In their noontime conversation on Sunday at the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Justice Minister Yosef Lapid and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of Shinui about his difficult childhood in Kfar Mallal. Sharon regaled them at length with the story of how, when he was 5 years old, he injured his chin. The Scheinerman family was shunned in the village because of its right-wing political tendencies, and his mother had to carry him in her arms for a long distance because the clinic in the village refused to treat him.

"I remember the bloodstain on her dress," said Sharon. Only in 1948, when Sharon, then a young officer, was wounded in battle and limped to the clinic did they agree to treat him there. "I felt as though I had entered the holy of holies," he told the Shinui leaders.

Do you think that Sharon was trying to hint something about boycotts and shunning? Poraz was asked yesterday. "No, why? Certainly not," exclaimed the interior minister. "He just likes to tell a story."

Sure. At any rate, Lapid and Poraz understood quite well what was expected of them - and they delivered the goods. They promised Sharon that they would support bringing United Torah Judaism into the coalition and left the meeting - straight into a huge media fiasco.

One can understand them. After they had proclaimed and declared and repeated and preached and scolded and scorned everyone who even dared to suggest the possibility that they might sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, all of a sudden they had to say the very opposite. This is not simple. And therefore the two of them, out of habit and an astonishing assumption that their agreement would remain secret, continued to chant their anti-ultra-Orthodox mantra to reporters.

But the item leaked nevertheless to the mass-circulation daily Maariv and the Y-Net Internet site. The other media felt cheated. The mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, with typical understatement, called Shinui "a party of crooks and liars." And Poraz, in his bureau in Jerusalem, admits the mistake. "We always hoped that Sharon would be able to overcome the opposition in the Likud, the way he thumbed his nose at the referendum, and set up a secular unity government. As time passed, we realized that he is unable to do this. When we went to see him on Sunday, we came with the intention of whispering to him: If you want to bring in the Labor Party and you need lubrication for that, some Vaseline, in the shape of UTJ, in order to get Labor into the coalition more easily, we would be prepared to help you with that Vaseline."

Poraz is pleased with the metaphor, and makes a slow gesture of penetration with his hand. Before they agreed to bring in UTJ along with Labor, Sharon suggested that they agree to bringing in UTJ alone. In this way, a government of 65 Knesset members would be established. If you agree, proposed Sharon, we'll leave the Labor Party for a later stage. Lapid and Poraz rejected this proposal outright. The last thing they needed was to be stuck with UTJ as the fulcrum of the government, with the Labor Party, rejected and bitter, sulking on the outside.

In the meeting with Sharon, Lapid and Poraz stipulated two conditions for bringing in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox: only with Labor and without ministerial portfolios. Twenty-four hours later, in the midst of the tempest, they added another four conditions: government approval of the "common-law union" alternative to marriage by the rabbinate, an amendment of the Tal law, adoption of the coalition agreement on matters of religion and state that was signed by the Likud, Shinui and the National Religious Party and a veto on the position of chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. "This is all spin," they laughed at the Prime Ministers' Bureau. "From the moment they agreed, it's a question of price. Like in Bernard Shaw's well-known fable about that lady."

Forget it - it's okay

From the very first moment, the coalition negotiations have been conducted via the media. This has been a war of spin. When Sharon realized the strength of the opposition in the Likud to a secular unity government, his bureau began to send out reports of a replacement of Shinui by the ultra-Orthodox. MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni of UTJ related this week that every telephone conversation he had with Sharon and every chance conversation he conducted with him in the corridors immediately found its way to the media. "One time I called him to apologize about this and he said to me: `Forget it, forget it - it's okay,'" related Gafni.

Initially, Lapid tried to maintain a confident facade, but his self-confidence gradually faded. The "Lapid will bring in Shas" tactic, as it was dubbed in the prime minister's circles, achieved its aim.

At the same time, the Prime Minister's Bureau took the trouble to leak reports that Sharon rejected Shinui's conditions for the entrance of UTJ. These reports were aimed at influencing the softer Likud rebels, who are looking for a face-saving way out. In the context of that same trend, it was reported on Wednesday that Sharon will ask Labor Party chairman MK Shimon Peres to give up the foreign affairs portfolio and leave it in the skilled hands of current Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud.

Now the Prime Minister's Bureau is working on a tactic to soften the opposition in UTJ to sitting together with Shinui - or, under its code name: "Litzman will establish a secular government," referring to UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman.

Gafni says that UTJ will not sit in a coalition with Shinui: There is no such film. All this negotiating it is conducting with the Likud is just a game. A summertime amusement. "But," he admits with half a wink, "I'm deathly afraid of Sharon. In the end, he gets everything he wants, and what he wants is us and Shinui together in the coalition."

Sharon is interested in completing negotiations with Labor and UTJ by the end of next week and presenting his government to the Knesset in a special recess session the following week. On Monday the prime minister will meet with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Sharon has requested this meeting. "If the speaker is too busy," he offered with his typical sarcasm, "I will be glad to come to him."

In the meantime, he is waiting for the rabbis' answer. If he receives a negative reply, he will have to decide quickly whether to drop Shinui and bring in Shas and UTJ, or to go ahead with a secular government, present it to the Knesset and force the Likud to support it by making the vote into a vote of confidence. Or else he won't do anything, and then it will be clear that he is heading for elections as early as spring, 2005.

Forget it - let's move ahead

This is how one of the members of the Likud negotiating team describes his opposite numbers from the Labor party. "The chair of the negotiating team on behalf of the Labor Party, [MK] Dalia Itzik, sits there. To her right [MK] Benjamin Ben Eliezer and to her left [MK] Haim Ramon. Various matters are dealt with. Fuad plays the extremist, the suspicious and angry one. He jabs her with his left elbow: `State your opposition. Cause a blow-up!' Ramon, on the other side of her, already wants to get it over and done with. He urges her not to make a fuss about every little thing: `Nu, really, Dalia. Forget it - let's move forward. This isn't serious.' And Fuad (Ben Eliezer) persists: `Blow it up. Let's walk out. Now!'"

At the end of this week, the Likud and Labor teams are supposed to come to an agreement on policy issues. In the Labor Party, they are no longer waiting for the official summation of the negotiations. In the eyes of the party members, this is merely an exhausting and unnecessary formality. The battle for the portfolios went into high gear this week. Even before the negotiations ripened, it was decided to convene the party's constitution committee to discuss "the selection of ministers." In the Labor Party, the phrase "selection of ministers" has an intoxicating, almost erotic, ring. But to the same extent, it is obvious, and taken for granted. Heaven forfend that the Labor Party should be caught unprepared in a situation in which the negotiations are completed and the precise apparatus for the selection of the ministers is not ready, including the possibility of appeal and an option for an institution to deliberate on petitions. This is the way an orderly party works.

After a year and a half of do-nothing drifting in the opposition, the members are arranging themselves, starry-eyed, along the starting line toward the ministries. The party central committee will in all likelihood demand that it choose the ministers; Peres has no interest in choosing himself and quarreling with everyone. What Peres wants is for Haim Ramon to be chosen as a minister and serve under him at the Foreign Ministry; for his friend Dalia Itzik to be able to choose a ministry for herself and for MK Amram Mitzna, the former party chairman who has revised his opinions and is now supporting a unity government, to also be a minister.

Parallel to this, the counter-organizations in the party have begun. One of them was born among Ben Eliezer's cronies. They will propose that the method be like this: There will be a separate race for each of the ministries. Secret, of course. Say, if Fuad hankers for the Transportation Ministry - and he does hanker for it - it is reasonable to assume that no one will compete against him. MK Ephraim Sneh, whose power in the party central committee is great, has already declared that he will not compete against him. He will help him, and in return, the Ben Eliezer camp will help Ephraim get chosen for the Infrastructure Ministry, for example.

This method helps the senior people get the important ministries. Therefore, another proposed method is taking shape whereby each member of the central committee will be asked to vote for the number of ministers that Labor will be given by name. Say that Labor will be offered four ministers and two deputy ministers. On a form, the central committee member will mark the names of his candidates. Whoever receives the most votes will choose the most desirable ministry. Then the candidate with the second highest number of votes will choose and so on. This method could help the "youngsters" - that is, MK Isaac Herzog and MK Ophir Pines - get a place on the list of ministers, as it is reasonable to suppose that the average central committee member will want to send a winning combination of veterans and youngsters to the government.

The third organizational effort is coming from the direction of the next in line on the Knesset list: Weizman Shiri, Salah Tarif and Sofa Landver. They are trying to put together a group of about 300 central committee members who will promise their votes to anyone who wants to be selected as a minister - on one condition: that he or she resign from the Knesset if appointed minister. "If [former transportation minister Avigdor] Lieberman could resign from the Knesset for the sake of [National Union MK Eliezer] Cheetah Cohen, and if [Minister without Portfolio] Natan Sharansky could resign for the sake of that woman whose name no one remembers [MK Marina Solodkin, Yisrael b'Aliyah-Likud - Y.V.], our ministers can also resign from the Knesset," says Shiri. He claims that he has already received the agreement of several of the ministerial candidates.

And who wants to be a minister in the Labor Party? Nearly everyone. MK Shalom Simhon, the representative of the moshavim, is convinced that in the near future he will return to the Agriculture Ministry. But at the Prime Minister's Bureau they are saying: This would be political suicide. Both moving Silvan from the Foreign Ministry and Minister Yisrael Katz from Agriculture. On Wednesday Dalia Itzik went up to Katz and asked him whether he would deign to accept a deputy from the Labor Party. Such an arrangement could ensure the support of the kibbutz and moshav movement people, who constitute an important part of the party central committee.

Shimon Peres, who does not concern himself with portfolios and is not interested in them, reprimanded Itzik this week after she raised the option of the Labor Party entering the government without portfolios. You are the chair of the negotiating team, he said to her. You can't talk like that. It weakens us. Even if we do this, said Peres, they will applaud us for a week and then it will die away and be forgotten.

Forget it - it's just a mood

The figure that shows that only one-third of those who voted for Shinui want to vote for it in the next elections, as emerged from the Haaretz-Dialog survey under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, appears at first sight to be no less than sensational. But Lapid need not worry too much. This is the nature of voters. They don't like to be taken for granted. They want to be courted, to be asked for their votes - and be asked nicely. Between one election and the next, they look for satisfaction in other parties and in the end, most of them return home. This phenomenon is especially characteristic of "mood" parties, like Shinui. Former Meretz head MK Yossi Sarid once said that during every election campaign he again has to start gathering up his voters who have scattered to the four winds.

In public opinion polls conducted this week, after Lapid's somersault and corkscrew twist, Shinui loses only two Knesset seats. This is damage with which Lapid can live. Forty-nine percent of the Shinui voters don't want the ultra-Orthodox to be in the coalition, but if this is their fate, they would prefer UTJ (29 percent) to Shas (7 percent). In this respect, Lapid is pandering to the tastes of his voters: UTJ is a lot more ultra-Orthodox than Shas, but it is also a lot more Ashkenazi.

There aren't many surprises in the Haaretz survey. Silvan Shalom and Yosef Lapid are in the same boat with respect to lack of credibility. A vast majority does not accept the foreign minister's claim that his objection to bringing in the Labor Party stems from his desire to preserve the character of the Likud. A very similar percentage relates with exactly the same degree of healthy skepticism to Lapid's declaration that the change in his position derives from his desire to help Sharon carry out the disengagement. Both Lapid and Shalom are perceived, even by their own voters, as being concerned mostly about their seats in the cabinet.

One-third of the public would like to see Shimon Peres return to the Foreign Ministry. Even in the Likud Peres has a fair amount of support: 28 percent of Likud voters want to see him replace Silvan Shalom. However, exactly the same percentage, who do not want to see Shalom deposed, designate for him the portfolio of senior minister for the peace process." Peres can make use of the findings of the Haaretz poll against the subversives in the Labor Party who are urging him to take the finance portfolio; only 4 percent of the Labor voters, nearly on the border of statistical error, want to see him replace Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

About half the public believes that the prime minister will succeed in carrying out the disengagement plan despite all the coalition difficulties. Thirty-four percent think he will not succeed. But if we look only at those who expressed an opinion, either yes or no, then it turns out that 59 percent believe in Sharon's success.

The support of the majority of the public for a secular government is steady and stable. Even among Likud voters it is the preferred choice, although at a lower rate (32 percent) than in the other parties (89 percent in Meretz, 71 percent in Shinui and 74 percent in the Labor Party). As is known, this is also what Sharon would like, but - what is to be done about it? It isn't happening. For now.