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The Likud referendum defeat of the disengagement plan has created a crisis for the prime minister - and not only for him. The political system has been shocked. In retrospect, it's an easy analysis: Ariel Sharon made a mistake by giving the decision to a tiny minority of the people who mostly take right or even extreme right positions. Neither the opposition of senior ministers belatedly forced into an unconvincing support of the prime minister's plan, nor his own self-confidence, based on his solid position in the party as well as enthusiastic support from the American president, helped. But this is not merely a personal defeat. It must also be regarded as a blow to the country's system of government. The prime minister must now employ all his skills to pry the entire political system out of the crisis.

Sharon has not lost the confidence of the party. Uzi Landau, one of the plan's leading opponents, called on Sharon yesterday to remain in office "and preserve Likud unity." Nor can the defeat be regarded as a loss of confidence in the Knesset. Presumably, decisive action would have granted the disengagement and removal of the settlements in the northern West Bank a parliamentary majority, with the help of the Labor and Yahad factions. Yesterday, Sharon easily survived no-confidence motions. Now demands are rising from various political directions that Sharon bring a similar plan to a vote in the government.

The U.S. administration is also expecting that. Meanwhile, officials in the European Union, whose economic advantages are eyed by Israel, have protested about the decision being made by a tiny minority of the population.

The chances for a renewed political initiative were damaged by the referendum. After the vote, a false sense of unity prevailed among the victorious Likud ministers. They won't make Sharon's work any easier when he decides to bring the plan to the government.

Opposing them, Shinui Chairman Yosef Lapid is demanding Sharon not give in and bring the plan to the uppermost echelons of the executive branch. Sharon, who apparently hasn't made up his mind yet, told his Likud faction yesterday that he remains committed to his initiative. He cannot be allowed to leave that commitment hanging in the oppressive air of a lengthy political crisis. Going to a party referendum created the false impression that a relevant majority rejected disengagement. Now he must take action to erase that impression. Not only is that impression incorrect, it has harmed the proper administration of government which, on such matters of national importance, a majority in favor or opposed must reflect the complete political landscape.

Sharon must make the repairs without delay, in the government and in the Knesset. People around him say he plans to wait for the decision by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on his matter. The searing failure could create for Sharon more reasons to delay.

But there is no justification for that. The prime minister cannot try to gain time while there's a deep political crisis underway. It is his duty to make clear as soon as possible his intentions regarding his critical political initiative, which is the only one he can push. It may not have had a clear majority in the Likud but it does in the public. Sharon must fulfill that majority without delay. If he is deterred, there won't be any more justification to his rule.