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A handful of cynical politicians have managed to create the impression that a broad Likud-Labor government is best for the economy and best for advancing the political process. It's funny to see Sharon's friend Ruby Rivlin making the rounds of the media and scolding the Labor Party for not coming to the aid of the nation in times of trouble. Have we already forgotten the things Rivlin said and did at the end of 2000, when he was hell-bent on toppling the Barak administration?

There was an intifada then, too, and things looked bad, but Rivlin and his cronies in the Likud voted for the "fifth child law" proposed by Shas and United Torah Judaism. "Without the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], there is no government," Rivlin said at the time. When he was reminded that half the money would line the pockets of Arab families, of whom he is not exactly fond, Rivlin replied: "I know that out of the NIS 500 million this law will cost us, NIS 200 million will go to Arabs who want to conquer us through demography, but I also want a government."

Now, in order to stay in power for a full four years and eight months, until the next elections are scheduled to take place, Rivlin wants Labor in the government. He knows that only without an opposition is it possible to keep the people doped up with promises of "peace and security," "eradication of terror," and "growth and employment," when everything points to the very opposite.

Sharon is not planning to surprise us. There are no signs of it. A 75-year-old man doesn't change overnight. Just this week, he told Amram Mitzna: "Netzarim is a strategic asset and Hebron is the heart of our connection to the Patriarchs." And obviously, without the willingness to evacuate settlements, there is no point in negotiating.

But for Sharon, parting from one settlement, or even one settler, is like cutting off his right hand. He has always been a believer in "facts on the ground." As minister of agriculture in the Begin administration (1977), he became the father of the settlements in the West Bank, guided by the strategy that the Palestinians would eventually bow to reality. The only problem is that the Palestinians haven't been so cooperative about playing their part.

Ariel Sharon is serious about not negotiating with the Palestinians. The fact is, he has turned down every political initiative for the last two years, including the first Saudi proposal, in which the right of return was not even mentioned. Today, he has set impossible conditions for the commencement of talks, which is not at all surprising considering his history. After all, we are talking about someone whose entire approach is the reverse of peace - a man of force, a man of the sword.

In 1997, he voted against the peace treaty with Egypt. In 1982, he dragged us into Lebanon - a war that was meant to change the entire map of the Middle East, but took the lives of 1,000 soldiers and left thousands more disabled and injured. In 1985, he voted against withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon. In 1991, he opposed Israel's participation in the Madrid talks. In 1993, he voted against Oslo. In 1994, when the Knesset endorsed the peace treaty with Jordan, he abstained. In 1997, he opposed Netanyahu's Hebron accord, and in 2000, when Ehud Barak finally got us out of Lebanon, he disapproved of the way it was done. First, he wanted to bomb and destroy.

When questioned about his political platform on the eve of the 2001 elections, Sharon said he was prepared for "painful concessions." But asked what concessions he was talking about, he replied: "What I mean is that we won't reoccupy Nablus or Jericho." Meanwhile, he's already conquered Nablus. Jericho's turn may also come one day.

If the Labor Party joins a unity government, Sharon will go on pursuing his policy of the last two years, with no one to oppose or criticize him, and Shimon Peres will go on flying around the world, backing the government's actions in the territories and helping the Sharon administration survive for a full term.

But if Sharon forms a narrow right-wing government, the pressure will mount - from the Americans, once they're done with the war on Iraq, and from the Europeans, who are liable to impose sanctions. Domestic opposition will work overtime, too, as the defense situation and the economy grow steadily worse. Things will get to the point where Sharon will finally cave in, and be forced to negotiate and dismantle settlements. When that time comes, the Labor Party will be there for him, cheering him on from the sidelines, and our whole political situation will change from end to end. The same goes for the economy.

There is no guarantee that the scenario will unfold exactly this way - because Sharon might be stubborn and never give in, leading us to catastrophe. But a politician, required to do things that are difficult and revolutionary for him, will always procrastinate and sidestep the issue, in an effort to preserve the status quo. Only when the gun of harsh reality is pressed to his temple will he take the giant step. And that can only happen if we have a narrow right-wing government.