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In recent months, Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres has discovered MK Amram Mitzna. At every opportunity, he praises Mitzna's integrity, clean hands and fairness. When Mitzna was chairman of the party, Peres thought different, less complimentary thoughts about him, but ever since having traded roles, Mitzna has been evincing total loyalty. He has not tripped up, undermined or put obstacles in Peres' path as has, for example, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Mitzna supported the extension of Peres' tenure and the link-up with One Nation, and most importantly, he supports Labor's joining the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As far as Peres is concerned, this is sort of a seal of approval given that Mitzna, one of the leaders of the Geneva Accord, which Peres loathes, stands by his side as opposed to other partners to the initiative - from Meretz-Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin to Labor MK Yuli Tamir to Avraham Burg, the political pensioner.

Therefore, it is important to Peres that Mitzna become a minister. If Peres were able to submit a list of ministers for approval by the party's central committee, Mitzna would be on it. But apparently, the elections for ministerial positions will take place in the central committee, and it is hard to see Shimon going all out for anyone. He has never done this. He is above things like that. Mitzna is considering whether to run for a ministerial post. He is leaning toward this, but has yet to make up his mind. If he thinks his chances in the central committee are good, he'll go for it.

"When I say that it is necessary to join the government in order to carry out the disengagement, this persuades certain audiences that had previously thought otherwise," says Mitzna. His party colleagues, who are in the midst of the charge toward ministerial positions, suspect him of having changed his mind, because he wants to be a minister - after all, he's a human being too.

"I see carrying out the disengagement as the real test of Israeli society, and what I'm saying is: `Let's join so as not to let Sharon evade his commitment," Mitzna says. In his opinion, if Yahad were to face Labor's dilemma - that is, without it there is no disengagement - it too would consider joining the government. "I can identify at least three people there who in such a situation would support joining. The thing is that no one has made them the offer," Mitzna says.

Siding with Haim Ramon

In the disagreement between MK Haim Ramon and lawyer Moshe Shahal about Labor's position in the coalition negotiations, Mitzna supports Ramon. In his opinion, there was no need to have prepared a shopping list of social and economic demands, which in any case, will not be granted.

"After all, they are going to humiliate us in those matters. We have to say that we don't believe in this government in the socio-economic realm, but we are entering it for one reason only: to implement the disengagement," Mitzna says.

Exactly a year and a half ago, after the Knesset elections, the defeated Mitzna sat with Sharon and discussed with him the conditions for the Labor Party to join the government. Mitzna wanted Sharon to commit himself to evacuate one Jewish settlement in the territories. Sharon talked about the need to formulate a comprehensive plan. Mitzna suspected that Sharon was pulling the wool over his eyes and stayed outside the coalition.

"It wasn't I who missed an opportunity," he says "He missed it. Sharon. The country also missed it. After all, a year and a half ago it would have been a lot easier to establish a government with us, and with Shinui, on the basis of a less far-reaching plan than the current one. He also wasn't having trouble with his ministers. But he was in a hurry to clinch a deal with the National Religious Party."

Mitzna suggested to Peres about joining without portfolios. As a statement. "Let's stay with our Mazda and our parliamentary assistants. We'll simply sit in the government and vote in favor," he said to Peres. Peres isn't into statements. Especially since he has more to lose than Mitzna by giving up portfolios. He rejected the idea outright.

Placating the pensioners

The Labor Party Central Committee consists of less than 2,000 members. More than 400 of them are pensioners. About 500 to 600 people show up for meetings. For important meetings, 800. The pensioners always come. They never miss a meeting. They have time, thank God. Their presence and their diligence make them a force that cannot be ignored. Now they are threatening not to support Labor's entry into the government if their demands are not met by the Finance Ministry. Among other things, they are demanding cancellation of the cut in their National Insurance Institute allotments, the reinstatement of the cut nursing care hour, and the return of geriatric hospitalization arrangements.

All of these areas cost money, and the Finance Ministry says it doesn't have any. Peres knows that if he does not deliver a real achievement to the central committee regarding the pensioners, he will come up against strong opposition that could thwart the move. Therefore, messages over the weekend were transmitted to Sharon's bureau to take action on this matter at the Finance Ministry. As of yesterday, the treasury was prepared to return just 2 of the 4 percent that was cut from the pensioners' allotments in the current budget. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say his close associates, will also not make a fuss about postponing "by a few days" the 2005 national budget approval on condition that there is a clear deadline for wrapping up the matter.

This is far from satisfying pensioners in Labor's central committee. But the finance minister has problems not only with those who want to join the government, but also with those who are already in it. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's heavy barrage against Netanyahu over the weekend turned on a warning light at his bureau. The finance minister suspects that Sharon is sending Olmert ahead to erode his economic policy, the way he did less than a year ago in the matter of the disengagement.

Need both a majority and a candidate

Not many people are familiar with the new Basic Law on the Government in all its provisions and sub-provisions. Provision 82, for example, concerns the expression of no confidence in the government. Unlike in the past, the new law stipulates that in order to topple the government in a vote of no confidence, it is necessary to have a majority of Knesset members (at least 61) agree in advance on a candidate for prime minister, "who has agreed to this in writing." Only if there is such a candidate and only if 61 Knesset members have been found who voted no confidence will the government fall. The law goes on to stipulate that within two days of the government's fall, the president will give the candidate determined in advance the mandate to form a government. Under the law, the candidate has 42 days to accomplish the task.

And here is the innovation of which some Knesset members are unaware. If within this period the candidate has tried to form a government and has not succeeded, the torch is not passed on. No other candidate is given the task. The story is over. There is no dragging it out, and there is no coalition tangle. The Knesset dissolves, and there are new elections.

This constraint makes the chances of toppling the government through a vote of no confidence merely theoretical. Let us say that Knesset members are fed up with Sharon. Will they find 61 Knesset members who will agree on an alternative candidate knowing that he, and only he, is allowed to conduct coalition negotiations?

Let us suppose that the Labor Party, Yahad, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox agree on naming Labor Party Chairman MK Shimon Peres their candidate for prime minister. The right, without whose support will not reach the necessary 61, will have to think hard about whether to participate, because in that way it is liable to topple Sharon while getting Peres as prime minister - or risk everything in elections.

Therefore, a few weeks ago a proposal was submitted by former minister National Union MK Benny Elon to amend Provision 82. Elon proposes that at the end of the 42 days during which the original candidate has failed to form a government, the Knesset will not dissolve but will recommend another candidate to the president.

In Elon's scenario, Bibi will prevail

This is Elon's scenario on the assumption that the amendment is approved: A unity government is established and falls apart or is not established. The right joins up with the left. Sixty-one Knesset members are found who have decided to vote no confidence in Sharon. Peres is the candidate.

Peres receives the mandate from the president, but without the right, the ultra-Orthodox, and the Likud he does not have 61. Peres uses up the 42 days, and then the only alternative candidate in the Knesset pops up who is able, in the blink of an eye, to put together a government of 70 Knesset members: Benjamin Netanyahu. ("Why only Bibi," asks Elon with pretended innocence. "If they ask nicely, I'd also agree.")

Elon has already checked with several Likud rebels about whether they will vote for his amendment. Their reply was affirmative. One of them has confirmed to Haaretz that indeed he had replied affirmatively to Elon. He said his colleagues also will vote in favor if they think that their choice is either disengagement or elections. The Labor Party, too, might support it on the assumption that it is not a member of the government. Peres, after all, is convinced that within 42 days, a political eternity, it will be within his powers to transmute a minority into a majority - and put together a government.