Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Ilan Asayag
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Yisrael Beiteinu Monday joined the opposition in coming out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to cut housing prices by expediting construction projects.

The special Knesset committee preparing the legislation for the construction bill's final two readings halted its debates after the coalition failed to muster the required majority to approve the bill.

MK Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu ) voted with the opposition members in the committee to strike a central clause in the bill, which defines the National Planning and Building Council's jurisdiction.

Yisrael Beiteinu objects to a change added by Shas, which insisted on including a clause stipulating that the criteria for affordable housing be set by the prime minister and the finance and housing ministers.

Yisrael Beiteinu demanded that these criteria be set by all the cabinet members, to ensure Netanyahu keeps his commitment to the party to make affordable housing available to IDF veterans and young couples, not just Shas' ultra-Orthodox constituents.

Netanyahu made the pledge to win Yisrael Beiteinu's support for the Trajtenberg report on social reform several months ago.

"This is not an issue that should be handled by one minister or another, but by the entire cabinet," said Amar. "We demand a solution to the housing crisis."

Coalition members said yesterday the differences between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu could be ironed out by this morning.

"We suggested deleting this clause from the bill and passing it as a separate bill, to enable us to continue legislating the reform, but they didn't agree," said a Yisrael Beiteinu MK.

Earlier yesterday, the special Knesset committee opened a marathon of hearings on the thousands of objections to the reform submitted by the opposition, local authorities and environmental groups.

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) opened the debate for the opposition, by outlining the 1,500 objections he and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ) have filed.

In an address that lasted about two hours, Khenin spoke of the dangers inherent in the legislation, which he branded as "anti-democratic, anti-social and anti-environmental."

"I call on the cabinet to suspend the bill's promotion and start professional, serious and sincere negotiations to prevent irrevocable damage to society, democracy, the economy and the environment," he said.

The Union of Local Authorities also submitted numerous objections and called on the entire national government to prevent the proposal from being passed into law.

Members of Green Course, Israel's largest environmental volunteer organization, were removed from the room by security guards when they protested against the bill.

"This is no democracy," said Green Course member Udi Chen of Netanya. "For the past two years in which they've been debating the bill, hardly any objections have been accepted. The coalition members vote according to instructions they receive in advance."

The special committee accepted a request by MK Avishay Braverman (Labor ) to include Arab representatives on the National Planning and Building Council.

"The scandalous manner in which the debate was conducted - giving less than five minutes to each objection regarding a law that will affect every person in Israel, demeans the Knesset," said Amit Bracha, an attorney for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

Urban planners expressed concern over the increased power that would be granted to the local planning committees. But senior officials in the interior and justice ministries said that was an integral part of the bill, since the change would streamline the planning process.

Netanyahu has already backed down from an earlier plan to have MKs vote on the final two readings before the Knesset's Passover recess.