by Dave Bender, Gur Salomon, Susana Mendoza
More than 250,000 Israelis take part in a massive rally to protest against high cost of living, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 6, 2011. (Xinhua/Yin Dongxun)
JERUSALEM, Aug. 7 (Xinhua) -- In what appears to be a record- breaking turnout, a conservatively-estimated 300,000 Israelis from all walks of life packed city squares across the country Saturday night, calling for "social justice," a blanket term covering demands for reforms in housing, taxes, healthcare, childcare, and education.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning announced the partial makeup of the social-economic committee tasked with responding to the protesters' demands, only three weeks after a Facebook protest page over the high cost of housing in the center of the country exploded into tent camps from the northern Galilee down to the Red Sea port of Eilat.
Netanyahu, in remarks at the weekly Sunday morning cabinet session, enumerated "a change in priorities, aimed at easing the economic burden on the citizens of Israel," including "a change in tax payments; third, expanded access to social services; fourth, increasing competition and efficiency in the marketing of goods and services, aimed at lowering prices. Fifth, steps to implement the housing program that we have already set forth."
Netanyahu added that the steps would be taken with "fiscal responsibly, vis a vis the national budget," and "with responsibility in a period of economic uncertainty," according to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called the public turnout " impressive" in an interview with Army radio, adding that Israel's cost of living, in his opinion, was "unjustifiable and unreasonable."
Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, formerly the head of the National Economic Council, will head the 17-member committee, which will include two outside observers.
Trajtenberg told Netanyahu that he accepted the role "with great excitement, since before us is a rare opportunity to bring about a real change in our dear country. On the other hand, with heavy apprehension over the immense responsibility involved in this mission, and from the size of the expectations and the risks. "
PMO Director-General Eyal Gabbai told Israel Radio Sunday morning that the group would present its recommendations to the government within a month.
Protest leaders hailed the size of the turnout.
"There have always been demonstrations and rallies to protest the past, yet this is the first time hundreds of thousands of people are gathering time and again to tell our leaders: We demand change," National Student Union leader Itzik Shmuli told the crowds in Tel Aviv.
However, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who sits on the panel, suggested to Israel radio on Sunday that "The protest cannot dictate every government decision. Not everyone who is leading it is a professional. The government has to produce solutions, and it will be put to the test. To those concerned about the price of housing, there is a message here: there will be much more significant construction of residential housing that will bring about a lowering of prices."
Pundits had a field day analyzing the significance of the unprecedented wave of public support.
Nahum Barnea, a veteran political analyst for the Yedioth Aharonot daily, wrote Sunday that "The general feeling is that the government is cut off from the citizen's hardships, doesn't provide services at an adequate level and resorts to injustice in the division of burden and privileges. Netanyahu and his ministers won't be able to overlook this public cry. Not because they are convinced it is just, but because it represents a force that threatens their continued rule."
Barnea's colleague, Sima Kadmon, believed the protest in Tel Aviv was the "biggest display of dissatisfaction in Israeli history. They were not anarchists, not leftists, but the people of Israel. You would have seen an entire apathetic nation, switched off, hopeless - that has come alive."
Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon took the opposite tack, saying that the protest was a backhanded compliment to the prime minister.
"If anything, this demonstration is a demonstration of trust in Netanyahu - though that may sound upside-down: 'Sir, we demand of you, we insist, you know how to, you are capable of fixing this,'" Kahlon said, and pointed out the seeming lack of public support for the opposition party, Kadima.
"This doesn't feel like an anti-government protest," Amir Mizroch, editor of Israel Hayom's English Newsletter Edition wrote on his personal blog.
"The people here want the government to fix things, to get to work. If it doesn't, then it should go. That's democracy. That's the middle class way," according to Mizroch.
Netanyahu has so far refused to meet with protest movement leaders, claiming that they represent a political left-wing agenda that aimed at toppling the government.
The New Israel Fund, which largely supports left-of-center issues, was an early financial backer of the protests, and in recent days sent an urgent email request to donors to continue funding their activities.
"None of us knows for sure what this movement will achieve, but we do know that the government is hoping that the protests will just fizzle out. We can't let that happen. The people in the streets want to keep the pressure on. They're coming to us for help," a copy of the letter obtained by Xinhua read.
While organizers said the protests were apolitical, the nation- shaking events are taking place in the final three days before the Jewish national day of mourning and fasting, Tisha B'av, which falls on Tuesday.
The 24-hour fast commemorates the fall of the First and Second Jewish Commonwealth and the beginning of Jewish exile, as well as many other historical tragedies that befell the Jewish people.
In hopes of averting similar polarizing infighting in the protesters' disparate social messages and demands, religious groups at the Tel Aviv rally handed out traditional Jewish blessings among the tent-dwellers, according to Israel National Radio.
"In these tents, there shall be no division. In this dwelling, all of the People of Israel are invited. Every man, woman and child is invited to participate in this protest. This place carries a blessing of love and peace," the message read.
Group leaders said, "The 'Blessing of the Tent' is our means of delivering a message that the protest belongs to everyone and is above politics."