Friday, July 29, 2011

Apartment prices are not the story, The tent folks really want Netanyahu's head

(Shlomo Cesana-Israelhayom).Ten days passed between the start of the tent protest and the presentation of the government's program.

On the one hand, there's a problem: a thriving economy, a historic low in unemployment and a stability that is the envy of Western economies. On the other hand, there's a protest: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said it was justified, but the folks from the tents really want his head. A third viewpoint is that of the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development, which says these are “rich people's problems,” but the truly rich, the tycoons, are actually enjoying themselves. And from yet another perspective, Netanyahu's advisers have identified an effort to turn the tent demonstrations into those that caused the fall of the Olmert government after the Second Lebanon War.

“Each of you deserves an apartment. You, the young people, the salt of the earth. For that reason I have decided to build, at the government's expense, three more stories onto each building on Rothschild Boulevard, and that's where we'll house the leaders of the protest. We'll do this in every city and we will house everyone who is having problems finding reasonable housing, according to clear criteria.”

That was the part missing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday during the presentation of the plan for dealing with the high cost of housing in Israel. But since no one was prepared to add this imaginary paragraph to the speech, it was clear that no matter what the government offered, it would be met with rejection.

While the government's plan was being presented, television channels showed a split screen between the press conference and the tent city. Those who read the websites could note an attempt to draw comparisons between what was happening with us and what happened in Tahrir Square, where the protest led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The financial newspaper Globes went the furthest, running long tracts of the words of Local Authorities Union Chairman Shlomo Bukhbut who said, “The demonstrations could still ignite. Cars and stores would be burned, tycoons' assets would be damaged. I don't think Netanyahu would order the army to open fire on citizens.”

Ten days passed between the start of the tent protest and the presentation of the government's program. The prime minister's aim in presenting it was to show that he is a leader with solutions. It seems that it was clear to him from the beginning that he could not simply say, “I was the first to identify the problem,” but that he had to take action as well, and now.

A plan for taking down the tents

According to the polls, the public identifies with the struggle and does not separate it from the demonstrators. The government made this distinction. In a speech in response to the government decision, protest leader Daphni Leef said, “When we came out here, they said we were spoiled rich kids. Then we were joined by people from all parts of the political rainbow. We represent the entire people, and Bibi dares to look us in the eyes and lie.”

Netanyahu decided not to be interviewed or to meet the demonstrators, but he had an indirect conversation with them. He did so even when it was clear that no matter what he offered, they would not take the tents down.

“The housing problem is a real one, and it's not something that someone is making up, it's not fake,” Netanyahu said at a press conference Tuesday. “Anyone with eyes in their heads and empathy in their hearts understands it's a problem, because young people earning a salary, and even those earning good salaries, aren't able to buy apartments.” He also responded to calls for social justice, saying, “The right approach for Israel is to mix a free market economy with social justice.”

The press conference was long and had many speakers, but represented Netanyahu's true beliefs. He clarified matters: I have identified the problem, and it's being taken care of. But he was then asked if he was now presenting a program because of the pressure.

“It's clear that the solution was presented after things started boiling over,” Netanyahu’s associates admitted. But they totally rejected opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni's claim that, “This is a plan for taking down tents, not building houses.”

“I have been dealing with the problem for many months,” Netanyahu said. “I have a very systematic approach, and we are taking dramatic steps to change the face of our economy and society by solving the housing crisis, improving our connection to the periphery, making more land available for building and simplifying the bureaucracy.

“These aren't things that came into being over the past week and a half ... I see nothing wrong with us being attentive to public pressure and its distress. Just the opposite, [if we did nothing] I think you would say that this is a government which is not attentive to such things. In my estimation, we have a solution at hand and a message. We will find a solution for the housing problem like we did with the economy.”

“Let's put things in the proper perspective,” Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beitenu party head Avigdor Lieberman after the prime minister's press conference. “I spoke with members of the OECD in Europe and they say these are rich people's problems.” Lieberman defended his besieged political rivals, saying “This whole attack on the prime minister and the finance minister is not right. The crisis wasn't born yesterday, we're talking about years of neglect and the picture we're seeing isn't correct.”

“Netanyahu's package of aid to the students is historic and unprecedented,” admitted National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli, but then said he and his friends would not give up the fight because doing so would be “irresponsible and immoral act.”

From Netanyahu's perspective, a member of his bureau explained this week, he is not taking care of the problem caused by the demonstrators, but rather of the housing problem. The prime minister loves the challenge. “The market is like a boiling water heater,” Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias said. “We're pouring in some cold water. That has an effect, and the whole boiler will cool off. That way we'll lower prices throughout the market.” A ministerial assistant added, “We're lucky that the economy is steady and unemployment is at a low point, and anyone who hasn't already left on a vacation abroad has time to demonstrate.”

Politically, the Prime Minister's Office has noticed some people are trying to turn the tent protest into the type of protest there were against former prime minister Ehud Olmert after the Second Lebanon War. But even then it was not' the protests that brought down the government.

What will happen with the doctors' protest, the expected 12 percent increase in the price of electricity, or the 0.30 shekel rise in the price of gas? What is more important, what is more just? Decisions cannot be based purely on the success of pressure groups. “It is impossible to bring down a government with a guitar,” a Netanyahu associate said this week. “You need 61 votes for that [a majority in the Knesset] and I don't think Daphni will be able to get them ... It has been two weeks and the subject is still in the headlines, but in the end the protest will be seen in its proper proportions.”