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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Israelis hold ‘million-man march,’ call on Netanyahu for economic reform

An estimated 400,000 Israelis protested against high living costs on Saturday and poured into the streets of major cities, mounting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to consider economic reform.

Organizers had called for a “million-man march,” while protest leaders called the movement a “moment of truth” for the Israeli government.

Protesters believe they not have felt the benefits of living in a nation that enjoys a growing economy and a low unemployment rate. Wage disparities and heavy tax burdens, on the middle class in particular, have caused thousands of demonstrators to call for reform.

Israeli news channel 10 estimated that 400,000 people were demonstrating in cities and towns across the Jewish state, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
But Israeli police had declined to give estimates for crowd figures, despite giving figures for earlier protests which first began in July, inspired by groups of student tent-squatters.

The majority of protesters on the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday are mostly young and secular, AFP reported.

“An entire generation wants a future,” read one banner held by a protester, as demonstrators shouted “the people demand social justice.”

“Tonight is the pinnacle moment of a historic protest,” Amir Rochman, 30, an activist from Israel’s Green Party told Reuters.

Addressing the crowd in Tel Aviv, student union president Itzik Shmuli said the turnout showed the continued strength of the movement, AFP reported.

“They told us that the movement was slowing down. Tonight we are showing that it’s the opposite,” he said.

“We are the new Israelis, determined to continue the fight for a fairer and better society, knowing that it will be long and difficult,” he told the cheering protesters.

Protesters accuse Netanyahu of failing to take seriously their calls for sweeping economic change. Young people have spoken of their inability to find affordable housing, while many Israelis have also complained of rising food and commodity prices.

Demonstrators have laid blame on Israel’s main supermarket chains for unfair pricing. One sign carried by a demonstrator in Tel Aviv on Saturday read: “The land of milk and honey, but not for everybody,”

The popular movement has catapulted the economy onto Israel’s political agenda upstaging a diplomatic face-off with the Palestinians for UN recognition of statehood and posing the greatest challenge yet to Netanyahu, halfway into his term.

The weekly protests prompted Netanyahu − a champion of free market reform − to set up a committee now exploring a broad revamp of economic policies. The government has also announced housing and consumer market reforms.

But Netanyahu has warned he would not be able to satisfy all the protesters’ demands, ranging from tax cuts, to expansion of free education and bigger government housing budgets.

“Priorities must be set, one thing comes at the expense of another,” Roni Sofer, a spokesman for Netanyahu, told Israel Radio on Saturday, adding that the government would not break its budget.
Netanyahu’s governing coalition faces no immediate threat, but the protests have underscored the potential electoral impact of a middle class rallying under a banner of “social justice” and rewriting a political agenda long dominated by security issues.

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