The Bottom Line / Olmert Is Right

Olmert's decision to grant the universities what they demanded, and more, will allow the academic year to begin on time.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision yesterday to grant the universities what they demanded and more was right by any standard. It will allow the academic year to start on time Sunday, with no problems.

After last year's big strike it would be difficult to accept another blow to higher education, even if treasury officials' demands were justified - as they definitely are not.

Only NIS 145 million separated the sum Olmert decided on and the amount the Finance Ministry had agreed to give the universities. The treasury offered NIS 370 million and in the end Olmert granted NIS 515 million - small change compared to the huge sums thrown around last week in the coalition negotiations between Tzipi Livni on one side and Ehud Barak, Eli Yishai, Rafi Eitan and Meretz on the other. Altogether the demands of the latter were in the neighborhood of NIS 5 billion.

We didn't heard a peep out of the treasury heads over those amounts, and they certainly didn't take to the streets over them.

Everyone talks about the importance of education for Israel, including Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and all his top officials. They talk the talk, until it comes time to pay up.

That is why the reforms in elementary education are limping along, and there is no reform at all in secondary education. That is also why some of the most exceptional students choose to go overseas to study after the army.

True, there is some justice in the treasury's demands for greater transparency in spending at the universities, especially when it comes to government funds. But the question is very sensitive and so serious that it cannot be solved the week before the opening of the academic year under strike threats.

There is no doubt that political considerations played a big role in Olmert's decision, even though he and his aides will deny it vehemently. Even if he has resigned and is leaving politics the prime minister cannot afford, neither for himself or his party - a general strike of the higher education system during an election campaign.