JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s parliament interrupted its summer recess on Tuesday to debate popular protests against high living costs but there seemed to be little sense of urgency among the smattering of lawmakers, some of whom tapped away on mobile phones and iPads.
“Israelis have turned this summer into a summer of hope,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party said at the session, where government seats were largely empty.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose free-market policies and lower taxes for high earners and companies have been challenged by a month-long surge of demonstrations for economic and social reform, was out observing construction of a new train line that he said would help young couples commute to city jobs from outlying towns where housing costs are lower.
The centrist Kadima party introduced a motion, one of four on the assembly’s agenda, accusing Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition of “foot-dragging” in addressing demands from the public to cut taxes and housing prices.
In procedural votes, legislators agreed to debate the motions further in future sessions. Tuesday’s session was the first convened in the Knesset to discuss the phenomenon of urban protest encampments of students and young families that have mushroomed in Israeli cities.
“They studied in schools and universities because their parents told them that if they excelled, they would succeed in life,” Livni said in her speech.
“So they did well in their studies, but they feel that their life has not turned into the success story they dreamed of.”
Netanyahu has named a team of experts to look into possible reforms. But he and financial officials have cautioned against any expansion of the state budget, wary of signs the economy is weakening due partly to a spreading global financial crisis.
He has asked the panel to submit recommendations within a month.
“We are experiencing great turbulence,” Netanyahu told a parliamentary finance panel on Monday, adding: “We want to deal with both these problems -- to relieve the cost of living and reduce gaps.” He also promised “substantial changes.”
Efforts by Netanyahu’s government to address popular grievances seemed further complicated on Monday when an alternative panel of university professors stepped forward pledging to help protesters meet their goals.
The Israeli protests, a rare sustained outburst of anger over domestic policies, have drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets since mid-July, when dozens first camped out on a Tel Aviv boulevard to complain of soaring rents, supermarket prices and taxes.
Soon a so-called middle-class revolt gathered momentum and spread to other cities, spawning several mass rallies.
Saying they want to unite Israelis, protest leaders have largely steered clear of the divisive issue of how to achieve Middle East peace, even as Palestinians prepare a bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations next month in the absence of talks with Israel.
More than 70,000 protesters thronged the centers of a dozen towns and cities across Israel on Saturday. Upwards of 250,000 demonstrated in the business capital of Tel Aviv last week.
Analysts say the unrest seems to pose no immediate political threat to Netanyahu’s two-and-a-half-year-old government.
But some officials say the controversy could inflame tensions in his coalition and result in national elections being held ahead of a scheduled 2013.