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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu told representatives of some 30 independent charities and non-government organizations (NGOs) on Monday that he was ready to work together with them to beat the recession and continue helping them to provide assistance to the country's weakest populations.
"I really believe that he was listening to us," Ran Melamed, deputy director of Yedid, the association for community empowerment, told The Jerusalem Post following the meeting, which took place in the Knesset. "It lasted for three hours and he gave everyone the chance to speak. He did not make any hard promises, but he did say this would be one of his priorities."
"We all face a recession, which has already affected the lives of many Israelis," Netanyahu told those gathered. "My goal is to hear from the non-profit sector about how together we can find a solution and draft a socio-economic policy that will benefit everyone."
He also promised that he would work with the non-profit sector to "open the economy to those who are currently excluded, such as Arabs, haredim and women."
"We will not discriminate against any citizen of Israel, Arab or Jew," said Netanyahu, adding that he was determined to spread the wealth from the center of the country to poorer, peripheral areas such as the Galil and the Negev regions.
"I was very happy with the tone of the meeting and its outcome," observed Melamed, adding that Netanyahu made some concrete suggestions - such as reducing certain taxes paid by the non-profits and continuing the committee set up by incumbent prime minister Ehud Olmert as a link between the government and the third sector.
"He told us that the recession was a good time to make structural changes and that he would explore ways to further incorporate NGOs into the social welfare sector," reported Melamed.
Dr. Yitzhak Brick, Director General of JDC-ESHEL, the Association for the Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Israel, told the Post that the meeting sent a very positive message to NGOs.
"He asked lots of questions and really listened to the examples given by each organization," said Brick, who highlighted in the meeting the need for a government action plan to assist Israel's growing elderly population.
"This was an unprecedented meeting, he is not even officially prime minister yet but he listened to our needs for more than three hours," commented Eliezer Ya'ari, executive director of the New Israel Fund, who chastised the PM-designate in the meeting for not inviting representatives of Israel's Arab sector.
"Netanyahu agreed with me that they should have been there and told his assistants to make sure they would be present next time. I really felt that he was listening," Ya'ari said.
Currently, there are 22,200 active non-profits in Israel, which provide a wide range of essential welfare services from food aid distribution to educational programs to the country's needy population.
A study published in December by Ben Gurion University of the Negev's Israel Center for Third Sector Research found that a third of Israel's non-profits had already begun cutting back on their activities and predicted that some 4,000 charities could be forced to close their doors in the coming months due to the recession.
Last month, Olmert and Finance Minister Ronnie Bar On announced an NIS 6 million aid package aimed at easing the economic burdens faced by the non-profit sector. However, representatives of the NGOs claimed that the plan was not broad enough.