The Histadrut will begin its public-sector strike either tomorrow or Wednesday, with a final decision on the timing to be made this afternoon.

But religious council workers, who have not been paid in months, will begin striking today, meaning that there will be no weddings or burials. The bodies of the deceased will be kept in cold storage.

To help avert the strike by the Histadrut - whose main pretext is the ongoing nonpayment of salaries to employees of the local authorities and religious councils - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz last night, and proposed a compromise: That half the wages owed workers in any particular local authority be transferred once it agrees in writing to implement a recovery plan, with the rest being transferred once the workers themselves sign on.

The Histadrut rejected this offer, however, saying it would accept nothing less than full and immediate payment of the salaries that are owed.

The larger strike is slated to encompass the entire public sector: ministries, government agencies such as the Israel Lands Administration, local authorities, religious councils, government companies such as Israel Railways and Bezeq, the ports, the airports and the post office. Some of the banks are considering partial strikes to show solidarity with the battle of the Histadrut.

The strike is also aimed at the proposed 2005 budget cuts, which include firing hundreds of public-sector workers, lowering wages of others and requiring some of the sector's employees to help fund their own pensions, just as private-sector workers do.

Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz met yesterday with leaders of the Manufacturers Association, who urged him to cancel the strike. "We're still licking our wounds from the ports strike," said Association president Oded Tyrah. "Customers are abandoning us because of the last strike, which lasted a full month. Another strike would cut off the branch on which we all sit."

Association members employ some 400,000 people, he noted, and they purchase goods and services from firms employing another 500,000. Thus, if industry suffers, he argued, so will the workers.

"I have no intention of apologizing for the strike," Peretz retorted. "Israel looks like it is Third World not just because of strikes, but because of the condition of its workers - because of the oppression, the low minimum wage, the employers who pay less than minimum wage and recently also because of the nonpayment of wages, about which not one industrialist has opened his mouth."

Netanyahu, for his part, blamed the Histadrut for the situation of nonpayment of wages. The labor federation, he charged during yesterday's cabinet meeting, has prevented local unions from signing the municipal recovery plans that are needed in order for the salaries to be paid.

In some cases, he added, mayors have also refused to sign. "They are essentially saying: Give me money so that I can continue to double my staff."