Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini announced Tuesday evening that the labor federation would hold a public sector strike in two weeks unless progress is made on the dispute over delays in the payment of salaries to 5,000 workers of local authorities and religious councils.

The strike would begin March 21, less than two weeks before the Passover holiday.

Last week Eini canceled a planned strike to allow Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to work towards solving the crisis.

But according to data presented to the government Tuesday, 33 local authorities and 18 religious councils have delayed salary payments to 5,000 workers.

At a cabinet meeting on the subject, ministers heard that the current debt stands at NIS 76 million, about NIS 15,000 per worker.

"Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement that the phenomenon of unpaid salaries would disappear by a given date is encouraging, and I want to believe that Olmert will stand by this promise," Eini said.

"Nonetheless, the Histadrut will not keep quiet until the last worker of the local authorities and councils receives his salary. In some authorities, workers have not been paid their salaries for half a year or even 10 months," he said.

"We will wait and see how Olmert carries out his obligations, and if this [nonpayment of salaries] continues, we will choose to hold a strike, after we postponed the strike we were going to hold last week," he added.

Eini also leveled criticism at Defense Minister Amir Peretz, his predecessor as Histadrut chief.

"It is unfortunate that the Labor Party chairman did not intervene in the crisis over salary delays in local government two months ago. If he had done so, he could have prevented the strike that broke out at the end of November 2006 in protest against the delays at the authorities, and maybe we would not have arrived at the present crisis," Eini said.

"His intervention is too late, even though it is better late than never," he said.

The conflict also lead to a bitter exchange Tuesday between Olmert and Peretz.

After Olmert's opening remarks and a summary by the interior minister of local municipalities who have yet to pay workers' wages, Peretz asked for the floor. Olmert denied Peretz's request and said the subject is not part of his responsibilities.

"You have to wait patiently. Things are not done here according to your own schedule," Olmert said.

Peretz angrily responded and said, "You are behaving like the only ruler of the state." Olmert retorted, "You will not do whatever you please here, sit quietly."

Olmert then canceled the meeting for a short time.

Interior Minister Roni Bar-On said regarding Peretz, "Here, the Histadrut leader has returned."

Prior to the cancellation of the meeting, Olmert spoke of the postponement of the payment of salaries to local authority workers and reiterated that they were not state employees.

"There is no way we can accept the fact that people who worked won't find an appropriate solution to the problem of their salary," Olmert said. He maintains that this is an elementary human problem that cannot be accepted.

Olmert also said he held talks with Histadrut labor federation chair Ofer Eini, and said he supported the payment of wages, but said it would be a mistake to go on a general strike for something the government supports.