Teachers' Strike / Saving Face

One would not have expected so many mistakes in a single script from the Education Ministry, some of them truly horrendous: First, from the outset the two teachers' unions should not have been separated. The treasury was counting on its divide-and-rule stratagem. Big mistake. Instead, to paraphrase our sages, when unions vie, conflict mounts. After getting the latest dirt over the weekend on the negotiations, I've concluded that the Ministries of Education and Finance, blind as they are, put a stumbling block in their own way and are now killing themselves figuring out how to get around it.

Second, every attempt to publicly make fun of the chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association was fated to fail. Ran Erez may not be such a nice man - it's a matter of taste - but no one is more ridiculed than the politicians and petty officials negotiating with him. Unlike them, one should recall, he was elected and reelected in direct elections. He is the one in whom the schoolteachers have put their faith, three times running. Ehud Olmert, Yuli Tamir and Roni Bar-On were elected through their parties, without which they probably would not be where they are today.

The third mistake is waiting to ambush the cabinet and the Union of Local Authorities later this week. The back-to-work orders they are planning to have issued will only fan the flames. Teachers will not be forced into teaching because they, in effect, have nothing to lose but their shame and distress, pushed down as they are to the bottom of the salary and social-status ladder. For them, this is a final battle in a war for a dignified existence. They cannot lose - for their sake, and for ours.

I have a deep secret to reveal: The Prime Minister's Office and the Education and Finance Ministries already know the essential, satisfactory terms for ending the strike, the unavoidable path to returning the teachers to their classrooms. No one is still looking for a solution, not even a compromise. It's all come down to saving face now, and to getting the cabinet out of the hole it dug for itself with no broken bones and without reopening signed contracts.

The cabinet might not know how to write a script, but it certainly can read one - as well as the polls, showing that over 70 percent of the public support the strikers. We can only dream about such numbers, Ehud Olmert's aides say. Even if the strike drags on, and students and parents lose patience with it, they will not demonstrate against their teachers: They will stand with them, outside the offices of the heads of the Kadima and Labor parties. The silence of the latter (Defense Minister Ehud Barak) is more deafening than ever.

Now, the agenda for the remaining weekdays: Tomorrow or the next day, an agreed arbitrator (agreed to more by the teachers and less by the treasury) will be appointed - what genius, why didn't we think of that before? Within a few days the arbitrator will say his piece, and the strikers will conclude their strike, and end up with more than half of what they wanted, much more. The gaps are not as wide as they appear; I have learned that the parties' positions are separated not by oceans, but by the thin stream of bad blood issuing from a bad government.

With the aid of the threats uttered by Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini last night, one can expect an end to the strike as soon as this week, but then the cabinet can also be trusted to come back and burn the stew.