JERUSALEM, Dec. 3 (JTA) — A nationwide strike involving some 700,000 workers shut down Israel’s airports and banks Wednesday. The strike, which ground Israel’s economy to a near halt, also affected the nation’s rail services, hospitals, government offices and state- owned industries. Ben-Gurion Airport was closed, and Israel’s national airline, El Al, rescheduled departing flights in order to avoid grounding passengers. Incoming flights were rerouted. The strike was called by the Histadrut labor federation to protest privatization plans and unresolved wage and pension disputes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the action a “political strike,” telling reporters in the Knesset that he had no idea why Histadrut called it. After several hours of consultations, Israel’s national labor court ordered the workers back to their jobs Wednesday evening, but Histadrut leaders said they had not decided whether to honor the ruling. Histadrut’s anger over ongoing disagreements with Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman were further fueled this week when Ne’eman, referring to union activists, said, “We don’t need enemies from outside. “We have among us bombs,” he added, “homemade, exploding bombs.” Ne’eman apologized Wednesday, saying his remarks had been misunderstood. But the apology was rejected by Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz, and the federation’s communications division issued stickers reading, “I’m a bomb made by Ne’eman.” At issue are pension and wage agreements reached by Histadrut with the previous Labor government two weeks before last year’s national elections. Ne’eman has argued that the agreements have no legal standing and were a last-bid attempt by the previous government to woo voters. Histadrut officials have countered that Ne’eman’s predecessor, Likud Knesset member Dan Meridor, honored the agreement. The Histadrut workers are also angry about privatization plans that the government is accelerating. The unions are demanding that they should be consulted before state-owned companies are sold off. The last general strike in September lasted only a few hours before the labor court issued temporary back-to-work orders.
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