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Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog was quoted in these pages over three months ago as saying: "The diplomatic issue is the main thing keeping us in the government, because we have a genuine wish to reach a breakthrough with the Palestinians and the Syrians." ("What is the Labor Party still doing in a right-wing government?" March 22 ). "And we see the possibility of ending this partnership if there is no change of direction in the coming months," Herzog, one of the top members of the Labor Party, added assertively during that interview given to Aluf Benn.

Even his father, the late president Chaim Herzog, who was one of Israel's most articulate spokesmen, would have found it difficult to depict the government's policy - on the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit with U.S. President Barack Obama - as signifying a "change in direction."

The change (if it can be defined as a "change" ) is the government's position on borders. Instead of depicting the 1967 borders, which the Palestinians are presenting as the basis for negotiations, as "Auschwitz borders" (a formulation attributed to Abba Eban, Isaac Herzog's uncle ) - Netanyahu is inviting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate on "security borders." Instead of warm sentiments about certain regions within our homeland and the tombs of our patriarchs, the leader of the Likud is "making do" with cold "security arrangements" to ensure that the withdrawal from territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River will not bring terror to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. His concern for the security of Israel's citizens, of course, knows no bounds.

On Netanyahu's map of concerns there is no room for concern about our neighbors. The prime minister has a consistent theory about where borders and security meet. Back during his first term he presented the government with the map of "Israel's vital interests." Col. (res. ) Shaul Arieli, who at that time was the deputy military secretary to the prime minister and defense minister, says Netanyahu's security borders leave more than 40 percent of the West Bank in Israel's hands.

In terms of the second Oslo agreement, which was signed by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, this map enables the transformation of Area B (Israeli military control and PA civil control ) into Area A (full Palestinian control ), along with the addition of nearly 20 percent of Area C (full Israeli control ).

The fundamentals of Netanyahu's "vital interests" map - according to his collected statements - have not changed. This map does not take the Palestinians' essential interests into account; it cuts off Palestine from the Jordan Valley and north of the Dead Sea, on the way to the Allon Road and the "step" that controls it from the west.

Israel is perpetuating, of course, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages, including the "Jerusalem envelope," in accordance with the triangle drawn by Yigal Allon - from Modi'in Elite to Mishor Adumim and back to the Etzion Bloc. And that's not all. Equally vital is the "western security expanse" from the school of Ariel Sharon, which the government of Menachem Begin approved in 1977 and which eventually became known as "the seam line area."

These "security" zones are home to about 85 percent of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank (including the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ). The settlers residing in the remaining 60 percent of the territory, who are concentrated in the area of the mountain ridge, are small in number (about 50,00 souls ) but strong in their faith. These settlements are home to the hard core of the Gush Emunim settler movement - the ones who raised the ruckus about the government's suspension of construction in the settlements and are leading the fight against its renewal. It isn't hard to guess how they will react when Netanyahu presents Obama with a map that places them outside the State of Israel's essential interests.

Ironically, Abbas is the one saving the settlers from having to deal with this problem, by refusing to enter into direct negotiations before Israel agrees to the most vital Palestinian interest of all: the establishment of an independent state based on the June 4, 1967 borders. Nor does Obama have at this time - four months before the U.S. congressional elections - an essential interest in squabbling with Netanyahu or getting in hot water with the Jewish lobby. And so the prime minister can return home in peace, or rather without peace.

Moment of truth?

It's strange how Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who back when he was prime minister proposed giving up more than 90 percent of the territories, now swallows his tongue when Netanyahu announces that Israel can't live without the Jordan Valley and of course the settlement blocs. Still, when it comes to Barak, it once again turns out anything is possible. He can both hold Netanyahu's hand and cook up a dovish peace plan (a variation on an old idea of President Shimon Peres ) - whereby Israel will agree in advance to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders - but the withdrawal will be carried out in stages, concurrently with the implementation of security arrangements and progress in negotiations on other issues of a permanent-status agreement.

Barak can both be dependent on Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, one of the strongest men in the party, and also quarrel with him (because of his refusal to appoint Ben-Eliezer as his substitute when he is out of the country, last week the government decided to take the authority to appoint substitutes for ministers upon itself ). The defense minister has even succeeded in turning one of his last supporters in the Labor Party, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, against him.

Barak does not "count" his ministerial colleagues. He didn't rush out to get a place in line at the unemployment bureau when Herzog, in that interview with Haaretz, said "We see the possibility of ending this partnership if there is no change of direction in the coming months. The approaching moment of truth, when we have to ask ourselves if we can continue with this partnership, will undoubtedly be in September, at the end of the construction freeze."

The really intriguing question is what will happen to Israel's vital interest in its partnership with the U.S. administration if the Labor Party cabinet ministers continue to content themselves with merely barking.