Starting 5 a.m. Tuesday, Israel’s skies will intermittently be completely closed to air traffic, Histadrut Labor Federation chief Ofer Eini announced Sunday. Airport workers would launch solidarity strikes to support their colleagues in the Israeli airlines, he said.

“We must embark on negotiations immediately to find a solution to prevent the crumbling of Israel’s airlines and the loss of thousands of jobs,” Eini wrote in a letter to the ministers of finance and transportation.

His announcement came hours after the Cabinet on Sunday approved a contentious air travel agreement with the European Union that prompted Israel’s three local airlines to halt flights and launch a vocal, bitter protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office.

A solid majority of 16 ministers voted in favor of the deal, with only three ministers registering their objection: Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovich and Environment Protection Minister Amir Peretz.

The Open Skies agreement is aimed at increasing foreign competition with local airlines to improve tourism and lower airfares.

“According to data from the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, the agreement will lead to an increase of 250,000 tourists from Europe during the first year of its operation, leading to the creation of nearly 10,000 new jobs,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement.

Israeli airline workers burn tires outside the Prime Minister's Office during a demonstration against the Open Skies agreement, on April 21, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli airline workers burn tires outside the Prime Minister’s Office during a demonstration against the Open Skies agreement, on April 21, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

El Al, Arkia, and Israir — Israel’s three airlines — halted all outgoing flights at 5 a.m. Sunday, launching an open-ended strike in protest against Open Skies. El AL later said it was canceling all flights until furthur notice. The public address system at Ben Gurion airport asked El AL passengers to return home. Passengers were instructed to get updates from the airline itself and media reports. Arkia said it was canceling all flights until Monday night.

Other airlines continued to operate normally on Sunday.

The airport workers are not allowed to launch a full-fledged strike as they did not officially announce a labor dispute. Instead, the airport employees will hold a series of intermittent solidarity strikes, lasting several hours at a time, from Tuesday morning, Eini said.

Aviation officials said that under such conditions, the airlines would take days to make up their flight schedules.

El AL CEO Eliezer Shkedi said his company would compensate ticket purchasers whose flights were cancelled.

The Manufacturers Association petitioned the National Labor Court to order the airline workers back to work and prevent the Tuesday strike.

An airline workers union representative told Channel 2 that the workers were not opposed to the Open Skies deal per se, but wanted to make sure that Israel’s airlines would not suffer.

When asked what outcome would appease the workers, Yigal Cohen said a joint announcement by the Transportation Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut, stating they were working on finding solutions to the Israeli airlines, would do the trick.

Sources in the Histadrut suggested that the decision to pass the Open Skies deal was an attempt by Netanyahu to soil ties between the newly installed Lapid and Eini.

“The goal of the reform that we approved today is to lower the prices of flights to and from Israel and to increase incoming tourism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the Cabinet vote. “I commend Finance Minister [Yair] Lapid and Transportation Minister [Yisrael] Katz for working to pass this reform, which has been discussed for many years. We will continue to advance reforms to lower the cost of living and increase the efficiency of services to Israeli citizens.”

Ben Gurion International Airport was packed with passengers Saturday night and early Sunday morning as the airlines rescheduled some of the planned Sunday morning flights to beat the start of the strike action. An Israel Airports Authority spokesperson said roughly 4,500 passengers took off on 28 flights between 4 and 6 a.m. Incoming flights continued to arrive, but there were no employees on hand to take care of their luggage, which was to be stored by airport employees.

Thousands of Israelis stand in line at the departure terrminal at Ben Gurion International airport on April 20, 2013. Israeli airlines employees called a strike for Sunday to protest against a government proposal to finalize a deregulation plan with European carriers which they say would result in widespread layoffs (photo credit: Yossi Zaliger/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis stand in line at the departure terrminal at Ben Gurion International airport on April 20, 2013. Israeli airlines employees called a strike for Sunday to protest against a government proposal to finalize a deregulation plan with European carriers which they say would result in widespread layoffs (photo credit: Yossi Zaliger/Flash90)

Channel 10 News reported Saturday that an internal Transportation Ministry document, which it claimed was not being brought to the minister’s attention, said El Al might collapse if Open Skies came into effect.

 

Dozens of employees from El Al, Arkia, and Israir, as well as representatives of the national pilots’ association, held demonstrations in front of the homes of Lapid and Katz on Friday morning to protest the agreement, which they said was unfair, ill-conceived and liable to ruin their businesses.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, left, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid  meet at Lapid's residence on April 19 photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, left, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid meet at Lapid’s residence on April 19 photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Open Skies agreement, meant to lower the cost of air travel by reducing barriers for outside airlines to operate in Israel, was signed with the European Union last July after more than three years of negotiations. Transportation Ministry officials believe the deal will bring about an increase in tourism and open new destinations for Israeli travelers.

“I will not be deterred by threats. It is time we stop letting the monopolies hold the public hostage to the interests of powerful companies,” said Katz.

Lapid came out Friday to meet with the demonstrators, even inviting them into his house to discuss the issues. “There will likely be painful compromises,” he said. “But there is no intention to harm the workers.” He said there was nothing more important to him than their jobs.

Asher Zeiger and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.