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When former prime minister Ariel Sharon dismantled the Likud and founded Kadima, it seemed a lethal blow to the political camp opposing the division of the country. The Likud was badly beaten at the polls, and the idea it propounded seemed obsolete and irrelevant after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The party that championed territorial compromise had won a resounding victory, the media humiliated the Likud Central Committee and the "rebels" who had irritated Sharon were defeated.

Three years later, the political reality looks like a clear manifestation of the law of unintended results. Sharon's dramatic move accomplished the opposite of what it aimed to achieve: The Likud is alive, recovering and leading in the opinion polls, and the camp of compromise is torn by a life-and-death struggle between Labor and Kadima. The mutual bashing is understandable: Kadima and Labor are vying for the same electorate. Their messages are identical and their coalition partnership is natural. The disputes that occasionally surface, such as at the budget debate this week, stem from political needs and personal rivalry.

Kadima is living in peace with Amir Peretz, who led Labor in the last elections, and rests on his "social" image, the man from Sderot and trade-union leader. Peretz wanted to bring voters from the struggling towns in the periphery to Labor, and rebuild it as a socialist party. He knowingly gave up the established urban voters, who switched to Kadima. Labor's chairman, Ehud Barak, however, is trying to renew the party's connection with its traditional electorate in the established neighborhoods and with the business community that currently supports Kadima's Tzipi Livni. Barak has no problem with Shaul Mofaz, who is appealing to the same circles that supported Peretz - workers' committees and mayors - while leaving Barak with north Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon and Ra'anana.

Barak and Livni realize that if she wins Kadima's upcoming primary, only one of them will face off against Netanyahu in the coming national elections. There will be no more celebrations like in 2006, when Labor and Kadima divided the political center among themselves and the rightwing parties were kicked to the sidelines. Hence, these two are busy annihilating one another. Barak presents Kadima as a party of deserters, as a camp of political refugees who will disappear like the short-lived Dash and Shinui, which also nibbled at Labor's voter base. Livni views Labor as a lifeless has-been. Barak boasts about his experience, presenting Livni as unripe. Livni says the country's experience with Barak was terrible, and she represents a refreshing newness.

Only one factor has been forgotten in this confrontation: the political idea that Labor and Kadima represent, which is based on a willingness to share this land with the Palestinians. The current government has maintained the status quo in the territories, apart from accelerated construction in the settlement blocs. The window of opportunity for political change, in which the right was battered and bruised, was lost along with the unnecessary Second Lebanon War, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government renewed the talks on a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians and talks with the Syrians, and presented compromise positions that gained international support. Olmert is leaving the peace process with a comfortable foundation for the next government.

That being the case, Kadima and Labor must unite around their joint message and battle for public opinion and votes against the Likud's positions, which oppose any compromise or arrangement. But in political life, the idea and the path are only a backdrop to the campaign for leadership and respect. No one is volunteering to be a rival's second fiddle.

The solution proposed by the political advisers is that the public decides: Labor and Kadima will run separately in the elections and will unite afterward. This way, say the opinion polls, they will garner more votes than if they ran on a joint list. The leader of the party that gets the most votes will be the candidate for prime minister, and they will save themselves the contest.

That sounds all fine and good for the politicians, but will not pass the reality test. If the parties unite the morning after the elections, it will justifiably look like a dirty trick designed to influence the election results, a move to bypass the will of the people and keep the Likud in the opposition. And if Netanyahu wins, he will easily stymie his opponents' unity moves. He will just hand out senior cabinet portfolios.

In the 1960s, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon spearheaded the combining of leftist parties with his call for the "courage to change before the calamity." This time, the calamity is already here. If they do not come to their senses and unite now, in the next elections Livni and Barak will be handing the government to Netanyahu, who is currently holding his peace and enjoying their squabble. Still, history's lesson must not be forgotten: The Alignment of the left gave the parties only a few more years in power before they lost to the combined opposition of the right. The Likud's current rapid recovery shows that nothing in politics is final, and that for every action, there is an opposite reaction. It is all a matter of timing and circumstance; what a pity that time and opportunities are lost along the way.