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The "secular center coalition" is turning into the hottest merchandise in the political market. From the flag of rebellion raised by a marginal party, the "cabinet without ultra-Orthodox parties" has moved to the banner of some of Labor's leaders, including Shimon Peres.

David Ben-Gurion set the rule, "No Herut or Communists," in the 1950s, calling to exclude those two parties from the legitimate political camp. His pupil, Shimon Peres, is calling to exclude the representatives of the ultra-Orthodox sector and bring the political descendants of Ben-Gurion back to the bosom of Herut's descendants.

The Likud and Labor could have set up a coalition based only on secular parties after the previous elections. The reasons that have prevented such a move till now are, more or less, the same reasons such a coalition will not be formed after the next elections: More than 200,000 of the Likud's voters define themselves as traditional (masorti) to ultra-Orthodox Jews. A unilateral separation of the Likud from the religious parties could undermine the delicate balance between their national worldview and their religious belief.

If the national unity government is a tactical asset of the Likud, the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox is a strategic one. Even if Sharon wishes to turn his back on the religious parties, it is doubtful whether his colleagues will let him sink their futures.

The talk of a secular coalition is the beginning of a plan to put a new face on the same right-wing ruling party of the last two years. Then, it was called a "national unity government'" and now, it is being dubbed a "secular center coalition."

Neither the fight against religious coercion nor the struggle for civil marriage is burning in the bones of the Labor functionaries. When Peres headed the party, he was a regular guest in the rebbes' homes. Former Labor chairman and defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer left no mark in the debate on conscripting yeshiva students. Former industry and trade minister Dalia Itzik did not go out of her way to stop the Sabbath inspectors who Shlomo Benizri (Shas) sent to the shopping malls.

It is not the presence of Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party around Sharon's cabinet table that bothers Peres and the supporters of "the secular coalition" in Labor's leadership. What's driving them is the yearning for that very table. Those people who held onto Sharon's cabinet with all their might are now preparing the ground for a renewed sprint into his arms. The main difference is that they have no patience to wait for better days. Agenda proposals, legislative initiatives and public campaigns do not appeal to them.

Shinui discerned Peres and Ben-Eliezer's craving to return to the cabinet on the waves of "the secular coalition." Although Yosef Lapid and his colleagues have learned in the last two years that there isn't a shadow of a chance the Likud would prefer them to Eli Yishai and Avraham Ravitz, they enjoy the media ado around their "plan." Even before their anonymous platoon has entered the Knesset, they are already being talked of as makers of prime ministers and those who will dictate rotation.

We're not dealing with a "secular coalition" here. We're dealing with a new scheme of a bunch of short-distance runners to return to the government with the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael B'Aliyah and perhaps the NRP, too. At most, Sharon will leave one goat outside, in the form of the National Union.

At Labor's Central Committee meeting in April 2000, in which the party decided to join the unity government, Peres quoted Sharon's statement: "Achieving peace involves painful concessions on all sides" and shouted, "Is that Lieberman?" The Nobel Prize laureate added: "There will not be new settlements. Is that Lieberman?" This time, he will wave the "peace plan" that Sharon dictated to Bush and demand: "A Palestinian state - is that Eitam?"

Mitzna must make it clear to the voters that there are only two ways to follow - a narrow right-wing government or a narrow left-wing one. If Labor chooses to be dragged in behind Sharon again, in the next elections, the Likud and Shinui will be able to form the secular coalition without it.