100,000 protest cost of living in Israel
JERUSALEM - Israeli media on Sunday hailed huge protests against the high cost of living, and warned that the new movement posed a serious challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The country's newspapers splashed their front pages with photographs of the estimated 100,000 people who turned out across Israel on Saturday night to demonstrate in favour of broad economic reforms.
And commentators welcomed the new "social justice" movement, urging Netanyahu's government to take it seriously.
"The people have expressed themselves," wrote commentator Ben Caspit in the Maariv daily. "The bad news for Netanyahu is the strength of the protest. The good news is that it doesn't touch his electoral base, particularly the religious public."
Caspit warned that the protesters have plenty of grievances to draw on and sustain the unrest.
"The housing crisis, health, education, petrol, child care and so many other things. It is all jumping up at once."
Nahum Barnea, writing in the daily Yediot Aharonot, described the protests as unprecedented.
"Whether the crowds numbered 100,000 or 200,000, never have such numbers descended into the streets over social issues," he wrote.
"Who would have believed that 150,000 Israelis would take the trouble to go out into the street in the name of social change?"
Barnea hailed the persistence and passion of the protest movement, saying that "the alienation and cynicism that typified the public in the past number of years has now been replaced by involvement and protest."
And he warned that the demonstrations, which have shown staying power since beginning in mid-July, will be "like a bone stuck in the government's throat."
Left-wing commentator Gideon Levy, known for his searing criticism of his countrymen over Israel's settlement policies, titled his commentary "The night I was proud to be Israeli."
"It was the night that every Israeli can and should be proud of being Israeli, as never before," he wrote.
"There can be no better public relations campaign for this despised, shunned country than the demonstration last night of this new Israel."
Levy warned that Netanyahu was "handed his walking papers" by the protesters.
"Israelis across the country scream, 'Bibi go home,' Bibi will indeed go home. Bye bye, Bibi, goodbye for good."
Breaking with the excited tone of coverage, the Israel Hayom newspaper, considered close to Netanyahu, focused on the reforms that his government is expected to take to "lower the cost of living and reduce indirect taxes."
But Yair Lapid, writing in Yediot Aharonot, encouraged the protesters to stay strong, telling them: "You won."
"You've defeated the perennial and false division between right and left, you've defeated the insulting distinction between centre and periphery, you've defeated the parties' central committees, the spin doctors, the media consultants, the rude Internet commenters," Lapid wrote.
"Mainly, you've won against the cynicism that had corrupted this country's soul."
More than 30,000 demonstrated in downtown Tel Aviv as thousands more marched in Jerusalem, in the northern city of Haifa and in Nazareth.
Organisers of the protests said that five thousand were marching in Jerusalem towards the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, carrying banners that read "A whole generation wants a future."
Demonstrations over the high cost of living spread in recent weeks throughout Israel, with demonstrators setting up protest camps to demand affordable housing and denounce social inequalities.
On Thursday protesters occupied the roof of the Tel Aviv stock exchange, a day after the powerful Histadrut labour union threw its support behind the demonstrators.
Histadrut said it was issuing Netanyahu with an ultimatum.
"If by Saturday evening, the prime minister has failed to meet with our secretary general Ofer Eini to discuss solutions to lift this social crisis, Histadrut will use all means at our disposal to support the demands of the protesters," a spokeswoman for the union said earlier this week.
She declined to say whether Histadrut would call on its members to join a general strike announced by Israel's Union of Local Authorities on Wednesday.
The August 1 one-day strike will see local authority offices shut down and rubbish collections halted.
Since 2004, Israel's economic growth rate has averaged 4.5 percent, while unemployment has fallen to around six percent from close to 11 percent over the same period.
But gaps between Israel's rich and poor are among the widest in the Western world. In 2011, Israel ranked fifth for unequal income distribution among the 34 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Netanyahu was forced to cancel a trip to Poland this week to address demonstrators and offered them reforms which they rejected as insufficient.