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Israeli Union Says Close to Agreement to End General Strike

Israel’s largest labor federation said it is “very close” to an accord with the government to end a general strike that shut banks, ports and the stock exchange for a second day.

“Though as of now the strike is continuing, we are very close to an agreement with the Finance Ministry that would end it today,” Dafna Cohen, a Histadrut spokeswoman, said by telephone from Jerusalem.

The Histadrut called the strike, which involves 500,000 workers, to demand better conditions and pay for contract employees. The labor federation estimates that they receive on average about 30 percent less pay than comparable workers who are hired directly. The Histadrut estimates that there are an estimated 250,000 contract workers.

The strike has closed the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and the Bank of Israel. At the central bank, the foreign-currency trading room will be open and the bank will publish representative exchange rates. Ben-Gurion International Airport, which was shut yesterday for six hours, is open today.

The Histadrut said yesterday it reached an accord with private-industry groups to ensure that contract workers will get equivalent conditions to salaried employees. An end to the strike will depend on the government accepting those terms, it said.

Growth Predictions

The strike comes as both the central bank and the Finance Ministry have reduced their growth predictions for this year, citing the impact of the European debt crisis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Feb. 7 that the economy is “in a delicate situation” and called on labor leaders not to “risk the stability” that has been achieved through cooperation between the unions and the government.

The Finance Ministry cut its growth forecast for 2012 to 3.2 percent from 4 percent, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Jan. 18. The Bank of Israel lowered its prediction on Dec. 26 to 2.8 percent from September’s estimate of 3.2 percent.

The Bank of Israel’s monetary policy committee, led by Governor Stanley Fischer, lowered the benchmark rate by 25 basis points, or 0.25 percentage point, at the end of January to 2.5 percent, the third cut in five months. The reduction was needed because the European debt crisis remains a threat to domestic growth, the bank said. Exports make up about 40 percent of Israel’s economy and Europe is one of the country’s largest markets.

The TASE, as the stock exchange is known, was closed for the first time since 2008 yesterday, preventing investors from trading the spread between prices in Tel Aviv and New York yesterday. Israel has about 60 companies listed on the Nasdaq China, and over half of them are dually traded.

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