"It's a shame that the prime minister is over there in Annapolis, where he's probably not going to accomplish anything and has already made too many concessions, rather than staying here at home taking care of the really urgent issues on the ground," says Iris, a working wife and mother of two who lives in a community in the upper Galilee.
For Iris, those burning matters on the home front are the situation on the Gaza border, the growing concerns over the Lebanese border just a few miles north of her home, and - most of all - the teacher's strike.
Iris is a high school teacher who has refused to work for more than 40 days now, and strongly supports her union, its much criticized leader, and their increasingly bitter struggle.
She recognizes that Ran Erez, her union head, is a stubborn man, but believes in this situation that's a plus. Iris is not against education reforms, she says, but insists they must be instituted slowly, and that the government must provide written guarantees for those reforms (such as smaller classes) that the teachers are demanding.
If the National Labor Court rules that the teachers must return to work, as the government has requested it do, Iris says she and her colleagues will abide by that judgment with a heavy heart. But she says they will respond with a so-called "Italian strike" in which they will "work" below their normal capacity, and thus their struggle will go on.
And there is no doubt in her mind what Ehud Olmert's first priority must be on his return from Annapolis: not negotiations with the Palestinians, not talks with the Syrians, but sitting down with the leaders of her union, and using the power of his office to forge an agreement between the teachers, the Education Ministry, and the Treasury.
The prime minister is having none of this. During his trip to the US, he has reacted with irritation to questions by Israeli reporters about the teachers' strike, and responded that it was "impudent" to even suggest he take a personal role in the negotiations. In vowing "not to capitulate" to the teachers' demands, he has demonstrated a firm, unwavering resolve that so far has not been on equal display in his dealings on the diplomatic level with the Palestinians or their American interlocutors.
Olmert probably views the teachers' strike as a distraction from the main business at hand right now, and likely thinks that any historical progress he might make on the Palestinian front more than compensates for any bumpy going right now his government might be experiencing on the domestic scene.
But this prime minister has precious little political capital to draw on at the moment, especially in the form of public appreciation or sympathy. If his agenda includes selling the electorate the idea of possible concessions in the Palestinian negotiating process - or, for that matter, embarking on a military operation in Gaza in which the costs may be higher than anticipated - then the wisest course would surely be to close out any outstanding business on other policy fronts. That includes investing a little personal effort to resolve a labor dispute in which the strikers enjoy considerable general support.
After enjoying the international spotlight of Annapolis, and huddling with US President George W. Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in order to resolve this nation's fundamental conflict, it's understandable that sitting opposite a negotiating table from Erez and the teachers' union leadership holds little appeal for the prime minister. But Olmert has already lost Iris's vote - among those of many, many others - and can't afford to lose many more.
If he needs some assistance resolving the teachers' strike, he might want to consider taking a helping hand that has been extended to resolve this matter - from President Shimon Peres, who has more than enough experience taking part in major negotiations over the decades.
Of course, this task might also been seen as something as a comedown for a Nobel Peace Prize winner who's more used to dealings on the highest international level. But perhaps the president feels that by this stage of his career, he has been there, done that; and as Peres can surely tell Olmert, if you don't first take care of business at home and make sure you have the support of your constituency, then summits, conferences and such glittering events as Annapolis, won't matter all that much at the end of the day.
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