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"I have never supported a referendum, and today, too, I think it is a terrible thing, and that a Knesset decision can be canceled only by another Knesset decision," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin says. "However, when I heard the prime minister talking in Sharm [el-Sheikh] about `the extremists on both sides,' and perhaps making a comparison between Hamas and Jewish settlers in the territories, or between Hamas and the right within the Likud, I decided to announce my support for a referendum. This is the lesser evil."

Rivlin says his unequivocal stance against a referendum began to crack as early as last Sunday when, together with members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he visited Gush Katif and heard settlers there promise to abide by any outcome of the referendum.

He did not tell the journalists who accompanied his visit about his feelings, but after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's speech last week at the Sharm summit, he made his decision. "Does the prime minister really hate his movement, our movement, so much? So much so that he is prepared to make a comparison like that?" (At the summit, Sharon said: "The extremists want to shut the window of opportunity and leave the two peoples to wallow in blood. If we do not act now, they are liable to succeed in their plot" - Y.V.)

"Afterward, I heard him talking at Metzudat Ze'ev [Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv], and again I couldn't believe my ears," Rivlin says. "Is this the man who said that the fate of Netzarim is like the fate of Tel Aviv? And the example he gave, of how Menachem Begin did not go for a referendum, is not true either. Begin implemented the withdrawal from Sinai after he received a renewed mandate from the people in elections.

"And today, too, I'm telling my friends in the Likud: Don't vote against the budget to topple the government. Vote against it if you think it is a bad budget. I'm not going to vote against the budget. We must not give up on the Likud."

Rivlin's support for the budget does not derive only from party motives: He is committed to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two, who were bitter rivals when Rivlin supported Sharon, now maintain a very close relationship. Every week, Rivlin joins political meetings that Netanyahu holds around the country. "They have become a circle of the `Sons of Professors for a Strong Israel,'" says a member of the Likud Knesset faction, referring to the fathers of Rivlin and Netanyahu, on the one hand, and to Professors for a Strong Israel, a group comprised of right-wing academicians on the other.

Rivlin rejects the argument that had he been a disengagement supporter, he would have opposed a referendum. "Indeed I would support a referendum if only to give those people (the Jewish settlers in the territories) a sense that they are being asked about their fate. Today they feel they are being lynched."

Those in Sharon's inner circle see Rivlin's step as childish vengefulness. "How is it possible that a Knesset speaker is acting to undermine the Knesset's position?" In any case, both at the Prime Minister's Bureau and among Likud rebels over the weekend there was a sense that Sharon has succeeded in striking the referendum from the agenda for the moment. What he said both in public and to journalists at the Knesset cafeteria Wednesday afternoon were so assertive and unambiguous that even the most moonstruck elements on the right will have to admit to themselves that insofar as it depends on the prime minister, a referendum is not going to happen.

Netanyahu's silence

This recognition is also beginning to sink in among the circles closest to Netanyahu. In the past, Netanyahu has said he would not support the disengagement in a cabinet vote, which is expected Sunday, unless a referendum law were added. Once again, Netanyahu trapped himself. There won't be a referendum, not only due to the prime minister's opposition, but also because there is no majority in the Knesset, and isn't going to be one.

On Sunday, Netanyahu will have to consider whether a politician of his standing, a prime minister-in-waiting, can vote against the disengagement using an argument as unserious as the referendum that isn't going to happen. Even Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is not conditioning his vote to support the disengagement on a referendum, but rather on Sharon's reliance on the "Livni compromise" formula, proposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who enabled the three tortured ministers - Netanyahu, Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat - to support the disengagement.

There is one thing that bothers Sharon more than Netanyahu's talking, and that is Netanyahu's silence. Sharon is interpreting this silence as sinister, as the fomenting of a plot. But it also can be interpreted in another way: as perplexity and a lack of desire on Netanyahu's part to open a front against Sharon on an issue that among the public is as popular as exiting Gaza. "Sharon should be thanking Bibi for his behavior," the finance minister's associates say. "If Netanyahu were to seize leadership of opposition to disengagement, Sharon would be in trouble."

Katz's secretariat

A few hours before Sharon set out for the Sharm summit, he found time for a summit of a different sort: On Monday evening, the prime minister's car stopped at the secured and hidden area of one of the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds pavilions. His aide, Erez Halfon, came over to the car and handed Sharon a paper. Sharon examined the document at length, got out of the car, and went to one of the voting computers. For 10 minutes, testified someone who was present, the prime minister sat in front of the screen and typed diligently and seriously the 45 names of his candidates for the Likud secretariat, most, if not all, of whom are unknown to the public. Some of them, presumably, are not even known to the prime minister himself. Sharon is a good soldier, and when his confidants Shlomi Oz, Yitzhak Koifman and, of course, his son MK Omri Sharon ask him to go vote, he goes and votes.

The elections' results testified to the failure of the Jewish Leadership, or "the Feiglins," whose real strength is in shouting and whistling, as well as the failure of the Sharon camp. The secretariat, the only body in the Likud not subordinate, according to party regulations, to its chairman, consists of about 100 members, and most of them are not Sharon supporters. The chairman of the secretariat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, has succeeded, to the best of anyone's knowledge, in bringing most of his candidates into the secretariat, and they now join the 40 members of the Likud Knesset faction who are also members of the secretariat by virtue of their elected office. About half of the faction members are hostile to Sharon.

The new Likud secretariat headed by Katz is entitled to direct and supervise the party's entire conduct - from the Likud director general, Arik Barmi, the prime minister's man, to the holy of holies: the movement's computer and registry of voters. Until now, the people who had access to these huge reservoirs of information were Sharon's people. Starting now, they have a very powerful partner who wields a lot of authority in the shape of Katz. Katz has an agenda of his own as well as an account to settle with the prime minister, because Sharon gave the Interior Ministry portfolio, which Katz wanted, to the Labor Party.

"Sharon now has a serious problem of control, or, more precisely, of lack of control in the Likud," Katz's supporters say. "In order to run the movement, the prime minister can parley with the chairman of the secretariat, but he can't do it without him." And this is the situation that Sharon hates the most.