Yuli Tamir, the First Lady of Labor, Speaks Out on Poverty, Education and Kadima Tactics

The former university professor aspires to head the Education Ministry

A few hours after the close of the Labor Party conference earlier this week at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, at which party chairman Amir Peretz presented his top 10 and all the Knesset candidates enthusiastically raised their outstretched hands skyward, MK Yuli Tamir was still expressing astonishment at the spirit of unity and concord that distinguished the event.

"We have to maintain a good atmosphere," she said. "There is a strong sense of optimism."

Tamir, 52, who has become the First Lady of the Labor Party after many years in which MK Dalia Itzik held the coveted title, claims she would have gained the title even if Itzik, who crossed over to Kadima with Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon, had remained in Labor. "In any event I would have been ranked in first place among the women, because my status in the party has strengthened a great deal in the past few years," she said.

Tamir is one of the more educated women in Israeli politics. She majored in biology as an undergraduate, completing her Bachelors with honors, before undertaking a Masters in political science at Hebrew University. Tamir went on to earn a Ph.D. at Oxford University and became a professor in the School of Education and the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

She was also among the founders of Peace Now, a former chair of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a past member of the Israel Women's Network, was active in the Citizens' Rights movement, and in 1995 joined the Labor Party. In 1999, she failed to make the party's Knesset list, but Ehud Barak appointed her to his cabinet as minister of absorption; the unexpected appointment generated a great deal of criticism within the party.

During her tenure in the government, Tamir served on the Judicial Selection Committee, and did not conceal her criticism of the fact that the Supreme Court does not properly represent all of the sectors in Israel. She was furious at the fact that the court did not then have an Arab justice, and she supported the call by Haredi parties for the establishment of a constitutional court.

She was elected to the outgoing Knesset in the ninth place on the Labor list, and worked assiduously for three years in all of the fields in which she was involved (the Finance, Education and Culture, and Constitution, Law and Justice committees). Anyone familiar with political life knows it is no simple task for a former cabinet minister to immerse himself or herself in the gray, difficult parliamentary work. "I felt it was a great honor to work in the Knesset, and I did not feel it was beneath my dignity to be a member of any of the Knesset committees."

Kadima? A copy of us

Tamir is not overly concerned about the Labor Party's standing in the polls, and believes that after the elections Amir Peretz will be asked by the president to put together the next government. "Kadima's appearance has without doubt altered the political map," she said. "There have been big parties like Shinui that altogether collapsed, but we have maintained our strength and, according to the polls, are now at 21 seats. I believe that our socio-economic messages will produce results in the elections. The public will not be able to disregard the bleak statistics about the extent of poverty in Israel, which were released this week, as it is a real problem that no party other than us is dealing with."

Q. But your problem is that in two days time people will no longer be talking about the poverty report, and will go back to talking about diplomatic and security affairs, and Amir Peretz will continue to wave the socio-economic flag.

"I have no doubt that education problems and mortgage payments are of much greater concern to the citizens than Qassam missiles. Peretz said that the residents of Sderot did not leave because of the Qassams, but because of the economic distress. On the eve of the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon, I was in Kiryat Shmona and I saw the residents in bomb shelters. They told me: 'The worst thing would be if they didn't fire the Katyushas. Then everyone would forget about us'."

At the Herzliya Conference this week, Peretz also started talking about diplomatic and security matters. What caused the change in his approach?

"Amir has always had positions on security matters, and he did not hesitate to express them even when he was the mayor of Sderot. I don't think a leader must be someone who came from the military establishment. In my opinion, it was insightful civilians who led Israel to great achievements, like David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin - who were not generals. Incidentally, it was also civil movements that spearheaded the important struggles, which led to the army's withdrawal from Lebanon and to evacuation of the settlements in Gush Katif."

Aren't you afraid that your diplomatic platform, which refers to a willingness to concede part of Jerusalem, will chase away voters from the political center?

"That section of our platform is not new. It was also in the platform that was drawn up in 2003, which spoke of a willingness not to control Arabs who live in the Arab neighborhoods along the edges of eastern Jerusalem. This formula, it seems to me, is no different than Olmert's. He is also talking about a readiness to concede the peripheral neighborhoods of Jerusalem. President Clinton's initiative spoke about this, as well."

If your diplomatic platform is identical to that of Kadima, why should centrists vote for you rather than Kadima? People prefer the original, not the copy.

"First of all, Kadima is a copy of us. But the platform does not only include a chapter on diplomatic matters, it also contains other subjects, and in the socio-economic sphere, the differences between us are immense. In that area, there is practically no difference between Olmert and Netanyahu."

Don't you think Peretz made a mistake by not embracing Barak after the primaries and not calling on him to join the Labor leadership?

"I am sorry that Barak preferred not to run in the Labor primaries. I am certain he would have been elected to a high spot on the list. Now, after the primaries, Peretz couldn't add him to the list. It would have aroused anger among the people who were elected."

Olmert? He's no Sharon

What's your opinion of the behavior of your former party leader, Shimon Peres, who abandoned you and joined Kadima?

"I'm saddened by the behavior of Peres, who, democratically speaking, acted improperly. It is inconceivable for a political person to enter a race, and after losing, leaves his party and claims it is unworthy. That is not dignified behavior."

And what about the actions of Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik?

"They did something immoral. Anyone has the right to leave his party and join another party, but to simultaneously sit in two parties and not resign from the Knesset, and return the seat to the party, tells you something about the people who did it. The public will judge whether these people should be its elected representatives in the next Knesset."

Do you also have the feeling that Ariel Sharon's image continues to hover over the upcoming election campaign?

"To my regret, Kadima is making cynical use of Sharon's tragic situation. Sharon is a tragic hero, who is departing from political life in extremely sad fashion. The attempt to use his name and his pictures in the election propaganda is somewhere between the grotesque and the macabre."

How do you explain the fact that even after Sharon's departure from the political arena, Kadima continues to lead the polls?

"I don't know, but it is obvious to me that Olmert is no Sharon, and that if he had to make a gutsy move, I am not sure he would have Tzachi Hanegbi and Gideon Ezra's support. It is very likely that in the event of serious differences of opinion on diplomatic matters, what happened in Likud would also happen in Kadima. Maybe it would even split into two factions. Nobody actually believes that they will finish the term as a single party."

In the election propaganda will you mainly attack Kadima or Likud?

"Mainly Kadima. In politics, your opponent is your neighbor. According to the polls, the biggest reservoir of Labor voters has moved to Kadima. There is a general feeling that there is a problem with this party, which is presenting itself to the public as a governing party in spite of the fact that it has no party institutions and no commitment to any subject in the world. We do not know how they are planning to fight poverty, the troubles of the health system, or other important issues. To my regret, the media allows Kadima to hover around in space without giving real answers to a single question."

Assuming you will be partners in the next coalition, do you aspire to get the education portfolio?

"I want that position very much. I am well acquainted with the subject of education. I taught in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, and I was engaged in training teachers. I believe I could fill this position well. With great dismay, I have watched what has happened to the education system over the past few years."

But the portfolio seems to be taken already. Professor Uriel Reichman says that Sharon promised him the education portfolio.

"I heard what Professor Reichman had to say, and his remarks contained no change, no news. He intends to remain on Limor Livnat's path. I think that the current situation in the education system, in which education ministers come and go, do not identify with the teachers or with the teachers' unions, is tragic. In Professor Reichman's words, I heard contempt for the system, for the teachers' unions and for the teachers themselves. It is not possible to carry out any reform without gaining the confidence of the teachers."