Israel-Palestine: General strike wins postponement, but government re-organising

No compromise with the trampling of rights!

Secretariat of Socialist Struggle (ISA in Israel/Palestine)

(This article was first published on 31 March 2023)

The power of organized labor forced Netanyahu to postpone the legislation, but the partial withdrawal is received with well-founded mass suspicion and vigilance in the face of the renewed preparations by Netanyahu and the far right for an attack under the auspices of dialogue with Gantz

No to the establishment of the National Guard, no to the judicial coup, down with the NetanyahuBen-Gvir government

The unprecedented general political strike, which developed after a stormy night of demonstrations as part of the ongoing mass struggle against the “judicial coup”, and against the background of a sharp drop in support of the government, left Netanyahu with no choice but to carry out a tactical withdrawal, striving to preserve the integrity of his coalition and to re-organize for attack. At the end of a dramatic day, during which Ben Gurion Airport and the ports were shut down, he pressurized the Minister of Justice, Levin, and stitched up a deal with Minister of ‘National Security’ Ben-Gvir, who, despite their determined threats of resignation, realized at the peak that the mass movement was capable of overthrowing the government, which was in a severe crisis of legitimacy.

Netanyahu tried to inflate the demonstration of support organized by the settler right for his government, and continued to insist that he had “tremendous support from the people.” Throughout the political crisis of the past three months, the well-recited lie has been repeated that a slim majority in the Knesset — which in the recent general election represented less than 50% of the votes — represents the “will of the people.” In fact, this is an attempt to provide a democratic cover for the dangerous anti-democratic agenda of a corrupt Likud coalition with the ultra-Orthodox right and the extreme right. This unpopular government is in a head-on confrontation with a mass struggle. It seeks to grab and concentrate more power in its hands, fueling a cost-of-living crisis, inequality and poverty, promoting the trampling of democratic rights, and leading a bloody escalation in the national conflict to defend the dictatorship of the occupation and settlements. While in France masses are fighting and striking against a government that attacks the retirement age and against tyranny in a democratic guise, here, too, the ‘costume’ does not make an impression on those who went out to demonstrate, block roads and strike.

In recent weeks, the Likud has plunged in the polls. Against this background, as ‘Israel Hayom’ (a pro-government right wing daily paper) also admits: “Netanyahu estimated at one point that it was not certain that he would have a majority in the Likud to pass the change in the composition of the committee for the appointment of judges by a majority of 61 in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), as he believed that such a Basic Law should be passed. The fall of the law in the Plenum would have led to the collapse of the coalition. Levin, too, understood this and therefore agreed not to resign in order to preserve the integrity of the coalition.” The arrogant legislation blitz of more than 8 different laws and changes to existing laws, had already been dropped from the agenda under stubborn mass resistance. The government tried to “settle” for one piece of legislation at the current Knesset session, taking over the committee for the appointment of judges, but it underestimated the intensity of the opposition. It was only on Sunday evening that Netanyahu fired his government’s Defense Minister in a pretentious show of power that sought to oust the Likud rebels and continue galloping forward in the process of taking over the appointment of judges. A day later, in the face of the introduction of the power of organized labor into the movement, Netanyahu retreated and turned to suspend the legislation in an effort to prevent ministers from fleeing from a drowning government. As part of the deal, Ben-Gvir was promised that the government would immediately advance to the establishment of the ‘National Guard’ militia entrusted to him. None of this was mentioned in Netanyahu’s speech.

In the same tactical withdrawal speech, Netanyahu jumped on Benny Gantz’s invitation to a “dialogue”, making it clear that he is not giving up on the “judicial coup”, which he pledged to suspend merely until the summer session of the Knesset (May-July). In the meantime, the proposal to change the commission for the appointment of judges was prepared “technically” for the possibility of voting in the Plenum. In theory, this could be done even in the coming days, although it would be a dramatic own-goal for the government, which would be confronted in such a scenario with a mass struggle to overthrow it. While Netanyahu and the far right are buying time and re-grouping for the summer, the partial retreat of the Netanyahu government and the far right is not being met by an illusion of victory but by well-founded mass suspicion and vigilance ahead of the government’s next moves.

General strike

After Sunday night’s spontaneous demonstrations and roadblocks, attended by tens of thousands who went out to demonstrate in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, Jerusalem and other locations, Monday dramatically began with a precedent-setting general strike that paralyzed the economy. Hundreds of thousands of workers shut down the public sector, Bezeq (telecommunication company) and Mekorot (national water supplier), Discount Bank, Bank Hapoalim and a long list of banks and corporations. The Histadrut (general federation of trade unions) was also joined by the Israel Medical Association (IMA). At Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Bnei Zion in Haifa, Shaare Zedek and Hadassah in Jerusalem, and at Clalit and Meuhedet Health Services, the medical teams switched to a Shabbat (holiday) pattern. At the docks, workers released only biodegradable produce and medicines. The railways, Egged, Dan, and the Metropolin (bus companies) worked partially but operated public transportation services, among other things, for the huge demonstration that took place in Jerusalem. Flight attendants and ground and air stewards shut down El Al, Israir and Arkia airlines, and employees of the Israel Airports Authority shut down Ben Gurion Airport, causing the cancellation and delay of dozens of flights. The National School Student Council decided to suspend classes in grades 7–12, and university management also announced the shutdown of classes the night before. In addition, under the pressure of the Histadrut’s announcement, The Federation of Local Authorities in Israel also announced the shutdown of municipalities and local councils.

This general strike, and at the heart of it the powerful show of strength of the working class in society, without which nothing moves, came after long weeks in which the idea of a general strike was central to the movement against the “judicial coup”. Workers in the social services established action groups to take part in the protests and even promoted strike measures. The idea was also reflected in calls for a symbolic country-wide protest strike, based on individual participation, on specific days of action, when the Histadrut leadership headed by Bar-David, adhering to a destructive policy of industrial peace that restrains organized labor, refused for 12 weeks to express support for the struggle, based on an agenda that represents the working class, or even to take symbolic measures.

Bar-David made things easier for the government by putting on hold the cost-of-living campaign and by refraining from leading a real struggle over the public sector wage agreement. He also refrained from leading a democratic disscusion and preparing the ground for industrial action of any kind, let alone the important late move of the general strike. He was dragged into giving in to the call for a general strike after many weeks in which he insisted that it was not necessary, because there was supposedly no threat from the government to the working class (!), that there was no mandate for it, and that it was not the job of the Histadrut, etc.

In contrast, independent organizations of medical teams, social workers, and public psychologists stood out in protest and even initiated a rally in front of the Histadrut (March 16) demanding a general strike. At the same time, pickets were held in front of Bar-David’s house, as well as a petition by union activists, some of them current or former workers’ representatives, calling for a general strike. The pressure on Bar-David was building up. This is in fact one of the reasons why he refrained until the very last moment from convening a meeting of union leaders in the Histadrut to discuss and decide on industrial action against the “judicial coup” — which should have happened from the very beginning.

The Histadrut’s leadership clung to every possible excuse, and spokespeople on its behalf expressed irresponsible disregard for the call for a general strike, while abandoning the struggle. Among other things, the obvious argument was raised that not all workers support the struggle — as if the role of the leadership in any struggle is to be a weather vane and not to help give answers to arguments undermining the protest movement and lead a struggle based on the interests of the working class. The legal argument was also thrown into the basket of excuses that a “political strike” is illegal in Israel, that is, it is not “protected,” including in High Court rulings, that 14 “cooling off” days are required before calling action, that there is no grounds for a “labor dispute,” etc. As if the leadership could not say that there is an attack on the working class and that any claim to ban a struggle on the issue is fundamentally anti-democratic.

What the Histadrut bureaucracy claimed with patronizing preaching was impossible, proved practical and effective. Finance Minister Smotrich tried for many hours to appeal to the Labor Court, claiming it was a “wildcat strike,” but even the State Attorney’s Office went on strike and there was no one to represent him. This formative moment in which, even if in the blink of an eye, the power of the heavy battalions of organized labor in a political struggle against a predatory government was demonstrated, cannot be erased from consciousness. It also hints at the potential to achieve a decisive victory in the face of government threats.

The cynical support of the capitalists for the strike

The strike in the economy, of course, also harmed the profits of the capitalists, and therefore drew opposition from the Manufacturers’ Association. However, the majority of the capitalist ruling class, in an unusual and hypocritical manner, actually saw this strike as “the lesser evil” for them, as a doomsday weapon against a government that did not comply with their demands to stop the legislation and the threats of flight of capital. In the past three months, wealthy individuals, particularly from banks, commerce, and tech, have intervened alongside elements of the security elite and the state apparatus, and the opposition establishment parties in the Knesset. They see the current government as pyromaniacs who threaten the stability of their system, the international relations of Israeli capitalism, the stability of the profit machine, as well as the occupation regime. After the first demonstration was organized at the initiative of the left, they hijacked the initiative and took over the agenda of the movement against the government’s plan which developed as a cross-class movement. The knights of Israeli capitalism and occupation are not the ‘knights of democracy’. There is a fundamental contradiction between the aspirations of the masses in the struggle — to curb attacks on democratic freedoms and the rampage of the extreme right, as well as the mass despair of the current situation, the cost of living, the social crises, the bloody national conflict — and those who have appointed themselves to the position of “protest leaders,” from Bogie Ya’alon to the chairman of the “Presidium of the Israeli Business Sector,” Dubi Amitai, and the CEOs of the banks.

However, alongside Bar-David in the broadcast of the announcement of the strike, there were also Dubi Amitaiand other capitalists. Suddenly, helpless in the face of the government, the capitalists are ready to put aside for a moment all the anti-democratic legal restrictions on strikes, especially “political” strikes. Moreover, they are forced to admit the decisive power of the working class in society. “The Marker” (daily business newspaper) explained that “until recently, the Histadrut was waging a struggle against the cost of living. The Histadrut also pointed the accusing finger at some of the heads of the companies who sat with it [on Monday morning] and applauded it.” They realized that they had no better option: “Wiesel [chairman of Fox, an Israeli retail group] and the other companies knew that without the Histadrut, their announcement of a strike would not be effective enough.”

It is quite clear why in the situation that has been created, those who are referred to in the establishment media as “heads of the economy” needed the organized power of those who actually operate the economy. However, the equation does not work the other way around. It is not the withdrawal of labor by the capitalists that paralyzes the economy. The role of the Histadrut is not to work hand in hand with them, but to expose this cynical support from tycoons and corporations that pay poverty wages and raise prices at the expense of the working class. The Histadrut is the largest organization of workers in the economy, and therefore its weight is extremely important. However, the bureaucracy of the Histadrut, which historically has been an arm of the state and the largest employer in the economy, is structured in an ultra-centralized manner, stifles every element of trade union democracy necessary to promote the interests and struggles of workers, and to this day considers itself responsible, basically, for the “interests of the state,” including regulating labor relations, rather than as an instrument of struggle by and for the workers. Therefore, Bar-David, although he devoted a few words in his speech declaring the strike to the situation of ordinary workers and spoke out against the Thatcherite Kohelet Forum (right-wing think tank), placed the strike in the context of a false unity on a national basis with the tycoons, unity of exploiters and the exploited, instead of speaking out against the tycoons and the policies that benefit them, and helping to clarify that this is not a struggle by “elites”.

According to a report by Kan (Israel Broadcasting Corporation), the messages at the press conference were even coordinated with Netanyahu’s office, as was the timing of the announcement of the strike. It appears that the purpose of the coordination was to reduce the duration of the strike and the extent of the clash with the government to a minimum, when the original assumption was that the very threat or the course of a short strike would extract from Netanyahu an announcement to halt the legislation. “I realized it would be an hour or an hour and a half. We waited for the prime minister’s press conference, which didn’t go ahead,” said Pinhas Idan, chairman of the Airports Authority employees’ committee, a member of the Likud Central Committee (‘Center’), who announced during the press conference that all departures would be stopped.

Trade union democracy

The decision to end the general strike was made — eventually only in the evening — a few minutes after Netanyahu’s speech and his promises to suspend the legislation. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13 TV, Bar-David explained the halting of the strike by saying that Netanyahu is “stopping the legislation and he’s talking about dialogue. These are two things we didn’t have yesterday. It satisfies us and it means that we will stop the strike because that was the purpose of the strike.” Bar-David added, “If the Prime Minister comes in the next session and tries to legislate aggressively, he will find the protest and us in front of him. Legislation without consent will lead to an immediate strike.” The threat of another general strike is indeed very necessary, and the recent strike should be treated as a warning strike. However, in order to strengthen the potential for success of the struggle in general and of other strike actions, extensive preparations and continued build — up of the momentum of the mass struggle are required. The government also knows this. Therefore, part of what Netanyahu tried to achieve by suspending the legislation was cutting off momentum and anesthetizing the movement. No employer wants to negotiate during a strike, and this goes for Netanyahu, who would rather start a “dialogue” while the movement on the ground is ‘shifting gears’ and parts of it dispersing.

Bar-David, who is notorious for being anti-strike and hostile to trade union democracy, claims to have made the decisions about the strike and when to end it himself, and typically tries to cultivate a false impression that the power of organized labor is his own. Such authoritarian, individualistic, and ultra-centralized conduct, similar to that of CEOs, which turns the rest of the Histadrut’s institutions into a mere ornament, is also used to close anti-democratic deals over the heads of the workers. It would have been more necessary and effective if the decision to issue an ultimatum to the government and hold a general strike had been made on the basis of leading a democratic process from the first stage of the protests of discussion and adoption of a position, taking preliminary industrial measures — which was required from a leadership that was supposedly concerned about workers who did not support the struggle. Similarly, the decision to end the strike had to be made on the basis of discussions of assessment of the situation and broad democratic voting, as part of a position committed to continuing the struggle. In any case, discussions following the strike and the continuation of the struggle can be initiated at the level of workplace and union committees even without waiting for Bar-David. The struggle must continue and be built, including the threat of another general strike if necessary.

Ben-Gvir’s militia and the threat of the far right

Netanyahu promised Ben-Gvir to decide at the upcoming cabinet meeting on the establishment of the ‘National Guard’, which will reportedly be funded through across-the-board cuts in social services! Not only did Ben-Gvir manage to squeeze a green light from Netanyahu for the militia under his command, but he also made it clear that as far as he was concerned, he agreed to “remove the veto against postponing the legislation, in exchange for a commitment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the legislation will be submitted to the Knesset for approval in the next session, if no agreements are reached during the recess.” In other words, if the government cannot obtain agreements from the opposition leaders in the Knesset to continue the anti-democratic legislation in any format, it will try to legislate for the original version.

Netanyahu does not have full control over his coalition. Simcha Rothman, far right chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, seems determined to use any ruse to advance the laws of the “judicial coup.” At the same time, Ben-Gvir’s demand for the immediate establishment of the National Guard comes after weeks in which he pressured the police leadership to step up the repression against the demonstrations and roadblocks. The new armed body will not be subordinate to the police commander and may certainly be used by Ben-Gvir to more brutally suppress the demonstrations, alongside the main goal of the leader of ‘Jewish Power’ party — suppressing protests among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

On the night between Monday and Tuesday, we saw in front of the spontaneous roadblock in Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, a combination of police brutality and attacks by the extreme right. At the same time, in Jerusalem, at the end of the settler right-wing rally, Kan Arabic television crews and journalists from Channel 13 and Walla were attacked. In addition, a Palestinian taxi driver who was caught up in the scene managed to escape an attack by La Familia supporters (far-right football fans movement), which could have ended in a lynching. That evening, dozens of settlers attacked the Palestinian village of Huwara again and tried to set houses with their occupants on fire.

Netanyahu also called, from a position of weakness, for the far right to raise their heads and take to the streets. Support for anti-government protests is immeasurably greater than public support for the far right, but if street demonstrations against the government’s plan are significantly depleted, the far right will try to conquer the public sphere. The danger is particularly grave in light of the government’s escalation of the national conflict, with the heavy military repression against the Palestinian masses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as house demolitions, police harassment, and a series of nationalist-religious provocations that receive a boost from the far right in government during Ramadan and towards Passover. Establishment elements have succeeded in instilling in the movement on the ground a “patriotic competition” with the government, which includes an organized flood of Israeli flags and attitudes and messages that inflame “divide and rule” and national oppression. However, there is also a clearly widespread aversion towards the far-right in the demonstrations. Labor unions and left-wing movements can and should intervene in this movement to advance a cross-community struggle against the entire agenda of Netanyahu’s capitalist government and the far right.

Down with Netanyahu—Ben-Gvir government

The government is extremely weak and Netanyahu’s authority is at a low point. However, they have not been defeated and are striving to re-organize. They will take advantage of any retreat in the movement on the ground. Now, preparations for the continuation of the fight against government attacks should also include drawing conclusions, while Gantz reaches out to Netanyahu and official negotiations are opened at the president’s residence between government representatives and representatives of ‘Yesh Atid’ and the ‘State Camp’ parties. In recent weeks, the movement on the ground has expressed broad sentiment against compromise on the components of the judicial plan, alongside a desire to expand rights, particularly women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and opposition to nationalist-religious reaction. Financial capital, the security elite, and the establishment parties are open, to one degree or another, to “dialogue” with the Netanyahu government, striving for a “compromise” that will include updating the “constitutional” rules of the game, in order to pave a stabilizing path for the system. Whether or not such a move would include, as a concession, some expansion of legal rights that are not included in Basic Laws, it would not mark a real step forward in solving the burning problems in society that underlie the shaky political crisis of recent years, which has entered a severe phase under the current government.

The struggle must now continue against the very legitimacy of the Netanyahu government and the extreme right, and with a call for its removal. However, the bloc of “change” parties are not an alternative. Their last capitalist status quo government ignited crises that helped Netanyahu and the far right, barely, form the current government. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is under international pressure, but is not giving up visits to his allies in Italy’s far-right government. The rise of far-right elements at this period is one of the symptoms of the multi-crisis era in the global system. From France to Iran, from South Africa to Tunisia, from the protests of young Palestinians against the dictatorship of occupation and poverty, to the movement against the “judicial coup” — the struggles for rights are organized against a capitalist system in crisis, which is rushing towards intensifying of oppression, inequality, environmental devastation and wars. Netanyahu’s weak government, in which Netanyahu himself is held captive by the far right, is an expression of a deep systemic crisis, the unstable base of capitalism and occupation, which translates into an intensification of political instability. In the face of the agenda of the Netanyahu bloc and the Lapid-Gantz bloc, it is necessary to promote a political alternative, in the form of a new broad party, which relies on a cross-community class struggle and a program of socialist change.

The recent general strike, against the backdrop of a mass struggle, was the most powerful show of force by organized labor in years — certainly compared to the totally symbolic general strikes organized by the leaders of the Histadrut in 2017 (in protest against the layoffs at Teva), and in 2011 and 2012 (against contract employment). This time the genie of class struggle escaped, if but for a moment, out of the bottle, and although some capitalists saw it as a battering ram for their needs against the government, it provided a small but tangible hint of the potentially decisive power of organized labor and the working class in general in society. Another clue, from another direction, was provided less than two years ago by the Palestinian “Dignity Strike” of May 2021, which, among other things, shut down construction sites. It is a power that is potentially capable not only of blocking and reaching achievements when confronting employers and governments, but also of bringing about a profound change in society. A socialist and class-based political alternative is also needed to chart a horizon for a real alternative to the capitalist crisis governments of the establishment parties.

What’s next?

The declaration by a series of protest organizations involved in the movement that the struggle must continue and the preparations for demonstrations against the establishment of a militia controlled by Ben-Gvir are important. However, while there is a broad layer of protestors determined to continue the struggle until the legislation is canceled and even against the government in general, at the present stage it is not sufficiently organized in comparison to the capitalist establishment elements that present themselves as spokespeople for the struggle, which from their point of view is intended ultimately to protect the existing establishment. They are part of the problem, not the solution. It is possible to strengthen the level of organization — with the development of protest networks such as those of the social workers, the ‘white lab coats’ (a campaign initiated by doctors), and the formation of additional action committees for those who are interested in getting involved at the local level, and in workplaces and education establishments. It is also possible to promote a democratic, cross-community struggle coordination at a national level on the basis of elected representatives from the various organizations. Strengthening the trend of organizing can also help prepare for demonstrations, including organizing self-defense if necessary, and above all, developing a broad political debate on the red lines and goals of the protests and the alternative necessary against the destructive agenda of the Kohelet Forum government and the Messianic nationalists.