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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini is a patriotic guy, if the dire predictions of another war this summer would still have been valid, he wouldn't have been planning a general strike in July.
Eini's latest political ally is the new Labor Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak; together they defeated Amir Peretz and Ami Ayalon in the Labor primaries, and the two are in close contact. Barak is backing Eini in his demands for a public sector wage hike and if there were any serious intelligence warnings of an imminent outbreak of warfare, he would have warned Eini against wielding the general strike weapon at this time.
Timing, of course, is everything. Just like Hassan Nasrallah last summer, Eini is catching the government when it is least prepared and short on experienced operators in the relevant field. The finance minister, Ronnie Bar-On, is new, not even a month on the job, and Treasury Director-General Yoram Ariav is also only a few months in his post, and without any real experience in high-pressure pay negotiations. Above them, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is a seasoned negotiator but this couldn't come at a worse time for him. Olmert is desperately trying to regain a degree of public support before his Kadima rivals can launch a palace coup against him, so a damaging general strike is the last thing he needs now. Olmert and Bar-On are just getting down to preparing the 2008 state budget, a raise for 600 thousand public sector workers will throw all their calculations out of balance. Eini has chosen their most vulnerable moment to strike.
In his year-and-a-half as Histadrut chief, Eini has built a conciliatory image for himself, unlike his predecessor, the firebrand Peretz. He hasn't been quick to brandish the general strike option, preferring serious talks, far away from the media's eyes. The employers and financial organizations like him, as do the politicians, and his reelection as chairman was virtually unopposed. Despite threatening general strikes over the failure of dozens of local councils to pay their workers, they generally didn't surface because he called them off after receiving government assurances that the workers would get their money, as was the case with the strike in March that lasted less than a day. This time, he is determined to show that he means business and prove that when he makes threats, he isn't waving an unloaded gun.
Eini believes that he has stored enough public credibility to withstand the anger of those who will be greatly inconvenienced by the work action, and that most of it will be directed at the government (the decision to postpone the strike at Ben-Gurion Airport by 24 hours is another gesture towards public opinion). A number of influential media commentators who normally would be criticizing the Histadrut over such a move, are prepared to give Eini a hearing and to believe that there are no ulterior motives behind this strike.
He knows that Olmert can ill afford a prolonged general strike that will ruin the Israeli middle class's summer vacation for the second year running. The 10 percent wage increase that the Histadrut is demanding probably won't be met but it's a very good bet that they'll get a lot more than the 1% that the Treasury is currently offering.