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The Labor Party is once again falling into the trap laid for it by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: It is being pressured by populist sentiment that imbues the term "national unity" with an almost mystic significance, and now finds itself forced to defend its refusal to join a government headed by Sharon. This pressure is capable of influencing the party's positions, and, combined with the egotistic motivations of some of Labor's senior members, is liable to drag the party into a Likud-led government once again.

The term "unity" is loaded: it connotes closeness, intimacy, solidarity. The upshot is that anyone who opposes a unity government is alienated, someone who separates himself from the community, almost a traitor. The proper term to describe the goal of negotiations aimed at clarifying whether two parties can agree on a joint plan of action is the establishment of a "coalition government." But in Israel, neutral terms have lost their validity: Too many people are interested in pouring emotional content into these terms in order to derive political benefit from them. Thus the Likud calls itself "the national camp," sending the public the message that its political rival is not national - in other words, not patriotic. Labor, for its part, calls itself "the peace camp," thereby attempting to convince the public that the Likud desires war.

Labor joined the first Sharon government in large part because its leaders believed that they were thereby satisfying their voters' expectations. Whenever they thought about quitting - and Sharon gave them more than a few reasons to do so - they were deterred by their belief that they would be punished by the voters if they did. In retrospect, after Labor left the government and Amram Mitzna positioned the party in Meretz's ideological corner, many of its leaders believe that this was a serious mistake for which the party paid at the ballot box. Against this background, the calls urging Labor's leaders to establish a "national unity government" have fallen on attentive ears, because they are urging the party to correct a deviation: to accede to the desires of a majority of the public and to remember that the voice of the people is like the voice of God.

This wavering by Labor's leadership reflects the party's principal weakness: It is not firmly committed to a political path, and therefore, its leaders zigzag between a frantic pursuit of the voters and a concerted effort to differentiate itself from the right. This wandering has led to its collapse in each of the last three elections.

Instead of trying to find favor with everyone, Labor must formulate its positions (which Mitzna apparently did for it) and then stick to them. If its political worldview is similar to that of the Likud, what is the purpose of its existence as a distinct political entity? And if it is different, what justification is there for trying to merge it into Sharon's government?

The pressure on Labor to join a "unity government" is rationalized by the "state of emergency." This is yet another example of the cynical use of a loaded phrase in order to attain political goals. "Unity" will in no way alter the state's ability to cope with its problems. If the state of emergency refers to the expected American war with Iraq, what in the Israel Defense Forces' preparations for this war will change as a result of Labor joining the government? If the state of emergency refers to Palestinian terror, the past two years have proved that Labor's participation in the government has no impact on Israel's ability to halt this terror. And if the state of emergency is the economic crisis, Avraham Shochat, Labor's senior spokesman on economic matters, has already announced that he accepts most of the Finance Ministry's proposals, but that the attainment of their goals will depend on a turnaround in the diplomatic and security situation - a turnaround that requires a revolution in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approach, of which there is currently no sign on the horizon. In any case, Labor will support government actions that it deems appropriate from the opposition benches, and it lacks the parliamentary power to foil those it opposes. A "unity government" is a slogan and a state of mind - not a genuine national need.