Israel PM in hot seat over housing crisis
By Charly Wegman (AFP)
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday unveiled a series of reforms to address a massive housing crisis which has sparked the biggest social protests seen in the Jewish state since the 1970s.
Over the past 12 days, tens of thousands of Israelis have flocked to camp out on the streets in a series of tent protests across the country, reaching the gates of the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Such widespread social upheaval has not been seen in Israel since the early 1970s when thousands of people, led by a group called the Black Panthers, took to the streets to protest the racial discrimination suffered by Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent.
As tens of thousands rallied in Tel Aviv over the weekend, and hundreds more set up fresh tent camps and blocked roads on Sunday and Monday, Netanyahu cancelled a one-day trip to Poland in a bid to tackle the unrest.
“The housing crisis in Israel is a real problem,” Netanyahu said in a speech Tuesday broadcast live on the country’s main TV and radio stations.
“The main way to lower the prices of apartments in the long term is to build a lot more apartments.”
Netanyahu criticised “the monopoly” on construction on land held by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), which controls some 90 percent of the territory.
And he unveiled a plan to reduce the cost of such land, and to attack the cumbersome bureaucracy that has delayed housing starts.
He said some 50,000 homes would be built and put on the market in the next 18 months, and pledged to build 10,000 dormitory places for university and college students, who would also benefit from subsidised public transport.
The plan, which will be put before parliament for a vote next week, would “break the locks” on the red tape which has been slowing down on the construction of homes, he said.
The crisis has put huge pressure on Netanyahu and a survey published in the Haaretz newspaper on Tuesday showed the housing protest was backed by 87 percent of Israelis and was costing him political support.
Respondents said that if an election was called today, the opposition Labour party would win double the eight seats it currently holds, at the expense of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the centrist Kadima, each of which would lose four seats.
Labour strongly condemned Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech as “lacking content” and an “apparent attempt to bribe” the protesters.
“Netanyahu’s speech did not provide real and sustainable solutions and his proposals put a sticking-plaster on a fundamental and deep problem which has suffered years of neglect,” party chairman Micha Harish said in a statement.
Over the past few days, the protesters have begun rallying in the streets, blocking traffic at major intersections in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheva under the slogan: “We are fighting for a roof.”
On Saturday night, tens of thousand of people held a mass rally in Tel Aviv, while on Sunday, more than 1,000 protesters gathered outside the parliament in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s government is also facing pressure from a long-running doctors’ strike over over pay and conditions, with medics announcing plans to step up their protest with a series of wildcat strikes in Israel’s public hospitals, the Maariv newspaper reported.
As part of the campaign, Israel Medical Association chief Dr Leonid Eidelman began an open-ended hunger strike to demand that Netanyahu, who is also responsible for the health portfolio, take action.
Eidelman and another 20 senior IMA personnel are currently marching from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where they will meet with medics from across the country to stage a rally outside Netanyahu’s office on Thursday, press reports said.
“128 days of struggle and we ask: where is prime minister and health minister Netanyahu?” Eidelman said on Monday in comments carried by Maariv.
“The deterioration in the health care system has been going on for two years, but under your watch, it has become intolerable.”
Since 2004, Israel’s economic growth rate has averaged 4.5 percent, while unemployment has fallen to around 6.0 percent from close to 11.0 percent over the same period.
But public disgruntlement is growing, fuelled by almost-daily revelations of social inequality, injustice and corruption.
A consumer boycott of cottage cheese launched recently on Facebook quickly led to a fall in prices of the Israeli staple, in a success which many believe has fuelled the housing demonstrations.
Israeli housing protest makes no connection to the occupation
Aziz Abu Sarah, +972
Israel is doing better than ever, I was told by a right wing activist just a few weeks ago. He is not alone in this belief. Many right wing activists argue that Netanyahu achieved most of his campaign promises. They claim that he kept Israel safe. He was successful in saving the economy in the midst of a worldwide recession. But most importantly he did not compromise with the Palestinians. The right wing activist I spoke to, pointed out to the small numbers showing up at the Leftist protests as proof that most Israelis are satisfied with the current government’s policies and actions.
On July 15 Hanoch Daum wrote on Ynetnews that Israel is doing just fine. He pointed to a verity of facts and statistics that supported the claim of Israel living its golden are.
After all, what’s really happening in Israel at this time? The unemployment rate is at a 20-year low, last month the number of tourists who arrived in Israel was the highest in more than a decade, and the personal security situation is the best we have seen here in the past 30 years or so. Generally speaking, people no longer fear terrorism as they did in the past and they also do not feel that they are about to lose their jobs.
This argument doesn’t hold water anymore. It seems like many Israelis didn’t receive Mr. Daum’s memo about Israel’s golden era. On Saturday tens of thousands protested the housing problem in Tel Aviv. The main squares in Israel have become tent cities. Medical doctors and students are protesting their working conditions as the prices of food and gas are increasing rapidly. School teachers’ paychecks are shrinking every year . The social democratic ideals upon which Israel was established are evaporating. The rich are getting richer and the poor remain poor.
Israel’s low unemployment rate and high GDP are indeed impressive, but not necessarily indicative of a healthy community. China has the second largest economy in the world and has one of the highest GDPs. However, China is run by dictators and is filled with poor people. Many of Israel’s poor are the employed poor.
What amazes me is many Israelis’ inability to make the connection between the continuation of the occupation and the domestic problems Israel faces today; Israel is building constantly in the West Bank but it is failing to provide housing to its citizens within Israel proper. The current Israeli government’s focus on improving living standards in settlements while failing to do the same for the rest of the country is a moral failure.
According to a Peace Now report published on July 20, settlers in the West Bank receive 69 percent discount on the value of the land (so that buyers have to pay only 31 percent of the price of the land) and 50 percent funding of the development costs of the building project. In 2009 Israel investment of settlements public building (excluding East Jerusalem) was 431 million shekels, which was 15.36 percent of all public investment in construction for housing that year, despite the fact that they compose only 4 percent of the residents of Israel.
Israel’s focus on sustaining the occupation and growing settlements is paid for by reducing development and the quality of life in the rest of Israel. Perhaps, Hanoch Daum is right about many Israelis’ inability to see the writing on the wall even if it hits them in the face.
I watch the news and see nothing that will give away, even through a small hint, the minute and apparently not so important fact that Israel is currently experiencing one of the finest periods in its history.
Apparently some people are like ostriches, they do well by putting their heads into the sand. Their inability to understand the consequences from a domestic policy that ends the social structure and ethical values of Israel for the sake of a good GDP number is saddening. The Knesset’s ability to pass legislation that drives Israel further from democracy without a real public outcry is a sign of disconnect. And like China’s occupation of Tibet, some Israelis are comfortable with occupying the Palestinian territories without a hinge on their conscience.
Israelis cannot afford to continue voting out of fear, basing their choices on security issues, or they will have the illusion of a secure state without any social of ethical standards. Many Israelis might n0t make the connection yet, but the struggle in Israel today is not about improving housing and social conditions, but is between those who seek to have a democratic state with social and moral structure and those who see China’s dictatorship as a good model toward becoming a major economic power.
Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who divides his time between Jerusalem and Washington D.C.
Aziz is a columnist with Al Quds newspaper and is the co-executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Aziz runs alternative tours to the Middle East with a focus on Israel and the West-Bank through MEJDI a social enterprise he co-founded.