Don't Say, 'We Didn't Know'

To spare itself anguish the next time it is faced with the temptation of joining a Likud-led government, the Labor Party must learn the appropriate lessons from its partnership with Ariel Sharon.

The experience of the past 18 years teaches that right-wing governments, mistakenly called "unity governments," do not die; they merely recycle.

Shortly after the Labor Party's ministers submitted their resignations, Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was predicting that on November 20, if Benjamin Ben-Eliezer wins the Labor leadership primary the previous day, he will rush to regain the Defense Ministry. Yes, this alluring ministry has indeed been conquered by former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz in the meantime; but we have already learned that the opposition benches can turn even the unnecessary Ministry for Regional Cooperation into a small temple for a senior Israeli statesman who was once prime minister.

Those who brandish the banner of "Rabin's legacy" had no problem sharing the cabinet table with transfer advocates who honored them with the title, "the Oslo criminals." Give them a "crisis" in the Gulf or, heaven forbid, a "mega-terror attack" and outgoing minister Shalom Simhon and former deputy minister Sofa Landver will make the pilgrimage to the government compound on foot. And if not now, then after the Knesset elections, Ephraim Sneh and Weizman Shiri will volunteer to set up a "national unity government" with the Likud, explaining, "We don't have another state."

And in time, when it becomes clear that their only purpose was to provide attractive make-up for an extreme right-wing government, Shimon Peres will moan: "If I'd known that these would be the policies, I wouldn't have joined this government."

To spare itself anguish the next time it is faced with the temptation of joining a Likud-led government, the Labor Party must learn the appropriate lessons from its partnership with Ariel Sharon. First and foremost, with the benefit of hindsight, its leaders must ask themselves whether their belief that time and experience had turned Sharon into a man of peace was anything other than a fond hope.

Prof. Yuli Tamir, a minister in Ehud Barak's government, opened her speech at the ceremony to mark the seventh anniversary of Rabin's murder with the following quote: "You, the residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, are responsible for your lives, and you must get ready... Remember the saison; don't forget the Altalena. When they talk about democracy, speak to them of life... The [Rabin] government is handing the settlers over to armed Palestinian gangs... Such actions are part of the left's spiritual existence. Members of Peace Now are closer to the murderers of the PLO than they are to you."

The speaker, Tamir revealed, was Ariel Sharon in the days before Rabin's murder - that same Sharon whose government prepares houses for criminals and grants enormous budgets to the settlers.

Labor's leaders - including Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, who remained in Sharon's government for some time - never demanded that their partner apologize for the incitement that preceded the assassination. In their eagerness "to create a balance of power" in his government, the largest faction in the Knesset conceded the vital demand that the "unity government" not reinstate Sharon's well-known policies in the territories. They should have demanded in advance that the budget of Sharon's peace-and-security government exact painful concessions from the settlers. Instead, they relied on baseless mutterings about his willingness to make "painful concessions" to the Palestinians.

During all the long months that Labor spent at Sharon's side, it consistently refrained from any step that might have put his political intentions to the test. Perhaps out of fear that the prime minister's failure to pass such a test would doom their efforts to remain in the government, the ministers did not exercise their right to demand that Sharon bring plans that included a settlement freeze and a Palestinian state (Mitchell, Tenet and Bush) to a vote. Second-rate party hacks, who received a bonanza when the party's top rank (Ehud Barak, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, Uzi Baram, Avraham Shochat) abandoned the race, refrained from risking their seats on an ultimatum that Sharon might reject.

A party whose leader presented a peace plan that included the establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the territories, as well as a division of Jerusalem, had no right to provide cover for a policy based on force, on the pretext that it is "waiting for a partner." Instead, Labor was obligated to help those in the Arab states and the West who have been laboring for months to create an alternative. These parties discovered a willingness among the leadership of the territories to impose a peace agreement on Yasser Arafat on the basis of the Clinton outline, the Taba understandings and the lessons of the intifada. The new Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, told Ha'aretz that he was convinced it would be possible to turn these documents into a peace agreement within two weeks.

If the Labor Party is wise enough to elect a leader who will rectify these errors, perhaps it will not need to settle for crumbs from the right's table. Sharon and his colleagues managed to insert spokes in the wheels of Rabin's peace from the opposition; Rabin's heirs, also acting from the opposition, must now move these wheels forward once again.