After Him, the Flood

Somewhere between the compote, the halva and the tea, even the ultimate ultimatum has a way of fizzling out. The threat of an ultimatum is like a pistol in Act I - with one difference: When it comes to Labor, it won't even go off in Act V.

So where were we before I went on vacation? Ah yes. Just where we are now. Shimon Peres wants to join the government again, and Ariel Sharon says he wants him to, but "conditions aren't ripe yet." The Labor party activists are getting antsy. They're threatening to become a "fighting opposition" and to vote against the government. At the next meeting, the headlines assure us, Peres will present an ultimatum. But somewhere between the compote, the halva and the tea, even the ultimate ultimatum has a way of fizzling out.

The threat of an ultimatum is like a pistol in Act I - with one difference: When it comes to Labor, it won't even go off in Act V.

The question is whether it is really in the national interest today to oust Sharon and push up the elections. Because aside from the enormous financial outlay involved in organizing an election campaign, the country will probably end up with Benjamin Netanyahu, which is a recipe for socioeconomic disaster. Worst of all, it would spell the end of the disengagement plan because the far right would be ruling the roost. Yasser Arafat may be dead, but trust our fanatics to come up with a new one.

Not only is Sharon refusing to back down on the evacuation of Gaza, but he is more determined than ever to carry it out - and soon. From past experience, we know that there are some things only the Likud can do. In today's Likud, only Sharon can do them. Unlike Yitzhak Shamir, who could spend the morning contemplating his navel and then take a siesta all afternoon, Sharon is busy as a bee. Bush's support and his congressionally backed promises are important to him. It is no coincidence that Sharon is being so nice and obliging to the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority. More than anything, Sharon is afraid of the man in the White House moving into the "whole world is against us" department. If that should happen, even the legendary Dubi-Condi alliance won't help him.

The problem is that Sharon can't make up his mind about whether to form a unity government or stick with a minority government. This dilly-dallying can't go on forever. Sharon wants to move ahead. He wants to act quickly and resolutely, but behind him is a party over which he has very little control - a party that opposes a unity government, rejects disengagement and is even against dismantling illegal outposts. True, Sharon is ahead in all the surveys, but among his own men, he is like the commander who charges into battle with the cry, "After me," and then looks over his shoulder and sees no one is there.

The Likud Central Committee vote is not really a victory for Sharon. Half the people who belong to this body are "insurgents" and right-wing extremists. I wouldn't call Yisrael Katz, Tzachi Hanegbi and Dan Naveh peaceniks either. They are against a unity government and against uprooting settlements. Avraham Hirschson, an outspoken pro-Sharonist, chalked up 800 votes. That's all the support Sharon could drum up in the central committee of his own party.

There is a tremendous amount of ideological tension in the Likud that needs to be worked out. Looking at the situation from a historical vantage point, this business will have to be resolved if the party is to ever to reach a decision some day on that mother of all issues - a permanent accord.

Sharon has decided to speed up the preparations for disengagement. The evacuation-compensation plan will be put to the vote in the Knesset by the end of next month. On July 2, at the crack of dawn, the Israel Defense Forces is scheduled to begin the first stage of withdrawal from Gaza. Some Likudniks boast that this will never happen. "The dogs may bark, but the caravan rolls on," they say, quoting an Arab proverb. But half the party thinks differently. A split may be inevitable when Sharon starts making the first painful cut.

The role of the Labor Party is not to prevent a split, but to let it happen. Early elections initiated by Labor are not a good idea. Before you know it, the disengagement plan will be shot down, the Likud will patch things up, and Labor will be back in the Knesset as a single-digit faction.

The Labor Party should not be toppling Sharon. It should be tucking him in so he won't catch cold. It should be giving him all the support it can muster, setting aside its egocentric concerns so that the first step in this historic exodus from the territories can begin. As long as Sharon is there, it will happen. After him, the flood.