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Israeli PM announces reforms aimed at defusing growing protests over housing costs
JERUSALEM (AP) ' Israel's prime minister responded Tuesday to a growing wave of protests over housing prices with a string of reforms aimed at defusing a crisis that has brought about a sharp drop in his approval ratings.
Calling the protests "justified," Benjamin Netanyahu announced moves to speed up housing construction, create more apartments for students, and sell government-owned land at a discount prices to lower prices for home buyers.
"The housing problem in Israel is one that can be solved," Netanyahu said at a press conference.
In recent weeks, thousands of young Israelis have erected tents in city centers and attended protests that have snowballed into a major problem for the prime minister and his coalition government.
Israel has seen other demonstrations recently over the country's high cost of living, and doctors in public hospitals are also currently on strike over their working conditions. The protests, which have dominated media coverage here for weeks, are contributing to an atmosphere of instability and public discontent.
The housing crunch has mushroomed largely on the back of supply not keeping pace with demand. Between December 2007 and August 2010, housing prices jumped an inflation-adjusted 35 percent and rental rates have also risen steadily.
A poll Tuesday indicated wide support for the protesters and a sharp drop in Netanyahu's approval ratings.
In the poll published in the daily Haaretz, 87 percent of respondents expressed support for the protests.
Thirty-two percent expressed their approval for Netanyahu, as opposed to 51 percent two months ago, the paper reported.
The poll, conducted by the Dialog company, surveyed 493 people. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
In the tent encampment in central Tel Aviv, the protesters watched Netanyahu speak on TV.
Amit Adler, one of the protesters, said Netanyahu "has yet to understand that the free market has failed where housing is concerned."
"The state has lost its direction. It's time to return to being a Jewish state with more compassion, and this must be done through legislating rent control," Adler told Channel 2 TV.