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Exactly as predicted, the month of November, 2004, is turning out to be the critical month for Israeli politics as a whole and for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in particular. If the National Religious Party does not change its mind at the last minute about its threat to resign from the government, tomorrow Sharon will be left without a parliamentary majority and with a coalition of only 55 MKs.

He is still not in danger of falling - the Labor Party has undertaken to keep him in place as long as he advances the disengagement - but he is rapidly approaching a stage at which he will have to decide where he is heading.

The rumors have it that at the moment when he no longer has a coalition, Sharon will turn to the Labor Party and then will come to the central committee of his own Likud party and tell the members: You decide - elections, and there is no knowing how we will emerge from them, or a government with Labor until the term is up. In another version, Sharon will not do anything before the 21st of the month, the date of the elections in the Likud for the heads of the movement institutions.

Sharon is interested in helping Minister without portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi get elected chairman of the central committee, against MK Uzi Landau. Bringing up the matter of taking the Labor Party into the government could hurt Hanegbi. Therefore, say his people, it is possible that Sharon will wait until the 22nd of the month.

The problem with this scenario is that it would leave Sharon only eight days to complete the negotiations with the Labor Party. On the 30th of the month the Labor Party Central Committee is slated to convene to decide the date of the party primaries. The moment February or March, 2005, is decided upon as the date of the vote for party head, it is clear there is no unity government.

Sharon is working in an impossible straitjacket of dates and circumstances. If he declares his desire to hold early elections, there is no certainty he will again be chosen to head the Likud in a party that is torn and shredded ideologically. It is better for him to look for a political future in a new center party, with Labor and Shinui. This is a huge gamble, but nearly obvious.

One key Likud minister said in a private conversation last week that if the Likud goes to elections in the coming year, it will take a beating, even a fatal beating. "The disengagement is going to kill us," said the minister. "Those who support it will go to the originator, to the Labor Party headed by [former prime minister Ehud] Barak. The religious who voted for us en masse will go with Shas this time, or with Aryeh Deri's social-traditional party if it arises as revenge for us having joined up with Shinui. Supporters of [Finance Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's Thatcherist economic policy will vote for Shinui. The Ashkenazi skull-cap wearers will prefer the National Religious Party. Shas will capture the traditional niche of the Likud: right-wing politically, left socially. With us, everything has turned upside-down: We have become politically left, because of the disengagement, and socially right, because of Netanyahu.

"In a single stroke," continued the minister, "we changed our face. We have become something we never were. From a traditional party with a connection to the inhabitants of the development towns and a connection to the land of Israel, we have become the exact opposite. Why isn't Shas interested in coming into the government? Because it has identified the huge potential that is waiting for it this time in the development towns at our expense: A Sephardic religious party that is opposed to the unilateral evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories, that is opposed to Netanyahu's decrees - what could be more classic than that?"

The comeback

Ehud Barak's baptism of fire - the announcement of his return to politics - went well enough, all in all. As far as he is concerned. Everything was expected: the responses of the opponents, the chilly commentaries,the witty columns. All in all, the message he wanted to transmit got across. He doesn't get upset by what he sees as the provincial criticism of the vast amount of money he has made during his four-year time-out. Only in Israel do people get all agitated by a few million dollars. It will pass.

His eye is on party struggles. At the end of the month, the Labor Central Committee will decide on the date of the primaries. There, Barak intends to put on his big show. His comeback performance. There, he wants to replicate his oppositionist speech from six and seven years ago. He knows his opponents are organizing to spoil the celebration, but he believes in the "common sense" of the central committee members. In this he has not changed.

In the meantime, Barak and his people are facing a real land mine in the shape of the merger agreement between the Labor Party and Histadrut labor federation chairman MK Amir Peretz's One Nation Party. For some reason, it is written into the agreement that the 20,000 (there are those who say 22,000) members of One Nation will automatically join the Labor Party on January 1, 2005.

On March 31, when all the members of the party will be required to renew their membership, the members of One Nation will also have to register and pay membership dues (NIS 40 or 50 a year - significantly less than the NIS 90 that members of the Labor Party will have to pay. Most peculiar, that). Thus, between January and March, for a period of three months, members of One Nation, some of them Likud people, some of the Shas people, some of them Arabs, some of them Ethiopians who never in their lives will cast a ballot for the Labor Party and who were registered in One Nation at their workplaces, will be able to choose the chairman of the Labor Party, or in the case of early Knesset elections, the party's Knesset list as freelancers, without paying one red cent. Without identifying with the party. Without being "familiar with its ethos," as one Labor MK says without cynicism.

Not only is this illogical, not only is this immoral, it is doubtful whether it is legal. When Barak began to talk about primaries in March, 2005, he was not aware of this matter. Not too long ago, someone came to him and made it clear to him what this means. Barak was stunned. His old-new associate MK Avraham (Beiga) Shochat hastened to fire off a letter to the secretary general of the party at the time when the agreement was signed, MK Ophir Pines-Paz. Shochat got back a reassuring letter from Pines-Paz: If it is decided to bring the primaries forward to between January and March, the members of One Nation will have to pay party dues to the Labor Party "for all of 2005." "Incidentally," wrote Pines-Paz, "despite all the implications and all the fuss and bother, MK Amir Peretz does not think differently."

Now, when it is fairly clear that the primaries in the Labor Party will indeed be brought forward to February-March, 2005, the question is how many of the 20,000 members of One Nation will pay dues to the Labor Party. NIS 50 is not a sum that people take out of their pockets easily these days. A source in the Labor Party reports that Peretz's people have been going around to the workers' councils throughout the country with registration forms.

In his meeting with the chairman of the Labor Party, MK Shimon Peres, Barak said last week that he is prepared for every contest and for every contender - and for every result - but he will not agree that they trick him or hijack him. "Everything has to be equal," said Barak to Peres. "If we have to conduct a legal fight against these phenomena," said Barak's people over the weekend, "we will fight with all our might. We aren't the Likud."

And despite Peretz's declarations that he is determined to run against Barak, there are still those in the Labor Party who believe that if Peres runs, Peretz will withdraw his candidacy and support him. They had a private, unwritten understanding about this when the merger agreement between the two parties was signed. In this assessment, Peretz is working only to be prepared for a situation in which Peres gets cold feet and flees from the contest.

A few weeks ago, Barak hosted in his temporary apartment in the Phoenix Towers in North Tel Aviv about 20 moshavniks from all around the country. The person who organized this meeting was MK Shalom Simhon, the party's moshavnik. "We haven't yet forgiven you for not appointing Shalom as minister of agriculture in your government," said the moshavniks to Barak. "In the end, the person whom you did appoint to the position was none other than Sharon" (in the unity government).

I made a mistake, said Barak. Now, people close to him are saying, Simhon is designated to head Barak's headquarters in the primaries for the chairmanship of the party. If this appointment does take place and Barak is elected chairman of the party, Simhon will be among his closest associates and a candidate for key positions. Barak is also assiduously courting MK Eitan Cabel. In fact, who isn't he courting? He had hoped that on the day he declared his candidacy he would already have six or seven Knesset faction members with him, but this did not happen.

Even those who had said they would go with him are preferring to remain silent in the meantime, publicly. Circles close to Barak believe that apart from Simhon and MK Danny Yatom, MKs Shochat, Amram Mitzna and Colette Avital will do so in the coming weeks. Maybe Cabel as well. MK Dalia Itzik is committed to Peres, but if Peres does not run she will go with Barak.