Sharon is on another 'state visit' to Moscow...as he plans the next steps to remake the Middle East including striking Iran and Syria. But he's also on the phone back home as the Israeli economy is reaching a crisis point, along with the growing rebellion in the Army.
Israeli Court Limits Strike to 4 Hours
By PETER ENAV
Associated Press Writer
5:10 AM PST, November 3, 2003
JERUSALEM -- A nationwide strike against plans to overhaul Israel's welfare state shut down government services, banks, the international airport and trains on Monday, but a court limited the stoppages to just four hours.
The workers struck despite efforts by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who held intense negotiations over the phone from Moscow, where he arrived Sunday on a state visit, officials said.
Early Monday, Israel's Labor Court headed off what was supposed to be an open-ended walkout -- one of the widest strikes in the nation's history and a challenge to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to overhaul the nation's troubled economy.
The court ordered further negotiations between the union and government and scheduled another hearing for Thursday evening. Its decision appeared to rule out further shutdowns for the rest of the week, barring an appeal by the union. Monday's strike was slated for four hours in response.
"The strike has begun today," Haim Tzveik, who oversees organization at the labor union, the Histadrut, told Israel Radio. "We are holding the strike as we planned. ... We are honoring the court decision."
Airlines moved up times of flights at Ben Gurion International Airport in an effort to avoid the shutdown, forcing the constant taking off and landing of airplanes overnight, Israel Radio reported.
The airport was completely empty at dawn because of the airlines' changes but the strike did not begin there on time.
Airport workers announced their strike would begin only later in the day, not specifying a time and apparently determined to confuse already frustrated airlines and travelers. Only one flight was slated to depart, for Copenhagen on Monday morning, radios said.
"There was supposed to be a mega-strike and unfortunately the judges just let us have a mini-strike, and we hope that this mini-strike will be utilized to its fullest," Pinhas Eidan, the chairman of the airport workers' committee, told Army Radio.
The unrest reflected a government assault on Israel's venerable welfare state, which for decades has shielded workers from the uncertainties of a free market economy, while keeping public sector employment high.
The labor crisis hit Israel in the midst of a long recession, brought on partly by a world economic slowdown and made worse by three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, which has cut sharply into tourism and discouraged foreign investment. Unemployment is nearly 11 percent, a near record in Israel, and growth predictions hover near zero.
Netanyahu, a disciple of the free-market policies of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is leading the effort to privatize state-owned industries, reform the pension system and drastically reduce welfare payments, while reducing the power of the main labor union, the Histadrut.
Netanyahu and his advisers say the changes are necessary to permit Israel to compete successfully in the global marketplace and attract investment. The Histadrut says the strike is necessary for workers to defend their rights.
"This is the most important struggle ever in Israel," Histadrut chief Amir Peretz told Israel TV on Sunday. "I am willing to do everything to prevent the strike, but I am absolutely not willing to surrender the rights" of workers.
Airport workers timed a two-hour strike on Sunday, as a run-up to the main one, to coincide with Sharon's flight to Russia, but the prime minister slipped out of the country in the early morning, hours before the afternoon protest.
Labor union leaders ordered members to stop delivering fuel to gas stations, to ensure shortages by the time the strike started. Many stations had run out of fuel by sundown Sunday.