Israel's 'summer of discontent' over prices puts pressure on Netanyahu

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The Independent Online

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing the biggest test of his second term in office after tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets at the weekend to protest against spiralling living costs.

Small-scale demonstrations that started with tents being pitched in Tel Aviv in response to high rents have turned into a nationwide call for revolutionary social reform, prompting many Israeli commentators to wonder whether Mr Netanyahu's fragile coalition can survive the crisis.

As more than 150,000 protesters gathered at sites across Israel on Saturday night in one of the country's biggest protests in recent years, the embattled premier promised swift action, establishing a task force to examine their concerns. But he warned against populist measures that would plunge the country into a Europe-style economic crisis.

The protests, initially thought to pose little danger to the coalition, have rattled the government. Shas, the main religious party, has warned that it could leave Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition if substantive steps are not taken to alleviate the crisis, potentially triggering new elections.

But it is the political awakening of a largely passive and young middle class that commentators suggest is most dangerous, with activists dubbing it a "revolution of awareness". The protests, which have diverted attention from the Palestinian issue, have grown from a few hundred to tens of thousands in just a couple of weeks, encompassing multiple grievances from high taxes and food prices to the cost of education.

Public dissent has also reignited the simmering antipathy towards Israel's tycoon class, perceived as profiteering from cartels that have pushed up the prices of consumer goods with tacit support from successive Israeli governments.

One commentator, Yair Lapid, suggested that the middle class had become a de facto minority, unable to compete for the subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by more disadvantaged communities.

Mr Lapid wrote on Ynet, an Israeli news site: "[The middle class] became smaller and smaller and was pushed into a corner, and was angry quietly, until one day it ... discovered that something wonderful happened: it also turned into a minority."

It seemed unlikely yesterday that the government would meet all of the protesters' demands. At the weekly Cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu promised to avoid "irresponsible, hasty and populist steps that [could] drag the country down to the situation of certain countries in Europe, which reached the point of bankruptcy and mass unemployment".

Mr Netanyahu's Likud party has seen its poll ratings plummet in recent days, and commentators are now widely predicting that the summer of discontent could become the turning point of his premiership.

Dan Shilon wrote in the Maariv daily: "The mass demonstrations that swept Israel last night, Mr Prime Minister, will sweep you away as well."