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Netanyahu responds to housing protests

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to further free up the housing market after thousands of Israelis demonstrated against high living costs.

Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday by defending government economic policies in the face of mounting criticism from Israel’s beleaguered middle class.

“This crisis is real,” he said. “We not only identify with it , we recognized it years ago.”

Building on a cascade of strikes in Israel’s civil service, students have been camping out in city centers this month to protest the dearth of affordable housing. Some 20,000 demonstrators from the various movements joined forces for an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Some protesters scuffled with police while trying to block roads, leading to 43 arrests.

Netanyahu, a former finance minister who has long championed privatization, blamed the state “monopoly” on land ownership and building regulations for the lag in satisfying spiraling demands for housing.

His two years in office have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of housing starts, he said, as well as progress in developing the transportation infrastructure to the more sparsely populated Israeli periphery.

Speaking separately to Israel Radio, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz predicted that property prices would begin to fall by the beginning of next year.

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