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During the 56 years of its existence, Israel has developed a unique system of government: duocracy. It is not mentioned in the Basic Laws and in the civics books, but this is how it works: At the top, there are two people - the prime minister and his primary political rival as a senior minister. Policy is determined as a compromise. On one occasion, one of them initiates and the other thwarts, and on another occasion one of them pushes and the other shackles. This time left, that time right, and always because of personal ambition, which is packaged in the wrapping of "the national interest."

The political crisis of this past week and the explicit conflict between the leader in power, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the pretender to the crown, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are a clear result of this system. For more than a year, the two of them bore the burden together, under the blanket of a balance of threat that was presented as a division of responsibility, as if the one dealt with national policy and the other with economics, with a great deal of reciprocal stroking.

This is how things stood, until the prime minister decided to do away with his partner-rival's right of veto and to present a policy plan that would strengthen him at the expense of the finance minister.

Duocracy is a chimera of political stability, which never endures and is always prone to crises. Its roots are in the Israeli system in which the loser does not bow out but rather remains in the system, in the hope that his rival will stumble and fall. The winner is forced to share power with his foe, until a suitable occasion is found to get him out of the way. And then comes the inevitable confrontation.

The system was born in the 1950s, in the days of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, who rotated in power and differed over the desirable policy toward the Arabs: brutal retaliatory actions, or restraint and the expectation of international support. It was during that period that the ills of the Israeli regime developed, such as the excess weight of the defense establishment and the chronic disrespect toward the foreign minister. In the summer of 1956 the conflict became more acute, and Ben-Gurion chucked Sharett out of the government and embarked on the Sinai Campaign without partners.

The Lavon affair forced Ben-Gurion to share power with Levi Eshkol, the darling of the party apparatus, who succeeded "the Old Man" at the end of a prolonged crisis over a marginal matter. The Six-Day War engendered the unity government (which at the time was called "national unity"), that established form of duocracy, which reached its peak in the government of Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the 1980s with the rotation in the leadership.

The unity governments transformed duocracy into an ideology, in their pretension to join together opposing political forces. They fell apart when one of the sides got fed up with the partnership, in the guise of a disagreement over the way and policy. In the unity governments it was possible to paper over personal enmities with disagreements about issues. In narrow governments, in which the rivals are from the same party, the hatred, the distaste and the scorn at the top echelon bursts out on the surface. This is what occurred with the Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres duo. In the 1970s, it was Peres who was the one who was gung-ho security-oriented, and in the 1990s it was he who led Rabin to Oslo. In both cases, the prime minister had to suit his policy to his senior partner.

Sharon and Netanyahu have undergone a similar reversal. In the previous round, Sharon shackled Netanyahu, and now Sharon is having to conciliate his rival. Thus were born the Israeli stipulations concerning the road map, and the demand for American quid pro quos for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In both cases Sharon tried to bridge the support of the White House with quiet in the Likud. But like his predecessors, he, too, reached the moment when the partnership looked too costly to him, and he therefore risked breaking it up.

With all its tribulations and crises, it appears that the Israeli duocracy is not the worst of all possible systems of government. Fact: The leaders who governed in relative isolation, Golda Meir and Ehud Barak, led the country into the disasters of the Yom Kippur War and the war with the Palestinians. It's not bad, apparently, when someone restrains the prime minister.