The Israeli government was tied in knots for the second consecutive day today by a spreading hunger strike by doctors demanding higher wages for their work in public hospitals and clinics.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who only yesterday agreed to intervene personally in the four-month-old dispute between the government and the doctors, met this morning with a delegation of physicians from Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, where the hunger strike began last week.
Tonight, after a day of meetings involving Begin, Finance Minister Yoram Aridor and Health Minister Eliezer Shostak, it was announced that a new wage offer would be made to the doctors in an attempt to resolve the bitter dispute, which has become the dominant public issue in Israel.
David Bar-haim, the spokesman for the Finance Ministry, said the new offer would be submitted to the doctors' strike committee Tuesday. He declined to disclose the details but conceded that the offer was a more generous one than the government previously had been willing to make.
Bar-haim said the doctors had refused to commit themselves to ending the strike until they receive the new offer in writing.
Today's frantic activities followed yesterday's weekly Cabinet meeting, which was devoted almost entirely to the doctors' strike.
About 1,500 doctors at 23 hospitals around the country reportedly are participating in the hunger strike. There have been numerous reports of doctors collapsing in the emergency rooms of their hospitals from lack of food.
There has also been public criticism of the doctors for resorting to the tactic of the hunger strike, usually associated with political or human rights causes, in what is essentially an battle over wages.
A majority of Israel's 6,500 doctors, not engaged in the hunger strike, are refusing to work in public hospitals and clinics, which provide health services to the vast majority of Israelis under labor union health plans. Thus far the health system has continued to function, but there have been several warnings that it is near collapse.
Meanwhile, the issue has become a political football. The opposition Labor alignment called today for a debate over the doctors' strike in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and suggested that if the debate is not held it would seek a vote of no confidence.
For the past several days the country's media have also been dominated by stories about the hunger strike, pushing into the background such other issues as Israel's continued military presence in Lebanon and the diplomatic efforts to secure a withdrawal of all foreign forces from that country.
The doctors, most of whom are paid government-regulated salaries in the public hospitals and clinics, are demanding a wage increase of up to 80 percent and have been supported in part in their demands by Shostak, the health minister. But Finance Minister Aridor, seeking to curb Israel's 130 percent inflation rate, has insisted that the doctors receive no more than the 22 percent wage increase granted earlier to other public employes.
The doctors' action against the government began slowly four months ago with a reduction in services at public hospitals and clinics. There was a sharp escalation in the dispute last month when most doctors walked off their jobs and, seeking to evade threatened back-to-work orders, fled to a number of hotels in resort areas of the country.
That action ended quietly with enough of the doctors returning to their jobs to restore a minimum of health services until the beginning last week of the hunger strike, which has gradually gained momentum and spread to hospitals around the country.