Prosecutors Set to Ratchet Up Strike

Union: Ministry 'doesn't realize we're not the same as other civil servants'

The nationwide strike by government attorneys will ratchet up a notch tomorrow, after organizers decided yesterday to narrow the criteria under which lawyers can appear in cases despite the strike.

The strike committee's decision means that from now on, prosecutors will only appear in cases involving the most serious allegations, including murder, attempted murder, arms production and trading, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. Attorneys will no longer be allowed to prosecute suspects in slightly less serious crimes, even in cases of aggravated assault, kidnapping, robbery, drug possession, weapons possession, arson or sex trafficking.

Talks are expected to resume tonight between prosecutors and the Finance Ministry, but an end to the dispute still seems far off. A week ago, Boaz Goldberg, chairman of the government attorneys union, met with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini and Ilan Levin, head of the treasury's wage department. But those talks failed to produce an agreement, and a second meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Cases postponed

The strike has caused hundreds of cases to be postponed, or else heard without prosecutors present, at all levels of the court system. As a result, several people suspected of serious offenses have already been freed during the strike's first two weeks.

Organizers say the strike will continue until their demands are met. They are demanding higher pay and better work conditions, particularly for higher-level prosecutors.

"The Finance Ministry believes it can force employees to surrender, and that the prosecutors are weak," Goldberg told Haaretz yesterday.

He added that he is disappointed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's handling of the affair. "We expect him to behave like the minister charged with running the Justice Ministry, not the Finance Ministry, and to work on our behalf," he said.

Yesterday, at a Knesset Finance Committee hearing on the Justice Ministry's budget, Neeman said he had advised the attorneys not to begin the strike, but since they did, he is leaving the matter to the "professionals."

The prosecutors entered the negotiations demanding a 24.5 percent pay raise, similar to the raise that an arbitrator awarded public-sector physicians. Levin, however, offered the attorneys only a 5 percent raise, and only in exchange for relinquishing their demands for more vacation and in-service training days. The committee rejected the proposal, noting that given those conditions, the raise amounted to just 1.2 percent more than they are paid now.

"The prosecutors' committee is inexperienced," Levin said after last week's failed meeting. "Otherwise, one can't explain how it missed an opportunity to accept the Finance Ministry's offer for better conditions."

Eini also expressed disappointment over the committee's rejection of the offer, but yesterday, the Histadrut said it "respects the attorneys' decision to continue the campaign."

Goldberg charged that "ministry leaders prefer to see us as a public enemy, as evident in Levin's crass remarks toward us." He said the ministry "is showing a total lack of understanding of the prosecutors' work and doesn't realize that we're not the same as other state employees."

Dissatisfaction with pay, he added, has led to an exodus of qualified attorneys to the private sector: "Government attorneys are slowly leaving for private firms, where they can make three to four times what they do with the State Prosecutor's Office."

A high-level Finance Ministry official said yesterday that prosecutors' representatives "haven't shown the leadership needed to bring this dispute to a close."