For three weeks, the leaders of a mass movement protesting Israel's soaring cost of living have sought to stay above the country's normal political fray. But it's becoming hard to hide an elephant in the room: The staggering sums spent on West Bank settlers and ultra-religious Jews might explain why there's not enough for ordinary Israelis.
The burgeoning movement has surprised many with its resilience. Tent camps have spread around the country, rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem drew tens of thousands, and more mass demonstrations are planned for this weekend.
The organizers engineered a delicate dance around politics in order to maximize support for their cause — but that strategy appears to be unraveling.
On Thursday, the Maariv newspaper prominently featured an interview with former Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, now a leading figure in the opposition Kadima Party, who noted that even as middle class Israelis make do with less, in the West Bank "the government subsidizes housing, transportation, infrastructure."
"The government gives per capita twice as much there as the national average," Ramon said. "If the government had treated the rest of Israel the way it treats (the settlers) there wouldn't have been a protest today."
Ramon's comments were among the first by a prominent politician to draw the link between the protests and one of the most divisive issues in Israeli politics. The battle pitting a dovish, secular left yearning for accommodation with the Palestinians against a nationalist-religious bloc trying to maintain a hold over parts the occupied West Bank is one of corrosive antagonism.
The rightist government of committed free-marketeer Benjamin Netanyahu appears torn between a sense that the outcry is genuine and the protesters must be engaged and a suspicion that leftist political rivals are riding the wave for barely disguised political gain.
Conservative Maariv columnist Nadav Haetzni argued that "there is a great lie" behind the protests. "Political organizations and media leaders have found the provocative formula aimed at achieving their true goal: bringing down the right-wing coalition," he said.
The recent protests started out as a sprinkling of tents pitched along Tel Aviv's tony Rothschild Boulevard — named for a scion of the fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family — aiming to protest soaring housing prices.
The demonstrations followed a Facebook-driven consumer protest two months ago that succeeded in forcing Israel's dairy manufacturers to lower the cost of cottage cheese, a surprisingly popular item whose price spike became a lightening rod for wider consumer frustration.
But the anger went deeper, fueled by an irony with which Israelis are growing increasingly impatient. Despite flattering macro-economic figures, with far stronger growth and lower unemployment than in most other developed countries, the wealth has failed to trickle down to the country's heavily taxed and increasingly squeezed middle class.
Studies show that Israel — a once-egalitarian country that championed social safety nets, its leaders living frugally and its wealthy remaining discreet — has developed one of the highest income disparities in the developed world. Politicians and the increasingly prominent local billionaires mix freely and are seen as in cahoots at the expense of the masses.
The country's poor public transportation network has forced many young people to live close to work in major cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Small apartments there can cost $500,000 — a king's ransom in a country where the average salary is the equivalent of about $2,500 per month and gasoline costs about $8 per gallon ($2 per liter).
From a smattering of tents, the movement quickly morphed into a sweeping expression of rage against a wider array of economic issues.
Over the past week, organizers — most of them educated, secular 20-somethings — have been electing local leaderships and cobbling together lists of demands. These range from subsidized housing for young people to free preschool and lower tuition for students.
A first outburst of rancor came out this week at a meeting of the prime minister's Likud Party, where some members reportedly dismissed the protesters as "sushi-eating" malcontents — suggesting the protesters did not truly represent the underprivileged classes in the country.
A further uproar arose when a popular singer, Margalit Tsanani, suggested on television the protesters were mainly European-descended Ashkenazi Jews — which in Israel amounts to a subtle code for dovish Israelis who oppose Netanyahu's policies toward the Palestinians.
"In the end, it is political," wrote commentator Yonatan Yavin in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "It's political that billions go to fund settlements and populations that do not contribute" — a euphemism for the ultra-Orthodox, where more than 40 percent of men spend years in religious study and do not work.
Billions spent on West Bank
For decades, the Israeli government spent tens of billions of dollars to keep its military in the West Bank, build roads and subsidize housing and transportation costs, drawing 300,000 Jews to live there. The ultra-Orthodox community of 700,000 — almost a tenth of the country's population — is a major beneficiary of Israel's welfare system, with more than half of all ultra-Orthodox families living under the poverty line.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu is focusing on reducing prices by increasing competition and revising the tax structure — but would not comment on spending on settlements and ultra-Orthodox.
The protest leaders and their supporters have done their best to sidestep the issue, mindful that a direct association with one side of the Israeli political divide would undermine their ability to bring out the masses and to maintain the appearance of a grass-roots struggle for a better quality of life.
"We want to raise children with dignity in this country," said Noga Klinger, a leader of one of the protests.
"It's no surprise that there is wall-to-wall support for this struggle and resonates widely among the public," Klinger said. "There is true economic distress (here)."
But there was no denying that secular Jews were disproportionately represented at last week's rally in Jerusalem, a city increasingly dominated by religious Jews. The audience burst into applause when a popular singer sang a line urging the government to pursue "peace instead of the (occupied) territories."
By moving toward specific demands in recent days, the protesters have triggered a discussion over from where the money might come.
"Subsidies are expedient, but who'll foot the bill?" asked the Jerusalem Post in an editorial. "It's not easy to be fiscally responsible in the face of a seemingly grass-roots outcry."
Political scientist Yaron Ezrahi predicted the public will have less tolerance for government spending on settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
"The political cost of that kind of support is very high now," Ezrahi said. "Everyone will look with a microscope where the money has gone."
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.