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Israeli parliament holds special session on protests

August 16, 2011

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem August 14, 2011. –Reuters Photo

JERUSALEM: Israeli MPs interrupted their summer recess on Tuesday to participate in a special debate on protests over the cost of living that has shaken the Jewish state in recent weeks.

“This special session was demanded by 25 lawmakers and will be devoted to the questions raised by the wave of demonstrations against the high cost of living in Israel,” parliamentary spokesman Yotam Yakir told AFP.

The session comes after a month of mass protests against the high price of food, housing, education and health care have swept through the country.

The unrest began in mid-July when disgruntled activists pitched protest tents in a wealthy district of Tel Aviv to illustrate their inability to afford housing in the city.

Their protest quickly snowballed into a much larger movement, tapping into deep frustration across Israel over the cost of living and income disparity.

The movement managed to bring at least 250,000 people into the streets across Israel on August 6, for the largest demonstrations over a social issue in the history of the Jewish state.

Polls show the movement has support from some 80 per cent of the Israeli public, and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been keen to show that protesters' demands have not fallen on deaf ears.

The premier cancelled a foreign trip to address the issue, and has set up a committee headed by respected economist Manuel Trajtenberg to draft reform proposals.

But he has also warned that Israel will not spend outside its current budget and that the sweeping and costly economic reforms championed by protesters could push the Jewish state into a financial crisis.

Israel's opposition has seized on the social upheaval to attack Netanyahu's government, with Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, accusing the prime minister of failing to understand the protesters.

The demonstrators have reacted cautiously to Netanyahu's commission, welcoming the appointment of Trajtenberg, but also setting up their own alternative committee of experts, who will deliver their own proposed reforms within the next 10 days.

Protesters were expected to stage new demonstrations outside the Knesset as lawmakers met inside for the debate.

The debate on Tuesday will involve discussion of the social upheaval but the parliament is not expected to take action on any reforms until it returns fully from its summer recess in late October.