What Next After the Likud Referendum?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank has been overwhelmingly defeated by a referendum within his own party, Likud, in what seems to be a humiliating defeat. Yet this is likely to have little or no effect on Sharon's intention to carry through with the plan.

At first, this seems surprising, since he said before the referendum that he would abide by its outcome. But Sharon is 75 years old and probably within two years of retirement. He is determined that his plan becomes his political legacy. Since there is no precedent for a party referendum, he can argue that the vote does not bind him.

Moreover, Sharon made sure that his main political rivals - notably former Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu - supported his plan. They are now in no position to challenge him as the champions of the opposition within Likud.

So while some members may walk out, Sharon can easily hold on to control of the party. In addition, many Sharon supporters, torn by what they saw as the plan's combination of costs and benefits, stayed home or even voted against it, but still want Sharon as their leader.