With economic stress deepening in recent weeks, many Israelis think the government has not done enough to compensate hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs as a result of restrictions and shutdowns.
Thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in downtown Tel Aviv, protesting what is widely seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to address economic woes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
With economic stress deepening in recent weeks, many Israelis think the government has not done enough to compensate hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs as a result of restrictions and shutdowns. Unemployment has surged over 20%, and Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet.
The protest was organised by unemployed, self-employed, entrepreneurs and business owners who gathered in central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Participants wore masks, but did not appear to be following social distancing rules. One man held a photo of Netanyahu with the words “The No. 1 Corrupt Person.”
“We are not working already nearly five months and unfortunately most of us have not received any compensation from the Israeli government and this is really a tragedy,” said Daniel Tieder, a protester. “In every country all over the world people have received compensation and support from their government. Unfortunately, here in Israel, nothing yet.”
On Thursday, Netanyahu announced an economic “safety net” promising quick relief to the self-employed and stipends over the coming year for struggling workers and business owners. The government is expected to approve the plan on Sunday.
But the large turnout at Rabin Square was a sign of widespread discontent with the government’s policies.
'Grave crisis of confidence'
While salaried workers sent on furlough received unemployment benefits, the self-employed said most had been waiting months for promised government aid.
"There is a very grave crisis of confidence between us and the government," Shai Berman, one of the protest organisers told Israeli public radio ahead of the rally.
"We are part of a very large public which is feeling growing distress and wants to demonstrate and simply does not believe the promises," he added.
Berman was among activists invited Friday to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu and finance ministry officials in a last-minute government effort to stave off the protest.
"He tried, very politely," Berman said, adding that an aid package presented at the meeting was a start, but flawed.
Netanyahu promised swift implementation.
"We will meet our commitments including hastening the immediate payments that we want to give you," his office quoted him as telling the activists.
Despite successfully keeping the outbreak under control in the spring, Israel’s new government, which took office in May, has been accused by some of reopening the economy too quickly. That has caused a new spike in infections that is expected to put more people out of work as a result of renewed closures.
Authorities now report record levels of more than 1,000 new cases a day, higher than any peak in the spring. The death toll is nearing 340.
After three inconclusive elections in under a year, Netanyahu and his main rival, retired military chief Benny Gantz, agreed in May to form an “emergency” government with a mandate to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
In a statement, Gantz, who serves as defence minister and “alternate” prime minister, acknowledged the pandemic has brought “the largest health, economic and social crisis” in Israel’s history. “We understand the public outcry and we will do everything we can to be responsive to it,” he said.
In the face of an angry electorate, Netanyahu’s support has tumbled. A recent Midgam Research & Consulting poll on Channel 12 TV found just 46% of respondents approved of Netanyahu’s job performance, down from 74% in May.
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