"IF THE situation here remains unchanged," warns Avia Spivak, "we'll get the sort of violent protests they had in England." A professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Mr Spivak was deputy governor of the Bank of Israel until 2006. Now he heads a team of economists advising the young leaders of a huge, inchoate social protest movement that has been demonstrating and camping out in city centres across Israel for much of the summer.
The movement, which has neither name nor structure, held its final event—for now—on the evening of September 3rd. It broke all records. Some 450,000 people thronged the streets of Tel Aviv and three other towns, all calling for social justice, affordable housing, cheaper basic food and better social services. The main rally, in Tel Aviv's State Square, was notable not only for its size but because State Square (a roundabout, in fact) is in Israel's swankiest shopping precinct—and yet not one shop was damaged or daubed.
It has been a well-behaved revolution, mainly of the young, educated middle class: couples with qualifications and jobs who still find it hard to make ends meet. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Israelis found themselves swept up in a fellowship of frustration.
One trigger may have been a class action brought by a retired accountant against a public company over a deal that he believed was unfair to shareholders. In June, in an out-of-court settlement, the company agreed to pay $45m. At the same time, but probably unconnected, a young husband and father suggested to his Facebook friends that they all stop buying cottage cheese at the inflated, cartel-driven price it was being sold for. Within weeks a countrywide boycott had almost halved the price. Two weeks later, a 25-year-old film-maker was evicted from her rented flat in Tel Aviv and told her Facebook friends that she was pitching a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, in the shadow of the bank and insurance buildings on either side. Soon there was no room to knock in another tent-peg.
Now, with the children back at school, the tent-dwellers are packing up. The movement's leaders are preparing to spar with a government committee hastily set up by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. It is due to deliver its first clutch of recommendations within weeks. Its chairman, Manuel Trajtenberg, rejects Mr Netanyahu's trickle-down market philosophy.
Mr Netanyahu concedes that "corrections" are needed. "I know how hard it is to buy a flat or rent a flat," he says, "and that people don't have enough for basics like education." But Israel's economy has largely escaped the global turbulence, thanks, he says, to his policies. Mr Trajtenberg has been asked to make proposals within the limits of the state budget.
Mr Netanyahu and his ministers seem almost to echo the protesters in railing at the tycoonim (the word has been Hebraised), the score of super-rich Israeli families who control much of the economy, including former state-owned industries now privatised. "Crocodile tears," sniffs Hay Badra, a prominent protester. "Bibi invented the system."
Despite its numbers, the movement presents no immediate threat to Mr Netanyahu's government. The protest leaders claim to speak for all types. But Israel's West Bank settlers, religious Israelis and Russian immigrants, all key constituencies in his ruling coalition, have been markedly absent from the tent-cities.
Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, says her Kadima Party in effect endorses the protesters' demands. "The real solution to the economic malaise is the ballot box," she says. But an election may not come until 2013; time enough, say Mr Netanyahu's supporters, for him to show his empathy with the demonstrators.