Netanyahu, Peretz Meet in Bid to End Public Worker Sanctions

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Histadrut labor federation chief Amir Peretz met Friday in Jerusalem in an attempt to end work sanctions by public sector employees.

A positive atmosphere was reported in the meeting in which both tresury and labor negotiation teams participated.

Before the meeting, Minister Meir Sheetrit said that the negotiations were at a stage that they could be completed within two-to-three days, Israel Radio reported.

Earlier Friday, Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander on Friday criticized a Labor Court decision to issue restraining orders against work sanctions by public sector employees.

"Issuing restraining orders will not solve the problem of sanctions," Hollander told Israel Radio. "A deal should be brokered with the civil servants."

The customs director on Thursday issued back-to-work orders to 100 customs employees stationed at the border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. Similar orders were not issued, however, to striking customs workers at the sea and air ports who renewed their sanctions Thursday.

At Ben-Gurion International Airport, customs workers were on a deliberate go-slow, inspecting the luggage of each and every incoming passenger, causing long lines and delays.

The workers said the slow-down would take place every day between 8 A.M. and 10 P.M., "until an agreement is reached on the restructuring of government offices." The airport's cargo employees also renewed sanctions, preventing the release of cargo arriving from abroad.

Finance Secretary Benjamin Netanyahu, attending an opening ceremony of a new spa at a Hamat Gader resort hotel in the Jordan Valley, lashed out at the Histadrut over the airport customs-workers strike.

"We thought there was readiness on the part of the Histadrut to reach an agreement... I urge the Histadrut, if you want to strike against me or against the Treasury, please, but what do you want from the citizens? Stop abusing them," Netanyahu said.

Histadrut and treasury negotiation teams renewed talks Thursday aimed at reaching an agreement on the pension reforms crisis.

The customs workers' sanctions are part of a public sector strike which entered its 66th day on Thursday. Sanctions were also continuing at government ministries and offices, including the National Insurance Institute and the Employment Service offices, after talks between Civil servants union chairman Ofer Eini and Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander collapsed Friday and have not been renewed since.

The National Labor Court said Tuesday that it is delaying by nine days its ruling on whether to allow the Histadrut to launch a general strike, during which time the unions cannot initiate any sanctions and the treasury will not push ahead with its disputed reforms.

The Finance Ministry on Wednesday denied reports that it is prepared to backtrack on its plan to dismantle the Ports Authority and privatize the country's harbors.

TheMarker reported on Wednesday that the Finance Ministry said that the monopoly will be dismantled and each of the three ports, Ashdod, Haifa, and Eilat, will be immediately registered as a government company slated for future privatization. The treasury also clarified that once the ports are turned into separate government companies, each will be allocated professional directors. The ports will operate as businesses in a competitive environment.

The Finance Ministry's plan to dismantle the Ports Authority was the cornerstone of the structural reforms in the economy that are incorporated in its 2004 budget plan; and the proposal regarding the ports was the main spark that ignited the still-unresolved dispute between the Histadrut and the Finance Ministry.

It was reported that under what appeared to be a new formula by the ministry, the ports of Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat would be turned into independent government companies in a prolonged process that would be completed after several years. During the first stage of the plan, the harbors would operate as semi-autonomous units; but they would remain subordinate to the Ports Authority, which would not lose its power.

Amos Ron, Ports Authority director-general, said Tuesday that significant progress has been reached in talks with the Histadrut, but he declined to give details