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Histadrut labor federation Chairman Ofer Eini announced last evening that a general strike would begin this morning, but would not affect Ben-Gurion International Airport for another 24 hours.

The strike, which Eini announced following the failure of talks with the treasury over a wage hike in the public sector, was to begin at 6 A.M. It will encompass all government ministries, local authorities and other government bodies. Israel's border crossings with Egypt and Jordan will also close.

The National Labor Court heard a petition last night submitted by various financial organizations, requesting an injunction be issued against the strike. The Labor Court had still not issued a ruling by press time.

The organizations say that while they do not begrudge public sector workers their basic right to strike, "the right to strike is a relative right."

The petitioners maintain that the strike will cost the economy NIS 800 million daily.

The National Labor Court has in the past issued an injunction against a general strike in the public sector.

"Negotiations with the Histadrut are possible at any time, as long as they are within reasonable and responsible bounds and the economy can bear the outcome," the Finance Ministry said last night.

The treasury said meeting Eini's demands would lead to a cut in the education, social services and defense budgets.

Eini termed the strike "inevitable," after he and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On failed to resolve the dispute.

Bar-On offered Eini a two-stage increase to public-sector wages, amounting to a 1 percent addition by 2009. The treasury had previously been willing to offer only a 0.2 percent increase. Eli Cohen, the treasury's head of wages, later upped the offer to 0.4 percent, plus local corrections to certain workers groups.

Eini refused, saying the proposal was "like offering to buy each worker two falafels."

Histadrut officials said Eini decided against launching the strike yesterday out of consideration for the religious public, who were observing the Tisha B'Av day of mourning.

Finance Minister Bar-On said that complying with the Histadrut's demands for an increase of over 10 percent would exceed the budget, thereby impeding growth and unemployment. "Agreeing would compromise the government's ability to reach its objectives and combat poverty. It would keep it from helping the less affluent social strata."

Manufacturers Association chairman Shraga Brosh said he was following the negotiations closely, adding that he thought the strike could be avoided in the next 24 hours.

"I will talk with both parties with the intention of averting this strike, which would cause tremendous damage to the Israeli economy," he said. "The business sector and the economy cannot afford so much as an hour of strike. A single day of strike would mean a loss of NIS 800 million."

The bone of contention is the Histadrut's demand that approximately 700,000 public-sector workers be given raises of 10 percent to 13 percent, and that the last collective public-sector wage agreement, signed in 2001, must be updated.

Eini said Brosh "had spoken to all the officials, but that Cohen had said 'I don't care if there's a strike.' You can't reach an agreement when the treasure doesn't care."

The Finance Ministry said that Cohen never made that statement.

Cohen countered the Histadrut's demands by saying that the public sector's wages had actually increased by an average 8 percent since 2001, owing to veteran workers' seniority wages and an increase in minimum wage for junior staff.