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It was one of those scenes that sometimes happen in the Knesset cafeteria. The prime minister - it could be any prime minister - is having lunch. Around him, in front of him and to the side of him are reporters. They are bending over him, gawking at his food, accompanying every bite and every reaction of the taste buds. It's almost inhuman. The prime minister in question, Ariel Sharon, could have saved himself this experience. He could have ordered lunch in his office. But he loved every moment.

A few meters away the Shinui party cabinet ministers were moving about, sour and gloomy of visage, like rockets that had lurched out of their orbit. Within a few hours, they would be summoned to Sharon's office and handed curt letters of dismissal. And 48 hours after that, they would no longer be cabinet ministers.

"Why not compromise with them, meet them halfway, put off the vote on the budget for another week?" some of the reporters suggested. Sharon responded by placing his spoon on the table and saying, in an deliberate monotone, "I am really in favor of their staying in the coalition, and I will do everything to make sure that's what happens." He sounded like a bar-mitzvah kid reluctantly reciting his sermon. His face was serious, but there was a mischievous glint in his eyes. The cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, who was sitting to Sharon's right, turned his head away in an effort to hide a smile. If Sharon had really wanted that, Maimon wouldn't have been wasting his time in the cafeteria. He would have been busy devising the agreement that would get Shinui down from the tree.

"You can't imagine how many times I've had to speak to them, in cabinet meetings, about their comments on Jewish subjects," Sharon lamented as he contemplated the goulash. "Ask Limor." Education Minister Limor Livnat, who was also at the table, was quick to confirm this. "Yes," she said. "It has really been awful."

When did you realize that Sharon doesn't want you, the outgoing interior minister, Avraham Poraz of Shinui, was asked. "On Tuesday," he replied. "I met with him. I came to ask for a little time to conduct negotiations. But he was adamant. Let's say he would have said, `Against the NIS 290 million that United Torah Judaism is getting, I am offering Shinui this and that.' He didn't offer anything. That's when everything fell into place. Even if we had folded completely," Poraz said, defending the ultimatum his party's leader, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, had given Sharon, "even then he would have found the first opportunity to push us aside."

Poraz and the frying pan

Sharon's aides paint a different picture. They say that last week Lapid reached the conclusion that new elections were a few months off. Among other developments, he based this conclusion on his agreement with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, to the effect that Labor would not join a government with the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) - an agreement that Peres says never existed. Lapid decided to shift into election mode and to issue an ultimatum against the transfer of the funds to UTJ. Lapid believed that Sharon would give in and put off the vote on the budget. He met with Sharon on Sunday. "[Lapid] came on all aggressively," Sharon's aides say. "He demanded that Labor be brought into the government immediately. `Arik,' he said, `I know your Knesset faction well, and only five of the rebels will vote against [the budget]. They don't want elections.' Lapid didn't want to listen to reason. The prime minister got upset. Boy, did he get upset. He wasn't afraid of Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu's recent ultimatum], so he's going to be afraid of Tommy [Lapid]? Right away he ordered that we sign with UTJ."

On Sunday, at the weekly cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Lapid: "You made a serious mistake, Tommy, because one minute after you leave, Labor will enter." "No way," Lapid said, "I have an arrangement with Peres." "I'm younger than you in age, but older in politics," Shalom said. "Listen to me: The minute you leave, Peres will ignore you completely."

The opposition leader sat for hours in the Knesset cafeteria on Wednesday. The reverberations of the war drums that participants and candidates were beating the evening before at the meeting of Labor's central committee gave way to gurglings of unity. "All I said to Tommy Lapid is that we will demand from Sharon that Shinui be a member of the government. And we will demand that," Peres said. "Just as they demanded the same thing about Labor two years ago, a moment before they entered the government without us."

"Let them go ahead and enter a government with Haredim," Poraz said on the way to a ministerial committee meeting for the last time. "We'll fry them."

Netanyahu and the port

"You want us to enter a government with the Haredim. That's not easy for us at all. At least give us an economic achievement," is Labor's refrain to Sharon. "Economic achievement" means opening another front, between Sharon and his finance minister, Netanyahu. Netanyahu doesn't want Labor in the government, but he has no better solution to offer. After the budget was not approved in the Knesset vote and Shinui left, Netanyahu, as a finance minister concerned about the fate of the economy, found himself in a trap. On the one hand, he can't torpedo the move to expand the government without being suspected of factionalism. On the other hand, bringing in Labor will clip his wings and weaken his standing. On the third hand, maybe that's not so terrible. He will be able to vote against the disengagement plan as much as he pleases, knowing that his vote will not topple it. And he will be able to fight with Peres and his colleagues every week. The people in the central committee will like that.

Netanyahu may find another advantage in the establishment of a national unity government. According to the initial talks between Peres and Sharon, the coalition agreement will stipulate that Labor is entering until the end of the Knesset's term, in November 2006. ("I want to be there for the moves after the disengagement," Peres says. "It won't end with the departure from Gaza.") It's not certain that Sharon will want to run again in two years, and Netanyahu, if he plays his cards right, will be able to reap the fruit of the succession.

Netanyahu disappeared this week as though the earth had swallowed him. On Monday, at a Likud faction meeting, Sharon thanked him warmly "for his intensive work in obtaining the agreement with UTJ." Sharon's irony was not lost on the MKs. After all, the agreement with UTJ, which Netanyahu toiled to get, was ultimately meant to bring Labor into the government.

A few days ago, Netanyahu met with Labor MK Haim Ramon. It was a rare meeting, and as such, intriguing. Six years ago, Ramon orchestrated moves in the Knesset to bring down the Netanyahu government. Now he went to his old rival to try to soften him up ahead of the resumption of negotiations between the Likud and Labor. You want the votes of the center, so why do you reject Labor? Ramon asked the finance minister. Our requests are no more expensive than those of UTJ, Ramon continued, and they are for goals that you seek, too: beds for nursing patients, assistance to pensioners, to the disabled. It's a total of no more than NIS 400 million, NIS 450 million tops. (Labor is also demanding another discussion on the budget before it comes up for its next reading. "We will put forward our position, there will be a vote, and we will lose. That's all we want," a Labor Party figure says.)

What will you do on February 17? Netanyahu asked Ramon. February 17 has become a mantra. That's the date on which the truce agreement between the treasury and the sea ports is due to end. A major strike looms. Netanyahu is afraid that if Labor will be in the government, it will press Sharon to agree to the demands of the workers' committees. Sharon will have no choice: He will be dependent on Labor. He will choose to sacrifice Netanyahu, and the finance minister's sacrosanct reform, for the sake of the government's survival.

Ramon reassured Netanyahu. We have also proposed a reform of the ports, said the chief contractor of the unity government. We also know that it's impossible to continue like this. We'll be able to reach a settlement.

Netanyahu will wait to see what Sharon agrees to in the talks with Labor. As of yesterday, he hadn't yet decided whether to go to India on Sunday. He doesn't want to return to a done deal. In his meeting with Sharon on Wednesday, he suggested to the prime minister to bring Shas into the government, too. Sharon's people don't understand Netanyahu on this point: Shas is more socially oriented and more militant than Labor. Its co-option to the government is liable to wreck the budget completely. Netanyahu is the first one who should want Shas kept out of the government, Sharon's aides say.

Barak and the microphone

The struggle over the unity government is above all a matter of timing. What will come first? The Labor Party convention, which is due to convene in two or three weeks and decide on the date for the primaries that will elect the party chairman? Or the Likud convention, which Sharon wants to convene very soon, to get its authorization to bring Labor into the government? The right order, from the viewpoint of both Sharon and Peres, is to convene the Likud body first. That will take the wind out of the sails of the rebels in Labor, most of whom are allied with Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who is now attempting a comeback. This, of course, is on the assumption that the Likud convention will give Sharon the go-ahead to negotiate with Labor; if it doesn't, there will be general elections within a few months. In this case Labor primaries will have to be held anyway. If Sharon gets the go-ahead, everything will be wrapped up within 24 hours, Ramon promises.

Peres will do all he can to give Sharon the right of way. If it were up to Peres, he would reserve all the auditoriums in Tel Aviv, but only for the Likud. Peres knows, and so does Barak, that the establishment of a unity government for two years will bring about the postponement of the Labor primaries until the beginning of 2006. Actually, it's not so certain that that would be such a bad thing for Barak. He is going to need a lot of time to rehabilitate himself - especially after shooting himself in the foot in the meeting of the Labor Party Central Committee this week. ("Why is it being compared to what happened in the Likud?" Sharon fumed. "I didn't grab a microphone from anyone. There were two microphones, one on each side of the table. Each person spoke into his microphone.")

"If he had done it to me, I would have whopped him on the head with a gavel," Labor MK Dalia Itzik says. According to the original plan, Itzik was supposed to chair the central committee meeting. She dropped the idea after messages were conveyed to her the evening before, from Barak's people, that the event was liable to end in disorder. "I warned that this is what would happen," Itzik says. "In the meeting with Peres I told him that he should know that it's going to be a `night of the microphones.' It's going to be `a Gaston Malka.' He asked me who Gaston Malka is. I told him. I told him they are going to break up the meeting" - just as Malka did at a meeting of the Likud Central Committee.

The meeting did break up, but Barak was the loser. He emerged from the event bruised and battered. Nevertheless, he is not yet finished. Far from it. He is a seasoned campaigner. In his previous effort he survived even after declaring, "If I had been born a Palestinian I would have joined a terrorist organization." He also got through the fiasco in which the Ethiopian candidate, Adissu Masala, was ejected from the Labor Party Knesset list in favor of a new immigrant from Russia, and the episode of the actress Tiki Dayan, a supporter of Barak who made what were perceived as derogatory remarks against Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) during the election campaign.

"I have known Ehud for many years," Peres said this week. "I would never in my life have believed that he could do something like that. To snatch away a microphone? Even if someone had told me a minute before the event that it was going to happen, I wouldn't have believed it."

What will you do, Peres was asked, if Barak wants to be a cabinet minister the Sharon government?

Peres had a reply that recalled the situation in 1999, when the positions of the two were reversed and Barak formed the government. "I will offer him the post of minister for regional cooperation," he said.