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The crippling of the nation's international airport by a strike whose intensity surprised even the union officials who declared it, triggered a backlash among grounded passengers and raised anew questions about the rights of public servants to shut down vital public services.

The strike over a wage agreement for airport employees was to have lasted only four hours, beginning at 8 AM on Tuesday. But it dragged well into Wednesday afternoon, along with marathon union-management-Treasury discussions that ended with an agreement to raise wages and keep future work stoppages from erupting at least until 2004.

The moratorium little comforted passengers hit by the strike, however. Public relations executive Ran Rahav, whose business trip to Europe evaporated Tuesday in the heat of the union-management dicussions, was furious. "If the workers committee decides to shut down the airport, they shut it down. What a scandal, what a disgrace!" he told Israel Radio, adding that he believed the union officials should be hurled into Tel Aviv's rank Abu Kabir lockup for 24 hours to cool their strike fever.

"This happens no where else in the world. An entire nation shut off and closed down Scores, hundreds of tourists who at long last came here are stuck in the airport miserable as dogs ... and all because of some militant workers committee which apparently lives in a world of darkness and doesn't realize that it actually lives in a democratic Israel in 2001, where the right to strike exists, but only under very rare circumstances.... How dare they close us down at such a critical time?

Concluded Rahav, who took out newspaper ads Wednesday to spread his message of dismay "We, too have rights. We, too, pay taxes here. We're the people they're supposed to be serving!"

Ha'aretz commentator Ephraim Reiner, referring to the wave of strikes that has hit a wide swath of the public sector - and which may soon include teachers and others - public servants who strike have by and large lost what public sympathy they may have once enjoyed.

"Considering the situation in Israel, a country which currently has nothing good to offer itself - whether in the area of security, economics, society or culture - it is no surprise that strikes are seen by many as another annoying nuisance," Reiner writes in Wednesday's paper.

"On the one hand, the Knesset is now discussing a bill for a Basic Law on Social Rights, which includes, of course, the right to strike. On the other hand, not one of the strikes that has taken place recently has enjoyed public sympathy. Protest demonstrations, even violent ones, in front of the locked gates of industrial plants in development towns, get sympathetic coverage. Those who are "unfortunate and far away" do not disturb the routine of the average Israeli, and the strikes are even an opportunity to express sympathy and to prove one's "humanity."

But if the strikers are employees whose job is to provide the ordinary citizen, and others like him, with services - whether he is an exporter or importer whose merchandise is delayed at the ports, or a student whose studies are disrupted by a strike of his teachers, or a citizen who has returned from abroad to find delays at the airport due to the strike of customs officials - it's no wonder that their strikes are seen as disgraceful. And if, in addition, the "right to strike" also harms those it is supposed to serve - the unemployed who are in need of unemployment benefits - then criticism of the strike is expressed in the name of "solidarity" and social "sensitivity."

According to Reiner, the Histadrut labor federation must now set up a separate organization for public servants, with an emphasis on striking a fitting balance between loyalty to the citizens of the state and the rights of public servants as workers.

The "obligation to find the balance" between conflicting rights falls on the Histadrut, in this case. If the Histadrut does not assume that obligation, and continues its fight against the Finance Ministry officials "as though" they are owners of a business that is mistreating its employees, the Histadrut is taking the risk that all the citizens of Israel will rise up against it. And woe betide a workers' organization that arouses the public against it.

"If the Histadrut retains anything of its "ideological" ability to define and distinguish between the nature of the battle in the private and the public sectors, now is the time to exercise it."