JERUSALEM (AP) – A nationwide strike against plans to overhaul Israel’s welfare state shut down government services, banks and trains on Monday, but a court limited the stoppages to just four hours.
Since the court did not specify a time for the strike, individual unions held their four-hour stoppages throughout the day, causing additional disruptions and confusion.
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 to last four hours, but Israelis awoke to confusion, with the strike already underway in some sectors, but not yet started in others.
Airlines moved up flight times at Ben Gurion International Airport in an effort to avoid the shutdown, forcing the continuous taking off and landing of airplanes overnight. Airport workers later announced that they would not strike at all on Monday.
Amir Peretz, head of the main Histadrut labor union, said the union was planning for additional labor actions in coming days.
The unrest reflected government efforts to change Israel’s 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. 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 Histadrut union.