - if they're 'lucky'.

This movement for change that could be the opening scene in the "Israeli Summer" was sparked by the unlikeliest of 'black swans' (an event that is a surprise to the observer and has a major impact), a humble tub of cottage cheese.

The cost of this staple of every Israeli breakfast table had spiralled in recent months as the handful of companies that controlled the country's dairy market sought to gouge more profit out of the Israel consumer. Galvanised by the inevitable Facebook page a successful mass boycott managed to trim back the prices that had surged to double the European equivalent. Two months later there are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding "social justice".

Once again fired by Facebook and led by the young and the educated middle class, there is growing cross society support - including Israeli-Arabs - for the anger the mass protests are channelling.

It's ironic that housing has become the hot-button issue that could awake Israel's silent majority. While the young people of Tel Aviv - many fresh from having served the country in the mandatory national service - are still forced to live with mum and dad or face banishment to a dull provincial town, successive governments have managed to facilitate the construction of tens of thousands of settler homes on the West Bank.

The failure of the Israeli state to home its own legitimate population, while defying just about the whole world to pursue the divisive, destructive settler vision, is an indication of where the political will lies in Israel and a stark example of the dysfunctional power wielded by the settler zealots and their political allies. With only 300,000 settlers living in the Occupied Territories and seven million people living within the pre-1967 borders, it's a clear case of the tail wagging the dog.

Similarly, the protests reveal how the mantra of security has been used to demote debate on bread-and-butter issues. Dr. Efraim Davidi, a journalist and visiting lecturer at Ben-Gurion University, told the Jerusalem Post:

"The government always uses the security issue to silence the protests. It's always the language of the Shoah (The Holocaust); they are coming to destroy us. [But] we aren't facing extermination; we are a sovereign country with a very large army.

People are very angry, the big difference between Cairo and Tel Aviv is that it was a political thing. Here the people are political, but they haven't gotten politicized to the point where they're calling for an upheaval or a coup. But who knows what could happen next week. If you had looked at Egypt eight months ago, you would have said it was a stable government."

So far the sudden evolution of the protest movement has left Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition scrabbling for a response. For his opponents it offers a tantalizing, unforeseen opportunity that could resonate across the Middle East.

Netanyahu's brutish political fighting stance has always been about smothering the peace process, bamboozling the international community and low blows when it comes to settlement expansion. However, this unprecedented domestic crisis could prove to be the knock-out punch he never saw coming.