Israel's Cabinet has approved a deal to allow more EU flights, hours after the country's airlines went on strike out of concerns that the agreement would cost them jobs and possibly even ruin their companies.
The approval of "Open Skies" raised the possibility of a longer, broader strike by Israel's major labour union. Already, hundreds of people scheduled to fly on Israel's three carriers, El Al, Arkia and Israir, have been stranded.
As hundreds of union workers protested outside, the Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the agreement, which allows more carriers to serve the Israeli market.
"The Open Skies reform is good for Israel. It will lead to the lowering of prices and increase competition, and it will not harm workplaces in the market, rather the opposite," Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid said. He said the deal would not be implemented until April 2014.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the deal. "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," he said.
Tourism is a major industry in Israel, bringing in more than 3.5 million visitors a year. Critics warned that Israel's small fleet of planes, along with high security costs, would hinder it from competing with larger international airlines.
Ofer Eini, head of the powerful Histadrut labour union, told Israel Radio that he favours Open Skies, but the deal needs to be amended to secure local jobs. He said the arrangement could cause local airlines to collapse, warning that thousands of jobs are at risk.
Although Sunday's strike did not affect flights by international carriers, Mr Eini indicated the work stoppage could be broadened. He did not elaborate, but a strike by unionised airport workers or security staff, for instance, could bring the whole airport to a standstill.
A spokeswoman for El Al, Israel's national carrier, said of 22 flights planned for Sunday, 14 were brought forward before the strike began and eight were cancelled. She said the strike affected hundreds of passengers. Travellers were given the option to transfer to other flights or get their money back, she said.
The Open Skies agreement is meant to reduce restrictions on European carriers for using Israeli airspace, increasing competition. It would expand the number of flights between Israel and Europe and allow Israel to become a layover hub. Now it is a final stop.