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Israel Labour Court orders delay in strike
( 2003-11-03 14:30) (Agencies)

Israel's Labor Court on Monday ordered a delay in a nationwide strike that threatened to shut down government services, banks, airports, trains and some buses as workers protested plans to overhaul the nation's welfare state.

The strike, one of the widest in Israel's history, was to begin Monday morning, but the court ordered negotiations until its next session Thursday evening, permitting only a four-hour strike on Monday.

The labor union did not say how it would respond to the order. Israel Radio reported that the union began the strike on schedule.

Long lines formed Sunday outside gas stations and people rushed to get money from cash machines as Israelis braced for the strike's effects.

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 government says the changes are necessary if Israel is to compete successfully in the global marketplace and attract investment.

"This is the most important struggle ever in Israel," Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut federation of labor unions, told Israel TV on Sunday.

Israel is in the midst of a long recession brought on partly by a world economic slowdown and aggravated by three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Unemployment is nearly 11 percent, approaching a record high.

Finance Minister Benjamin 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.

Hundreds of travelers were stranded temporarily at Israel's international airport Sunday as employees stopped working for two hours.

Airport workers timed the shutdown with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's flight to Russia, but Sharon 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, ensuring shortages by the time the strike starts. Many stations ran out of fuel by dusk Sunday.

Late Sunday, the Histadrut had not yet decided the extent of the strike, but it is likely that government offices will shut down, trains will stop running, garbage will pile up in the streets and banks and post offices will be closed.

Electricity and phone breakdowns also will not be repaired, while border crossings, airports and sea ports will close and some hospitals could be forced to run with a skeleton staff.

The strike could cost the country $400 million a day, according to Oded Tyrah, head of the Manufacturers Association of Israel. His group appealed to the Labor Court to stop the strike.

Marathon talks between Netanyahu and Peretz failed to yield results by Sunday evening. The two gave competing news conferences Sunday evening, and television newscasts used split screens to broadcast them live. Each blamed the other for the breakdown in talks.

The government is threatening to use emergency orders to keep essential workers on the job, including at oil refineries and hospitals.

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