Daphni Leef
Daphni Leef Photo by Izhar Shkedi
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The tent protest that began over a month ago in Tel Aviv and spread to the whole country, has not yet led to any real achievement in the area of public housing or relief for the middle class. However, the members of the panel appointed by the government to negotiate with the protesters, and headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, believe that at least one historic achievement can already be chalked up to the protesters' credit : For the first time, the government has realized it cannot formulate recommendations without the input of citizens. As a result, it has decided to invest considerable effort in soliciting the public's assistance to come up with solutions that will be presented to the cabinet.

In an extraordinary step, the hidavrut.gov.il website was launched this week (hidavrut means "discussion" in Hebrew ). By means of this official site, every Israeli will be able to raise issues and propose solutions that will be forwarded to the committee for discussion, and thus to become an active partner in the formulation of the various recommendations.

For his part, Michael Eitan, the minister for the improvement of government services, who is responsible for liaison between the public and both the government and the Trajtenberg committee, believes the new Hebrew website marks a fundamental change in the government's perception of the country's democratic regime.

"In the current technological era, governments can no longer see themselves as ruling, but rather as administering on behalf of the public, and [serving] as public emissaries," says Eitan. "According to the old theories, it was the public that gave the mandate to the government once every four years and the cabinet ministers who would say to themselves, 'Though we are the public's emissaries, we don't need to have them scrutinize every move we make.' Today, now that we have technological tools that didn't exist in the past, the government must involve the public, and in real time. The sum total of all wisdom is not in the hands of the government bureaucracy or the top echelon of the regime."

At the top of the website's home page at present is a short video clip entitled "Social justice rally, Tel Aviv, Israel," showing the hundreds of thousands of participants in the Saturday night demonstration two weeks ago. Later, video recordings of the committee's deliberations will be posted.

The highlight of the site, apparently, is its appeal to the public to upload suggestions of its own for solutions to social distress. Every citizen who submits a proposal to the committee by means of the site will be asked to which subcommittee (taxation, social services, competitiveness and pricing, housing ) he wishes to have it sent. The suggestion will be brought up before the members of the subcommittee and the person will be informed about the discussion that took place. Every other day proposals submitted via the site will be sorted out and forwarded to the various subcommittees.

The cost of setting up the site, to date, has amounted to NIS 120,000.

At the same time, Trajtenberg himself has been engaged in deepening the connection with the public. Parallel to his and other panel members' visits to the various tent camps around the country, the committee has also opened pages on the popular social networks Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Eitan himself is a member of the committee, but he says: "I don't have status on it. I do not function as a politician and I don't relate to content or questions. I am serving solely as an adviser on issues concerning the technology, by means of which the dialogue with the public will be conducted."

The new site is modeled on the platform of the Accessible Government site (shituf.gov.il ) that Eitan has established, which is aimed at promoting Internet technology as a means to improve government services to the citizen. Public discussion of the tent protest has become the most important element in the dialogue between the government and the public, on various issues, that the minister has been trying to promote for the past two years. For example, 1,400 people responded on the Accessible Government site to Google's request several months ago to allow its people to document Israel's streets in pictures for the Google Street View project - a move on which the government has not yet made a final decision.

One achievement reached thanks to this site was the elimination of the Broadcast Authority Law from the Economic Arrangements Bill thanks to the online protest of 1,700 people. In another instance, by means of the same Accessible Government site, the public submitted hundreds of reservations concerning new regulations banning the use of noisy leaf blowers. These were in turn forwarded to the committee that dealt with the issue.

Eitan had actually hoped to strengthen current public discourse about social justice by establishing a joint Internet site with the heads of the public protest.

"I very much wanted us to create a joint site, but maybe I am a bit ahead of my time," the minister says. "I thought the government would let us run the Internet site in an egalitarian way: that we would invite the protest leaders to join the government site, we would set up a joint administration [of it] and create a joint arena where we could get feedback. They [the protesters], however, did not accept this idea. They had a policy that I respect and I don't want to criticize in the slightest. They are conducting their own dialogue with the public. They have a wonderful site. However, I thought it would have been possible to create jointly certain means with which to show that there is a possibility that the government is cooperating even with the protest."

Since Eitan oversaw the launch of the new website last week, more than 1,000 proposals have been submitted and can be viewed there. Ultimately, they will appear as an appendix to the committee's report, which will in turn be debated by the socioeconomic cabinet's ministers.

Perusal of the public proposals that have already been uploaded to the site shows the wide range of issues for which people are demanding a solution. Thus, for example, Shahar Boaz protested the erosion in pensions of retirees from the Israel Defense Forces, the police, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad. Arthur Rabinowitz called for a tax credit on personal interest on loans taken for periods of more than 12 months, as is currently the case with auto loans and mortgages. Etti Noy Shimoni demanded the immediate cancellation of the junior-high school educational framework, and for there to be six-year secondary schools instead. None of these citizens' suggestions, however, directly connected to the housing problem or the high cost of living in Israel.

Despite the antagonism aroused by the Trajtenberg committee among the protest leaders, it appears the public is taking the new website seriously. The vast majority of proposals submitted are serious. Only eight of the first 1,000 proposals were disqualified because they included invective language.

"I hope very much that we will also have responses from the protest people themselves, and we will also post their material on the site," says Eitan. "In no way do we see this site as a government site. It is the public's site. The name of the site is 'Hidavrut' and only its hosting is governmental."

The minister fully intends to continue development of the site in the future, he stresses: "These aren't things that get discarded afterward. We aren't just wasting money that goes down the drain. I think that, relative to the service we are offering, the cost per person for this is almost nonexistent."