In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised significant changes to the economy to meet the demands of the social justice protests sweeping the nation, but insisted that the changes would be carried out within the existing free market system. Netanyahu also affirmed his intention to take seriously recommendations proposed by the committee he recently appointed to address demands made by the protesters.
Netanyahu's remarks took on an urgent tone Tuesday as hundreds of tent protesters marched to the Knesset as it convened for a special session on the housing crisis and the cost of living in the country. Confrontations broke out at the entrance to the building between Knesset security guards and protesters chanting, "Get out of the Knesset, the state is collapsing."
Noting that recommendations made by a previous committee to increase the state's share of profits from natural gas production were ultimately accepted by the cabinet, Netanyahu told the Knesset Finance Committee on Monday that he believed the government would eventually adopt the Trajtenberg Committee's recommendations as well.
The statement came in response to questions raised by protesters and lawmakers in recent days about the work of the Trajtenberg Committee, a panel of experts appointed by the prime minister to formulate policy changes in light of the month-long social unrest in the country.
"We are talking about significant corrections, but within the existing system, in the framework of the modern economy," Netanyahu told Israel Hayom on Monday. "We will find the correct balance between a free market economy and sensitivity to social issues."
Netanyahu expressed his confidence in Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the economist who he appointed to lead the committee, calling him "independent, serious and responsible."
Protest movement presents its own panel of experts
Also on Monday, social justice protesters presented an alternative panel of experts as a counterpoint to the Trajtenberg Committee's work. The panel, which will formulate its own proposals based on the movement's socially oriented worldview, will be composed of nine teams, each of which will examine different issues, such as housing, education and economic policy.
Former Deputy Bank of Israel Governor Avia Spivak, who will co-chair the panel, was critical of the Trajtenberg Committee. "We have no desire to negotiate with an ad hoc committee established by the government; that's not our purpose," he said. "Like the protesters, we have no intention of discussing matters with committees whose goal is to mislead the public and to squander this opportunity to repair distortions in Israeli society."
Noting that the public was united in an unprecedented call for change, he said, addressing the government in the name of its citizens, "We are tired of your dysfunction, start working for us."
In response, Trajtenberg said Monday that "no one has a monopoly on wisdom." Trajtenberg, who said he was personally acquainted with many of the people on the panel, called them " truly excellent people who wish to contribute," adding that his committee would be "happy to receive materials, ideas and suggestions [from them], which would definitely assist us in putting together solutions."
A senior member of the social-economic cabinet, however, was harshly critical of the alternative panel, saying its members "wish to return to a nostalgic past, which by the way wasn't so great even back then." The senior minister said that while the members of the panel apparently desired a return to a "centralized economy, controlled by the government bureaucracy, we don't want to go there. No rational person in the world wants to go there."
"No way will we go back to communism," said the minister. "There were states that attempted to institute a generous welfare policy system, and the result was collapse. The system that spread money around, placed no restrictions and prevented economic competition has failed," he said.
Trajtenberg committee members visit Beersheba
Two members of the Trajteberg Committee, economist Dr. Shlomi Parizat and social activist Shahar Cohen, visited the tent camp in the southern city of Beersheba Monday, where they were met with anger and frustration by local protesters. Tension was high, and at one point a shoe was thrown at one of them. Neither was injured.
The Trajtenberg Committee, which will hold its second meeting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, has established an active presence on social media since being created earlier this month. The group has a blog, a Twitter feed, a YouTube channel and a Facebook page, which had more than 2,000 people following it by Tuesday morning. The committee is using the social media channels to distribute information to citizens, including through videos, while inviting citizens to participate in its work by submitting ideas and proposals.
One comment posted on its Facebook page Monday suggested that raising the tax on cigarettes could net the state an additional NIS 14 billion ($4 billion).
Israel National Student Union head Itzik Shmuli demanded clarifications Monday from the prime minister regarding the nature of the Trajtenberg Committee's work. "Just as we are not protesting just to protest, we will not enter negotiations just for the sake of negotiating," he said.
In a conversation with Israel Hayom, deputy student union head Ofri Raviv said that the group was seeking clarifications regarding "the mandate of the Trajtenberg Committee, what authority it has and if the change that it can offer is broad or cosmetic."