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Ariel Sharon this morning is like a division commander whose sports team keeps losing tug-of-war competitions. He keeps sending his deputy to figure out what's going on, and the number two man finally comes back and says: The other teams have one cheerleader and nine guys pulling the rope, whereas our team has nine cheerleaders and just one soldier tugging the rope.

Belatedly, the Likud leader has figured out the there are no army divisions in his party to help him recruit support for his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and northern areas in Samaria. Tonight, his belated recognition of this fact might turn out to have been a fatal mistake: unless his desperate, last-minute calls this weekend on television interviews turn the tide, Sharon is liable to lose in the Likud referendum.

Likud members should understand the meaning of the choice they are making: should they vote against the separation plan, they will separate themselves both from the majority in Israel (according to all public opinion polls, a strong majority of Israelis supports the plan) and also from the prime minister who sponsored the initiative and who has put his own personal prestige on the line for it. A Likud party that rejects the plan will go back to being an extremist right-wing party. It will evince loyalty to the ideological heritage left by Herut party founders Menachem Begin and Haim Landau, yet it will also be alienated from Israel's mainstream. The pretense of being the "party of the state" - a slogan cherished by Likud regulars, and which has been bandied about during Likud's on-and-off control of the state for the past 27 years - will be exposed as a lie.

Likud's self-definition as a party of Israel's political center requires a measure of ideological compromise and pluralism; and so opposition to disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria will return Likud to the narrow ideological slot it held before 1977, the year in which it was transformed into the Knesset's largest party and formed a government (which compromised about its positions and worked out a peace agreement with Egypt).

Failure in the referendum will force Sharon to separate from the Likud. Showing poor judgment, he brought this misfortune upon himself: had he operated according to accepted rules of the parliamentary game in Israel, he would not have given Likud members the power to decide. The referendum is an unnecessary, misguided and unprecedented move chosen by Sharon in one ill-fated moment when he doubted his ability to muster support for the plan in the Knesset and cabinet. As things stand now, he will be unable to ignore the result of votes cast by members of his own party. Should he lose the referendum tonight, Sharon will have to either resign or establish an alternative political body which is committed to the plan.

The slogan "we love you Sharon, but oppose the plan," and also the claim made by Uzi Landau and other Likud politicians that a referendum loss will not enjoin the prime minister's resignation, violate accepted norms of political conduct. A party leader who does not receive the support of his own constituency for a decisive policy initiative can no longer presume to lead that party, and lacks authority to enact the policy. Likud ministers, who have affixed their names to the initiative, will lack the authority to implement the plan once it has been rejected by members of their own party.

The legal-governmental quagmire which will be created tonight by a referendum defeat of the plan will make it impossible for the cabinet, in its current composition, to function - unless Sharon blithely ignores the result and finds some new gimmick which enables him to hold the reins of power, despite the referendum defeat. Under such a scenario, Sharon would either have to snub Likud members (should he continue with his declared intention to carry out the separation plan), or to break his pledge to President Bush and the Israeli public (should he scrap the separation plan). In so doing, he would push Israel's political framework toward a new low (after having been responsible for three years of political torpor), and would cause indelible harm to the fragile balance which has enabled the state to function for 56 years.