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"Better late than never," the saying goes. The Labor Party's decision to declare outright that it will not join a national unity government with the Likud is a correct one, despite being unfortunately late in coming.

The Israeli political system has nurtured the notion of "national unity government" in such a way as to turn it into an original Israeli product, of a type not commonly found in Western democracies. Here the opinion has taken root that in times of crisis - political, military or economic - we must unite under such a government. The argument is that in times like these, there is no room for petty political differences and we must all make a common effort to overcome the causes of the crisis.

There is an urgent need to state that a national unity government is undesirable, since it is in essence opposed to democracy. A true democracy draws its strength from the permanent existence of a government and an opposition. While the ruling coalition runs the affairs of state, the opposition criticizes its actions and proposes alternative ways of doing things.

There is a good reason for the concept of "shadow government" in Britain - this is a parallel administration that at all times offers the public an alternative to the policies of the government in power.

We must distinguish between the concept of "national unity" and a national unity government. A national unity government is no guarantee of national unity. It is difficult to imagine a time when we were further from national unity than during the term of the outgoing Sharon-led government.

On the other hand, the permanent existence of a government and opposition does not eliminate the possibility of national unity in times of crisis. An opposition is not automatically obliged to oppose every action taken by the government. A responsible opposition is more likely to find itself supporting the government at a time when war or an economic crisis threaten the state.

A credible government and opposition, based on clear ideological systems, present the public with different standpoints, and facilitates practical public discussion. A national unity government requires the two major players in the democratic game to blur their positions. The Likud is concealing its rightist aspirations for a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and for turning Jordan into a Palestinian state.

It portrays a "moderate" desire to conduct peace negotiations, while making conditions the other side cannot possibly accept, thus preventing the two sides from reaching such negotiations. The left for its part is concealing its intention of evacuating the settlements and dividing Jerusalem. The left is blurring its messages by speaking of "unilateral separation," evacuation of "isolated settlements," "a relentless war against terror" and allowing "settlement blocs" to remain.

For this reason, this looks to the public like a campaign between two centrist parties - Likud A and Likud B. Instead of a choice between political paths, the choice between the parties becomes a choice between personal sympathies or historical commitments. In this situation, it is no wonder that public involvement is characterized by indifference toward ideology and policy, and is focused on getting personal benefits.

The mass registration for the Likud and the corrupt election campaign conducted there are proof of this state of affairs. The fact that "natural" right wingers such as former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Efraim Sneh and Weizman Shiri are members of the same party as Yossi Beilin, former foreign minister Shimon Peres and party chairman Amram Mitzna, are additional proof.

Until the recent decision by the Labor Party, its leaders were evasive when asked if they would join a national unity government, replying that they would agree to such a government if its partners would accept the Labor platform. Now Labor has reached the logical conclusion that in order to improve its standing or win in the coming elections, they must learn from the success of Shinui leader Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who is reaping the benefits of his long-standing credibility on the issue of not sitting in a government with Shas.

A short period in opposition and a determination to tell the truth is gaining Shinui unprecedented success in the polls. Even Meretz voters, those round-spectacled leftists, are trying to decide whether to give their vote to the right-wing Shinui.

Only the presentation of a true and courageous alternative will bring about the victory of the sane policy led by Mitzna. Even at the price of a short spell in a fighting opposition.