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The doctors are disgruntled and convinced that they are underpaid. They feel mistreated. Some have gone so far as to say that it is as if they were working as volunteers. As a result, they are demanding a major pay increase of about 50 percent to be spread out over eight years.

That is not the entire story, however, because they have a great many other demands, which also cost money. They have presented a list of 20 demands that pertain to all the problems plaguing the health care system, from the shortage of doctors in outlying areas to the paucity of doctors in certain medical specialties. The physicians are also asking for an increase in the number of days of continuing medical education they are entitled to and for bigger contributions to their pension funds, along with other improvements in perks.

Indeed, the time has come to deal with the real problems in the medical system. The number of medical school graduates must be increased. Doctors must be compensated to encourage them to move to outlying areas. Special compensation must be paid to specialists in areas experiencing shortages, and specialists should supplement staff doing hospital shifts. But what about the salary increase? Can the economy afford a 50 percent pay raise for doctors?

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz is not prepared to even hear these numbers. He says the doctors do not represent a deprived sector. He says they are the only public sector employees allowed to engage in private practice on the side. As a result, he is willing to pay them what the public sector as a whole received, but not a penny more. This would mean a pay increase of about 20 percent spread over eight years. If that is the case, the disparity between the two sides is very wide.

The problem is that Steinitz cannot withstand the pressure that a lengthy strike in medical services would cause, in addition to the fact that he is subordinate to a prime minister who is seeking quiet on the labor front. The Finance Ministry has, therefore, proposed introducing arbitration so that someone else resolve the dispute.

For their part, the physicians have agreed to arbitration, but it is not clear that the arbitrator can consider absolutely every issue, like the provision of private medical services at public hospitals (sharap in Hebrew ) as the doctors want, or ending this practice, as the Treasury proposes. This means the real fight is over the scope of issues that would be subject to arbitration.

As a result, it is incumbent on the parties to sit down and reach agreement on an arbitration document to preempt a major doctors' strike and thereby spare the public any unnecessary hardships.