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Battle over RE will be decided in poll

Israel

Sue Surkes looks at the contenders for education minister after this month's general election. The appointment of the education minister after Israel's general election on May 29 is likely to have a marked effect on the battle between religious and secular Jews for the hearts and minds of the country's young.

While predictions are risky, given uncertainty about the poll results and the complex nature of post-election coalition bargaining, the leading contenders for education appear to be: the left-wing, secular Meretz party, which holds the portfolio now; the left-of-centre Labour party, which leads the current governing coalition; and the right-wing, nationalist National Religious party (NRP), which controlled education during the Likud administrations that held power for most of the period 1977 to 1992.

A Labour education minister is likely if Prime Minister Shimon Peres wins the first direct elections for PM and the Labour party does well. The more Mr Peres has to seek coalition partners, the better the chances for either Meretz or the NRP. Meretz's prospects will depend on its own electoral performance. If it does badly, then Mr Peres might well open talks with the NRP.

If coalition bargaining does take place, then the NRP would demand education as one of its conditions. NRP leader Zevulun Hammer was education minister throughout the Likud years and is known to covet the post.

And if Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu - trailing around 5 per cent behind Mr Peres in the polls - is asked to form the next government, then the new education minister is almost certain to be Mr Hammer.

Mr Hammer notched up a number of achievements during his tenure at education, not least the extension of free education from age 16 to 18.

However, for secular Jews, NRP control meant a drive to push religious values into the state secular sector, which educates roughly 70 per cent of Jewish pupils. Preferring incremental change to confrontation, Mr Hammer provided the incentive of extra hours for religious study.

A senior NRP source told The TES that Mr Hammer's return to education would see a renewed push for Jewish studies in secular schools, as well as changes to Meretz's attempts to develop Jewish study programmes which take a broader perspective.

As reported last week, Amnon Rubinstein, Meretz's education minister, has said that he would like to change legislation which gives state religious schools the right to bar non-observant teachers from jobs.

As the election campaign gets underway, Meretz will highlight its educational achievements of recent years. These include: a substantial real terms increase in spending, significant improvements in matriculation exam results (with nearly one in four of 17 to 18-year-olds passing, as compared with around a third when he came in); and a major drive to computerise schools. Colleges which offer recognised academic degrees within a non-university framework have also been opened to some 28,000 students, up from under 10,000 when Rubinstein took office.

If Labour takes education, then the smart money is on the chair of the Knesset (Parliament) education committee, Dahlia Itzik, who is close to Mr Peres and would be certain to get a Cabinet post.

A former elementary school teacher, Mrs Itzik has pushed educational issues: her private member's Bill to cap class sizes recently passed its Knesset first reading. She is committed to an open, pluralistic approach to Jewish studies.

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