Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday the creation of a team of ministers charged with formulating policies to improve the standard of living of Israel's middle class. The team will conduct discussions with a variety of experts and stakeholders, including the leaders of the protests that have rocked Israel over the past two weeks.
"We are now in the midst of a complicated and challenging reality, both internationally and domestically, in the face of which the government must act responsibly and sagaciously. It must take proper and responsible steps and avoid irresponsible ones," Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning.
Netanyahu added that the government needed to change its list of priorities in order to deal with the "with the genuine claims and distress," while avoiding "irresponsible, hasty and populist steps that are liable to cause the country to deteriorate into the situation of certain European countries, which are on the verge of bankruptcy and large-scale unemployment."
To this end, Netanyahu said he would appoint a special team of ministers and experts that will propose a responsible and practical plan to alleviate Israelis' economic burden. "I ask the team to open a roundtable, to invite representatives of various groups and sectors, to hear ideas, to hear claims and to hear solutions, and afterwards to submit a plan for implementation to the cabinet and to myself, which we will implement in order to alleviate Israelis' economic burden."
In a related development, the Finance Ministry's director general announced his sudden and unexpected resignation on Sunday morning.
Massive demonstrations in major cities
The prime minister's announcement followed massive protest demonstrations on Saturday night, in which over 100,000 people marched throughout the country against the high cost of living and the erosion of the middle class in Israel. The demonstrations represented the most forceful expression to date of the growing socioeconomic discontent sweeping the country.
The demonstrations, which called for fundamental changes in the country's priorities and more equitable economic growth, were considerably larger than those held just one week earlier. The largest crowds were seen in Tel Aviv, where some 70,000 marched through the streets chanting "the people demand social justice."
In Jerusalem, some 10,000 people demonstrated across from the prime minister's residence. Another 10,000 people marched in Haifa, with smaller rallies taking place in Kiryat Shmona, Nazareth, Ra'anana, Kfar Saba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Modi'in and Be'er Sheva.
"We don't want to replace the government," said Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old filmmaker and one of the protest's organizers, in Tel Aviv. "We want to change the rules of the game."
For the first time since protesters in tent camps demanding affordable housing first appeared more than two weeks ago, the protest's leaders presented a list of clear demands, including affordable and public housing, free public education from birth, government assistance to university students and quality public medical care for all.
"The middle class has become a class of slaves," said protest organizer Yigal Rambam. "[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, it's time that you understood you can't buy us with a press conference." Netanyahu last week laid out a list of emergency housing reforms, but the demonstrators rejected them, calling on him to withdraw his proposed legislation to create fast-track planning committees and reform the Israel Lands Administration.
The first speaker to take the stage in Tel Aviv was Oshrit Akiva, a rabbi's wife from the disadvantaged Kfar Shalem neighborhood, who said she identified with the popular outcry. "The state does not treat its citizens with respect," she said.
"This revolution unites and touches us all," said Sheli Dvir, who organized last week's "stroller protest," in which thousands of young parents hit the streets to protest the sky-high cost of raising children in Israel. Dvir pointed out that the protests, which initially focused mainly on affordable housing, had expanded to include other areas such as health and education.
In the hours before the protest, demonstrators who have been camping out in tents along Tel Aviv's historic Rothschild Boulevard said they felt as if the country was on the verge of a fundamental shift. Izi Klein, 31, who has been living in a tent since the protest began, said he believed the feeling was similar to that on the eve of the founding of the state, noting that the country's independence was declared on Rothschild Boulevard in 1948.
Arella Cohen, a 45-year-old high-tech worker from Tel Aviv and the mother of three children, said she joined the protest because, "at the end of the month, there's just nothing left, and we're fed up. Half of our income goes to raising the kids, and the rent is crushing us, even though we make good money. We're not in our 20s anymore, and we may not have another chance like this to change the economic situation for our children."
"We want to make history and change the face of the state that is so dear to us, which is falling apart in front of our eyes," said Moshe Kelman, a 31-year-old social work student from Rehovot, noting that the cost of living has become prohibitively expensive even for professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers. "We came to say, 'enough is enough, it's time for a change.' Solidarity and mutual responsibility are not dirty words," he added.
A small group of reserve soldiers set out from the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard on Sunday morning for a military exercise in the south of the country. Regarding their decision to take part in the protest while in uniform, an act which contradicts military norms, the reservists said that they were "keeping their part of the bargain," and called on the government to keep its part of the bargain as well, describing the protests as a "war for our existence."
PM appoints team to explore solutions
The team of ministers appointed Sunday by the prime minister will examine methods such as reducing indirect taxation. He added that the newly-appointed team would meet with a variety of experts and stakeholders, including the leaders of the protests, in order to come up with solutions to the country's socioeconomic distress.
Deputy Knesset Speaker Ofir Akunis said Sunday that the team's work would be prolonged and measured.
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom suggested that budgets should be shifted from defense-related areas to purposes such as welfare and education. "It is inconceivable that the Defense Ministry has requested that its budget be supplemented four times since the budget was approved," he said.
Meanwhile, Finance Ministry Director General Haim Shani announced his resignation on Sunday morning, citing disagreements with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. In an interview with Army Radio on Sunday, Prime Minister's Office Director General Eyal Gabbai said Shani's resignation was not necessarily connected to the recent protests.
Another committee set up by the prime minister to examine economic concentration in Israel was expected to present its findings Sunday. The committee was originally planning to publish its report in September, but moved up the timetable due to the protests.
The government is also hoping to head off a rise in the price of gasoline, which was scheduled to go into effect Saturday night. Netanyahu plans to create a special team to negotiate with the protesters in order to find an acceptable solution to the housing crisis and the rising cost of living.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told Army Radio Sunday morning that the ongoing protests were nothing less than an "economic, social, cultural and conceptual revolution," adding that in light of the uproar, it would be behoove Netanyahu to reassess his economic policies.
Livni, Yishai suggest cancelling Knesset's summer recess
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) have proposed cancelling the Knesset's summer recess in light of the social turmoil around the country.
Yishai called the initiative a "necessary step," adding that "public representatives must grapple with the social distress."
"The Knesset must continue working," said Livni. "Fixing what is happening on the streets has to be done through the Knesset."
Coalition whip Zeev Elkin rejected the proposal, saying Livni was "attempting to dress up as Che Guevara and spread populist slogans."
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, for his part, called on Kadima to join the governing coalition. "If the opposition really wants to help," he said, "it needs to change priorities from the inside, instead of just calling for the downfall of the government."
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer was also expected on Sunday to weigh in on the country's social turmoil in a Jerusalem press conference. Fischer has yet to publicly comment on the protests.