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Try as hard as you can, and you won't find a democratic ruling party that has achieved such Guinness records. There is no party in the West that makes mincemeat of its leader and continues to govern, or whose leader is able to continue. There is no other party that receives a majority in the surveys but opposes the opinion of the majority of the nation, which

favors major concessions in return for a peace agreement. The Likud is the first ruling party whose members demand legislation that stipulates - like the Roman emperor Caligula, who appointed a horse to the Senate - that people who are clearly unsuitable be allowed to join public directorates. There are, of course, corrupt parties: but there has never been a ruling party that survived after people associated with organized crime had penetrated its central bodies.

Turning the theory of evolution upside down, MK Uzi Cohen is making a career of being compared to a monkey. Within the chaos of spin and ratings, the weekly television satire "Wonderful Country" only did him a favor. Because even the parable of the three monkeys has been turned upside down: the political monkeys see, hear and talk constantly, because all their senses tell them that extremism and unrestrained political behavior go down well in the institutions that elect them. Two days from now, the Likud Central Committee will be voting for the leaders of the party institutions. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi - famous in the past for his scandalous behavior - has become Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's preferred, balanced candidate for the position of committee chair. Opposing him, and believing in his victory, is MK Uzi Landau - a demagogue emulating his late father, Haim Landau, who all his life imitated Menahem Begin - but the younger Landau is far more extreme than either of them. Hanegbi says of Landau: "If he is elected, it will be the end of the central committee; it will be the end of democracy in the party." That's the choice there.

These are not just remarks about the quality of the Likud, a party that has gone crazy. It's a story of deterioration that is destroying Israeli democracy. Senior party members are blackmailed hostages to about 3,000 members of the central committee, where ministers fawn over even a kind of Israeli Le Pen - Moshe Feiglin - whom Sharon accused this week of attempting to take over the party. How did it happen that the central committee - ostensibly an authentic reflection of Israelis - has sunk to such a low?

One reason is that it is now opposing a leader who for years accustomed the party to undermine its leader (prime ministers Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu), and in his lifetime, bequeathed to it the values of settlement on every hilltop in Greater Israel. Central committee activists have not yet adapted to the change in Sharon. And the irony is that Sharon no longer knows how to handle this extremism. He doesn't have a parliamentary majority - that has already happened in the past - but he is holding out in the face of a phenomenon that has no parallel in any normal government: a finance minister who plans to bring him down and isn't being thrown out, and a foreign minister and education minister who tried to cause a putsch.

There is no simple explanation for the fact that a ruling party in a country with quite a respectable parliamentary tradition is deteriorating in this way to the farthest extremes. Not only the Likud, but also Labor, Shinui, and even Yahad, which is quite cohesive, are also suffering from the ongoing collapse of the political system. How can one complain about the extreme radicalization of the Likud if, after his defeat, the last Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, went everywhere saying that there was nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side. But Labor can't be blamed for the corruption of the Likud because it's such a meek opposition. There are ruling parties in the world with a shaky opposition that haven't degenerated at all. They have thrived.

They flourished when they were able to grasp the spirit of the times, as was the case with Begin's Gahal party before and after the 1977 electoral revolution. That was also how the late Yitzhak Rabin brought Labor back into power after the hazy period of Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, when following much hesitation, he outlined a new and winning direction for national politics. He was in a parliamentary minority when he did so. According to all the surveys at the time, Rabin would have pushed ahead, in spite of the terror, to a continuation of the process that was interrupted with his murder.

The Likud of 2001-2004, and even earlier, lost its antennae. Sharon was the first in that party to read the signs of the times. He understood that he had to throw some bone to a public tired of the bloody failure to make any progress. At least according to Machiavelli, he presumably deserves to remain in power, because he knew how to play with Labor, which is salivating on the way into the government, and to entice the entire world with a fragment of an agreement, in the form of the disengagement plan. Whether it will take place - we have yet to see.

Another Guinness record for Sharon is the fact that elections are still not a way out in a system that has gone into a tailspin. Going to the polls - the right thing to do, by the book, in this political mess - has turned into Sharon's greatest threat against his detractors. The elections also have been deferred by the outcome of the U.S. elections, the death of Yasser Arafat, and the time that Sharon is gaining with the disengagement plan. As a result, a party that is no longer worthy to govern will continue to play with the injury time it has gained.

If Sharon were now in the opposition, up a national blind alley and without any indication that elections are near, perhaps he would renew the old 1967 idea of taking over the government by another means, or do what his Likud opponent, Simcha Ehrlich, once said he would do in a conversation with Begin: He'll surround the government compound with tanks yet.

However, elections will come sooner than expected if it turns out to be true, as many suspect, that Sharon will not carry out the disengagement in full. What should we do until then? Swallow a health supplement and grit our teeth.