Massive protests hit Netanyahu govt in Israel

The protests nationwide drew Israelis of all walks of life, including students, public sector workers and social activists.

Jerusalem: Israel`s streets witnessed an
unprecedented outpouring of public anger, capped by nearly
300,000 citizens joining protests to demand `social justice`,
forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scramble for a
solution to calm discontent over rising cost of living.

The unexpectedly large turnout yesterday in support of the
demand that the government address socio-economic issues
easily eclipsed any previous such demonstrations in the Jewish
state`s history.

Initially, Netanyahu`s aides reportedly dismissed the
protesters, saying they had come out to witness performances
by leading musicians, but the unexpectedly huge numbers across
the country has pushed the government on the back foot.

Though the government does not face any immediate threat
of being dislodged, the wave of protests during the last three
weeks has underscored the potential electoral impact of a
burdened middle class rallying under the banner of "social
justice".

Bowing to the protesters, Netanyahu, a champion of free
market economy, announced this morning at the weekly cabinet
meeting the appointment of a committee of experts to propose
social-economic reform.

The team will be headed by Harvard-educated Professor
Manuel Tranchtenberg, Chairman of the Planning and Budgeting
Committee of the Council for Higher Education, and will also
include academics and experts from the private sector.

"We will listen to everyone... We won`t be able to please
everyone, but we will have a real dialogue," said a defensive
Prime Minister.

"It is not normal that while the country is rich, an
overwhelming size of its citizens are poor," Dario, a student
leader from Tel Aviv University participating in the protest
march, said.

The team set up by the prime Minister will also include
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Education Minister Gideon
Sa`ar, besides ministers looking the housing, labour, trade,
industry and environment portfolios, among others.

The demand for social justice, the protesters said, is an
effort to seek the bridging of the increasing socio-economic
gap in the country.

"The demonstrations and anger expressed on the streets
clearly show that Israeli citizens are normal human beings
with aspirations for a quite life with a normal future for
their children," he said.

"They have realised that security related issues cannot
alone continue to dominate the political agenda of the
country," he said.

Prime Minister`s spokesman, Gidi Shmerling, told Army
Radio that the team`s conclusions will be made public in a
month.

According to sources in Netanyahu`s office, the team will
focus on lowering the costs of living, limiting monopolies,
reducing indirect taxes, tacking the bureaucracy in the
housing market and putting into effect the national housing
committees law.

The protest organisers, a loosely organised group of young
Israelis, themselves stunned by the massive 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 and what critics
contend is an inequitable distribution of resources.

"Forty years have passed since the day I stepped out,
instilled with faith, against the injustice surrounding me.

Since then, year after year, I`ve been waiting for a new
generation to stand up against injustice and here it is,"
legendary social activist, Charlie Biton, who was among the
leaders of a protest movement against the government in the
1970s, told the demonstrators in Tel Aviv.

"My hope withered from year to year, as injustice grew...
But now, after 40 years, my vision has been realised," he
said.

The leaders of the protest movement have vowed not to rest
in the laurels of yesterday`s success and to continue their
struggle to bring it to a logical conclusion.

"We respect the Prime Minister`s choice, and I hope that
the size of the team won`t affect it effectiveness. In any
case, we expect to know in advance what the structure of the
talks will be, and guarantees that the solutions adopted will
be implemented so that we won`t find ourselves talking round
and round a round table for nothing," Student Union chairman,
Itzik Shmuli, said.

"Yesterday`s protest again proved that the People of
Israel are emerging from their homes. The people are coming
out and demanding great things, and we have no intention of
giving up on any demand," the protest`s campaign headquarters
said today.

"We had 30 seconds of euphoria yesterday that was it -
we`re now moving forward," they added.

Israel has projected a growth of 4.8 per cent this year at
a time of economic stagnation in the West, and has a
relatively low unemployment rate at 5.7 per cent.

However, business cartels and widening social gaps have
kept many citizens from feeling the positives.

The right-wing dominated coalition government has vowed to
free up more state-owned land for development, build more
low-cost housing and improve public transport, yielding to
growing social discontent.

It also wants to lower dairy prices with more imports and
boost medical staff numbers to address demands by striking
doctors.

Demands put forward by the National Union of Israeli
Students go much further, calling for an expansion of free
education and bigger government housing budgets.

The protests nationwide drew Israelis of all walks of
life, including students, public sector workers and social
activists.

Some of Israel`s top music performers, including Shlomo
Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz and Rita, took the stage in Tel Aviv to
support the protesters.

Many local analysts have lauded the protests as signs of
"real democracy at work" and "a new independence for Israel".

PTI

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