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Massive Israeli Protests Against Netanyahu Policies

August 7, 2011

Netanyahu promises change after massive protests over cost of living

Ma'an, 07/08/2011 13:03


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday promised change as he tried to ease growing anger over the cost of living after an unprecedented number of Israelis took part in nationwide protests.

Speaking before a weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu acknowledged the frustration of the more than 250,000 people who took to the streets on Saturday night to demand cheaper housing, education and health care.

"We can't ignore the magnitude of the social protests," he said.

"We know that we need to make changes and we will do so, showing ourselves to be responsible and responsive to the demands," he added in remarks broadcast on public radio.

"We want to establish a real dialogue and hear from everyone who can propose solutions, even if we cannot meet all the demands," he said.

Netanyahu said he was establishing "a special team" headed by prominent economist Manuel Trachtenberg, the head of Israel's National Council for Higher Education.

"I have mixed feelings about being tasked with this mission, because changes are imperative, but the responsibilities and the risks are enormous," Trachtenberg told Israeli radio.

It was unclear whether the appointment of another committee, the second Netanyahu has proposed to establish to examine protesters' demands, would ease the frustration that drew so many into the streets.

The turnout, believed to be the biggest for protests over any social issue in Israel's history, showed the staying power and broad appeal of a movement that began in mid-July over the cost of housing and has quickly mushroomed.

In Tel Aviv alone, commercial capital of a country of 7.7 million, an estimated 200,000 people were in the streets, many chanting "the people want social justice" and "the people against the government."

Police said another 30,000 protested in Jerusalem, with 20,000 taking part in demonstrations in towns ranging from Kiryat Shmona in the north to the southern cities of the Negev desert.

Netanyahu has already said he takes the protests seriously and will work to implement reforms, but he has warned against the sweeping measures favored by many protesters, saying they could plunge Israeli into financial crisis.

And he has appeared at times to have been caught short by the size and appeal of the demonstrations, which were first dismissed by his right-wing Likud party colleagues.

Protesters have accused him of failing to take their demands seriously, and were infuriated by his support for legislation easing regulations for building contractors that parliament passed before its summer recess.

Netanyahu says the legislation will address protesters' demands by flooding the market with housing and bringing down prices, but activists say it will merely encourage the construction of luxury apartments.

They also say the government has failed to understand the breadth of the reforms they seek, which has grown to include lower taxes, an expansion of free education, lower medical costs and a break-up of monopolies.

Israel's media has largely thrown its support behind the protesters, with commentators in Haaretz newspaper on Sunday describing the movement as a revolution.

"With emotion but great order, the masses marched through the city shouting 'revolution'," wrote Yair Ettinger. "Is this rebellion here to stay? Will it die out? For the time being it's only picking up strength."

In top-selling Yediot Aharonot, Sima Kadmon called the protests "the largest demonstration of no confidence in the history of Israel."

Israel Hayom, a paper considered close to the prime minister, offered a lone voice of caution, warning that any reforms should be made "with utmost responsibility."

Israelis flood Tel Aviv for reforms protest

Published yesterday (updated) 07/08/2011 13:08

Almost a quarter of a million Israelis rallied in central Tel Aviv on Saturday, police said, for a mass protest aimed at pushing the government into reforms to ease the cost of living.

The organizers appeared to have achieved their target of drawing a "critical mass" out onto the streets to underline the staying power of a movement which began in mid-July over housing costs.

It was the biggest demonstration for a social cause in the history of the state of Israel, which has a population of 7.7 million.

"The people demand social justice" and "the people against the government," chanted the demonstrators, carrying Israeli flags as well as some red flags of the labor movement.

"This is Egypt," a banner read, referring to the Arab spring of anti-government revolts.

The movement has mushroomed into a full-blown social uprising calling for across-the-board reforms to ease the cost of living and reduce Israel's income disparity.

The Tel Aviv demonstration, authorized by police, began from a tent camp and the protesters headed toward the defense ministry and other government buildings.

In Jerusalem, thousands more protesters gathered in the city center for a another march that was to take them to the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld estimated the numbers in Tel Aviv at more than 200,000 and another 30,000 in Jerusalem, revising earlier figures as the crowds converged.

"We're hoping to reach a critical mass of more than 200,000 protesters to force the government to radically change social policy," Hadas Kushlevitch, a representative of the protest movement, told AFP on Friday.

Netanyahu appears to have been caught off-guard by the protests, which drew 100,000 people into the streets in cities across Israel on July 30.

His government has so far shied away from the sort of sweeping reforms that protesters are calling for, with Netanyahu explicitly warning against costly measures that he says could plunge Israel into a financial crisis.

The Israeli media has also largely thrown its support behind the movement, with commentators flaying Netanyahu for his decision to submit protesters' claims to a committee and push through controversial housing legislation.

The laws, passed this week before the Knesset (Parliament) broke for a summer recess, streamline the building process for contractors, which Netanyahu said would flood the market with housing and bring down prices.

But social and environmental activists say it will simply allow the construction of more luxury housing and could be abused by contractors who want to build without meeting environmental regulations.

Uri Metuki, a protest leader, makes no secret of the fact that he expects "the battle will be long."

"We are trying to change nothing more and nothing less than a whole system that privileges the interests of the individual to the detriment of the collective interest," he said.

But he does not see the movement running out of steam anytime soon.

"The movement has the support of a very large part of the population, which is not ready to renounce its demands," he says, accusing Netanyahu of acting "cynically ... in the hope that the movement will lose support."

The burgeoning movement sparked off over housing prices, when a handful of young activists set up a tent city in one of Tel Aviv's trendiest neighborhoods to publicize their inability to afford homes.

It has tapped into deep frustration over what Israelis say is a growing gap between rich and poor and a general decline in social services that the state once provided.

The protesters have seen a new infusion of support from the Histadrut labor union, with several thousand members of the organization joining demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

The top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Friday questioned why Netanyahu had taken so long to act. "If the protests are justified as Netanyahu says ... then why did he not come to this realization before they were triggered?"

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