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Bank Hapoalim has no choice but to lay off some 900 employees if it wants to avert a more serious crisis in the future, Shari Arison, chairwoman of Arison Investments and a controlling shareholder in the bank, told a hastily convened press conference yesterday.

"We are accustomed in Israel to acting a moment before complete collapse. We had no choice. If we hadn't cut back now, we would have faced a far more serious problem in two to three years," Arison said.

"It is true that the bank made a billion shekels, but that doesn't mean that Arison or Dankner or the other shareholders made that much money," Arison added. "Bank Hapoalim is one of Israel's few flagships. No other company sent its workers home with such a good [severance] package. No one was thrown into the street. I hurt for every single fired employee, but we had no other option."

Last week, Hapoalim announced it had reached an agreement with its labor union to lay off 900 employees at a cost of NIS 580 million.

On the battle waged by other banking sector unions against Hapoalim's layoffs, Arison said: "Everyone has the right to be heard, but no one has the right to slander and malign, even if he represents another bank."

In response, Bank Leumi union leader Louie Roth said that the banking workers stood behind their position that the decision to fire 900 Hapoalim employees was made out of greed. "Shari Arison's pain is not equal to the pain of the 900 employees Bank Hapoalim plans to throw out into the street," Roth said.

Meanwhile, bank employees will convene at the beginning of next week in what will amount to a de facto strike in the banking sector on that day, the heads of the banking unions decided yesterday at a meeting in Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv. The Bank Hapoalim union did not take part in the meeting.

The Histadrut plans to ask the Tel Aviv Labor Court today to issue an injunction against the layoffs at Bank Hapoalim, after the head of the Histadrut's Trade Unions Division, Shlomo Shani, failed to persuade Hapoalim's management to agree to a voluntary retirement package.

Shani said that the Histadrut had looked for ways to feeze the redundancies at Hapoalim but the bank had not cooperated and therefore the labor federation would press ahead with industrial action.