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Netanyahu pledges reform as house rallies multiply

    The housing protests in Israel intensified this week with hundreds more tents popping up around the country, a mass rally in Tel Aviv and protestors blocking main roads.

    The protests are worrying the Likud. Many senior party members are concerned that if the middle-class campaign continues - coming on the heels of a successful boycott of expensive dairy products and coinciding with a prolonged doctors' strike - the party could lose the next elections.

    A new protest site was set up on Sunday outside the Knesset in Jerusalem and the activists there tried to block the road leading to the parliament.

    Despite the public anger, the Knesset Finance Committee this week approved a new planning law without any instructions to contractors on the provision of "affordable housing" in new building projects.

    Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held a series of emergency talks on new building initiatives and, on Monday, cancelled a trip to Poland in which he had planned to urge a vote against the UN resolution on an independent Palestinian state in September.

    Mr Netanyahu's advisers explained that he did not want to be seen as distant while the public expected action on the housing crisis. The Prime Minister's Office denied reports that Mr Netanyahu was considering firing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and replacing him with a more "social-minded" minister.

    On Tuesday morning, Mr Netanyahu announced plans for a sweeping reform of planning procedures. Under the reforms, new committees would streamline the process of awarding building permits, resulting in the construction of 50,000 new homes over the next 18 months.

    The Prime Minister also promised to allocate land for the building of 10,000 rental flats and student apartments. Finance Minister Steinitz said that 140,000 flats in Israel were empty or being used as offices and that his ministry would change tax rules to free up a proportion of them for housing.

    The promises did not seem to go down well at the largest protest site on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv, where activists booed as Mr Netanyahu announced his government's steps. "He is trying to buy off the students because he fears them the most," said one of the protest leaders, Yigal Rambam.

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