Itzik Shmuli - Daniel Bar-On - October 2011
National Student Union head Itzik Shmuli in Tel Aviv this week. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's package of benefits for students, which he promised two weeks after the social protests started this summer, included a free first year of studies for all undergraduates, Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the National Student Union, told Haaretz on Tuesday.

On July 26, Netanyahu responded to the growing protests by presenting his solutions for the housing problem. At the same time, in an attempt to divide the coalition leading the summer's protests, he outlined various benefits aimed at students in the hope of persuading them to abandon the fight. The proposals included providing free land to build 10,000 housing units for students and giving students discounts on public transportation.

But Shmuli said that in addition to these offers, which were reported in the news at the time, Netanyahu also proposed broad tuition cuts.

"We spoke of making at least the first year free for all students," Shmuli told Haaretz in an interview. "It was my formative moment during the struggle, the moment when the students relinquished everything they were offered only in return for the right to continue to fight for others."

However, Netanyahu's office denied this.

"Neither the prime minister nor anyone acting on his behalf presented any official offer to the National Student Union to provide a free year of studies all over the country," the Prime Minister's Office said. "Since the beginning of his term, the prime minister has placed education at the top of the national agenda. As part of this policy, he has approved and promoted a year of free studies in Jerusalem and the periphery for students who completed army service or national service."

That proposal, contained in a law sponsored by MK Gila Gamliel (Likud), covers only about 7,000 students a year who study in colleges in "areas of national priority," out of some 230,000 undergraduates overall.

Though Shmuli initially opted not to break ranks, the differences among the leaders of the social protests grew as time went on, especially about what tactics to use. While the original protest organizers and their panel of experts refused to cooperate with the Trajtenberg Committee, which Netanyahu appointed to propose reforms, Shmuli opted to cooperate. One of the protest leaders, Daphni Leef, even called on Trajtenberg to resign.

After the Trajtenberg Committee's recommendations were released, Shmuli called them inadequate. Asked whether he had been surprised by them, he responded, "Let's say I did not expect too much. But I did expect that the report would be a little more courageous. Trajtenberg never spoke of stubborn adherence to the fiscal rules that he in fact set for the entire five-year plan. It simply wasn't there," said Shmuli.

Shmuli and the National Student Union are not involved in organizing the student strike that has been called for November 1; that is the initiative of a group of students headed by Leef and Stav Shaffir.

"To have 300,000 students strike is not a simple thing," said Shmuli. "You have to understand that it is the most powerful tool we have in the arsenal."

The Student Union is scheduled to make a decision today on whether to participate in the strike.

But Shmuli did not rule out strikes if the government does not meet students' demands to improve the status of outsourced workers. He said he has met at least three times recently with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini in an attempt to coordinate protests in favor of securing these workers more rights.