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After a five-day lull in talks, the Israel Medical Association and Finance Ministry resumed negotiations Monday. Meanwhile the doctors will continue their sanctions, performing only urgent surgeries.

If no progress is made in the talks Tuesday, the doctors said they will launch - starting Wednesday- a general strike in all state-run hospitals, including psychiatric and geriatric centers, which will be forced to operate on skeleton crews.

Outpatient clinics will also function as usual and will perform all catheterizations and nonsurgical procedures, unless a general strike is declared. Committees at individual hospitals will decide on exceptions to the rule dictating urgent surgeries only.

At this stage, the doctors in the Clalit and Leumit health maintenance organizations will not join the sanctions, although their representatives are taking part in the negotiations over the doctors' demands to improve their work conditions and wages.

Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center, which was allowed by the union leaders to work as usual, will continue doing so due to the volatile situation along the Gaza border. Yesterday some 20 doctors from the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer joined their colleagues working in Barzilai.

The strike's staff committee reported yesterday that the two sides had discussed the doctors' demand to alleviate the interns' work load, including the IMA proposal to add one shift a month for all specializing doctors.

The IMA also suggested giving interns a day off after completing a shift, but that would mean adding 600 doctor's positions in hospitals - something the treasury is not expected to accept.

The sides also discussed going to arbitration, following a letter sent by Finance Ministry wage director Ilan Levin at the beginning of the week promising that arbitration will not be allowed to continue indefinitely this time around.

The stalemate in the talks stemmed from the ministry's demand to move to arbitration in the same format as in 2000, which took eight years.

The IMA vehemently objects to such prolonged talks, demanding that any arbitration have a time limit.

"My demand is that the controversy over the length of the 2000 arbitration not be used as an impediment to continuing the negotiations, and certainly not a cause to stop the talks and take industrial measures," Levin wrote to the doctors.

Sources in the Health Ministry also said the ministry supports the treasury's position: to significantly raise salaries for residents, shorten shifts to no more than 24 hours (from 26 hours ), and limit the number of on-call shifts for residents to no more than seven a month.

The Assouta Medical Center in Tel Aviv, run by the Maccabi HMO, yesterday won the tender to build and run a new hospital in Ashdod. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said the choice of Assouta, which in the past few months was the only remaining contender, was "troubling."

"It is very troubling that, while negotiations are going on to strengthen public medicine, a private hospital is being set up," Litzman said. "The law was intended to enable the state to build a public, state-run hospital."

According to the tender, private medical services would be allowed in the new hospital, amount to up to 25 percent of the income. The hospital's public activity will consist of an emergency room, obstetrics and hospital wards.