Netanyahu: The market will remain free despite reforms

After National Housing Committees bill passes in Knesset, PM says reforms meant to solve high cost of living by slashing prices.

netanyahu knesset_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
netanyahu knesset_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his goal is to respond to social issues while keeping the market free, shortly after the linchpin of his housing reform passed in its third (final) reading in the Knesset on Wednesday.
The prime minister told the plenum that the Israeli economy was enjoying unprecedented growth, adding that the average salary in Israel was higher than that of many European states.
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“Then why, you ask, do Israelis have trouble finishing the month? Because our prices are higher than those in Europe,” Netanyahu said, explaining that his reforms are meant to solve the current socioeconomic problems by slashing prices.
Lamenting the “wave of populism that hit the Knesset,” Netanyahu explained that “the solutions must preserve the free market, while responding to social issues.”
Netanyahu’s National Housing Committees bill passed with 57 MKs in favor and 45 opposed on the final day of the Knesset’s session before the summer recess.
MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) summed up the opposition’s reservations about the bill, which were presented by MKs for hours on Monday and Tuesday before the bill was brought to a vote.
“Real-estate sharks are going to receive a multi-million- shekel gift today,” Sheetrit said. “This law will have a negative influence on building processes here, and will serve real-estate sharks, who will build higher, stronger and more expensively.”
Chairman of the joint Knesset Economics and Interior Committee on the bill Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud) spoke out against those who said Netanyahu and his housing bill would help real-estate tycoons get richer.
He scolded opposition MKs for spreading “senseless hatred, which caused the destruction of the [Second] Temple on the ninth of Av 2,000 years ago.
“Anyone who saw this bill, or even skimmed it, knows only the government, municipalities and the Israel Lands Authority can submit plans to National Housing Committees,” he pointed out.
Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) compared the current construction planning process to a traffic jam.
“People wait in line for five years because plans are backed up,” he explained, adding that the new bill would drastically shorten the planning process.
The housing minister also addressed complaints that the bill does not provide enough “accessible housing.”
“The real problem is that there is no legal definition of ‘accessible housing’ – who deserves it, how much money would that person make,” Attias explained. “We would have to pass a separate bill for that.”
The National Housing Committees Bill is one of the central components of Netanyahu’s housing-reform plan, meant to circumvent the usual construction- planning bureaucracy in order to build new homes.
The bill will allow for the temporary formation of six national-housing committees, which would work to accelerate the process of approving building projects in the next year and a half.
There will be one committee in every region in Israel, responsible for providing all the authorizations necessary to begin construction, only for projects with over 200 homes built mostly on state land.
A number of changes to the bill were approved in its second reading.
For example, some of the homes will be designated as rentals for the next 10 years. A housing project for minority groups may have only 100 homes, a change made in response to complaints that the bill was irrelevant to small Arab towns. In addition, the Knesset will investigate the bill’s implementation every four months.
Immediately following the vote, the Knesset discussed a letter drafted by Kadima and signed by 40 MKs on “the failures of the Netanyahu government in diplomatic, economic and social matters.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) said “a government that the people oppose is not legitimate.
This is a real democracy,” she added, in reference to the housing protesters.
“This is not a protest against the State of Israel, but for it. However, this is a protest against the policies of the government you head.
“They are screaming for social justice, not charity or favors, but justice,” Livni said, quoting a popular Israeli rap song where everyone is talking about peace, but no one talks about justice.
“You say you understand economics,” she said. “Maybe you do, but you do not understand people.
While you are proud of low unemployment rates, you do not see the people who work hard, but still have hard lives.”
MK Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima) also spoke out.
“I saw you and [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz sitting and laughing this week,” he said to Netanyahu.
“What reason do you have to smile or laugh?” Bar-On was referring to a Likud faction meeting in which a Likud mayor said the protest tents were filled with “sushi eaters and hookah smokers.”
“You quickly took advantage of the opportunity to cause conflict and split up parts of the nation. You said that only Ashkenazi Jews were there, and no Sephardi ones or right-wing people,” Bar-On said. “You really are at your best,” he commented sarcastically.
MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) called Bar- On a “corrupt dog,” an “embarrassment” and an “idiot,” before being removed from the plenum.
Later, MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) said Bar-On’s words could not have been harsher had he “hit Netanyahu on the head with a bat.”
“This is a democracy, but first we should be civilized,” he said.
Various opposition MKs said the prime minister was ignoring the public protests.
UAL-Ta’al MK Masud Gnaim compared the protests to the French Revolution.
“People took to the streets in France, and the king did not understand what was happening until someone said: ‘Sir, this is a revolution.’ The same is happening with Netanyahu,” he said.
Gnaim lamented the problems with planning and construction in Arab villages, saying, “This government only deals with Arab homes through destruction and bulldozers.”
Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach pointed out that “when the opposition does not have the power, they say they’ll give out apartments, free education, whatever the public asks for. It almost makes me miss those days.” However, “when you were in power, you all behaved like Likudniks,” he quipped.
Following the approval of the bill, tent city protesters across the country issued their condemnation of the government and vowed to launch more and more protest actions, including another mass rally in Tel Aviv this Saturday night.
Roee Neuman, a spokesman for the tent city protest movement, said after the law passed that “the government of Israel headed by [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu has proven its total obtuseness vis-a-vis the citizens of the state of Israel. This past weekend, 150,000 people took to the streets shouting for social justice.
The law that was just passed proves the State of Israel only cares about its wealthy citizens.”
Head of the National Student Union Itzik Shmueli said Wednesday that “the decision to pass the law is unfortunate and disappointing. In addition, in recent days, the student union and other bodies have taken great steps to unify and consolidate the various groups taking part in the struggle in order to make it possible to launch a real dialogue with the government.”
By using coalition discipline to pass the vote, Shmuli said, the government “is defying and suffocating the prospect of trust and genuine dialogue” with the public.
Shmueli said he believed the vote would bring tens of thousands of Israelis out into the streets.
The Jerusalem tent protest released a statement condemning the passage of the law, which they claimed was “a cover for the continued policy of preference for tycoons over the public good.”
In response, they planned a nighttime operation to paper the exteriors of neglected buildings and expensive apartment towers with signs reading, “They won’t be building accessible housing here.”
Regev Kuntas, one of the more visible leaders of the Rothschild Boulevard tent city in Tel Aviv, said the approval of the law showed “the government doesn’t want dialogue with the people and isn’t listening to the protest.”
He said he opposed the law because “we want government supervision of housing prices in order to protect the middle class.
Now not only will prices continue to go up, there will be no supervision over where or what type of building is done. It will all be left in the hands of contractors.”
Uri Metuki, head of the Dror Yisrael organization, which was among those groups that took part in the negotiations on Tuesday and Wednesday to formulate demands to present to the government, said the vote was “a slap in the face” to the protest movement and the people of Israel.
“While we were meeting to discuss our demands, they decided to pass a law that benefits only tycoons.”
Metuki vowed the protests would continue across Israel, and said he had no doubt that this Saturday’s would be even larger than those last Saturday evening in which an estimated 150,000 Israelis took part.
“Two weeks ago, I didn’t expect that we’d have 30,000 people out protesting in Tel Aviv. I didn’t believe at all that we’d have 150,000 last Saturday.
I think anything’s possible now.”
Melanie Lidman contributed to this article.