Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: 26 July, 2011

Israel PM in hot seat over housing crisis

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.