Some two hundred thousand Israelis marched in the centre of Tel Aviv on Saturday
Some two hundred thousand Israelis march in the centre of Tel Aviv on August 6, demanding social justice and to pressure the government into reforms to ease living costs. Israel's protest movement has shown the breadth of its appeal by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrations, but now it faces tough choices about priorities that could risk dividing its ranks. © David Buimovitch - AFP/File
Some two hundred thousand Israelis marched in the centre of Tel Aviv on Saturday
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Marius Schattner, AFP
Last updated: August 9, 2011

Israeli protesters seek radical change

Israel's protest movement has shown the breadth of its appeal by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrations, but now it faces tough choices about priorities that could risk dividing its ranks.

"Our delegates met to draft a list of demands which will be presented to the government and which will form the basis for the continuation of the struggle," Hadas Kushlevitch, a student union delegate in the movement told AFP on Monday.

"We demand a halt to privatisation, cuts to indirect taxes, a comprehensive programme for affordable housing and free schooling from an early age," she said.

What is less clear is how the movement wants to finance the reforms.

While some left-leaning activists have talked about increased taxes on the wealthy and cuts to spending on defence and settlements, Kushlevitch was reluctant to endorse any financing structure.

"At this stage we're not raising the question of financing," Kushlevitch said.

Also kept off the table so far has been a call for the ouster of Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu's government, for fear of splitting the current coalition along partisan lines.

Speaking on Sunday of the "genuine distress" expressed by the movement, Netanyahu announced the formation of a committee of "professionals from within and outside the government" headed by a distinguished economist and educational administrator.

The team is to hold round-table discussions with representatives of the 40 or so social organisations in the movement and report to a 17-member ministerial committee led by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

"We will listen to everyone. We will speak with everyone. We will hold a genuine dialogue, not pressured and perfunctory, but we will really listen both to the distress and to the proposals for solutions," Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting.

He warned, however, that the government would be "unable to please everybody."

Economist Aryeh Arnon, a professor at Ben Gurion University in the southern city of Beersheva, said that while the government might meet some of the protesters' demands it would not abandon its conservative economic ideology.

"Given the strength of the movement, it is possible that the government will concede on this or that point but not on fundamental change," he said.

"Their claims go straight to the... beliefs of a prime minister who is a supporter of excessive privatisation with a blind faith in the virtues of the market," he added.

"So far the movement, in order to stay united, has maintained a certain ambiguity about its objectives but at some point it will have to say from where it expects to find the 20 to 30 billion shekels (4-6 billion euros, $5.7 billion-$8.5 billion) to finance social reforms," Arnon said.

On Saturday, three weeks after they began, public protests snowballed, with more than 250,000 demonstrators on the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities calling for "social justice."

Facing public anger, government ministers led by Netanyahu took a conciliatory tone, describing the grass roots movement as "authentic" and "proof of the vitality of Israeli democracy," which they contrasted with repression of protest in Arab countries.

But they have also cautioned against populist spending, which Steinitz has warned is particularly dangerous at a time when financial markets are unstable.

Such arguments have yet to convince activists, who are outraged by a wide gulf between rich and poor that has made income disparity in Israel among the highest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Anger is likely to be fuelled by the announcement on Monday of a 10 percent rise in electricity prices, even though the prices were originally set to rise by twice as much because of disruptions in natural gas supplies from Egypt.

The treasury acted to lower taxes on the diesel fuel that is being used to replace the natural gas, in a bid to minimise the electricity price hike.

Despite the risks ahead, protesters like Micha Kutz, a social worker camping out at a protest tent city in Jerusalem, say they are ready to stick it out for the reforms they seek.

"We are committed to remaining in our tents as long as is necessary, even if for months," she said at the encampment, one of 70 which protesters have set up around the country.

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