Labor's Moment of Truth

Should the Labor party decide to join the government, and to support continued presence in Gaza for many years, the division of Gaza and the West Bank, and the continuation of settlement activity, it will cease to provide an ideological alternative.

In politics there are contacts, not meetings. Contacts have little sincerity or kindness and instead feature "careful glances, and a few facile phrases." Quick glances and a few cliches are indeed all that is needed to grasp who in the Labor party is prepared to strongly urge joining the Sharon government, if and when the right-wing coalition parties drop out.

Proponents of inclusion in the government claim the Sharon government has embraced Labor party policies. Should Sharon carry out what we believe in, these Labor members enthusiastically explain, we should find a place in the government.

Has the Likud party really turned into an efficient executor of the Labor party's ideological doctrines? Does the disengagement plan really express Labor's values, and its social and political platform?

If these questions are answered in the affirmative, then the Labor party turns into a superfluous political albatross, a party which has no compelling role to play. The Labor party thus has to ask itself a life-or-death question - does it have a political platform which justifies its existence, or should it urge its constituency to support Sharon and send its own delegates into retirement?

Opponents of a national unity government, as it is being proposed today, believe that the difference between Sharon's policies and the Labor party's platform is real and significant. This difference involves contrasting conceptions of time and of territorial and political space.

In the dimension of time, Sharon's new plan - to disengage from Gaza in stages - would perpetuate the occupation of the Gaza Strip for many years. Even if the settlements of Morag, Rafah Yam and Netzarim are evacuated in another year, Israeli presence on the Gaza Strip would remain intact.

Terror would not disappear; dangers posed to the IDF soldiers and to Jewish settlers would not abate; the oppression of Palestinians would not end; international criticism of Israel would not lessen; the U.S. would not be able to continue to give full support; Egypt would not be able to assume full responsibility for the Philadelphi road, and the Palestinian Authority would not be able to build on the Gaza Strip a temporary regime designed for long term stability.

Support for the piecemeal, withdrawal-in-stages, plan basically means support for continuing the current situation for another half decade, at least. Spreading out disengagement over a period of years has no justification in terms of Israel's security or diplomatic interests. Instead, it is motivated by Sharon's own personal interest in political survival - the piecemeal plan allows him to carry out the ideology he upholds while being buffered against external and internal pressures.

In terms of territory, the disengagement plan disjoins the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, and prevents the establishment of one single Palestinian state. Sharon hopes and believes that his compromise enactment of the disengagement plan over a number of years will deflect diplomatic attention away from the hills of the West Bank, where Jewish settlement activity is to continue, and the borders of the Palestinian entity will constrict. In other words, for Sharon, the disengagement plan is just one component in a set of planned diplomatic-political moves. Other components in his plan are the division of the Palestinian state, and the strengthening of settlements in areas of Judea and Samaria which are to be annexed to the state of Israel.

To Sharon's credit, he spoke clearly about these elements when he first presented his disengagement plan at the Herzliya conference. The problem, therefore, is not the prime minister - it is cabinet members who go deaf and ignore aspects of the plan the moment they sense their portfolios could be in danger.

And there is a another, human, dimension. Sharon's long-term plan does not provide any mechanism for dialogue with the Palestinians,.

Thus, Sharon has to continue to nurture the idea that there is no discussion partner on the Palestinian side. The fact that some top Labor party politicians help him circulate this claim - in a period when even Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid demands the renewal of negotiations - attests to ideological bankruptcy.

Should the Labor party decide to join the government, and to support continued presence in Gaza for many years, the division of Gaza and the West Bank, and the continuation of settlement activity, it will cease to provide an ideological alternative.

It will not deserve a leadership role, and few will support it. The public does not elect leaders who do not believe in themselves and their own policy positions, and who view the leader of a rival party as the man worthy to hold the state's helm.

Hence, the Labor party must decide whether it really wants to vie for power, or whether it simply wants to enjoy the spoils of power. Labor must decide whether it has the desire and ability to convince Israel's voters that its policy path is preferable and attempt to win power in the next national elections, or whether it prefers to forfeit its chances for victory and simply lick some crumbs from Sharon's table. The coming days will reveal Labor's choice.