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Middle East

'Walk like an Egyptian': has the Arab Spring spawned an Israeli Summer?

In the biggest demonstration in the country's history, Israelis took to the streets to demand economic and social reform. Donald Macintyre reports from Tel Aviv

The banner's slogan was an unmistakeable tribute to the peaceful mass protests in Tahrir Square that helped to topple Hosni Mubarak seven months ago: "Walk like an Egyptian".

True, the objectives of the 300,000 Israelis who thronged the up-market Hamedina Circle in Tel Aviv on Saturday night were, on the face of it, more modest than those in Cairo. "We aren't asking much," said Ruti Hertz, 34, who brought the banner to the march with her husband, Roy. As a journalist Ms Hertz's net pay about £1,450 a month, while the salary Mr Hertz takes home as a high school teacher is just £950, virtually all of which, he said, went on kindergarten fees for their two children, one and four. According to Ms Hertz: "All we want is to get to the end of the month without having to take money from our parents."

As limited as its goals might have been, the sheer size of the march – sometimes 25 abreast – suggested that something was happening beyond the airing of individual grievances. So big was it that some of the protesters were too late to hear the national students' leader Itzik Shmueli tell the banner-waving crowd: "The new Israelis will not give up. They demand change and will not stop until there are real solutions."

The Tel Aviv rally was the largest of several across Israel that amounted to the biggest demonstration in the country's history. They were the culmination of a wave of demonstrations which spread rapidly in mid-July after young people pitched a tent in central Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard demanding more affordable housing. The "tentifada" – as it became known after the impromptu encampments in several cities – widened its demands to those for a more equitable tax system, cheaper supermarket goods and higher public service spending, including on education.

The protests have already resulted in the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appointing a committee under the prominent economist Professor Manuel Trajtenberg to consider possible socio-economic reforms.

Before Saturday, the biggest demonstration in the country's history was that calling for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982 – which makes it all the more striking that, unlike most big protests of the past, this summer's have not focused on issues of war and peace but on strictly domestic matters.

In the mixed Haifa, the only city where Israeli Arabs protested alongside Jews in any numbers, Shahin Nasser, an Israeli-Arab speaker told a rally: "Today we are changing the rules of the game ... What is happening here is true coexistence, when Arabs and Jews march together shoulder to shoulder calling for social justice and peace."

Probably most of what still remains of the Israeli left in the traditional, peace camp sense, joined the protests – people like the Hertzs. Amira Hass, the Haaretz writer, called on leftist activists to engage with the protests, saying there was now a chance to prove to parts of what she called "an awakening public" that "the benefits of occupation today are the strategic danger of tomorrow".

But the main thrust so far has been distinctively economic, directed to what one Tel Aviv demonstrator defined as a "revolution on the social level".

In Jerusalem, where 50,000 protesters rallied near the house of Mr Netanyahu – nicknamed Bibi – they sang, to the tune of "My hat has three corners": "My Bibi has three flats/three flats has my Bibi/ if he wouldn't have had three flats perhaps I'd have one too."

In Tel Aviv, Samert Hershco, 34, perhaps typified one strand of the protest. She left her customer relations job in a well known Israeli company – which she asked us not to name – to take up a less well-paid position with an academic study on happiness. "When I worked in the private sector I earned 9,000 shekels (£1,550) a month and the CEO earned 120,000; and I knew he was paying a lower share of his income in tax than me because he formed his own company to handle his salary, she said. No, she did not want communism or object to privatisation as such, only to the sale of some of Israel's public undertakings to the "six to ten families" who she said controlled "the main capital of the country" and to "cartels" that needed more "regulation".

If this is a new kind of protest, how has it been put together? Professor Tamar Hermann, a sociologist, and authority on social protest, said the leaders had kept off topics that might have alienated the right-leaning, if overwhelmingly secular, Israelis needed to amass such numbers.

Research shortly to be published with colleagues at the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 80 per cent of Israelis broadly supported the protest movement and that of these three quarters defined themselves as "centre and moderate right". She said: "The organisers, for strategic and tactical reasons, have not raised the two most divisive issues [the occupation and the place of religion in society] because it would have alienated the right and the religious. Instead they are saying, 'Whatever our other disagreements we all unite behind specific socio-economic goals'– and they have been very successful."

One paradox is that while the Israeli economy has been among the best shielded in developed countries from the impact of the global financial crisis, it has been Israelis on the streets who have arguably been in the international vanguard of pressure to reverse some of the neo-liberal nostrums of the past 30 years.

Nevertheless with the holidays over and the protesters beginning to pack up their tents yesterday, the protest movement now faces a dilemma: whether to seek a wholesale "change of the economic system", as Daphne Leef, one of the movement's leaders puts it, and boycott the reform committee, or engage with it as Itzik Shmueli intends to, and seek -perhaps more attainable modifications to the existing market economy.

Avraham Burg, the prominent leftist, peace activist and former Speaker of the Knesset, who has participated in the protests, points out that almost every important development from the establishment of the Israeli state onwards has been led by 20 and 30-somethings, adding that every decade or so a new generation arrives at what he calls an "eruption of responsibility". Acknowledging that the current movement's goals are less precise than, say, the movement to withdraw from Lebanon, he remains impressed by the success of its "inclusive" approach. How historic a development is it? "Ask me in ten years."

Protest in numbers

430,000 People on the streets across Israel, according to organisers

50 Days that the protests have gone on for, so far

90 per cent Share of the Israeli population that supports the movement

£18,350 Average take-home salary in Israel

13.7 per cent Annual increase in house prices from 2010 to 2011 – on top of a series of record rises

45 per cent Rise in price of cottage cheese over three years, one of the key reasons for the protests