Message in a Bottle: The social tensions that the Netanyahu campaign is trying to avoid.on 3 February 2015
By Yoav Galai
Last Friday, Haaretz published that the Israeli first lady, Sarah Netanyahu, ordered the staff of her official residency in Jerusalem to collect thousands of empty bottles, deliver them to local supermarkets and return the cash given for recycling these bottles, back to her. Accusations of flashy opulence and waste are commonly levelled at the Netanyahus, and are especially rife and suspect during election season. However, the bottles of ‘bottlegate’ can function as a prism, revealing some of the underlying tensions among the Israeli Jewish public, which the Netanyahu campaign is trying to avoid.
History throws its empty bottles out the window – Chris Marker
Mrs. Netanyahu’s recycling scheme is not the Israeli ‘Bottlegate’. 43 years ago, in the same opulent Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia, a previous incident by the ‘Black Panther’ movement of Israel involved the nabbing of bottles. It served to highlight the policy of discrimination practiced against Jews of Arab origin, or Mizrahi as they are called in Israel, by the then all-powerful labour party. This was the same area of contention on which the Likud rose from a marginal power to the most substantial force in Israeli politics in the past 40 years.
In the 1950s, Jewish immigrants from Arab lands were treated by the Mapai led establishment (the Israeli workers party, which later became the labour party) as second-rate citizens. Many were placed in transit camps, some of which later transformed into neighbourhoods, like the “Asbestos” neighbourhood in west Jerusalem, while others were sent to live in abandoned Palestinian houses on the border neighbourhoods with East Jerusalem of Musrara, Mamila, Malkha and Yemin Moshe, where the threat of Jordanian sniper fire kept the higher echelons of Israeli society from taking over the large abandoned properties as they did in the more central Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Baq’aa and Talbiyeh.
The ‘Black Panther’ movement in Israel was started in the border neighbourhood of Musrara and was founded by second generation Mizrahis. These were young people who decided to fight institutional discrimination, which was punctuated by recurring police persecution and the re-dispossession of their properties once East Jerusalem was annexed and the border neighbourhoods were no longer dangerous. Or rather, once the danger was framed not as Jordanian snipers but as its current ‘unruly’ inhabitants. The ultra-expensive neighbourhood of Yemin-Moshe emptied from its Mizrahi residents, is a case in point.
In March 1972, the ‘Israeli Black Panther’ movement staged the “milk operation”. Milk bottles were taken from the doorsteps of the wealthy and mostly Ashkenazi Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia and placed in the destitute “asbestos” neighbourhood, in which Mizrahi Jews from North Africa lived. In Rehavia, in place of the bottles, notes were left saying: “Operation Milk for the children of the poor neighbourhoods. These children do not find the milk they need behind the door each morning. On the other hand, there are cats and dogs in the wealthy neighbourhood who have an abundant and daily supply of milk”. The message was clear. The social divides in Jewish Israel ran across ethnic lines, and nowhere were the lines of divisions blunter than in Jerusalem. This was a moment and an object in and through which the deep social cleavages were revealed.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce – Karl Marx
The petty filching by Mrs. Netanyahu is very different from the political performance of the Israeli Black Panthers, but similarly it projects a normally hidden layer of social relations in Israel. The Netanyahus in 2013 returned about 4000 NIS to the state for 4 years’ worth of deposit collection. The wrongdoing was found in the context of charges filed against the Netanyahus by their former house manager, Meni Naftali, who claimed that the amount was much higher. While Naftali’s battle with the Netanyahu could arguably be motivated by any number of reasons, especially if one considers the proximity of the general elections, the return of the money serves as an admission of guilt, and anyone who has tried to return bottles in Israel knows that it is an ordeal not worthy of the time of a state employed carer of the official residency of the prime minister.
Moreover, the ‘bottle’ incident is the most recent in a line of accusations the Netanyahus face about their seemingly extravagant life style. A 5-hour flight to London to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral required special arrangements for a bed, which cost the Israeli taxpayers 90000 pounds, while the yearly budget of the official residency includes 15000 pounds for flowers and famously, 1700 pounds for ice cream, although the later expense was frozen by Netanyahu. Their private residence incurred services worth 54000 pounds, including a rather a furniture exchange between the private and official residences, in which the newly purchased furniture was put in the private residence, and old but standing allegations of improper travel funding. Last week it was reported that the state comptroller is withholding the publication of a new report into irregularities in the state funded expenses of the Prime Minister and by Sunday the media storm following the bottle story had forced a reluctant attorney general to order the police to launch an investigation into possible wrongdoings.
But while all these expenses could turn out to be justified, explained as inaccurate or even as malicious indirect attacks on the Prime Minister or on his wife, who is not an elected official, Mrs. Netanyahu’s admitted quick cash racket strikes a sour note with a lot of Israelis and forces Netanyahu to contend with the economic and social effects of his government’s policies. The economic climate has worsened since the social protests of 2011. Israel has the highest poverty rate in the OECD, which means that more people than ever are scouring bins for small plastic bottles. At the same time the Netanyahu government has pursued radical neoliberal and nationalistic policies that are detrimental to an increasingly impoverished Jewish public. For example, the government approved the outrageous outsourcing of natural resources, an unprecedented subsidizing and the underhanded underwriting of settlement activities.
Worse still, according to a well-rehearsed neo-liberal script, these policies have been coupled with the introduction of a culture of shaming that stigmatizes ‘freeloaders’. This is best exemplified by a recent controversial campaign targeting small-scale tax evasion, which blames small businesses for ‘living at our expense’ and invites citizens to anonymously report them through the ‘justice line’. While the former sort of corruption is obscured by the ever-expanding security agenda, Israelis have been encouraged by the government to channel their rage towards the sort of economic scraping that is the direct result of the rising cost of living. The Natanyahus, of course, have no real financial need to waste the time of state employees to turn soda bottles to petty change, 30 Agorot (5 pence) at a time. Lastly, bottle-recycling enterprises in Israel are often associated with organized crime and money laundering, further tarnishing the already dubious act by the first family.
While there are more severe charges made against the spending of the Netanyahus that may or may not be refuted, ‘bottlegate’ is different. Much like the milk bottles of Rehavia revealed a geography and sociology of colour lines that is still very much in place, ‘bottlegate’ reveals a radical disconnect between the court of King Bibi, as a Time Magazine article proclaimed him to be a couple of years ago, and the growing underclass his government’s economic policies helped to grow. While early labour-Zionism offered solidarity along ethnic lines, the Netanyahu government has replaced the social contract altogether with fixed bid-contracts and a welfare state restricted to the west bank.
The identity of Jewish Israel is of a post-ethnic melting-pot society, and it is the contrast between Jews, Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians that keeps this indistinction in place. Israeli governments have successfully thwarted challenges to the underlying social order by perpetually mobilising public opinion away from economic concerns. Answering the accusations on his Facebook page, Benjamin Netanyahu remained true to this tested strategy:
“Despite the security situation in the north and Iran’s race towards a bad nuclear agreement that would risk the security of Israel, a more “existential” question was discussed: the recycling of bottles in the Prime Minister’s residence”.
Yoav Galai is a doctoral candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the role narratives of collective memory play in International Relations, both in helping define possibilities for action and as the object of policy.
Image: IsraelinUSA CC BY