There is no easier, more popular target of ridicule in Israeli politics today than the Labor Party. Left or Right, everybody makes fun of Labor and its 82-year-old leader, Shimon Peres, as a dinosaur, a dodo, a party on life support from Ariel Sharon, a former power reduced to being a servant of power. Before throwing in with Sharon, Labor was derided as an opposition party without a voice, without direction, a shell-shock victim from the intifada who'd forgotten its name and address and was just wandering aimlessly. These have been a miserable five years for Israel's founding political movement. The intifada, which spelled the failure of the Oslo peace process, knocked Labor's legs out from under it. Just how far the party has fallen becomes that much more glaring now, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination. A decade ago Labor had 44 Knesset seats and a forceful prime minister for a leader. Today it has 19 Knesset seats and a wizened old caretaker for a leader. But even though most everybody has written Labor off, I think that what's happened in this country over the last couple of years has been all to the party's favor, and its position in Israeli politics is now deceptively solid. I think it has a good chance of returning to power sometime in the not-too-distant future - specifically, as soon as Sharon leaves the scene. As long as Sharon is prime minister, Labor can only play second fiddle in government or first fiddle in the opposition, because no party figure can come close to beating Sharon in an election. Which is why next Wednesday's party leadership primary isn't really that important. In principle, I want Amir Peretz to win - he's the Israeli politician most likely to make a dent in poverty, which is the country's worst domestic problem, and he's also the strongest-willed politician this side of Sharon. But if the primary ends with Peres holding onto his job, it's no tragedy. Since Labor has no chance of winning back the prime ministership for now, what's so terrible about Peres keeping a lid on the infighting that'll boil over once Sharon is gone and the party is in urgent need of a contender, not a caretaker? What's so awful about Labor benefiting from Peres's prestige when an internal struggle for power isn't going to lead to national power so long as Sharon is in office? BUT AFTER Sharon, the picture changes completely. After Sharon, Likud is just Likud, a party with a less-than-exalted image, and a line up of less-than-exalted hopefuls to take the current leader's place. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, MK Binyamin Netanyahu - none is exactly larger than life. Peretz would stand a fighting chance against any of them. And not only Peretz; two of the three most impressive up-and-coming Israeli politicians are Labor's Housing Minister Isaac Herzog and Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines. (The third is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, but I don't see Likud choosing a reasonable, principled, centrist woman as its leader.) Yet it's not just the future that holds promise for Labor; the present has been working out pretty nicely as well. The pullout from Gaza and northern Samaria was at least a partial victory for Labor's ideology, certainly more so than it was for the traditional ideology of Likud. On the twin issues of boundaries and settlements, Sharon has taken Israel in Labor's direction. Now, when Labor promotes the uprooting of all West Bank settlements on the far side of the security fence, this is no longer a "leftist" proposition, but rather one that isn't very far from the policy of the present Likud prime minister. It's a proposal on settlements that mainstream Israel will be ready to listen to when Labor again challenges for leadership of the country - if, by that time, Sharon hasn't uprooted all those settlements himself. AND NOW, with disengagement accomplished, the domestic agenda has turned Labor's way, too. The economic era of Netanyahu is over; Sharon and new Finance Minister Ehud Olmert have made a "war on poverty" the centerpiece of their economic policy, acknowledging their mistake at having gone along with Netanyahu's wholesale savaging of the poor. It doesn't matter whether they've truly seen the light or just realize that the public is literally hungry for anti-poverty measures; with Netanyahu gone, the Sharon government is moving away from harsh economic conservatism and toward economic liberalism - again, in Labor's direction. But while Israelis are primed for Labor's message on settlements and economics, they still do not trust it on the most crucial matter of all - security - and here it is not the public but the Labor Party that has to change. Starting with Peres, Labor has to stop protesting that Israel's military retaliations for terror are "weakening Abu Mazen" and destroying chances for peace negotiations. Forget Abu Mazen, forget peace negotiations - the only thing that's going to stop terror and make Israel safe for unilateral withdrawal is overwhelming IDF punishment. That's what the public wants and the public is right. So it's time for Peres and Labor to finally put Oslo behind them, say good-bye to their Palestinian "partners," and come to grips with reality. If they do, the party will fully rehabilitate itself from the crippling political effects of the intifada. Its ideology - dovish on settlements, liberal on economics, hawkish on security - would ring a bell with common-sense Israelis again. And after Sharon and Peres were gone, nobody would be making fun of the Labor Party anymore.