JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged “real” economic change on Sunday after massive nationwide protests that broke Israeli records and prompted questions about the future of the social movement.
Speaking to his cabinet after an estimated 450,000 people turned out for demonstrations across the country seeking lower living costs, Netanyahu said his government was determined to carry out effective reforms.
“The government I head is committed to execute real changes to alleviate the cost of living and fix social distortions,” he said.
He pointed to his decision to form a committee headed by respected economist Manuel Trachtenberg to examine the demands of the six-week-old protest movement, which has shown unprecedented staying power, tapping into deep frustrations.
“This is a serious committee and it will submit to us serious recommendations,” he said.
“Never has there been in Israel a committee that held an open and serious discourse with thousands of citizens.”
The prime minister repeated previous warnings that his government would not approve spending that risked throwing Israel into an economic crisis, but he pledged to “safeguard the economy and fix what needs fixing.”
His comments came after record-breaking numbers of Israelis took to the streets in cities across the Jewish state for protests that were billed as a way of revitalising the social movement, after something of a lull.
Commentators hailed the demonstrations, but also described them as a turning point for the movement, questioning where it would go now.
Gideon Levy, writing in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper described the demonstrations as “historic”, writing that “the last of the complacent decided that they, too, had to show up.”
“One day, the students will learn that on this momentous evening a civil society was born in Israel,” he wrote.
For most commentators, the size of the demonstrations was proof that the movement continues to draw support from across Israeli society.
“The entire social protest has succeeded greatly. It changed the public agenda and proved to the government that the public is not willing to take everything lying down,” wrote Nehemia Shtrasler in Haaretz newspaper.
But Shtrasler warned that the movement now stood at a crossroads, where it must decide whether to advocate sweeping reforms that are unlikely to win government support, or more limited economic changes.
“It is the dilemma between those who want revolution and those who want evolution.”
Writing in the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper, one of Israel’s leading commentators, Nahum Barnea, said the movement “was as much about values as it is about economics.”
But he warned that Netanyahu’s government was not likely to carry out the sort of sweeping changes that many protesters hoped to see.
“Prices will drop here and there. They already have begun to drop… Being ostentatious has gone out of fashion with them and modesty has made a comeback,” he wrote.
“The rest belongs to the deep undercurrents in Israeli society. The sense of power that came to the fore in the tent encampments and the demonstrations isn’t going to disappear,” he added.
“The tents are going to be taken down, but nothing from this summer will be lost as a result.”
Writing in the Maariv daily, Aviad Pohoryles agreed that the effects of the protest movement would be felt for years to come.
“It is unclear whether an alternative leadership with talents and abilities will rise up from this group… or whether a new political force is on the rise that will pulverise the fossilised coalition of the past,” he wrote.
“Either way, the result of the next elections will be different from the result of those past.”