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Public-sector doctors are threatening to violate a signed agreement in which they promised not to strike until 2010.

The agreement, which was signed in July 2000 by the doctors union and the Health and Finance Ministries, ended a four-month strike. It gave the doctors a pay increase in exchange for a promise not to strike for the next 10 years.

Now, however, the union's 18,000 members are demanding an additional 50 percent raise, and are threatening to violate their no-strike pledge unless this demand is met.

Dr. Yoram Blachar, the chairman of the union, explained that the July 2000 agreement stipulated the formation of an arbitration board to decide future disputes between the doctors and the treasury. "The appointment of arbitrators was a condition for our concession of the strike weapon," he said. "But until recently, the state has not enabled the arbitrators' appointment, and therefore, it has not fulfilled its part of the agreement."

Only at the end of 2005, following a petition by the union to the National Labor Court, was an arbitration committee - headed by former antitrust commissioner Yoram Turbowicz - finally appointed. But then, a new dispute broke out between the government and the union over what type of issues the arbitrators were competent to hear. The state argues that the arbitrators should only rule on cases in which a doctor's salary has declined due to vacation or illness. But the union says that they should also rule on a variety of other issues, such as the doctors' demands for raises or to make additional salary components pensionable. As a result of this dispute, the arbitration committee has still not begun working.

The union's current demand is for the doctors' pay to be equalized with that of other civil servants with the same level of education, such as university professors or defense establishment researchers. According to Blachar, professors' wages are 50 percent higher than those of public-sector doctors - thus, the doctors are effectively demanding a 50 percent pay hike.

And if the government does not either accede to this demand or allow the arbitration committee to rule on it, the union - which includes all doctors in government hospitals and health maintenance organizations - is threatening to strike.