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Doctors’ Strike, Fast End As Arbitration Procedures Begin; Hospitals Re-open

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The four-month-old doctors strike ended today along with the mass hunger strike by doctors that began II days ago and forced most of the major hospitals to close or drastically curtail their services.

Dr. Ram Ishai, chairman of the Israel Medical Association (IMA), ordered the doctors to return to work this morning. The doctors’ representatives and government negotiators spent the night working out details of binding arbitration to which the Cabinet agreed yesterday in face of an unprecedented medical crisis. The IMA Council convened at noon today for a formal discussion of the agreement. But the priority now seems to be to get the country’s hospitals functioning normally.

Medical experts said this would take 2-3 days. But it may be months before the backlog of postponed surgery and other medical treatments can be brought up to date and the accumulation of paper work untangled. Meanwhile, representatives of the doctors and the government will each name an arbitrator. The two persons chosen will then nominate a third arbitrator who will serve as the neutral chairman of the panel.

The issues up for arbitration are salary increases and improved working conditions which the normal process of negotiations failed to resolve during the 118-day strike. The Finance Ministry which had firmly opposed arbitration, declined to comment today on the outcome of the strike, generally regarded as a victory for the doctors. But unofficial sources maintained that it was not the Finance Ministry but the government as a whole that suffered defeat.

NO VICTORY

The doctors insisted that there were no victors or vanquished. One physician who had fasted for eight days, observed that the doctors may make some financial gains “but we lost morally.” He was apparently referring to the prolonged disruption of hospital and other medical services which put the burden of suffering on the ill and infirm.

It was generally agreed that the hunger strike, which began less than two weeks ago at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba created the crisis that turned the tide after negotiations between the IMA and the government became deadlocked. Dr. Ivor Sober, of Soroka Hospital welcomed the end of the fast today. He said he was surprised by the speed with which the hunger strike spread and the huge number of doctors who joined it. As of yesterday, it was estimated that some 3,000 physicians, half of the government-employed medical force, were fasting. They were joined in many places by nurses and medical students. As scores of doctors collapsed from weakness, surgeries were shut down along with emergency rooms and other facilities and several of the country’s largest hospitals simply closed.

Faced with that crisis, the government was forced to act and in so doing it emerged that Premier Menachem Begin’s son, Dr. Binyamin Zev Begin, a geologist by training, played a major role behind the scenes. It had long been rumored that Begin was relying increasingly on his son for political advice not only on the doctors’ strike but on other matters of state as far back as the Camp David accords in 1978.

The younger Begin is regarded as ideologically even more hardline and rightwing than his father. Because he holds no political office and is outside the government, the Prime Minister’s Office took pains to conceal his role. Nevertheless, Binyamin Begin reportedly influenced his father to support binding arbitration as the only way out of the medical crisis and did much of the behind-the-scenes negotiating with reluctant Cabinet ministers.

Reporters who regularly attend Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor’s briefing at the close of every Cabinet session were, yesterday, ushered into a side room instead of Meridor’s office. No explanation was given. One reporter, who left the room briefly, noticed Begin’s son was ensconced behind Meridor’s desk busily engaged in telephone conversations. When this was brought to Meridor’s attention, the Cabinet Secretary was visibly embarrassed. He noted that “Benny” Begin was a close friend of his and of other top officials.

Meridor denied that the younger Begin had been receiving regular full reports of Cabinet deliberations. He indicated however that the Premier’s son was closely informed of affairs of state. That involvement made headlines in the Israeli press this morning. Some commentators predicted that the younger Begin would soon become active in politics.

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