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Fearful that the exasperated striking university lecturers will go over his head to the prime minister, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On reportedly offered them a 20 percent raise. His latest move, in hope of ending the 50-plus day strike once and for all, may not be the end of it, though: The lecturers have been demanding a 35 percent raise.

Meanwhile, late last night the wages director at the Finance Ministry, Eli Cohen, met with representatives of the universities, in another attempt to bridge gaps and end the strike.

Bar-On is worried that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won't be able to withstand the public pressure and will become involved in the negotiations, to end the strike before the first semester is simply cancelled.

More specifically, the treasury's proposal is fairly similar to its offer to the high-school teachers. If the lecturers don't agree to the proposed reform, they will get the same cost of living increases allotted to all public-sector workers - no more. If they accept the reform, they'll get a real raise.

At the annual conference of the Finance Ministry's Budget Department yesterday, Bar-On said the lecturers could "dream on" that the treasury would accept their demands. "They'll get a single-digit raise." That said, he offered about 20 percent yesterday.

When the strike erupted some 50 days ago, the lecturers claimed that their pay had eroded by 35 percent in real terms. The treasury said the erosion was all of 3 percent, and was therefore willing to give the university lecturers a 5 percent pay hike on top of that, which is the same as what the rest of the public sector is getting. Ergo, the lecturers would get 8 percent. Also, if the lecturers accept the Shochat Reform, they can have 6 percent more, bringing their pay rise to 15 percent by the year 2009.

The treasury is also proposing to add 1 percent a year from 2010 to 2015, as long as the lecturers don't strike again. That would add 5-6 percent more, and presto - it's 20 percent.

The treasury hopes that because of special conditions that apply to lecturers, they can push through the agreement without sparking any more labor disputes with other sectors.

The reform that the treasury wishes to lock in consists of two parts. First, the lecturers agree to adopt the conclusions of the Shochat panel, chaired by former finance minister Abraham Shochat. The Shochat Committee recommended differential pay that would motivate promising young lecturers, lecturers returning from abroad and "the stars". The second demand changes pension arrangements for lecturers. For one thing, their stipends would be linked to the consumer price index instead of to the average wage. That is also an element in the treasury's negotiations with the Histadrut labor federation regarding public-sector pay arrangements.

Bar-On's arrangement with the lecturers, assuming it is accepted, would cost about half a billion shekels a year, on top of extra government budgets to the universities amounting to more than a billion shekels a year. But the lecturers may well reject Bar-On's concept, based on their argument that their pay has lost 35 percent of its value in the last 10 years. The treasury's calculations conclude otherwise.

"I'm hearing of this for the first time," said Prof. Zvi Hacohen, chair of the Coordinating Committee of Faculty Associations. "The treasury claims that our pay eroded by just 3 percent, so how is it suddenly offering 20 percent?"