December 16, 2019

Israeli Cabinet Backs Outline for Social Change

The cabinet voted 21 to 8 to approve the outline of a report by a committee for socioeconomic change set up by the government and led by Manuel Trajtenberg, a respected professor of economics.

The report was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was presented late last month. But when he tried to bring it to a vote last week, some of his coalition partners decided to flex their political muscle and raised objections, making it clear that Mr. Netanyahu had not lined up a majority beforehand.

One of the parties that objected last week, Yisrael Beiteinu, switched to support the committee’s plan this week after receiving promises that some of its own socioeconomic demands would be met; the change gave Mr. Netanyahu a comfortable majority in the vote on Sunday.

Another coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which draws much of its support from low-income families, voted against the plan. So did the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and the minister of home-front defense, Matan Vilnai, who oppose the cuts to the defense budget that the committee has recommended to finance the plan.

The social movement began in mid-July when a group of young Israelis pitched tents in the center of Tel Aviv to protest inflated housing prices. The committee recommended building almost 200,000 apartments over the next five years, making more apartments available as rentals and increasing housing subsidies for the needy.

The panel also recommended raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, building more day care centers and providing free pre-kindergarten for children 3 to 5 years old.

Even so, leaders of the social protest movement criticized the report, saying it merely moved money around within the existing budget and did not call for more fundamental changes.

The committee’s outline must now be examined in more detail by the government and then be put to a vote in Parliament, a process that is expected to take several months.

Separately, the representatives of the international quartet of Middle East peacemakers met in Brussels on Sunday to follow up on their call for Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks in an effort to deflect the impact of a contentious Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood and membership in the United Nations.

The talks have been stalled for more than a year, with the Palestinians demanding a halt to all settlement construction before resuming negotiations and the Israelis insisting on talks with no preconditions. The quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — has called for talks without preconditions and has asked the sides “to refrain from provocative actions.”

Though there was no immediate sign of an end to the impasse, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement after Sunday’s meeting that the quartet would be “contacting the parties to invite them to meet in the coming days.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the quartet’s envoy, said: “We look forward to meeting with the parties shortly. This provides us with the opportunity to explore grounds for revived negotiations to take place.”

Ethan Bronner contributed reporting.

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