Pressure builds on Israel PM after massive protests

AFP , Sunday 7 Aug 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will announce a new bid to ease public anger over the high cost of living, coming one day after the quarter million protest

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to announce on Sunday a new bid to calm anger over the cost of living in the Jewish state, a day after nationwide protests by more than 250,000 people.

A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu would address the protests at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

"Netanyahu wants to form a special team, bringing together ministers and professors to hear the protesters demands as quickly as possible and present recommendations," the official told AFP.

"These recommendations will include ways to combat the high cost of living and allow easier access to housing," the official added.

The expected announcement comes a day after crowds that police said were more than 250,000-strong flooded cities across Israel, with protesters demanding the government ease the costs of everything from food to health care.

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, some 200,000 people were in the streets, many chanting "the people want social justice" and "the people against the government."

Police estimated 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 favoured by many protesters, saying they could plunge Israeli into a 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 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, which passed the Knesset before it broke for summer recess.

Netanyahu says the legislation will address protester 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 reform 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 of the Jerusalem protest. "Is this rebellion here to stay? Will it die out? For the time being it's only picking up strength."

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

Israel Hayom, considered close to Netanyahu, offered a lone voice of caution, warning any reforms should be made "with utmost responsibility."

"The government can, with reason, be pleased with its brilliant results in the economic field," wrote Boaz Bismuth. "But at the protests yesterday, it seemed that the people prefer to relinquish the certificate of excellence that has been achieved."

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