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The breach birth of the vote for the disengagement does not bode well for the fate of the entire initiative. With an opening like that, the end does not look well. Last night, a new battle began for what the prime minister swore would not happen. If the pseudo-democratic ultimatum for a referendum eventually succeeds, it will provide opponents the ammunition for the gradual elimination of the surrender of Gaza. The unilateral disengagement was born of the self-fulfilling recognition that there is nobody to talk to. No less than that, it turns out that the war of the long knives within shows that Israel is incapable of discussing its future, even with itself, in a rational manner.

None of this mitigates the significance of the change that the Knesset gave preliminary approval to last night. On the contrary, the difficultly in enlisting a majority against the unrestrained ruckus should make Sharon stick ever so much to rejecting the referendum. He has nothing to lose in his party. If he gives in, the dagger-drawn Netanyahu-Shalom-Livnat coalition will continue knocking him down. More than wanting to kill the disengagement, they're dying to eliminate Sharon in a putsch.

A separate vote for each stage of the plan was the compromise with the opponents that enabled the National Religious Party and some of the Likud rebels - before last night's extortion - to provide support until approval of the first stage or Sharon starting to fold - whichever comes first. A surrender to the referendum will be the first sign of his folding. The unnecessary mini-poll could bring an end to the entire story.

Never since the hesitant start of arrangements with the Palestinians has there been such a gap between the behavior of the political system and what hundreds of public opinion polls have proved about the public's desire for compromise and withdrawals. It's seemingly amazing: That majority has not been weakened after all the years of terror. It was strengthened. The right and the legions of religious zealotry attribute it to social decay - what in the days of the first and second commonwealths was considered kowtowing to the superpower. But what has changed is Israeli politics. In recent months it appears to have gone out of its mind.

It's not only the mounting extremism of the ruling party as opposed to the views of its leader and the majority. The main thing is that according to all the signs, even after yesterday's vote, the ability to decide on the national future is going down the tubes.

Despite the clear support of at least two-thirds of the Israeli public, the difficulties will now continue for implementing the departure from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements. Like the Queen of England, who can only deliver what she has, Sharon may not have fashioned a Churchillian speech this week, but he certainly delivered the essence of his determination. It is very possible that won't be enough.

In such an absence of decision-making capabilities, it is difficult to see how the disengagement, and what should happen after it, can take place without international pressure. The country, contemptuous of the Gentiles preaching what it should do, has been spoiled in the last few years. Without Carter, there never would have been peace with Egypt. Without Bush senior and Clinton, there would not have been a continuation. Next week, we will find out who takes America.

Whoever it is, the great friend will see Israel sinking over the coming years into the worst of all if it does not rescue it from the serious national crisis. In the European Union, the Americans have an effective partner with unexploited potential to push Israel into a complete disengagement and force the sides to talk. In those few cases when the U.S. did push - from evacuating Sinai in 1957 to the withdrawal from Hebron - Israel only gained. Ever since Bush junior started playing footsie with us, we've known only stupefying internal confusion. Aside from the limited disengagement, Israel has done nothing with the freedom of action it was granted.

Hello, America. Hello, Europe: Listen carefully to the distress signals from the shaky Israeli ship. Don't do anyone a favor. The country's surrender to fanaticism will also be bad news for you.