I feel your pain, Olmert tells teachers

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pleaded with Secondary Schools Teachers Association Ran Erez to return to the negotiating table on Thursday in a speech at a Hanukka party at the Kadima Party's Petah Tikva headquarters. Olmert recalled working as a fourth grade teacher decades ago. He said his government had made education a top priority and that he was determined to improve the lives of the teachers and to end the strike soon. "I don't want teachers to come to schools next week because of court injunctions," Olmert said. "I promise to make every effort and use all my energy and ability as prime minister to restore the teachers' respect and stature. I feel the anguish of the teachers and I know that despite everything we have done, there is a long way to go to restore the stature of the teacher in Israeli society. I don't intend to give up on this issue. Whoever thinks we are trying to escape responsibility doesn't understand our commitment." Olmert backed up Education Minister Yuli Tamir and called her "an excellent education minister, who devotes her all to her work." Finance Minister Roni Bar-On backed up Olmert and said that contrary to the criticism he has received, the prime minister has been involved in efforts to end the strike from day one. However, another Kadima official said the party failed to keep its promises to overhaul the education system and had not implemented its education platform. The official suggested that the education system would be better off had Olmert kept former prime minister Ariel Sharon's promise to appoint Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center president Prof. Uriel Reichman as education minister. "We had a moral and political obligation to implement our platform," the official said. "Olmert made just as big a mistake when he formed his cabinet in appointing his education minister as he did with his finance minister [Avraham Hirchson] and his defense minister [Amir Peretz]." Progress has been stopped on negotiations between the Secondary School Teachers Organization and government representatives despite Tuesday's court ruling ordering teachers back to work by December 13. "We're not even talking about expectations anymore," said a spokesperson for the SSTO on Thursday. "But we'll keep meeting, nevertheless." Meanwhile, despite "slight advances" in negotiations between senior lecturers and university presidents this week, "nothing is seriously moving" regarding the five-week-old lecturers strike, Senior Lecturers Union head Prof. Zvi Hacohen said on Thursday. The negotiations are over a mechanism for compensating lecturers for wage erosion in the future, but the SLU wants immediate compensation for erosion over the past six years, which the union believes has cost lecturers some 30 percent of their real income. A meeting is expected on Sunday morning among all sides to the dispute - the Finance and Education ministries, the Committee of University Presidents and the SLU - but the lecturers union is not optimistic that the meeting will bear fruit. "We've yet to hear from the Finance Ministry even about the small gains [that were] made with the CUP," said Hacohen.