From Cottage Cheese to Cottages

Tel Aviv residents camp out in protest of excessive housing prices, saying they won't leave without a solution, and the government cannot remain indifferent in an era when civil protests are toppling regimes.

The Israel Dairy Board and the Tnuva and Strauss dairy giants are rubbing their hands together with glee. Yesterday, the protest was over cottage cheese; today, it's about housing prices. Maybe public wrath will just pass us by, they say, and we won't have to lower prices.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actually worried. He still has the tools to deal with the dairy prices, but housing is a massive topic. This is not about lowering prices by a shekel and a half. This is a large and complex market worth many millions, maybe billions.

housing price protest Tel Aviv - 16.7.11
Ofer Vaknin

I had a chance to visit the tents that sprang up suddenly at the beginning of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. The young people there want it all: They want to live in Tel Aviv, they want reasonable rent, they want to buy an apartment in the city and be able to pay their mortgage on an average salary. But all this is impossible without a wealthy parent to buy the apartment for them.

Tel Avivans were not indifferent to the tent-dwelling protesters. Some brought them food, and many came to express their support. But not everyone agreed with them: Why do you have to live in Tel Aviv? some asked. Go to the outlying areas; go to Ashkelon, where rent is low, and commute into Tel Aviv every morning for work.

The young people were furious at the suggestion: You can't travel every day from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv because public transportation is poor, both to and within Tel Aviv (they are absolutely right about that ). Besides, they want to live in the big city, they said. "Could you organize a protest like this in Ashkelon - who would come?" one young woman asked.

The protesters said they would not leave without a solution - and they do appear determined. The government cannot remain indifferent to them in an era when civil protests are toppling regimes.

The solution to the housing problem is what Netanyahu promised 18 months ago: to change the Israel Lands Administration to a "lands authority." That would flood the country with land and streamline clumsy and expensive construction procedures. But none of that has happened yet, and that is a serious failure.

Today, despite the Rothschild tent protest, Netanyahu will be calling a special meeting to discuss the dairy issue. He told Haaretz that he knows "the milk economy is archaic" and said that he would change it. "The question is at what speed," he said. Netanyahu also said he would deal with both "the manufacturing and the marketing sectors" and would open the market to dairy imports and deal with the issue of maximum production quotas.

When asked how he would handle the powerful agricultural lobby, he said, "We have a chance to fix this, and I will fix it."

"I am stronger than the agricultural lobby. They have no real strength," Netanyahu said in an apparent reference to the collapsed Labor Party, which was always the heart of the agricultural lobby's power.

Perhaps the dairy giants and the Dairy Board should not be rubbing their hands together so gleefully after all. Perhaps this time, exceptionally, the government will do what is required by breaking up the dairy cartel.