Israeli officials vow to cut cost of living

The move comes after three weeks of mushrooming protests sparked by complaints over housing costs.

Jerusalem: Israel on Sunday formed a panel of government ministers and some of the country`s leading economic experts to draw up a plan to reduce the soaring cost of living, marking new efforts to defuse demonstrations over prices that drew over a quarter-million people onto the streets the night before.

The announcement comes after three weeks of mushrooming protests sparked by complaints over housing costs. Since then, the protests have gained new momentum as Israelis grow increasingly frustrated with their struggle to make ends meet despite economic growth in the country that is outpacing that of other developed nations. Saturday`s turnout of over 250,000 people in public squares presented Israel`s most stable government in years with a chorus of discontent it could not afford to ignore.

The special committee would present its recommendations within a month, Gidi Schmerling, a spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, told Army Radio.

Netanyahu "has defined a goal — to correct social wrongs — and he will work towards that goal in a genuine and intensive manner," Schmerling said.

The protest organizers — a loosely organized group of young Israelis stunned by the mass response to their complaints — have called for a million-person march in 50 cities across the country on Sept. 3. While they have sought to steer clear from appearing political in their calls for reform, the mass rallies have given voice to the growing wealth disparity in the country and what critics contend is an inequitable distribution of government resources.

After weeks of vague calls for change, the protest leaders published a list of specific demands late last week, including the construction of affordable housing and a reduction of the 16 percent sales tax. It is not clear how they would pay for the array of services they are demanding.

With the size of the movement clearly indicating that it would not fizzle any time soon, Israeli officials have been forced to take notice.

"This is an impressive phenomenon and we must be attentive to it," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said of the protests shaking this country of 7.7 million. Israel`s cost of living, he added, is "unjustifiable and unreasonable."

He woved swift action to help working class Israelis struggling to cope with the cost of living.

Stav Shafir, a leader of the protest movement, said protesters would not back down.

"We must continue to ask for solutions, not for ones that will come in September," Shafir said. "We must demand them now."

Bureau Report

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