Oh, the embarrassment. While the nurses and the Finance Ministry were fighting over raises worth fractions of percentage points and one year here or there regarding the length of the labor agreement, and patients' care suffered and thousands of operations were delayed, causing suffering to the sick and financial damage to hospitals - just then, it turned out that 140 port workers, those workers who can count themselves among the country's best paid, were getting fat raises.

Ashdod Port workers were due to be getting raises worth NIS 3,500 to NIS 4,000 a month very, very soon, according to the article in Haaretz that broke the story.

In other words, the Finance Ministry wants us to believe that the precarious health of our national budget and the constraints of an election season have tied its hands in negotiations with a weak, neglected union, made up mainly of women, that is fighting for scraps - when this same Finance Ministry is about to sign a most generous agreement with one of the country's more powerful, aggressive unions.

This infuriating story resembles a similar affair at the peak of the doctors' labor sanctions last year. Then, too, at a critical moment during the negotiations with the doctors, a surprise decision was handed down to give new municipal rabbis a raise worth thousands of shekels a month, which, of course, meant they were earning more than doctors. Then, too, the dissonance and the impression of social injustice became the talk of the hour, and the Finance Ministry lost crucial public relations points.

It's true there are many more nurses and doctors than there are port workers and municipal rabbis, and every extra percentage point increase to their salaries costs much more as a result. It's also true that the treasury is responsible only for approving the salary agreements with port workers and railway employees, and is not their direct employer. But the offense to social justice still cries out.

How is it that in the State of Israel, strength wins out and repeated raises go only to those with a significant means of pressure such as closing a port, or to those with political backing like the rabbis enjoy? Meanwhile a crucial, neglected sector such as the nurses, who don't have any political strength, and whose only means of pressure - harming the sick - sadly turns out to be much less powerful than closing a port or an airport, have to fight for every crumb? Where's the public interest, and who's looking out for it?

It's convenient to blame the Finance Ministry, which was called all sorts of nasty names this week, but we need to remember that they're only the middlemen in this story. The real decisions are made by someone else entirely. In other words, just like the budget division staff didn't decide to launch the incredibly expensive Operation Pillar of Defense, they're also not the ones with the power to decide to be generous to the nurses and give them raises worth tens of percentage points, effective immediately.

Thus, the public debate over the nurses' strike needs to go beyond placing blame on merciless treasury officials and focus instead on the larger questions of national priorities, powerful interest groups and who's worth more in Israeli society.

Suffering vs. economics

The fact that human suffering - in this case, of patients, and in past instances when the social workers were on strike, of the needy - influences decision-makers much less than the financial damage of closing a port or the railways for a few hours, needs to be part of the public discussion. The fact that groups such as municipal rabbis that are backed by powerful political forces easily get the money they want needs to be examined.

On the other hand, the automatic support for the nurses is sometimes too superficial. It may well be that they are due for higher pay. The results test - the frightening shortage of nurses in Israel and the high percentage of people who abandon nursing studies - shows this better than any point made with a publicized pay slip. Would-be nurses are voting with their feet against the profession and its salary scale. There's also no debate over the crucial role nurses play within the food chain at hospitals and health clinics. Still, the nurses are not immune to criticism.

For example, their representatives refused an offer by the Health Ministry to appoint hundreds of nurses' helpers - state employees - to fill hundreds of positions that are going unfilled and relieve the pressure on many nurses, at least until new ones are hired. You also could expect the nurses to accept a differential salary agreement that offers strong incentives to beginning nurses and to more difficult or in-demand sub-professions within the field.

But agreeing to differential pay, which by nature gives preference to some above others, and to nurses' helpers who could damage the profession's prestige, are difficult steps for a labor leader to make when that leader wants to be reelected.

But these are the right decisions to make when it comes to making intelligent use of public money. Paradoxically, a more complex public debate, one that would embrace the nurses while pushing them to accept assistants - could help nurses' union leader Ilana Cohen explain to her constituents that they have no choice but to agree to these terms.