Netanyahu vows relief as Israelis fume over virus-battered economy

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday pledged immediate financial aid to Israelis whose livelihoods have been devastated by the coronavirus, as his government faces mounting anger over its pandemic response.

Thousands of protesters turned out in Tel Aviv on Saturday to voice frustration at Netanyahu, who won praise for his early response to the outbreak but has come under criticism amid a resurgence in cases.

Netanyahu did not mention the Tel Aviv protest ahead of his weekly cabinet meeting, but promised that financial help was on the way, starting with cash dispersement of up to 7,500 shekels ($2,170) to the self-employed.

"This support, this grant, is not dependent on legislation and we have instructed that it be put into effect today. The button will be pressed and the money will reach accounts in the coming days," he said.

He also announced a broader aid package for workers and small business owners would advance through Israel's parliament, the Knesset, over the coming days.

The influential columnist with Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Nahum Barnea, said Saturday's demonstration reflected the breadth of suffering in the Jewish state.

"The protest ran the entire gamut, from owners of small businesses that had collapsed, to unemployed people from the entertainment industry, musicians, stage hands and people from the tourism sector," he wrote.

Barnea argued that Netanyahu has a history of showing disdain for protests against his leadership, but said he expected the premier to increasingly open the government coffers to quell public anger.

"A protest that is about money can be placated with money," he said.

Netanyahu has conceded that Israel's broad re-opening was premature, but also cautioned against renewed lockdown measures that would again bring economic activity to a halt.

While restaurants remain open, new restrictions targeting bars, event venues and places of worship are being implemented.

Israel, a country of some 9 million people, has recorded more than 38,000 coronavirus cases, including 358 deaths.

The Jewish state last week registered more than 1,000 new cases in a 24 hour period multiple times last, a major spike compared to daily figures that typically hovered below 50 before the economy reopened.