Prime Minister's Pet

If Ehud Barak were minister of education, or Eli Yishai, or Avigdor Lieberman, would things have deteriorated so quickly?

On Monday evenings, as the Knesset is emptying out, Yuli Tamir crosses the corridor leading to her small room on the second floor of the Knesset building, alone. She is always alone. Entourages are not her strong point. Occasionally her young spokeswoman, Lital, accompanies her. Sometimes they giggle together, like two high-schoolers. Tamir is the minister in the eye of the storm. The system for which she is responsible is breaking down before our very eyes.

In the end there will be an agreement. That is clear. But when will the end come, everyone is asking. And they are also asking: If Ehud Barak were minister of education, or Eli Yishai, or Avigdor Lieberman, would things have deteriorated so quickly, with such resignation and apathy, without the minister in charge igniting a coalition crisis and dragging the prime minister by his hair to the negotiating table until a solution was reached?

Tamir is aware of these thoughts. Nobody doubts her intellectual abilities, her commitment to education, her great love for the field. They doubt her ministerial abilities. To what extent is she, a professor from the academic world, who served for a short and unsuccessful period as minister of absorption in Barak's government, capable of carrying the weight of such a large, complex and complicated government ministry, a hornets' nest of militant organizations, subject to chronic budget cutbacks that cause a constant decline in the level of education and poor performance.

There is a great deal of talk about Tamir's "political power." To be more precise, about her lack of it, about her weak status in her party, and about the fact that this is the last government of which she will be a member, at least as long as Barak is chair of the Labor Party. Tamir does not deny the bitterness of her lot in the party since her patron, Amir Peretz, was removed as its leader. She tries to find a positive side to it.

"The very fact that the [teachers' dispute] did not turn into a Labor Party struggle indicates that I am fighting for the right cause," she says. "I don't need the entire party standing behind me. The reform I am leading is a reform of education and not of the Labor Party. It's enough if they don't disturb me. And besides," she adds, "I'm not alone. Two very important people are with me in this struggle: the prime minister and the finance minister. I receive full cooperation from them."

Tamir places her feet on her office desk, in a masculine gesture. Each one of her workdays ends between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M., and there aren't really any visible results. In her opinion, there is only one person to blame: Ran Erez, the chair of the Secondary School Teachers' Association. Erez is her greatest asset, for the time being. That same morning he declared with his usual pompousness, and inspired by the new advisers he has hired, that he would turn to "the UN and UNESCO" in order to protect the teachers.

"Erez's behavior," says Tamir, "is something out of the world of psychiatry. He shouts, goes wild, is unstable. At a certain point I decided that the negotiations would be conducted by a junior echelon, so they will make decisions and we will become involved only in the final stage. I sent a junior representative, the treasury sent a junior representative. We hoped that he would also send a junior representative, but he insisted on coming himself, and blew up that session, too."

Make no mistake about Tamir's stance in this struggle: She is with the prime minister and the finance minister, and against the strikers. She will claim that this is a responsible, realistic stance. Others, including members of her party, will say that her foremost interest is in pleasing her bosses, in being a good girl. "To rest in their lap and purr sweetly," as a member of her faction said of her. Her colleagues in the cabinet are impressed each time anew by the power of the chemistry and the empathy between her and Olmert. It is generally thought that Olmert gets along very well with all the Labor ministers, but there is no doubt that Tamir is his favorite. Even more than the trio of Shalom Simhon, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Isaac Herzog. Olmert knows that these three are dying to remain in the government, but if Barak commands, none of them will contradict him. As for Tamir, that's a different story.

Veiled eyes

When Tamir speaks about Ehud Olmert her eyes become veiled. All right, perhaps that's going too far, but after hearing her describe her professional relationship with the prime minister and her great personal admiration for him, it is hard not to understand her position vis-a-vis Olmert and vis-a-vis Barak. If it were up to her, she would promise Olmert a full term, until October 2010 - Winograd or no Winograd, indictments or no indictments. In her opinion, he is an ideal prime minister and this is an ideal government. "Since the term of Yitzhak Rabin no prime minister and no government has invested such sums in education: NIS 6 billion in salaries, NIS 4 billion in construction," she says. "Olmert himself cares about education."

In an interview with Razi Barkai on Army Radio, she made a point of mentioning that Yossi Sarid, the short-lived education minister in the short-lived Barak government, managed to raise the teachers' salaries by only 1 percent. She is already now offering them five times as much. Officials in Barak's office have long been treating her with suspicion, as someone planted deep in the rival camp, in the heart of the Prime Minister's Office. Barak confidants have developed an interesting theory about the close ties between the prime minister and the education minister: Olmert, Barak's supporters believe, wants to nurture Tamir and to be very gracious to her so that on the day the Winograd Committee publishes its full report, or when an indictment is filed against him, Tamir, who has an enlightened, progressive, liberal, leftist and law-abiding image, will be the first to come out and call on her party not to resign from the coalition.

Tamir doesn't seem surprised by this theory. "And that's worth NIS 10 billion to him?" she smiles tiredly. However, she is willing to admit that she feels very comfortable in the government. "This is the government closest to my own personal views and to those of the Labor Party. There is a dynamic of a diplomatic process that I strongly support. The Labor Party has very little ability to present an alternative diplomatic process. After all, it is clear from all the surveys that the next Knesset will be more right-wing. The next government will be headed by Netanyahu.