Protests to Increase as MKs Pass Fast-track Housing Law

Netanyahu claims bill 'opens taps' for new housing at reasonable price, but tent protesters say it won't wash.

The Knesset passed the National Housing Committees Law by a 57-45 vote Wednesday, sidestepping the opposition of tent camp protesters who had made abandonment of the legislation a primary demand.

The law, which was vigorously promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aims to expedite the building of 50,000 apartments by setting up fast-track committees that will circumvent the six regional planning commissions, where building plans often get stuck for years waiting for approval.

The protest leaders, student representatives and social and environmental activists claim that too-speedy approvals and reduced oversight will lead to irrevocable mistakes being made that will harm the environment and quality of life.

Addressing the Knesset plenum Wednesday, Netanyahu decried the "wave of populism" washing across the nation. In closed conversations, Netanyahu has made clear that he believes the protests are political rather than of a social activist nature, and are aimed at forcing him out of his post.

"This law has opened the taps for the population thirsty for housing at a reasonable price," Netanyahu said in a statement after the bill had passed.

During the debate that preceded the votes on the bill's second and third readings, several leaders of the tent protest - among them Stav Shafir - were removed from the visitors' gallery after they raised their crossed hands in protest. Kadima MKs, including party chairman Tzipi Livni, also crossed their hands - an act that has become one of the symbols of the struggle - during the debate.

"The real estate 'sharks' are getting a present of tens of millions," said MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ), summing up the debate for the opposition. The law, he said, would not improve the housing situation, and might even make things worse.

"The law ... will only serve the real estate sharks, who will build higher, stronger and more expensive [buildings]," Sheetrit added.

The law had a number of changes inserted before it passed. Among others, it was decided that land could be allocated specifically for "affordable housing," and that plans could include plans to build rental housing - apartments no larger than 75 meters that would be rented out for at least 10 years.

Tent protest leaders promised to intensify their activities in response to the law's passage, saying they had hoped Netanyahu would take the bill off the Knesset agenda as a sign of goodwill. "We are disappointed and intend to escalate our struggle," Shafir told Army Radio afterward.

Protesters are organizing a large demonstration to take place in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

"The prime minister sent us a signal, and we will send our own signal on Saturday night," said National Student Association president Itzik Shmuli. The decision to put the law to a vote while imposing coalition discipline "chokes off any chance for trust and true dialogue," he said.

Pesach Hausfater, the coordinator of the Dror Yisrael movement, called passage of the law "a stinging, painful slap in the face by the Israeli government."

Yonatan Levy, one of the protest leaders, explained the protesters' objections to the law. "Instead of increasing the state's involvement in housing and strengthening public oversight and planning, this law basically makes the planning mechanisms superfluous and weakens that ability of the public to have any influence on what's built," Levy said. "We have to strengthen the planning committees and make them more efficient, not just circumvent them.

"There's nothing in the law relating to affordable housing, to the type of apartments that will be built or to the population meant to be housed in these apartments," Levy added. "This law just removes another restraint from the unruly market."