Government and other workers walked off the job Wednesday morning in a nationwide strike that threatened to paralyze the country less than two weeks before the Passover holiday. The issue: two years of unpaid salaries to some 3,500 public-sector workers.

By later in the afternoon, however, negotiations brought the strike to a close. The Histadrut Labor Union agreed to pay the salaries of the unpaid municipal workers, and the Finance Ministry is to repay the Histadrut at a later date.

Airports Authority officials announced that flights would resume to and from Ben Gurion Airport within the hour.

A government representative said that the Histadrut had not gained much from the strike that it did not have before it.

Earlier Reports: The Strike

Following on-again, off-again negotiations with government ministers, as well as repeated warnings by the Histadrut Labor Federation, government employees finally struck Wednesday morning promptly at 9:00 a.m.

The Labor Court had ruled overnight that the strike by the Histadrut Labor Federation scheduled for 6:00 a.m. be postponed three hours in a last-ditch attempt to avert the walkout. Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini said, however, that nothing was accomplished in Labor Court President Steve Adler's office. He said that the government had refused to promise that all local authority and religious council workers would receive the back salaries owed to them.

Gentlemen, such behavior by the government cannot go on.

"We will strike until the last worker receives his salary," Eini told reporters as he announced the official start of the strike. The union chief had warned Tuesday afternoon that workers would paralyze the country if the government did not find an immediate solution for the thousands of unpaid workers in many of the country's municipalities.

The national labor union is responsible mainly for employees in the public sector. Therefore, Ben Gurion International Airport, the nation's city halls (except for special education departments), the religious councils, coastal lifeguards, fire brigades (other than the ones participating in an ongoing nationwide security drill), government ministries (other than the Ministry of Defense), the National Insurance Institute, the Employment Service, the court system, Israel Railways, border crossings and sea ports are all affected, as is the Bank of Israel, which will stop providing cash to the banks.

The health and education systems will operate as usual, but teachers' assistants will not be working in public kindergartens.

In the event, however, Ben Gurion Airport was only partially struck, with several flights being allowed to land and take off for various reasons, mainly health-related.

A report compiled and released by the Histadrut Tuesday showed that 3,700 employees of 36 municipalities and 16 municipal religious councils were still unpaid as of Tuesday afternoon. This figure, Histadrut spokespeople note, does not even include the 1,400 retirees from municipal public service who have not been receiving their pension payments.

"In recent days, the government has been promising the public that [by today] we will have reached a situation in which only a very limited number of workers suffer from the problem [of withheld wages]," Eini said Tuesday as he warned the strike was imminent. He noted that the Finance Minister made a similar appeal to Eini against a strike that was called in November. "The same broken record is repeating and there is still no solution."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also came in for criticism by the Histadrut Chairman: "The Prime Minister promised about two weeks ago that in a few days there would be a complete solution to the problem. To my great sorrow, nothing has happened. Last time, I postponed the strike to allow the Prime Minister to solve the problem. I have learned about promises. After so many promises, the time comes for results."

Manufacturers Association President Shraga Brosh said Tuesday that the strike would likely cause "very heavy economic damage. The damage to the economy from day one of a strike is about 200 million shekels; the damage on the second day is 300 million shekels; and so forth on up. The last thing Israel needs a disruption of its positive economic situation."

Brosh laid the blame for the impending strike squarely at the feet of the government: "Whatever is possible to resolve today was possible to resolve four months ago. [Withheld public sector wages] is a problem that must not become part of accepted behavioral norms. ...The government must see to it that this disgrace does not repeat itself in the future. Even if [the government] pays the money today, what will happen on April 1st? ...I call on the Prime Minister, the Interior Minister and the Finance Minister to drop everything they are doing and solve this problem today. Gentlemen, such behavior by the government cannot go on...."