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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's defeat in the Likud Party referendum on the disengagement plan leaves him in the same place that his predecessor Ehud Barak found himself, in the closing days of his short term of office.

Like Barak, Sharon chose the path of courageous initiative by opting for political concessions, and like his predecessor he incorrectly believed that it was sufficient "to do the right thing" and get a U.S. hug in order to shake off the shackles of the local political apparatus, which has a chronic tendency to pull right.

Sharon, like Barak before him, viewed his opponents as a band of dwarfs that could not rise to the hour and take fateful decisions. And Sharon, too, was left without supporters in the moment of truth.

Barak went to Camp David with his party but without a coalition. Sharon pursued the disengagement plan with a stable coalition but without a party behind him. Sharon could have consulted with former foreign minister David Levy, who warned Barak against political moves without political backing. But this time Levy was one of the chief "rebels" that brought stinging defeat to Sharon.

The one person who sounded a warning call this time was Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. For months he had cautioned that the disengagement plan would lead to early elections. Shalom was not enthusiastic about the shaky political plan drafted by Sharon and his aides. But he was perceived as someone who was fighting for his own seat, for fear it would be given to Shimon Peres, and therefore his warnings were met with little interest.

Suddenly Sharon is also talking about elections. Shalom, Limor Livnat and Benjamin Netanyahu, the three "waivering ministers" who could decide which way the government will vote, are in no hurry to save Sharon. He did not include them in the shaping of the plan and in his contacts with the Americans, so now he can have the honor of taking responsibility alone. Even before the demeaning meetings of last week, when the three told him they would not help in pushing his campaign, Sharon did discreetly gauge their feelings.

It is therefore difficult to take seriously Sharon's message, made public via his supporter Ehud Olmert, that he will continue to promote his disengagement plan by other means. He will have difficulty getting a majority to vote in its favor inside the cabinet, and he is likely to meet with opposition even if he turns to a "bypass the party" general referendum. Livnat and Netanyahu will not go against the opposition's vote. They will vote against Sharon.

This is the second time the U.S. has been embarrassed by an Israeli PM who harnessed U.S. support for a courageous initiative. President Bush put his prestige on the line, at home and in the Arab world, by throwing his weight behind Sharon, just as former Clinton did for Barak. Bush's support did not help Sharon in his party and may even have harmed him. The U.S. will not renege on this support nor will it punish Sharon; but officials in Jerusalem say the U.S. would be much more wary of supporting future Israeli initiatives.

This could contribute to an imposed solution in the future, in view of the clear weakness of Israeli leaders in the face of opposition to a solution at home .

Like his predecessors, Sharon is now blaming terrorism for thwarting the disengagement plan. In this way, he has completed his political U-turn - and appears to have driven into a cul de sac.