Jeruslem, pram, housing protest
Parents and children during a protest in Jerusalem on Sunday July 31, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he was convening a special team that will engage in a dialogue with the leaders of the social protests, and put together a plan to ease the economic burden on the country's middle class.

The prime minister's panel, which will be composed of cabinet ministers as well as experts from various fields, will conduct "roundtable" meetings with representatives from various sectors of the population.

Netanyahu said the team would be created in order to hear ideas and to address issues and complaints, as well as to develop a plan that would be presented to the prime minister and the cabinet. At the beginning of yesterday's cabinet meeting, the prime minister expressed optimism about the government's capacity to implement a range of significant economic measures.

"Today in Israel, we can take the necessary steps," the prime minister explained, "because we have conducted ourselves responsibly in a level-headed way, in the economic sphere in recent years so that we have the tools. We have a growing economy. We have a rate of unemployment that is the lowest in 30 years, and that enables us to make the necessary adjustments."

The prime minister warned against implementing "hasty and populist" decisions that could bring the country to the brink of bankruptcy and cause mass unemployment. He and his cabinet colleagues are aware of the cost-of-living problems in the country, which cut across a number of sectors, Netanyahu added.

In identification with the protesters, most local authorities will not receive members of the public today, and will not collect garbage or clean the streets. Among the cities where authorities will not take these steps are locales where the mayors are identified with Netanyahu's Likud party, such as Modi'in.

"Some of the complaints being expressed are justified and some are not," Netanyahu said yesterday. "We are committed to dealing with the complaints and the genuine distress, some of which is the product of distortions in the Israeli economy that took root here over a period of many years."

Protester Regev Contes said in response to Netanyahu's remarks to the cabinet that the prime minister was trying to frighten the public with talk of bankruptcy. "He should open his eyes and understand that economic collapse is already in progress," Contes said.

While Netanyahu expressed support for some of the demonstrators' concerns, his spokesman, Roni Sofer, speaking on Channel 10, said the protests had gotten out of hand. "When you look around at the construction, you see the building standard has become solely luxury housing. When you look at 1.3 million people going abroad this summer, [you realize] there's a certain exaggeration [in the protests]," he said, adding that Israel is in "excellent" shape.

Although the Prime Minister's Office said the new panel was being established with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's support, some senior Likud ministers slammed the move. At a meeting of Likud ministers that preceded the cabinet meeting, Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin said that by their nature, the housing protests are political.

For his part, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom insisted that the government make changes in the economic agenda and divert funds from defense to sectors such as education and social welfare; he took the Defense Ministry to task for its repeated requests for budget increases.

Another senior cabinet minister called creation of the special team a "slap in the face" to Steinitz and the Finance Ministry's professional staff, because it would impose decisions on them for political reasons.

The agenda of the cabinet session focused for the most part on economic issues. It approved the relatively minor plan to double heating grants for the elderly, to take effect this coming winter. The decision applies to people receiving income supplements to their old-age stipends, who live in areas designated as being particularly cold in the winter.

In other matters, the cabinet approved the appointment of Gal Hershkovitz as budget chief at the Finance Ministry. Netanyahu also asked that a panel set up about 10 months ago to look into ways to increase economic competition, step up submission of its conclusions.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar yesterday acknowledged the need to divert funds from defense to social welfare needs. For its part, the Kadima party yesterday proposed a bill yesterday that would repeal the 2012 state budget so that the government can resubmit a budget reflecting different national priorities. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said that it should address "the economic and social distress in Israel."

The leaders of the current protest movement met yesterday with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini and resolved to draw up a list of demands and meet again tomorrow. In Jerusalem yesterday, about 1,000 mothers, children and others marched with strollers to protest the cost of raising children.