Jerusalem Returns to Normal: That Is, Chaos, Paralysis and Strikes Abound

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.

JERUSALEM — Things were briefly back to normal in government offices last week, and that meant chaos.

For the last three months, a rolling series of work stoppages, slowdowns and outright strikes have brought Israel’s infamous government bureaucracy to a virtual standstill. The result has been a nightmare for those needing anything from a driver’s license to a marriage certificate. The shutdown has affected everyone who has had to deal with any government agency — from the Interior Ministry to the motor vehicles bureau to the Land Registry to immigrant services to the local religious councils — and no one knows how or when it is going to end.

In essence, the job actions are a showdown between Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz, the powerful head of the Histadrut labor federation. Netanyahu’s publicly stated aim is to break the Histadrut’s seven-decade dominance of the Israeli labor force, ostensibly to increase productivity and labor mobility as part of his economic recovery plan. Peretz, an ambitious politician sometimes touted as a future Labor Party chief, has no intention of rolling over. The two have been deadlocked since September.

Last week, though, the union decided to give the public a break by opening the ministries, one at a time, for a few hours each. The sudden opportunity for desperate citizens to process their personal paperwork needs — inoculation forms and burial permits from the Health Ministry; registering new businesses; obtaining stipends and tax breaks from Immigrant Absorption Ministry — brought mayhem.

On December 15 the Department of Motor Vehicles was open to the public for five hours. The crowds were so thick and unruly at the head office in Holon that the entrance doors were broken off their hinges, and many in the crowd entered without having undergone security checks.

On December 16, the Interior Ministry opened for six hours beginning at 8 a.m. for those desperately seeking passports, identity cards, birth or death certificates, or to record changes to their identity cards. But if you arrived at that hour, you were too late; lines in Tel Aviv had begun forming at 3 a.m.

On December 18, it was the turn of the Employment Service, and 43,000 people — 20% of them recently fired — came to register for unemployment and other benefits. The Histadrut had ordered its members to open the offices for six hours, beginning at 8.30 a.m., but the staff opened an hour earlier and stayed open until 5.30 p.m.

On December 22, Netanyahu and Peretz met for the umpteenth time since sanctions began on September 29, ostensibly to resolve their differences and remove the threat of a full-scale, nationwide strike. Among the main issues are pension reforms, including raising the retirement age to 67, and structural changes to ministries, which the Histadrut says will lead to mass layoffs.

Hanging over their heads is the possibility of a full nationwide walkout, following a 6-1 ruling by the National Labor Court on December 14 granting the Histadrut permission to launch a limited general strike. The limitations include no-strike provisions for banks, ports, the manufacturing sector, utilities and medical, security and other essential services.

The Cabinet voted at its weekly meeting December 21 to back a Knesset measure to limit future strikes, voting 13-3 to support a bill that would require any strikes to be approved in advance by a vote of all employees at any individual workplace, limiting unions’ maneuvering room. The bill was submitted by Likud lawmaker Ruhama Avraham, who once served as Netanyahu’s private secretary.

But while the politicians talk, the three-month labor action has cost the economy millions of shekels, impacting both government and individuals.

Dr. Ari Greenspan, a Jerusalem dentist, has multiple headaches. He’s owed a considerable refund for overpaid taxes, which he hasn’t seen for months and doesn’t expect to see in the foreseeable future. He also imported an expensive piece of dental equipment, for which the tax collectors overcharged him by $5,000 because of what he describes as incorrect categorizing.

“I cannot even petition them for the error because they are closed,” said an exasperated Greenspan. “Secondly, on this item which cost tens of thousands of dollars, I paid value added tax. I was entitled to get that money transferred directly back into my bank account. VAT is 18%, and the considerable sum — which put me in the red — has not and will not come until this is over. In the meantime, I am paying hefty interest on my overdraft.”

His teenage daughter Etanna has her own troubles. “I was ready to take a driving test before I left for the States, but I couldn’t since the licensing bureau was on strike,” she said. “Since I haven’t driven for a while I’m out of practice, and because of that I have to take at least four more lessons until I’m ready for the test again, which cost me 80 shekels [about $18] each.”

Perhaps the oddest story heard involved 20-year-old Leora Conway, a medical assistant from New York. She wanted to apply for immigrants’ status while living here as a temporary resident, but the closed Interior Ministry made it impossible. So after two months of waiting for the strike to end, she flew back to New York and applied there to become an immigrant. Once there, it took her all of five days.

Back in Israel, though, Conway still hasn’t been able to get her “basket” of immigrant rights. “If my government stipends don’t come through soon, I might just have to move back to New York and go back to my old job in order to provide for myself,” Conway said.

Some Israelis have managed to outsmart the system, helped by friends and the rumor mill. Some get advance notice when individual agencies occasionally open for a few hours, with virtually no public notice. In between, those with connections manage to locate a friend’s cousin who can help, or someone working in the same building as a government agency who can be paid off to slip you upstairs via a back elevator.

“Quite apart from the very real damage suffered by people not able to obtain legal remedies is a diminution of respect by ordinary people for the law and the institutions of society,” said Jerusalem attorney Hayim Katz. “The reappearance of a crony-style atmosphere — something this country has spent decades to get rid of — is the real damage to Israel and that will last long after the strike is over.”

Perhaps surprisingly, much of the public blames the Histadrut and Netanyahu equally for the headaches. Efforts to break the union are part of an overall “erosion of solidarity within the society,” said Roni Kaufman, a professor in the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University.

“All this philosophy of individualism, of everyone for himself, of no organization and the strong ones will decide, I think is very bad for Israel,” said Kaufman. “I hope that the government will understand that they are not breaking the unions, they are breaking Israeli solidarity. So I’m in favor of the strike, and I’m willing to suffer, for my own future and my children’s future. It’s a very critical moment now — it’s a fight about the nature of this society.”



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