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Ariel Sharon isn't afraid of losing in a referendum on the disengagement. He's certain that he would win. How does he know? Reuven Adler, the adman who is close to him, told him so. The same Reuven Adler who accurately predicted the loss in the referendum of Likud voters (which all the polls predicted Sharon would win by a 12 percent margin) is promising Sharon a clear and sweeping victory.

Sharon knows that the problem isn't in the result but in the process. It will go like this: Let's say there's a majority in the Knesset (which there isn't) for a referendum. Then, the settlers and their representatives will start to fight over every issue, no matter how marginal - the wording of the question and the wording of the law and the funding and the propaganda methods and the television broadcasts and the necessary majority, and so on. Over every dispute, they'll foment a crisis. Every minor debate will turn into a threat to wreck the referendum. In the end, there won't be a referendum or a disengagement, since in such a process, which will never end, the "street" will become inflamed, violence will run rampant, Sharon will be humiliated, and his standing will be undermined. The world will turn its back on him. The Labor Party will abandon him. The rebels will rejoice. Sharon will be tarred and feathered and dragged, beaten and exhausted, with wings clipped, to elections - and to a hopeless run against Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon is convinced that this is the scenario the settlers are really aiming for. There is no other explanation. And anyone who advocates the idea of a national referendum on the grounds that it's necessary in order to prevent a "rift" in the nation is either naive or stupid - or evil.

Silvan Shalom was the latest to enter this category this week. Much can be said about Shalom. Naive he's not. Nor is he stupid. Still, the timing he chose in which to upgrade his position on a referendum from "support" to "leading the charge" was lousy. A few hours after Sharon's return from the important, successful, heartwarming summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Shalom showed up on the "Hot Mishal" program on Channel 2 and instead of doing what he could to push forward the disengagement train - which is turning into a coordinated disengagement just as he wanted - he chose, with a sour face, to scatter explosives on the tracks.

Bad timing all around. First of all, it looked like he was seeking revenge on Sharon for not taking him along to the summit. For some reason, considerations of personal offense stick more easily to Shalom than to others.

Second, and this is the most important reason, Shalom should have restrained himself precisely because he is the foreign minister. He knew very well that the gist of his words, with all their subversive meaning, would be immediately broadcast to dozens of foreign ministries around the world. That very night, and the next day, Israel came across in the world - not for the first time - as a banana republic. A few months ago, the finance minister threatened the prime minister with a putsch because of the disengagement. And now the foreign minister is "leading a move" that will be perceived all over the world as an attempt to tie up the whole process permanently.

Third, the move appears hopeless, no matter how you look at it. And Shalom, a clever politician, doesn't like to be part of hopeless moves. Which is why he didn't join in Netanyahu and Livnat's lame putsch attempt at the time. In fact, the finance minister's people couldn't understand what had got into Silvan this week. How did he all of a sudden become a Trumpeldor? Where was he when they needed him a few months ago? (Silvan was there, say Shalom's people, but Netanyahu ruined everything with his ultimatum).

No chance of a referendum

Shalom went out of his way this week to explain that there was nothing new in what he was saying: He'd said the same thing before, in one way or another, on previous occasions. The appearance on Hot Mishal was, he says, scheduled two and a half weeks ago, so all the stories about how it was because he was personally offended are wrong. The only problem is that it's a bit hard to imagine that if the foreign minister had returned from Sharm on Sharon's plane, he would have gone directly from the airport to the television studio to announce to the nation that he had decided to lead a move against the prime minister.

Yes, says Shalom, that's exactly what I would have done. I'd already told the prime minister several times about my intention to push for a national referendum. And as I've said in the past, without the prime minister's agreement, there won't be any referendum. That's for certain. But I'll try to persuade him.

In the prime minister's bureau, they quickly grasped the potential damage. Sharon's people say that one reason the referendum initiative reared its head again was Sharon's silence about it in recent months. They decided that this time, Sharon himself would carry out the targeted assassination of this idea. Which is why the prime minister said what he did a couple of days ago, in the most clear and explicit language, to all who were ready to listen.

What's all the fuss about? After all, the whole issue of the referendum is a bluff. The Likud faction decided a few months ago that it supports the right of MK Gilad Ardan to bring his bill for a national referendum on the disengagement up to a vote. Even Sharon voted in favor of Ardan's right to do this. And what's preventing Ardan from bringing the bill to a vote? The majority that is nowhere to be found. At least 75 MKs are opposed to a referendum: about a third of the Likud, Labor, Shinui, Yahad, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. Therefore, the issue really doesn't exist at all. There is no basis for a referendum. It doesn't have a majority in the government either. Sharon could bring the matter to a vote this Sunday. It won't pass - and then Shalom and Netanyahu and all the ministers who support the referendum will be obligated by the government's decision and won't be able to "lead a move." Even Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, who announced his support for a referendum this week even though this weakens his standing in the Knesset, will not be able to act against a government decision unless he resigns from his post.

Silvan Shalom is quite aware of this reality. He knows that a Likud Central Committee decision in favor of a referendum would be meaningless; and he knows that Shas won't support a referendum for its own reasons (Eli Yishai said this week that he won't lend a hand to a move that will exacerbate the rift in the nation). He knows that Sharon is not about to commit suicide. But by the same token, Shalom also knows that this old-new position of his is strengthening him within the Likud Central Committee, and among the ideological right, and pushing aside Benjamin Netanyahu - who up to now was the figure most closely identified with the referendum. And he also knows that the chances of his "persuading" Sharon to hold a national referendum on the disengagement are about equal to the chances of Sharon persuading him to agree to a national referendum on his continued service as foreign minister.

Days of reconciliation

"I saw the Arabs," said Ariel Sharon. "I saw them yesterday in Sharm. They have a totally different assessment about Israel - about its stamina and its ability to overcome problems. Only here are people always looking for problems, looking for distress. What's going on? I don't feel any distress."

Sharon radiated euphoria. "Maybe the Arabs thought that the atmosphere there would be diplomatic, that it would be all about the road map. But the atmosphere was all about wiping out terror. I made that clear to everyone I spoke to. That on this there will be no concession. This was the message. This was the main theme there."

Two days ago, after the summit, Sharon sat down at a table in the Knesset cafeteria and journalists were invited to join him. He was in a terrific mood. Who would ever have thought that a meeting with Hosni Mubarak would make his day? Since waking up Wednesday morning, he was overflowing with generosity and the spirit of reconciliation. On the way to Jerusalem, he called Avraham (Beiga) Shochat from Labor and Haim Oron of Meretz and effusively thanked them for their work on behalf of the evacuation-compensation bill that was approved by the Finance Committee. At his official residence, Communications Minister Dalia Itzik was waiting to share a late breakfast with him that was also a meal of reconciliation, after the big dispute that erupted between them on the eve of the government's formation. When Sharon is in the mood to make up, he does it big time - from the leader of the Arab world to the leader of the Labor faction.

What do you say about Silvan Shalom's move? Sharon was asked.

As expected, he fixed the questioner with an astonished gaze. "I'm really not familiar with what you've just told me," he apologized. "I just didn't pay attention to it." His listeners laughed heartily, but no hint of a smile was visible on Sharon's face. "Are you asking if it's going to happen?," he said. "It won't happen. There won't be a referendum. Period. It just won't happen."

Sharon was asked if the summit excited him. "It was a fine, respectable event," he said. "Did they treat Israel nicely? They did. Was it a friendly event? Certainly. Does it contribute to Israel? Yes, it does. Does it open up possibilities for Israel? Yes. But I can get excited from playing with kids," he noted.

You mean Omri? he was asked.

Sharon didn't reply. He straightened the lovely embroidered napkin before him. "I'm excited by playing with children, with grandchildren. I'm excited by the amount of rain we've had in the south. On Thursday, when it started to rain, a bunch of clouds hung right over the farm, just at the height of the trees. Everything was dark. I gazed at the sky for hours. They eventually drifted on, and rained on the neighbors."

"The neighbors," Sharon said this time - not "the Arabs."

No more Abus

"Jews can't be optimistic," opined the vice premier, Shimon Peres. "They're only happy when they're miserable. They never have faith. I saw that the prime minister's bureau issued a warning today not to be too optimistic. Why not? Optimism has proved itself. What will happen tomorrow in Sharm is the continuation of Oslo."

Peres said this the day before the Sharm summit, to which he was not invited even though the coalition agreement defines him as "the most senior minister after the prime minister." Peres is used to such affronts. He may be seething inside, but on the outside, he does not display any bitterness. He leaves that to his colleagues in the government. "The Likud won electorally," he says. "We won ideologically."

About Avi Dichter, the outgoing Shin Bet chief, who in meetings of the steering committee and in cabinet discussions expressed the toughest position in regard to concessions to the Palestinians, Peres speaks with almost paternal forgiveness. "You have to give him credit for the excellent job he's done," he says. "Up until now, he had a war on terror. Suddenly Abu Mazen comes and switches the diskette."

And what will happen if there is a terror attack?

"It depends on the behavior of the Palestinians," he says. "What alternatives do we have? So let's say that Abu Mazen goes, and Abu Ala goes. Who will come after them? They're out of Abus. Apart from Abu Vilan, there are no more Abus."

The days, the years and the decades have taught Peres a lot. He's dying to meet Abu Mazen, but waited patiently until Sharon saw him first. "I don't want to grab," he says. He didn't hear from Sharon before the summit and didn't make a big deal out of it. Some might see this as the sign of a pleasant, collegial partnership. Others, like National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, might see it as self-deprecation.

On Monday afternoon, Peres met with Fuad. It was a harsh conversation. Ben-Eliezer, who expected to be a member of the diplomatic steering committee, "the kitchen cabinet," was disappointed - to put it mildly - when Peres chose to put Minister Haim Ramon in the kitchen cabinet instead. Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, see himself as equally suited to be a part of this forum. And when Ben-Eliezer gets mad, he doesn't hide his anger. In his view, Sharon isn't taking the Labor Party seriously. He gave Peres a title and then promptly forgot about him. He forgot to report to him when he decided to freeze the talks with the Palestinians after the attack at the Karni crossing; he forgot to include him in the summit; he forgot to consult with him before the summit.

During the time when Fuad was the Labor Party chairman and defense minister, say those in his circle, there was a real sense of partnership. Every two or three days, there was a meeting with the prime minister. That is not the case at all now. And this cannot go on, Ben-Eliezer said to Peres. Why didn't you demand that Sharon add another minister to the kitchen cabinet? Sharon's aides say that the kitchen cabinet will not be expanded. "Fuad doesn't have to worry," they try to be reassuring. "There will be enough committees formed to deal with the Palestinians. There are enough Palestinians for everyone."

Lapid isn't committing

Opposition leader Tommy Lapid knows that in another two weeks, or three or four, he could find himself under tremendous public pressure not to vote against the budget and thereby topple the government and the disengagement - which he and the vast majority of his constituents support. He knows this, and it appears that deep in his heart he understands that he will not be able to lend a hand to thwarting the disengagement. When you talk to him about this scenario, his words sound very firm, his body language less so.

Meanwhile, as long as he doesn't have to really decide, on Monday he imposed on his faction a unanimous decision against supporting the budget, contrary to the views of some of its members, who thought that abstention ought to be considered for the sake of the disengagement. Paradoxically, this decision might actually make it easier for Shinui to decide in the future, if the need arises, to support the budget or to enable it to be approved.

"As we always do," says Lapid, "the faction discusses issues and the majority decides. I'm not ready to say today that we will absolutely not allow the budget to pass, because in politics you don't say such things. If, for example, the Likud promises us to pass the civil marriage bill or the Tal law, maybe we'll consider it. But we'll need something massive from them." Sharon, who privately predicts that Shinui won't bring down the government at the moment of truth, may see such statements as a small crack in the door, as an opening for future negotiations.

At the faction meeting, Lapid gave a forceful speech against the growing trend in support of abstention. We were Sharon's most loyal partner, Lapid complained, and look how he treated us. "He should have held two meetings with me [because of the law regarding the leader of the opposition - Y.V.] and he rejected both of them." An absurd situation has been created here, said Lapid. Here is a party - Shinui - that Sharon knows he can count on, and now the question is whether he can also count on his own party and on the ultra-Orthodox in his government.

Not all the faction members were persuaded. They thought that Shinui must demonstrate greater responsibility than the Likud rebels. Lapid is fed up. "Whoever wants to cut off his own balls, be my guest," he said. "But I won't consent to serving them up to Sharon and Peres on a silver platter." The faction heard the words, pictured the image and voted accordingly.