About 700,000 public-sector workers, including more than 200,000 teachers, launched a nationwide strike this week effectively shutting down almost all government services offered by the state. The strike, which began Wednesday, was called to protest the government’s introduction of legislation that would cut $2.35 billion from Israel’s $56 billion state budget, on top of a $2 billion cut approved by the outgoing government late last year.
Tens of thousands of private-sector workers paid through collective wage agreements have joined in the strike. Workers have not announced an end date for the work stoppage.
As a result of the strike, Ben-Gurion Airport grounded to a halt Wednesday, as international travel to and from Israel became impossible. El Al canceled two flights Tuesday from New York that were due to land in Israel Wednesday, and many flights out of Israel were moved up to allow passengers to beat the strike.
Other sectors of the Israeli economy were also shut down, including banks, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Israel Railroad service, telephone repairs, income tax and land registry offices and nursing at hospitals. Doctors were still on the job, because they are bound by a wage agreement signed in 2000 to refrain from striking for 10 years. Workers say that the budget plan, the brainchild of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would violate existing collective bargaining agreements. The plan includes a 10% across-the-board cut in government expenditures, a hefty 8% average cut in public-sector salaries, reduced social benefits and layoffs of thousands of government employees, including 6,000 teachers. At the same time, Netanyahu says he is aiming to stimulate the economy by cutting income tax rates, luring foreign investments, privatizing government-owned companies and investing in massive infrastructure projects.
Knesset member Amir Peretz, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, described the strike as a basic struggle to save Israeli society and democracy in the country.
Critics of the plan counter that Netanyahu’s plan will do far more harm than good. The Histadrut and a host of similar-minded lobbies and groups accuse Netanyahu of striving to introduce a “Thatcherite” economy in Israel that would wipe out whatever remains of the vaunted welfare state established by Israel’s founders.
The critics claim — and an overwhelming majority of the public agrees — that Netanyahu’s plan would accelerate the trend in recent years toward growing inequality between extremes of rich and poor. Laying off thousands of public sector employees would increase already spiraling unemployment figures, now hovering at 12%, while the drastic reduction in government entitlements and subsidies would plunge hundreds of thousands of Israelis below the poverty line. The detractors cite similar budget cuts enacted during the previous Sharon government, which failed to revive the economy and may have deepened the widespread recession.
But Netanyahu defended his budget plan in the Knesset Wednesday, saying it would promote social equality and bring the Israeli economy into line with the rest of the developed world. “This plan will save the economy,” Netanyahu said during a television interview. “It will bring growth.”
A Netanyahu ally in the budget fight, Minister without portfolio Meir Sheetrit, told Israeli Army Radio Wednesday that the Histadrut “will not achieve anything by striking that it couldn’t have achieved by negotiations.”