The Cabinet approved on Sunday the "open skies" agreement with a 16 to three majority, while striking airline employees protested outside, clashing with security forces.
The deal will enable all European Union based airlines to fly directly from everywhere in the EU to Israel. Israeli airlines could fly to all EU airports. But airline employees claim the deal may lead to their workplaces' collapse and to thousands of lay-offs.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the deal's approval: "The reform's aim is to lower costs for flights from Israel and to it, and to encourage incoming tourism."
In response to the cabinet decision, the El Al workers union chairman threatened he will ask Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini to call an all out strike of Israel's airport and seaport authorities.
"We're ashamed of the government which has abandoned thousands of families," union chairman Asher Adari said.
Airline workers protest (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
"We'll continue our struggle. Minister Yair Lapid has abandoned us to his whims," he accused.
Israeli airlines' employees have been on strike since 5 am, and the Histadrut Labor Federation stated the strike has no time limit.
The protesters, among them hundreds of El Al, Arkia and Israir employees, hoisted signs reading: "Lapid, we're also middle class" and "In the next war who will you fly with?"
Yair Lapid on way to cabinet meeting (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Several protesters exchanged blows with Border Guard officers deployed in the area, and were arrested.
Asi, an El Al maintenance worker for 20 years, arrived for the protest and said that "there is competition in aviation, the skies are open to other airlines, no one is forcing passengers to fly El Al.
"We believe the 'open skies' policy is a spin, made by the transport minister. El Al was established 65 years ago and was built with blood. We make an average, below average income and they want to hurt us.
"We're the middle-class the finance minister talked about," he added.
At the meeting, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said; "The 'open skies' reform is good for Israel. It will lead to lower prices and increase competition, and will not damage the number of jobs, but the opposite."
Lapid noted a report which claims 10,000 new jobs will be created in the hotel business due to increased tourism, caused by the new deal.
Some ministers expressed their support for the new policy before the meeting, including Tourism Minister Uzi Landau and Housing Minister Uri Ariel.
"The policy is necessary to encourage growth, especially when the economy isn't in such good shape," said Landau.
Conversely, Environment Minister Amir Peretz explained that "the agreement isn't good. I'm not sure it will influence the Israeli economy immediately. El Al's tasks are like those of a nationally-owned firm and in emergencies it has heavy expenses."
Transport Minister Yisrael Katz has told Israel Radio the proposal will be approved. He said it benefits the economy by increasing tourism and reducing ticket prices.
Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut Labor Federation, said he favors open skies but that Israel's small fleets and high security costs make it hard to compete with international carriers.
Eini said thousands of jobs are at risk. He added the debate should be postponed by a month to improve the proposal's terms.
El Al, Arkia and Israir changed their flights timetables in preparation of the strike, but some passengers were still frustrated.
Ben Gurion airport, Sunday (Photo: Reuters)
Andre, a tourist who intended to visit Hungary, discovered his El Al flight had been cancelled. "I don't know how we'll fly now," he said. "Do you think we'll have to stay in the airport and sleep on benches for
The Histadrut explained the strike will continue with no time limit, due to the government decision to discuss the "open skies" proposal without negotiations with the Israeli airlines.
They also protested the non-disclosure to the public and to ministers of a secret Transport Ministry report, which determines there is a distinct danger of the Israeli airlines' collapse following the new policy.
"This is misleading and hindering of the government," the Histadrut statement said.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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