Tempers flare at ULA protest in Jerusalem

ULA chairman apologizes for comparing Netanyahu to Ahmadinejad.

ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut provokes the jeering crowd during a protest against municipal budget cuts outside the PMO, Monday. (photo credit: ABE SELIG)
ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut provokes the jeering crowd during a protest against municipal budget cuts outside the PMO, Monday.
(photo credit: ABE SELIG)

The two-day warning strike that began on Sunday at the behest of the Union of Local Authorities reached a fever pitch Monday morning as hundreds of municipal workers from all over the country converged on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem for an anger-fueled protest.

ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut...
ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut...

ULA chairman Shlomo Buhbut provokes the jeering crowd during a protest against municipal budget cuts outside the PMO, Monday.Photo: Abe Selig

"Bibi come home!" the crowd chanted opposite the compound, referring to the prime minister's visit to Egypt on Monday morning, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"Bibi come out of your bunker!"

Although they were unified in their dissatisfaction with the government's plan to cut their local municipality budgets by millions of shekels, the crowd itself was made up of diverse faces from the small towns and villages that dot the country's periphery.

Truck drivers from Fureidis, sanitation workers from Dimona, municipal clerks from Tiberias and security guards from Afula were but a sampling of the demonstration's participants, the majority of whom clad themselves in yellow t-shirts brandishing the slogan, "Bibi wants the citizens to pay the price."

After requesting a moment of silence for fallen IAF pilot Assaf Ramon, who was killed when the plane he was flying crashed during a training accident on Sunday, ULA Chairman Shlomo Buhbut was met with raucous applause as he began yelling into the microphone in the direction of the Prime Minister's Office.

"[Netanyahu] can meet with Madonna, but he can't find time to meet with the heads of the local authorities?" Buhbut cried out. "You should be ashamed of yourself! The State of Israel is turning into Iran and Bibi has become [Iranian dictator Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."

Buhbut later apologized for the comment, telling Israel Radio that he had made the comparison in a moment of great anger and that the reference to measures taken by Iran's president following the contested elections there in June had been in light of the excessive force he said Netanyahu used to quell similar ULA protests in recent days.

The crowd on Monday morning, however, was less than apologetic.

"He's right," a nearby municipal worker said after Buhbut made the comment.

Moments later, the protesters pushed police out of the way and forced themselves through to a security barrier at the entrance to the prime minister's office.

As the striking workers continued to chant slogans and yell in the direction of police, former Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) arrived, telling the crowd that "the government's decision to cut the weakest municipalities' budgets was plain and utter stupidity."

But it was the municipality heads themselves who had the harshest criticisms for the government. "They're not cutting the budgets for Tel Aviv or Kfar Saba, because Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba don't have budgets to cut," said Moti Mizrachi, who sits on the local council of Kfar Veradim.

"Those cities don't need the government's help to fund their municipalities, but we do, and [the government's] taking the money away from us. They're putting it all on [our] municipalities' shoulders - transport for our kids to get to school, water, welfare services, all of these things. Instead of cutting the salaries of unnecessary politicians, they're taking money out of our pockets."

"And why? Kfar Veradim was hit with 25 Katyusha [rockets] during the [2006 Second Lebanon War]," Mizrachi said. "Ma'alot, next to us, where Buhbut is the mayor, they stopped counting over there.

"And yet it's our budgets they're cutting. It's the periphery communities, because they think we'll just take it.

"But the government doesn't know who they're dealing with in Shlomo Buhbut," he continued. "He's a fighter and he's not going to back down. What you're seeing today didn't just start this week, it's been building for a long time, and after the holidays are over, if nothing has been sorted out, there's going to be a strike like you've never seen before. Enough is enough."

The ULA's warning strike was expected to conclude by Tuesday morning, but Buhbut himself made it clear that if nothing is worked out during the holiday period, he expects all of the local authorities to join the strike.

The strike suffered a serious blow on Sunday when a majority of the country's cities decided to allow schools to operate normally.

Buhbut said in response that the large cities - mostly unaffected by the threatened municipal budget cuts - had left them "bleeding in the field."

On both Sunday and Monday, more than 80 percent of the country's pupils were in school, and other services, such as parking enforcement and garbage collection, were disrupted to widely varying degrees. In Jerusalem, all municipal operations functioned normally.

Additionally on both Sunday and Monday, ULA workers caused large traffic delays on various major highways when they drove fire and garbage trucks, along with other municipality vehicles, down the road at low speed in protest of the government's intended cuts to their budgets.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.