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The threats dropped from the prime minister's camp late last week about the possibility of his resignation should Likud members not support the disengagement plan turn Sharon's decision to stage a party referendum into a farce. The meaning of Sharon's warning is that referring the decision to Likud members was an entirely symbolic move: The rank and file must accept Sharon's dictate, and vote for the separation plan if they want Sharon, and the Likud, to remain in power.

From the start, the referendum idea looked like a gimmick designed to paste a facade of democracy on the disengagement initiative. In fact, the referendum is a demagogic ploy of the sort common in France under de Gaulle. Were it not for the precedent being set, and the distorted influence it will have on the country's political rules of the game, one could ignore the sleight-of-hand gamesmanship being played within the Likud Party.

A system of government reflects the political temperament of a society. Switzerland stages referendums because they suit the country's political culture. Scandanavian countries could hold referendums about the issue of their inclusion in the European Union since they are largely homogenous countries that had to reach decisions about a primarily technical-organizational question.

In Israel, a country that is polarized in most spheres of life, the referral of a life-or-death question regarding the future of the territories to the man on the street is like conducting a delicate operation on a patient in a slaughterhouse.

Since its establishment, Israel has been governed by a representative parliament, and responsibility for reaching national decisions has rested with elected officials. The logic supporting this system stems from the country's political tradition; and it is justified by the complexity of highly controversial issues that grip the country. The political system - in which decision-making is the responsibility of the cabinet and the Knesset - creates a framework of political dialogue, parliamentary negotiation and coalition compromise. The system prevents extreme social fracture and facilitates a plausible, democratic way of life. This government system is not bereft of flaws, but apparently suits the needs of Israeli politics.

Now Sharon has referred the decision to all members of the Likud Party (after his intention to refer the decision to the public as a whole could not be fulfilled). This move undermines accepted democratic patterns and processes, and it exempts Sharon from the need to defend his position within the normal political frameworks. Similarly, it relieves Likud MKs and cabinet members of the responsibility to reach decisions on their own. The referendum creates a facade of Athens-style direct democracy; but this appearance is belied by Sharon's veiled hints that he will resign, should his position not be adopted.

Such political management is dubious, and especially ridiculous when utilized by the Likud: How can the fairness and proper administration of a referendum be trusted in the case of a party that in recent years has shown that money is its master, a party whose primaries results are determined with the help of favors and bribes, and some of whose Knesset delegates were chosen as a result of shady deals in which candidates decided to withdraw in exchange for lucrative government posts? The foul odor which wafted through the Likud primaries from the activities of Shomi Oz, Omri Sharon and Naomi Blumenthal is likely to hover over the coming May 2 referendum.

It's apparently too late to stop this misbegotten ploy; and yet one can still demand that Likud ministers stop hiding behind the fig leaf of the referendum and divulge their positions on the separation plan. Now that Ariel Sharon has returned to the country with the letter from George Bush, and now that the separation plan and accompanying details have been made known to many, Likud politicians are obligated to make their positions known, and to do their utmost for their views in the referendum. Should they continue to shirk this duty, they will not only demonstrate cowardice and a failure of leadership, but their behavior will also prove that this referendum is a contortion and a meaningless exercise.