After meeting PM, self-employed Israelis push ahead with major Saturday protest
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Tens of thousands expected at Tel Aviv rally

After meeting PM, self-employed Israelis push ahead with major Saturday protest

Netanyahu’s office describes sit-down on coronavirus economic crisis as ‘positive’ while representative for businesses calls it ‘charged’; sides agree on weekly meetings

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Finance Minister Israel Katz (right) meet with representatives of self-employed Israelis and small business owners at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 10, 2020. (PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Finance Minister Israel Katz (right) meet with representatives of self-employed Israelis and small business owners at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 10, 2020. (PMO)

A day before a planned major demonstration against the government’s economic policies amid the coronavirus crisis, representatives for self-employed Israelis and small business owners hurt by the pandemic met Friday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss their grievances.

Netanyahu’s office described the three-hour meeting as “positive,” while a lawyer with the business owners called it “charged” and said the rally would go ahead as planned.

Organizers are expecting tens of thousands to attend the rally in Tel Aviv Saturday night, with participation from across the Israeli economy, notably including independent and small businesspeople, the entertainment and restaurant sectors, and students. Unemployment in Israel is at some 21% — or 850,000 people –and is rising, as restrictions imposed amid record daily rises in new COVID cases further batter the economy.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu had instructed the formation of a weekly forum to discuss the needs of small businesses amid the economic crisis, and the government’s response.

Netanyahu told the representatives the government would keep its promises on immediate financial aid packages for independents and small businesses. While he stressed that “Israel has never taken such steps, because we’ve never been in such a situation,” he vowed to take all necessary measures “so that no one falls between the cracks.”

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Israel Katz said businesses’ pain and concern were understandable and promised to swiftly move forward with legislation to allow economic support to be deployed.

Attorney Roee Cohen, president of Lahav, the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, told the Ynet news site that the meeting was “charged” and that he and other representatives had raised many issues with the economic support plans — those planned and those provided thus far.

Cohen said Netanyahu had pledged to study the matter and had called for ongoing meetings.

Israeli self-employed and small business owners participate in a rally calling for financial support outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

But he stressed that these would be held alongside public demonstrations, including the one planned for Saturday at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Saturday’s protest “is an honest outcry by the people in light of the severe crisis we find ourselves in, and in light of decision-makers’ lack of action so far.”

He added: “I want to believe the prime minister understands the gravity of the situation and intends this time to provide real and immediate solutions that will reach everyone’s bank accounts.”

As Israel contends with an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Netanyahu is facing a tide of criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.

Unemployment at the height of the pandemic reached over 25 percent, with over a million Israelis out of work; now, over 800,000 are still unemployed, with that figure again starting to climb in light of renewed restrictions put in place to combat the spike in infections.

Israeli independent contractors and freelancers participate in a rally calling for financial support from the Israeli government outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 6, 2020.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy whose members say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

“I hear you,” Netanyahu said Thursday, addressing the many people hurt by the crisis, many of whom are pushing for anti-government protests. “I hear your troubles and am determined to provide the necessary help. I work day and night for you.”

Netanyahu said the government had ordered the acceleration of previous payouts, which many have said didn’t arrive.

The premier said a new stipend for self-employed Israelis would be paid out immediately, as early as next week, “without any conditions or bureaucracy, even without Knesset legislation.” He said there had been significant bureaucratic difficulties in approving those payments.

The payment will be of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170), he said.

Other parts of the aid package included a “safety net” for salaried employees and for businesses, as well as expanding the eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Small businesses will receive up to NIS 6,000 once every two months, he announced. Big businesses will receive aid totaling up to NIS 500,000, depending on how much the business was harmed due to the crisis.

Self-employed Israelis take part in a protest outside the Knesset on March 30, 2020, amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. New daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, have soared to over a thousand a day, and the number of active cases has reached an all-time high.

The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for about two months at the start of the outbreak, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.

The current increase in weekly infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

The government on Monday passed a raft of new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.

The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues, reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation, hiked fines for not wearing face masks, and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

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