Netanyahu unveils plan to combat housing crunch

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled sweeping housing reforms in Israel.

Netanyahu convened a news conference with his finance and construction ministers Tuesday to announce a plan under which Israel will provide low-rent housing for students and the poor, ease regulations on land and realty sales, and improve public transportation from cities to their periphery.

The prime minister said the “huge changes” stemming from the plan, called “Residence in Reach,” would start going into effect next week, ahead of the Knesset’s summer recess.

“The housing crisis in Israel is a real crisis,” he said in comments carried live on television and radio. “It is not something that somebody is fabricating nor something that is artificial. It is a real problem and anybody with eyes in his head and empathy in his heart understands that this is a problem.”

According to the findings of a newspaper survey, Netanyahu’s popularity has been sapped by escalating Israeli demonstrations against the high cost of living.

The Haaretz poll published Tuesday found that 32 percent of  Israelis are satisfied with the prime minister, while 54 are not — an almost exact reversal of data from a May survey cited by the liberal newspaper when Netanyahu was riding high from the standing ovations he received after addressing the U.S. Congress about his vision for peace in the Middle East.

National priorities have since shifted to economic woes, with doctors going on strike for better wages and conditions and hundreds of young people camping out in tents and staging street demonstrations to demand lower property prices.

Hours later, the protest’s leaders held their own news conference dismissing Netanyahu’s plan as a piece-meal attempt to divide students from other protesters.

“When he talks about students and discharged soldiers, what about our grandparents? What about the disabled?” said Yigal Rambam. “Every section in Israeli society suffers from the housing problem and there isn’t a general solution here. Any real solution must deal with rental prices, the prices of buying land, public housing and housing assistance.”

Itzik Shmueli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, explained at the news conference that although Netanyahu’s plan was “unprecedented” and “historic,” it remained insufficient and that the union would continue participating in the protest.

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