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Automobile tycoon Henry Ford once said: "The question `Who ought to be the boss?' is like asking `Who should be the tenor in the quartet?' Obviously, the man who can sing tenor."

In the new coalition to be formed this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not only be the tenor, he will be the conductor of the orchestra. All the rest will be rank and file players, with the exception of Shimon Peres, who will be first violin at best. He won't get to be conductor.

In the course of the negotiations over ministries, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that "Labor has to understand that the government that it is joining is a Likud government." And he's right. This is not a national unity government, this is not an emergency government, this is not a government with new guidelines. In effect, this is a change of personnel in the composition of the cabinet. A new coalition, in short. It's the same game with some cosmetic changes. The name of the game is the disengagement, and the evacuation of the Jewish settlements from Gaza. As the time for implementing the program drew nearer, Sharon began to lose the support of his party. And the rest is history. Labor is entering the government in order to allow the dentist to fill the cavity. A stopgap measure, but limited in the long run. There is no substitute for a thorough root canal.

Labor joining Sharon's government turns it into a partner when it comes to responsibility, by dint of the law of collective responsibility. Its ministers will be responsible for everything the government does or doesn't do. What will link the Likud and Labor for the time being will be the disengagement map and the partnership that is meant to carry it out to the full. This partnership will create a system of checks and balances between the two parties, which are marching toward the same goal. The only weapon that Labor has is the threat to leave the government, and although it will be difficult to part from the deerskin-upholstered minister's chair, Labor must be prepared to quit from one day to the next. Its ministers must adopt the suggestion of Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, one of the leaders of Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party), who led the expulsion of Ben-Gurion from the party. He believed that every minister should carry a letter of resignation in his pocket. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter demanded that all the members of his cabinet deposit undated letters of resignation upon their appointment.

Labor must understand that this is its last chance to prove that it has value as a major political entity. And if it wants to return to the center of the political stage, it must refrain from carrying out maneuvers behind the back of its new partners. Its leaders would do well not to be arrogant, not to be greedy, not to begin a wave of political appointments and distribution of jobs. They must immediately postpone the primaries until the completion of the disengagement, which is likely to continue until 2006. Although former prime minister Ehud Barak is in a hurry, it won't be a disaster if the primaries are held, for example, in June 2006, assuming that the elections are held on time. And that can happen if the two old men work in harmony.

The statement that has been adopted even by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that only Sharon can do it, is a given that has proved itself, both for good and for bad. Peres should not attempt to steal the show and to work behind Sharon's back. The name of the game between them has to be No. 2's undying loyalty to No. 1, on condition, of course, that the words of Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass, to the effect that the separation of Gaza is not a first step, but a step designed to freeze the continuation of the political process, are not correct.

Nobody knows whether Weisglass was speaking in his own name, or was exposing Sharon's deep secret. What is clear is that an exceptional strategic window of opportunity has been created with the deaths of Syrian president Hafez Assad and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, the elimination of the regime of Saddam Hussein and the reelection of George W. Bush as a leader of the war against Islamic terror, who aspires to put an end to our conflict.

Under these circumstances, the disengagement must be an initial step that has a sequel. But we haven't heard a word from Sharon about where we go from here. To date, he hasn't spelled out the next stages in a final status agreement with the Palestinians, which map will be followed and where Israel's permanent borders will be.

Labor joining the Likud government is a correct step. But Labor will look like it is being towed along if it doesn't receive a detailed public commitment from Sharon regarding the next steps. If it lusts for political life, Labor must not give Sharon a blank check.