Analysis / Sharon Chooses Being Smart Over Being Right

The Likud has forced the PM to link the idea of the disengagement and the idea of the referendum. This time, Sharon blinked. This time, he swallowed his pride.

The Likud faction conducted a putsch against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday. Against his will, it imposed on him what Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried and failed last October: a link between the idea of the disengagement and the idea of the referendum. This time, Sharon blinked. This time, he swallowed his pride.

But the day is not far off when it will become clear whether Sharon's failure last night was nothing more than a tactical retreat for the purpose of advancement. Or in other words, did his surrender last night to pressure from ministers Silvan Shalom, Netanyahu, Avraham Katz, Limor Livnat, Reuven Rivlin and faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar who resigned and hastily retracted it, actually pave the way to the disengagement? That's what quite a few of the disengagement opponents were admitting last night.

The day's battleground was at the Likud faction meeting. More precisely, the Likud factions meeting. There's the rebel faction and the Sharon faction. At first Sharon didn't want to hear anything about any compromises like the one presented to him: the Likud MKs in the Knesset Finance Committee would support the budget and the Likud MKs in the Constitution, Justice and Law Committee would support the referendum.

"There's no connection between the two," Sharon thundered, banging his hand on the table, and announced everyone should vote as they want, reckoning he would find a majority for the budget in the plenum, if not the committee. Only later would it become evident to Sharon that his plan - to skip the committee and take the bill directly to the plenum - was practically impossible.

And meanwhile, the senior members of the party were pleading with him - and challenging him. Last October, Netanyahu, Livnat, Katz and MK Yuval Steinitz conspired to bring Sharon to his knees and force him to accept a referendum. Sharon sat in the plenum, quiet and calm, and they sweated. Yesterday they all sweated with the same Likud stickiness.

The difference was due to the calendar. A week before the budget vote it was clear to all that it's either the budget or elections, and it turned out that even the sphinx from the Sycamore Farm can blink.

Sharon knows when to let go. If he had held on he might have found himself in an election campaign with a party that was blown to smithereens, divided, without activists or volunteers to do the work in the streets. And with a list of candidates for Knesset who would mostly be against the disengagement. That is no way to win an election. He could play with the idea of splitting the party, keeping the majority of the faction and therefore the brand name, but who says the rebels would go along? They'd stay in the party and make his life miserable in the central committee, much worse than in this term. The third option, to quit the party and form a new one with Peres and Lapid, is sheer fantasy. None have the energy for an adventure like that.

At the last minute, therefore, Sharon chose being smart over being right. The chances of the

referendum passing the plenum are next to nil.

Even if the ultra-Orthodox and the entire right were to vote in favor, it would still need 33 votes from the Likud to pass - and that is not at all likely. Besides, the same day that a bill for a referendum on the disengagement goes onto the floor, so would a bill for civil marriage. a lot has to happen for the referendum bill to pass. But meanwhile, it's clear the budget will.