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This is not the first time that the Likud has been presented, after a huge electoral victory, with a sneering challenge - the kind that Eliza Doolittle poses to her wordy, fancy-talking suitor in "My Fair Lady": "Don't talk at all! Show me!" In other words: "OK, you've beaten the Oslo monster to a pulp, you've trampled the leftist agenda to dust - so now let's see what you can do!"

But everything points to the likelihood - not surprising - that Likud will bow out once again with thousands of excuses, fleeing from the dreaded moment of truth: finding itself alone at the control panels, forced to make good on the rhetoric it has been wallowing in for more than 30 years. At that moment, all and sundry will see - as they have before - that the mission is an impossible one, because the Likud really has no constructive agenda of its own that stands any chance of being carried out in the real world. For years, the Likud way has been defined almost exclusively through wholesale rejection (sometimes justified) of the pragmatic agenda of the Labor Party - or grumbling acceptance of it.

From this standpoint, Israel's electoral turnabouts already possess a fine tradition: When Labor Party candidates win, they pounce on the victory booty with haughty smugness: "I shall steer the ship," they declare. "A new dawn has arisen." When Likud candidates win, they are filled with modesty, even sadness, as if they themselves are aghast at the implications of their election.

It was no coincidence that the first thing Menachem Begin did after his historic triumph in 1977 was to run to Moshe Dayan the Mapainik and beg him to be foreign minister. Something similar took place after the "historic victory" of the Likud this week, when Ariel Sharon nearly jumped out of his skin to get the Labor Party to join the government, although he has no coalitionary need or any practical reason for doing so.

Sharon was not just being noble when he mentioned Yitzhak Rabin in his victory speech. It was not self-sacrifice or concern for the state that made him reach out and grasp at Labor like a drowning man: It had to do with that old Likud phobia - the fear of a void, the fear of being alone with the impossible, with the knowledge that with an agenda of nay-saying and blame, devoid of any element of pragmatism, you can't go shopping. You can't even get down the stairs.

What kept Menachem Begin, with his great historical victory, from implementing the rhetoric of a lifetime and annexing "Judea and Samaria"? What made Netanyahu sign the Wye accords? What has made even Ariel Sharon - the greatest Eretz Yisrael zealot of them all, for whom even Yitzhak Shamir was a left-winger - declare support for a Palestinian state? Why has Likud latched on to one of the more questionable rationales for Oslo, namely that the Palestinian Authority will fight terror for us?

Maybe it has to do with the simple but uncontestable fact that the Likud has nowhere to go, apart from the road paved by Labor. In moving from rhetoric to action, every other road has turned out to be impassable. To quote Sharon himself: "Things don't look the same from over here as they do over there."

The only creativity of the Likud as a ruling power has been in manufacturing an assortment of reasons why it can't implement its agenda, and why it must - simply must - have a couple of Mapai faces nearby. The "threat of war" and the "defense situation" are laboratory-tested, and no less effective than "a political process is under way" or "peace initiative." The urgent need to pull the country out of an economic crisis - which somehow seems to be the case whenever the finance portfolio has been managed by a Likud government - is always an excellent pretext for calling in Labor ministers.

The excuse for fawning over Labor is always righteous: for the sake of "unity," or the sake of "preventing a split in the nation," or out of a "sense of national responsibility" (things that never seemed to mean much when Likud itself was in the opposition, ripping the nation apart with its incitement against the Labor governments).

But the real reason seems to go deeper, to tap into something emotional. Maybe it has to do with the self-image of the Likud as the eternal adolescent and Labor as the responsible parent. One way or another, more than Labor needs Likud - Likud needs Labor: to butt from the opposition, to lean on in the government, to turn into a punching bag for all its failings as it sits alone in power, and above all, as an alibi for not implementing its own agenda.

There is something charming and almost comic in this tradition, in which Labor continues to be perceived as the ruling party even as it rolls in the gutter. Right-wingers like Lieberman and Hanegbi are right to sneer at Likud leaders for stubbornly refusing to shed their "Labor complex" and finally allow the wet dreams of the right to come true. But they sneer with such vehemence that it only reveals the depth of their own complex. In their hearts, perhaps even they - like Sharon - tremble at the scary thought of being left alone with themselves, with no Labor Party to kick around.