Since entering politics, Gideon Sa'ar has behaved differently from the stereotypical Likudnik. He lived in central Tel Aviv, spent time at the local pub and was friendly with Labor's Shelly Yachimovich.
He carried banners usually identified with the left, like advancing women's rights, concern for the children of foreign workers and backing the gay-lesbian community, without giving up one iota of the ideology and political views of the right.
Sa'ar's conduct makes his political strategy clear - breaking down Likud's hostility to the "established elites." He believes, too, there are different types of Tel Avivians, including secular people who want a high standard of living and quality schooling, but oppose withdrawal from the territories; who are sensitive to social injustice, like discrimination against Ethiopian children, but who are upset with "uppity" Arab Israelis and furious with draft dodgers.
That is the crowd that Sa'ar is aiming for, distinguishing him from the others vying for the Likud crown. Moshe Ya'alon wants to bag the Land of Israel loyalists. Silvan Shalom combines social sensitivity and political moderation. When it comes time to compete, Sa'ar will say that Silvan and Moshe represent the classic Likud constituency, those in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market, in the development towns, in Gush Etzion and Ariel. They will not attract more votes, but he will bring in those who left Likud and supported Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman in the last elections.
As the government posts were being divvied up after the elections, Sa'ar expected to receive the justice portfolio, reflecting his legal experience as well as his service as cabinet secretary and coalition chairman. But Benjamin Netanyahu assigned him the education portfolio, the education revolution and restoring Israeli pupils to the top ranks of students in international tests.
Sa'ar's difficulty shows in the photographs of his predecessors hanging in his office. The Education Ministry is the cemetery for political ambition. Over the past 40 years, its ministers got stuck on their way up: Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Navon, Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Limor Livnat, Yuli Tamir. They represent hopes and expectations that came crashing down. The National Religious Party and Meretz hoped that control over education would bolster them, and they were wiped off the political map.
The successive failures stem from the gargantuan gap between authority and responsibility in the education system. The minister supposedly has an enormous budget, but his influence is only from the sidelines. The system is controlled by the teachers' unions, the treasury and the bureaucrats at the Education Ministry.
Demographic changes and the rise in living standards have hurt public education and have bolstered the ultra-Orthodox education systems and private schools not under the minister's authority.
In such circumstances, education ministers can focus only on minor issues like approving the teaching of or cancellation of lessons on the Nakba, the Palestinian "catastrophe" with the founding of Israel, depending on who is in power, the left or right.
The program Sa'ar presented late last week before the school year opened shows he has learned the lessons of his predecessors. He is trying to encourage competition in the education system through compensation for achievements; he has also liberalized registration in school districts, but has been careful to avoid conflicts with the centers of power, especially the teachers' unions, which destroyed the political hopes of his two predecessors.
The Dovrat Report of the Limor Livnat era proposed the breakdown and rebuilding of the system, the bolstering of public education and the privatization of teachers' employment. Sa'ar is careful about adopting unprecedented reforms that could cause powerful rivals to face off with him, and has opted for careful progress.
But he has shown political courage in setting numerical goals for improving the achievements of pupils in international exams. But what will he do if they fail to achieve? Sa'ar's initiative to focus on "the Jewish, Zionist and Israeli identity" is nothing new. Zalman Aran, the most influential education minister in Israel's history, proposed "Jewish consciousness" and "focusing on spiritual roots" as a top priority, but even under his leadership the project collapsed several years later. It's hard to succeed with such a program when young people are distancing themselves from the values of their parents, but the aim shows that the politician behind it is an educator to a generation and someone promoting national ideals.
This is the combination Sa'ar would like to offer - a reformer and a Zionist, an innovator who is loyal to tradition. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill Likudnik.
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