JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday formed a panel of government ministers and some of the country's leading economic experts to draw up a plan to reduce the soaring cost of living, marking a new effort to defuse demonstrations over prices that drew over a quarter-million people onto the streets the night before.
The announcement comes after three weeks of mushrooming protests sparked by complaints over housing costs. Since then, the protests have gained new momentum as Israelis grow increasingly frustrated with their struggle to make ends meet despite economic growth in the country that is outpacing that of other developed nations. Saturday's turnout of over 250,000 people in public squares presented Israel's most stable government in years with a chorus of discontent it could not afford to ignore.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to rein in expectations, and said Israel would need to proceed cautiously, especially after Standard & Poors downgraded the U.S.'s credit rating on Friday.
"We cannot take all the lists of problems, and all the list of demands, and pretend we will be able to satisfy everyone," Netanyahu said. "We need to be fiscally responsible, while making some socially sensitive amendments."
After weeks of vague calls for change, protest leaders published a list of specific demands late last week, including the construction of affordable housing and a reduction of the 16 percent sales tax. It is not clear how they would pay for the array of services they are demanding.
The government committee will present its recommendations within a month, Gidi Schmerling, a Netanyahu spokesman, told Army Radio.
Netanyahu "has defined a goal – to correct social wrongs – and he will work towards that goal in a genuine and intensive manner," Schmerling said.
The protest organizers – a loosely organized group of young Israelis stunned by the mass response to their complaints – have called for a million-person march in 50 cities across the country on Sept. 3. While they have sought to steer clear from appearing political in their calls for reform, the mass rallies have given voice to the growing wealth disparity in the country and what critics contend is an inequitable distribution of government resources.
"Netanyahu and his ministers won't be able to ignore this outcry," veteran commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Sunday. They would be obliged to listen, "not because they believe the outcry is justified, but because it reflects a force that threatens their continued hold on power."
With the size of the movement clearly indicating it would not fizzle any time soon, Israeli officials have sought to show they're taking the demands seriously.
"This is an impressive phenomenon and we must be attentive to it," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said of the protests shaking this country of 7.7 million. Israel's cost of living, he added, is "unjustifiable and unreasonable."
He woved swift action to help working class Israelis struggling to cope with the cost of living.
Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the Israel Students' Union and a protest leader, welcomed the panel, telling Israeli Radio that they supported any "kind of attempt at dialogue with us, the protesters."
But Stav Shafir, another protest leader, said in a radio interview that protesters would not back down.
"We must continue to ask for solutions, not for ones that will come in September," Shafir said. "We must demand them now."