Israel Pulse

Why is Netanyahu ignoring concerns of chemical workers?

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Article Summary
Threatened with losing their jobs, employees from Haifa Chemicals cannot get the attention of Israeli leaders, who are too concerned with the fight over Israel's Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Hundreds of workers from Haifa Chemicals blocked major intersections in Tel Aviv March 28 to protest the threat of layoffs hanging over them. The incident raised little interest publicly, politically or in the media.

It is hard to avoid comparing the scope of coverage they received with another employment crisis: the closing of the bankrupt Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which involves laying off some 1,000 employees by May 1, to establish the IBA's replacement, the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying mightily to prevent the launch of the PBC, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is doing everything he can to stop him.

What Netanyahu really wants is to take control of the media, but to do that, he must first eliminate the PBC, because it is doubtful that he can corral it. He took advantage of the plight of IBA employees to serve that particular interest, meeting with their representatives March 17 at his Jerusalem residence and posting a moving account on Facebook about how his heart ached when he heard the workers' stories. That was why, he claimed, he had decided to take action to save the IBA. It was also a signal that he and Kahlon were at war.

While the crisis surrounding IBA employees threatens the integrity of the governing coalition and tops the political and media agenda, Haifa Chemicals workers have received only apathy from Netanyahu and Kahlon. This is due to one simple fact: The workers at Haifa Chemicals do not serve the agenda of either the prime minister or the finance minister. In the case of the IBA and the PBC, Netanyahu is engaged, as noted, in a battle over control of the media, which is currently being fought against his finance minister, who is trying to win points from the public as the defender of a free media.

It is easy to understand the frustration of Haifa Chemicals workers. They have called on Netanyahu to treat them like he treated the staff of the IBA by meeting with them. Obviously, he has not so far found the time. In fact, he hasn't even bothered to respond to their request.

Thousands of workers at Haifa Chemicals had their world fall apart Feb. 12, when the courts ordered the company's management to shut down the ammonia tank that it operates in Haifa bay. Their struggle since then has failed to break through a seemingly impenetrable wall of apathy. Theirs was initially a high-profile story, largely because the court noted in its ruling that the Haifa facility posed an immediate threat to the lives of thousands of local residents. Experts claim that the ammonia tank could fall apart at any moment. This is the same tank that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had his eye on as far back as 2006, during the Lebanon war. He considered it a potential target for a missile strike, which would result in a mega attack against Israel. Nevertheless, in the ensuing decade, the relevant authorities did nothing to find a secure alternative to the tank.

In a March 20 session of the Knesset's Labor and Welfare Committee on the threat of layoffs, it was discovered that the workers themselves were among those who had for years been warning about the tank's risk and who ultimately supported emptying it. The problem now is that they are paying the price for the tank and feel like they have been abandoned. At the session, Yehuda Peretz, chairman of the Workers' Committee, said, “People can't sleep at night. They think about their mortgages and their day-to-day expenses. We've built our whole lives around this factory, and now our future is shrouded in mist.”

No matter how you look at it, the workers from Haifa Chemicals are victims of a country that has acted carelessly in dealing with the ammonia tank. That is precisely why it is up to the state to come up with a solution to their problem. The possibility that thousands of people might lose their jobs because of the state's impotence is intolerable, particularly when the story involves workers who are hard pressed as it is and who live in an area already reeling from unemployment.

That the company's management is using the threat of layoffs to cause the state to cover the cost of moving the ammonia tank to the south in no way diminishes the responsibility of the prime minister and the finance minister alike to prevent these mass layoffs. Netanyahu rightfully discovered that he felt empathy toward the employees of the IBA who are about to lose their jobs. Yet this only proves how cynical he is being, since he is ignoring what is potentially an even bigger employment disaster, if it actually happens, with thousands of workers losing their jobs.

On the other hand, Kahlon, although considered a socially oriented finance minister, has also failed to show any real desire to assist in resolving the layoff crisis at Haifa Chemicals. While he engages in a pitched battle to open the PBC and shut down the IBA, going so far as to threaten breaking up the coalition over it, the crisis at Haifa Chemicals doesn't appear to be anywhere on his agenda. It is not as if he is unaware of the problem. Hundreds of workers recently demonstrated outside his home in Haifa, calling on him to work with Netanyahu to find a solution to the crisis they face.

The workers claim that a number of solutions have already been proposed, and if they are pursued, a devastating outcome could be avoided. One of the possibilities is to replace the tank, used for storing imported ammonia, with a factory that manufactures ammonia. Such a factory, constructed using simple technologies and operated according to domestic market demands, would enable preserving the employment of the tank workers while storing ammonia in smaller quantities. Obviously, this would require state funding. The problem is that Netanyahu and Kahlon have shown no sign of getting involved in the issue.

Meanwhile, Haifa Chemicals' management has been increasing the pressure. It recently announced that it will be sending layoff notices to 1,500 employees before the Passover holiday, in mid-April. Their message was obviously directed at the finance minister, an attempt to get him to cover the cost of emptying the tank. It is only natural that the staff at the Finance Ministry is none too happy about Haifa Chemicals' trying to manipulate them. In the meantime, the crisis will only get worse.

On March 28, Netanyahu and Kahlon held their third meeting in as many days in an attempt to resolve the PBC crisis. As expected, the meeting between the two men evoked considerable interest given its immediate implications for the future of the coalition. Failure to find a solution could lead to early elections.

Much to the misfortune of Haifa Chemicals' workers, their crisis fails to serve anyone's agenda and doesn't attract the interest of the public or the media, even though it is a far bigger employment crisis than the one surrounding the PBC.

Found in: public broadcasting, industry, hezbollah, unemployment, moshe kahlon, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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