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Israeli Aircraft Workers Take to Streets to Protest Scrapping of Lavi Jet

September 01, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

LOD, Israel — Israel Aircraft Industries' 20,000 workers reacted in two ways Monday to the government's decision of the day before to scrap the Lavi jet fighter project. Both were bad political news for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his party, the Labor Alignment, which led the campaign to ground the Lavi.

Hundreds of workers took angrily to the streets, burning tires, blocking the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, brandishing placards and shouting at anyone who would listen. "Peres: son of a whore!" workers chanted as they marched on Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv. "Peres go home!"

Others seemed stunned. Like Yossi, a 35-year-old engineer and father of three, they went to the factory but did little in the way of work. Two reporters almost overlooked him as they wandered through a cavernous hangar Monday afternoon.

Pretending to Work

Yossi--military censorship prevents the use of his full name--was sitting under a partial mock-up of the ill-fated aircraft, poking unenthusiastically at a bundle of wires hanging down in front of him. He was one of a handful of people in the once-bustling hangar, and he was the only one even pretending to work.

"I'm just mourning," said Yossi, who has worked on the Lavi project for most of his seven years at the factory. "It's like losing a baby."

Employees are under company orders to make no political statements, yet Yossi said he found it "very strange that the Labor Party wanted to cancel the Lavi."

It was a Peres proposal, approved by a slender 12-11 majority in the Cabinet, with one minister abstaining, that doomed the needle-nosed fighter once billed as the cornerstone of Israel's defense deterrent into the next century.

Israel Aircraft, which is government-owned, says the decision will cost up to 6,000 jobs, though the Defense Ministry said Monday that it plans no dismissals pending clarification of other aspects of the decision that are meant to steer replacement business to the firm.

The workers said they will continue to pressure the government to reconsider its decision, but they were secretive about their plans.

According to the Hebrew-language newspaper Hadashot, the workers intend to keep their 50,000 children home today, the first day of the new school year, and take them instead to the aircraft factory for a "last look" at the Lavi.

Several right-wing politicians called for another vote on the Lavi. Moshe Arens, a Cabinet minister without portfolio representing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc, said he will hold off on his threatened resignation as long as there is a chance that the decision will be reconsidered.

Arens, who has been called the "spiritual father" of the Lavi, had said Sunday that he would resign rather than accept a share of the responsibility for what he said was "a major mistake."

An Israel Aircraft delegation that met with Shamir on Monday afternoon said the prime minister had left open the possibility of another vote, but few analysts here took the prospect seriously.

"Unless there is a change of mind in the Labor Party, there is no purpose in a re-vote," Shamir spokesman Avi Pazner said.

Nevertheless, he forecast "a long war of nerves."

The fact that Likud Finance Minister Moshe Nissim joined Labor ministers in voting against the Lavi--he was the only minister to cross party lines in the decision--apparently made little difference to the workers, even though Labor is known as the party of the working man.

Nor did the fact that Peres--during a term as deputy defense minister early in his political career--had helped found the company, and that he now argued that his proposal to scrap the Lavi in favor of other projects was intended "to save IAI, and not to harm it."

"They are furious at the Labor Party," a key Shamir aide said after the prime minister's meeting with the Israel Aircraft delegation.

The workers "have a high appreciation" for Shamir's efforts to save the project, he said, and "of course, this is a situation that tends very much to benefit the Likud."

The aide said that if Israel Aircraft's 20,000 employees, their spouses and adult children would vote as a bloc, they could elect two or three members of the next Parliament. In light of the present stalemate between Peres' Labor Alignment and Shamir's Likud Bloc in the 120-seat Knesset, or Parliament, a shift of two or three votes could make an important difference.

"It can tip the election," the aide said. Labor and Likud are joined in an unusual "national unity" coalition, but elections are scheduled for November of next year, and the date could easily be moved up depending on the political situation. Chaim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud faction in the Knesset, urged Monday that the party take advantage of the Lavi issue to force elections now.

Peres aides predicted that the storm will pass quickly and that once it passes, the workers and the electorate generally will realize that he acted for the good of the country.

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