Tel Aviv protest - Hadar Cohen - April 2012
About 100 demonstrators marching in Tel Aviv last night to protest the high cost of living in Israel. Photo by Hadar Cohen
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As hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to raise the price of gasoline by only 5 agorot a liter.

Gas prices had been expected to rise by 20 agorot a liter on Saturday. But the new prices coming into force at midnight on Saturday night mean a liter of 95-octane gas will now cost NIS 8 at full-service pumps and NIS 7.79 at self-service pumps.

The protesters, some carrying torches and blocking traffic in places, marched from Rabin Square to the area around the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. They carried signs protesting the rise in gas and electricity prices and called for Netanyahu's resignation.

The reduction in the increase will be achieved by cutting the excise tax on gas, and the budgetary shortfall will be covered by cutting funding and government jobs.

This is the second time in a month that Netanyahu has intervened to prevent gas prices from going over NIS 8 per liter. Like the last time, the announcement of Netanyahu's intervention also came a few minutes before the central 8 P.M. news broadcast.

The decision came after a lengthy meeting between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

"The solution will make things easier for Israelis. The responsible solution will ensure continued economic growth and the lowest unemployment since 1983," Netanyahu said.

A few hours before, Steinitz was interviewed on Channel 2's "Meet the Press." Several meetings had been held on the matter over the last few days, he said, "and if there is something to announce, we'll announce it, but I still have no good news."

Steinitz, who has said repeatedly that he believes the excise tax should not be changed every time the price of gas goes up, said the cost of gas was rising due to sanctions on Iran. "I'm sure Israelis prefer to pay a little more to [prevent] a nuclear Iran," he told Channel 2.

Also speaking on "Meet the Press," Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau said: "Of course the public can be made not to feel the rise, because 50 percent of the [price of] gas is tax. There could be more price hikes, this is not the end, and the government has to define its priorities. When there is not enough money in the house, ways have to be found to economize."

Meanwhile, eight months after the first tents went up on Rothschild Boulevard to protest the high cost of living and following the Bank of Israel report issued Wednesday that government policies widened social gaps last year, about 100 activists set up tents in Rabin Square on Friday.

Although the tents were quickly taken down by the police, about 20 people spent the night in the square and remained there all day yesterday, where they were joined by other protesters.

Last night's protest - whose Facebook page billed it under the title "We were slaves," a nod to the upcoming Passover holiday - was initiated by the coalition that arose from last summer's social protest.

Kadima MKs Nachman Shai, Ronit Tirosh, Nino Abesadze and Yulia Shamalov Berkovich were present at last night's protest. MK Shaul Mofaz, who last week won the Kadima chairmanship, declared social issues to be a top priority after his win.

Oren Pasternak, one of the leaders of last summer's protest, said, "The feeling is one of spontaneous awakening." Apparently in response to Mofaz's statement after his victory that he would lead this summer's protest, Pasternak also said: "No politician will say 'I lead the protest.' We are leading the protest."

One of the rally's organizers, Yossi Baruch, called on Mofaz to "rise up from the undignified 37th place you were rated" - referring to the recent grading of MKs in terms of their prominence in working for social issues by a social-action watchdog group.

Most of the familiar faces from last summer's protest were missing last night. Pasternak said Daphni Leef and Stav Shaffir, among the best-known figures from the protest-tent movement, were in the United States on a lecture tour on behalf of the protest.

Leef and Shaffir are each on separate circuits, raising money for the social-protest movement.

"The social protest only died on Channels 2 and 10," Pasternak said, referring to Israel's two commercial TV stations, "but the ground is burning."

"We receive new edicts from the government every day," he added. "Gas has gone up time after time since the beginning of the year; electricity has gone up by 25 percent, the Bank of Israel has confirmed what we have been saying for eight months."

Pasternak said that the achievements of last summer's protests, such as free preschool from age 3, "came at the expense of other things," a reference to the across-the-board cuts to government ministries' budgets to fund that particular recommendation of the Trajtenberg Committee on socioeconomic change.

Gad Haran, chairman of the social-protest group Ami, said last night: "Our main call is for a new social order: we want social justice but we also know how to attain it. The government must change its priorities and look at the public and not at the bank directors and the tycoons," he said.

"If there is money missing, there are places to take it from, like the underground economy or the millions that directors of public companies take."

Rotem Starkman contributed to this report.

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