It may be only a theoretical problem, but as such it is managing to arouse a heated debate between Shinui chair Yosef Lapid and his deputy, Avraham Poraz.

The conflict began with a declaration by Lapid, published in Haaretz about a week ago, to the effect that Shinui will agree to return to the government if Labor leaves it after the disengagement, and on condition that Labor leaves for budgetary rather than political reasons. Lapid was not satisfied with a public announcement, which surprised all the members of his faction; he transmitted a similar message to a senior member of the Likud, at a meeting between them about two weeks ago at an Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv.

The members of the Shinui faction read in the newspaper that they are about to return to the government. Some of them didn't like that: Hemi Doron and Ehud Rassabi spoke out openly against it. They both think it would be a big mistake. Other MKs voiced a similar opinion, but covertly. Lapid can live with that. Essentially, the faction always does what he wants; but it will be more difficult to overcome the sharp opposition of Poraz.

According to Poraz, the possibility that Shinui will return to the government this coming fall, if Labor leaves, and will remain in it until the official date of the elections, October-November 2006, exists only in theory. "There's no chance of that, it's not realistic," says Poraz. "I know Lapid is talking about it, but it won't happen. The whole idea is hopeless, and I'm against it. I don't approve at all. The moment Labor leaves, everything will fall apart and we'll go to elections. It's not practical for us to return for a few months. What for? One would think our partnership with the Likud was a pleasant experience. As far as I'm concerned, it was very painful. The Likud disappointed us on almost every issue in the coalition agreement: the "couples union" [a type of civil marriage], military service for the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), public transportation on Shabbat. Why do I have to enable Sharon to complete his term? I want to see the Likud in opposition already."

Poraz does not want to theorize as to why Lapid has such a strong desire to return to the government, from which Shinui was expelled about eight months ago. From his point of view, it's a "wild idea" that won't happen. Others in Shinui, who speak anonymously, say Lapid thinks only of himself.

That was the hoax

When the investigative committee headed by former judge Sarah Frisch began checking the registration drive forms of the Labor Party candidates, the examiners detected a recurring motif that appeared on thousands of forms: On the bottom of the form, next to the registrant's signature, was the round, universally familiar face known as "Smiley," with the words "Good luck" scribbled alongside it. Thus, while they were still drowning in the huge quantities of forged and fictitious forms piled up on their desks, the examiners could console themselves with the friendly and calming smile of our friend Smiley.

During the course of the inquiry, it turned out that the Smiley forms all belonged to the headquarters of candidate Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who registered a record number of new members: 37,000 people. So that nobody could contradict the claim of Ben-Eliezer's people regarding the size of their registration list, it was decided in his headquarters to give an identity of their own to all the forms brought to the party by the followers and registrants of the minister of infrastructure.

Today, when according to Secretary General Eitan Cabel, the Labor Party is preparing to carry out a strict and thorough examination of "each and every form," it is not certain whether the Smiley will continue smiling for long. As opposed to all the other candidates, who cannot be directly linked to one form or another - it will be clear to whom every invalidated Smiley form belongs, and what its source is. Well-informed sources in the Labor Party are convinced Ben-Eliezer is about to lose a large number of forms during the inquiry, but the infrastructure minister's men say they are not worried: Their registration drive is proper and in any case, they say, we are carrying on with our work. Last weekend, after it had already become clear that the primaries will be postponed by several months, Ben-Eliezer did not allow himself to rest. He worked hard in the field, and this Thursday will be going to Egypt. Not on matters related to the registration, but on matters relating to his ministry.

Even without such prominent trademarks, the identification of most of the invalid forms will not be difficult, for one simple reason: The vote contractors - a gang of several dozen activists, almost all of them well-known in the party - who are responsible for the mass registration, did not bother to conceal their activities. And why not? Because that's the way it's always been. That's what they've always done, nobody ever checked, and they have never been forced to give an accounting.

How was it done, and why is it so easy for judge Frisch's staff to find the problematic forms? Let's say that a vote contractor comes to an Arab or Druze village (where, according to the initial findings, most of the fictitious registrations took place). He sits with the head of the hamula (extended family), gets the names of the people from him, and scribbles their name on the registration form. They agree on the means of payment - checks or credit cards - and afterwards, all that's left is to sign in the names of the new registrants. Here is where the contractors tripped up. In order to expedite the process, they signed by themselves, in the names of the registrants. One quick glance was enough for the graphologists hired by the Labor Party to discover the hoax. A certain contractor signed in the names of 30 registrants, another in the name of 50. All those forms will be invalidated in the coming weeks, and they will be joined by thousands of additional forms.

A private consultant

Since Eitan Cabel was elected secretary general of Labor about 10 days ago the party has had two legal advisers - one official and familiar to everyone, attorney Eldad Yaniv, with whom Cabel did not consult during the dramatic steps he took in recent days. The second, unofficial and not well known, is attorney Yoram Avrahami, who serves as a private legal adviser to the secretary general, and advises him regularly as to how to conduct himself in the minefield of the registration drive and the primaries for head of the party. Avrahami, a close personal friend of Cabel's for about 15 years who has a law firm in Givat Shmuel, worked in the past with Ephraim Sneh when the latter was the health minister.

Cabel, in spite of his smiling face, is a very suspicious type, and an experienced politician. Meanwhile, he is giving Yaniv, who is Ehud Barak's man, the respect due to him, but when it comes to legal advice, he listens to only one person: Avrahami.

Last Friday, Cabel's suspicious nature almost prevented a meeting between him and Labor Party chair Shimon Peres. That was a day after the press conference in which Cabel announced the postponement of the primaries by several months. Peres requested a meeting, but Cabel informed the chairman's office that he would not meet with Peres privately. Peres' people suggested that Haim Ramon, who is close to the chair and to the secretary, participate in the meeting. Cabel agreed to that.

That is how things are run in Labor: the candidates are on tenterhooks. The secretary general uses the services of a private legal adviser, and the chair and the secretary general, who are supposed to work together, are incapable of exchanging a word.