Peres knows that if he's not sitting in the government by the time the year is up, he can kiss the party chairmanship goodbye. And Sharon, who has been prime minister for a longer stretch of time than Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu or Barak, realizes the time has come to commit to an agreement that involves painful concessions.
Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres remind me of the two old geezers on The Muppet Show. With a combined age of 157, they are the last of the War of Independence generation. They've seen it all and done it all: sometimes together, sometimes alone, but mostly on different sides of the fence. They don't have to say much to understand one another. They're like a pair of jailbirds locked up together in the same cell who are so sick of listening to each other tell the same old jokes, they just rattle off the serial number.
When Sharon and Peres discuss a "unity government," the term is random. They could just as well say "emergency government" or "broad government." "Unity" sounds nice, but the real matter at hand is that the two old men of Israeli politics need each other to lean on. They have both reached the point where if they don't do something dramatic, for their own good and/or the good of the country (which, in their case, is one and the same, to paraphrase Louis XIV), they will fade away in the mists of national amnesia.
Peres knows that if he's not sitting in the government by the time the year is up, he can kiss the party chairmanship goodbye. And Sharon, who has been prime minister for a longer stretch of time than Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu or Barak before him, realizes that the time has come to change course and to commit to an agreement that involves painful concessions. So both of them have reached a dead end.
Labor under Peres has gone nowhere. As an opposition, it has become irrelevant. Sharon, who electrified the country with a unilateral disengagement plan that calls for evacuating 21 settlements and 8,000 settlers, wants to do it but isn't sure he can, for the simple reason that he doesn't have a government majority that will allow him to.
The safety net that Labor promised when the vote on disengagement is brought before the Knesset has led to double trouble. Without intending to, and more significantly, without getting anything in return, the party has suddenly found itself backing the socioeconomic policy of the House of Netanyahu. And no one even knows if Sharon's plan will really and truly be carried out. Sharon has lost the National Union, part of the National Religious Party and possibly all of it, and a large chunk of his own party, as Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom threaten to throw a wrench into the works and gear up for running against him.
Arithmetically, Sharon needs the Labor Party in the government for one reason only: disengagement. At the same time, the chance to leave the nothingness of the opposition, along with the whiff of portfolios, has whetted Labor's appetite. Labor wants to be a full partner in the government, with a finger in every pie - social affairs, economy, and all the rest. Labor has its eye on seven portfolios, among them foreign affairs and finance.
The assumption that Netanyahu or Shalom, both of them opponents of disengagement, will serve up their heads on a silver platter to make room for Peres and his colleagues is naive. And the idea that Labor, which will account for only one-third of the government, is capable of waving two banners at once - presiding over the historic withdrawal from Gaza and fomenting a socioeconomic revolution - is not only naive but presumptuous. The danger is that it will not succeed in either of these undertakings, and will end up trailing after the Likud, a partner to its failures, manipulated by Sharon like a puppet on a string.
The unavoidable conclusion is that Labor must be on its guard not to become a collaborator in all the assorted deeds and misdeeds of the Likud government. It must limit its participation in the Sharon government, joining it as an emergency measure rather than a partner in a unity government, and stick to one mission and one mission alone: unilateral separation from the Palestinians.