Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman met yesterday with the management of Haifa Port and the Ports Authority to set up teams to negotiate a structural change in Israel's ports. Talks with the representatives of the Histadrut labor federation and the unions are to start immediately after Sukkot, but the Histadrut is taking its time. Apparently they are hoping that during the 100-day period that the court allowed for the negotiations, a deus ex machina would appear to tip the scales in their direction without having to make any concessions.

Lieberman and Netanyahu want to dissolve the Ports Authority and turn the three ports into three separate and competing government companies. The unions, on the other hand, want the government to uphold the agreement from 2001, namely, to keep the Authority going and operate the three ports as subsidiaries.

The agreement from 2001 is the original sin of Sharon's first cabinet. At the time, transportation minister Ephraim Sneh wanted to gain the support of the port workers, and finance minister Silvan Shalom just wanted some peace and quiet. Consequently, an exceptionally bad agreement was signed, which did not generate any competition and at the same time also hiked the workers' wages. Now Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu have to fight this bad agreement and instead sign one that is better for the ports and the economy; in other words, one that would create competition among three independent ports.

When the ports are mentioned, mostly it is in the context of the workers - their inflated salaries and the nepotism. But the workers are backed by the management of the Ports Authority, with a director general and 180 office workers, who understand that if Lieberman and Netanyahu succeed in their mission, most of them will become redundant. Much of the fat will have to be trimmed once the ports start operating as independent units. This is why outwardly the management of the Authority always supported the government's streamlining plans, but behind closed doors encouraged the unions to fight them - thus saving their cushy jobs.

No one cared that ships had to wait eight times (!) as long as the standard defined by the Authority itself, with every day of delay costing tens of thousands of dollars per ship. No one cared that we had to pay too much for every piece of merchandise we bought and that manufacturers and traders were forced to maintain large and expensive inventories, and that all of this spelled a lower standard of living for everyone. So how can Lieberman trust the managers of the Authority? Does he have any other example of a hen that ran eagerly toward the slaughterer's knife?

Either way, the next 100 days are critical for the future of Israel's ports and national economy. If Lieberman and Netanyahu fail, they will be branded as losers. Netanyahu will then find it very difficult to sell the banks and privatize power generation. Lieberman will have a hard time transforming the Public Works Department (Maatz) into a government company and creating competition for the Egged and Dan bus companies. The only right move at this point is to push for the construction of another container port, because the next strike is already on the horizon.