The Israel Medical Association has declared a labor dispute on behalf of the country's public-sector physicians, after several months of wage negotiations between the professional organization and the Finance Ministry reached a dead end. If no agreement is reached within 14 days, doctors in the public sector could strike, for the first time in over a decade.

The IMA expressed hope that a general physicians' strike could be avoided. Another bargaining session is scheduled for next week.

The labor dispute involves 20,000 physicians employed in hospitals operated by the government or by the Clalit health maintenance organization, as well as Jerusalem's Hadassah hospitals and clinics operated by Clalit, the Leumit HMO and the Health Ministry.

The union has begun making preparations and notified members in a recent letter that a strike could be called.

"After a decade in which the doctors did not strike out of a deep sense of responsibility toward the public and the system, and after infinite attempts to find real solutions for the public health system's problems, we have come to the conclusion that the Finance Ministry wants a sick health system," IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman said.

IMA and treasury representatives have been negotiating on a new collective bargaining agreement for the past seven months. As part of the agreement reached during the doctors' strike of 2000, which lasted for four and a half months, the IMA promised not to strike for a period of 10 years.

An arbitration agreement reached in November 2008 as part of the union contract resulted in wage increases of between 23.36 percent and 24.41 percent.

In addition to salary increases, the IMA is demanding more positions for physicians, and priority to those working in peripheral areas of the country and in specialties in which there is a particular shortage.

The union wants more than what the Finance Ministry is offering: According to the IMA, the treasury has only agreed to a 5 percent wage increase, spread out over five years, a monthly bonus of NIS 1,250 for physicians in high-demand specialties (NIS 625 for interns ), and a bonus of 2 to 2.5 percent for physicians working in the periphery.

"The treasury and the employers did not take advantage of the 10 years during which the physicians were bound to a no-strike commitment in order to improve the health system. Just the opposite - they weakened it while hurting doctors and, above all, the public health system. Successive governments have concluded that savings can be obtained at the expense of the health of the state's citizens," Eidelman said.

Finance Ministry officials said that in meetings over the weekend they offered an 18-percent salary increase over eight years, beyond the increase agreed in 2008. Representatives for the doctors said they rejected the offer as insufficient.

According to the treasury, the average monthly salary for all public-sector doctors is NIS 26,322, with interns earning NIS 18,654 on average and senior physicians earning NIS 34,428.