Netanyahu digs in as tent city protest grows

The protest at the centre of Tel Aviv last Saturday: an estimated quarter of a million took to the streets

The protest at the centre of Tel Aviv last Saturday: an estimated quarter of a million took to the streets

The leaders of the social protest movement in Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week entrenched themselves in their opposing positions.

Mr Netanyahu established on Monday a committee of experts to talk to the protesters, who last week published a detailed list of economic and social demands. The protesters responded by announcing their own team of negotiators.

The government's committee, headed by chairman of the universities planning and budgetary board Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, and consisting of establishment economic and social affairs advisers, is supposed to start meeting the leaders of the protest movement in the next few days. It will also name the government's "Social-Economic Cabinet", a committee of 12 ministers, in a month.

The protesters accused the government of "dragging its feet" and trying to "suffocate the protest", and formed their own team of experts - academics with a social-democratic agenda - who met them in Tel Aviv.

Stav Shafir, one of the leaders of the protest, said that they were not trying to topple the government but "there is an issue here of distrust. We have been on the street for almost a month and the government still hasn't treated us with any seriousness. The team they set up is not serious, it is just another attempt to drag things out."

While senior Likud members and ministers have tried in recent weeks to dismiss the protests as "spoilt and greedy", other leading politicians of the governing party have taken heed of the under-current within Likud, expressing concern that the ongoing wave of middle-class discontent could cost them the next elections.

On Tuesday, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz visited the protesters in Tel-Aviv, saying that "the protest is real", and promising that the government was listening to their demands and working to change its economic and social policies.

This week, new sectors joined the protest, with a group of settlers hailing from the illegal outposts in the West Bank setting up their own tents at the main protest site on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and causing some of the mainly left-wing protesters to try to evict them. Hundreds of pensioners marched in Tel Aviv on Monday, identifying with the younger generation's protest and calling upon Mr Netanyahu to prevent cuts to their benefits.

Meanwhile, the Knesset is to meet next week on Tuesday for an emergency session on the social protests, following a demand signed by 50 opposition Knesset members.

Main opposition party Kadima, which led the demand, issued a statement saying that "the government is headed by a man who ignores public protests and mocks its motives, denying the outcry. Netanyahu is directly responsible over the past two years for the heavy load of taxes on water, electricity, council rates, public transport and food products. He insisted on the Knesset going out to recess and tried to strangle the public debate."

Last updated: 12:03pm, August 11 2011