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If the Labor Party had not set up a negotiating committee before the boycott that the Likud imposed on it, it would have had to have set it up last Wednesday, shortly after the Likud decided it to kick it down the stairs. In fact, it does not even need a negotiating team; instead of hinting at its intention to contend for the right to lose another election, party chairman Shimon Peres should have announced that the Labor Party was retracting forthwith all the conditions it had stipulated for its joining the coalition. Neither the Foreign Ministry for himself nor the changes in the budget nor the Transportation Ministry for Dalia Itzik nor the veto on Shas will stand in its way.

Instead of waiting for a phone call from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Labor Party should ask Peres to go out to the prime minister's home at Sycamore Farm and inform his old pal that he has a majority in the Knesset for disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

It is hard to understand the hurt feelings of the Labor rebels, who want to declare a tiff with the Likud. The victory by Minister Uzi Landau was the most important event - and the event that should give them most cause for celebration - that has happened to their bruised party since its defeat in the last Knesset elections. The Likud has done to Sharon what the main opposition and its policy are not succeeding in doing to him, ever since Labor was an integral part of his coalition and policy. The vote can instill doubt, if not more, in the hearts of tens of thousands of peace-seeking voters whose cars bear the bumper-sticker: "I believe in Sharon's peace."

Last Wednesday, in full public view, the supreme forum of the Likud tightened the handcuffs around its leader's wrists. The masses who believed that Sharon is prepared to offer "painful concessions" in return for peace found out that his students in the academy of shackling are not allowing him to pull several hundred Jews out of the Gaza Strip. Any sensible person realizes that a party that opposes a limited unilateral move, which might not be worthy of the definition "concession," will not concede parts of Jerusalem to the Arabs.

In the broad public that believes that to obtain peace it is necessary to have a government that is prepared to give up most of the territories, there are perhaps more men and women who will try voting for a different party in the next elections.

In the next elections, when the Likud will again talk about how important "unity" is for a country that is surrounded by enemies, Labor will not have to work hard. The booing that was heard every time the words "national unity government" were uttered will speak for themselves.

It is hard to understand what benefit will accrue to the Labor Party from the demonstrative dismantling of the negotiating team, even before Sharon returns from his vacation. What is it they want? If Sharon obeys the will of the convention, he will make himself into a lame duck, a leader who is the captive of an extremist party. If he violates the party's decree, and nevertheless invites Labor to join his government, this could bring about a deep schism in the Likud. And is there any greater pleasure for a political party than the tearing apart of its main rival?

The only move that can get the Likud out of this trap is a decision by the Labor Party institutions to hang up the phone when Sharon calls. Thus, what will remain in the collective memory of the events of the summer of 2004 is that for the sake of peace Sharon was prepared to fight his own party, but the party of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate left him lying bloodied in the field.

When Labor looks like a party that resigned from the talks to establish a unity government, Shimon Peres, the one who most wanted to return to the government, will be the person who will bear most of the blame. If the statesman who has already seen everything in his life had not set his cap on the foreign affairs portfolio, it is possible that Labor might have already been inside. What do they want from Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom? If Peres had been lusting for the education portfolio, would Education Minister Limor Livnat have called upon the members of the convention to support bringing Labor into the government?

If the disengagement plan and peace are so important to the state and to the party, the architect of Oslo should teach his colleagues a lesson in self-sacrifice; he should inform Sharon that the party is interested in fair representation in the foreign policy-security cabinet and the important ministerial committees of an ad hoc emergency government for a period of one year. The Likud must decide - there are no more excuses.