Walking down my front steps in the 5 o'clock darkness on Tuesday morning to pick up the newspaper from our driveway, I found myself, a Jew with little faith in Providence, uttering a small prayer. Please, I said. When I pull the wrapper off the paper, let me find out that Arik Sharon won the Likud Central Committee vote last night. I wouldn't take Sharon's victory as a sign that prayers are answered. On the contrary, among Jews who are in the habit of praying, those wishing for his defeat had to be in a large majority. If God ran a democracy, our prime minister's days in the Likud would be numbered. Still, I think it is a good thing the vote went as it did, not only because I believe this country needs Ariel Sharon, but also because I believe it needs the Likud. And I'm not a great admirer of either. The fact is that the Likud is an embarrassment. It always has been. What other political party in the world stages conventions that regularly resemble soccer riots? What other party bares its hairy chest with such indifference to the impression it makes? It's no wonder that the huge portraits hung at its events of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, both consummate gentlemen committed to the virtues of political civility, look sadder from year to year. And yet the fact also is that Israel would be in a very bad fix if it did not have a large, well-organized, popularly based, economically liberal, rationally nationalistic party of the Right to stand for the policies this country should be following. Between the parties of the Left, which would, if they could, make foolish concessions to the Palestinians for the sake of more paper agreements like Oslo's while keeping our poor on the dole and our economy in the hands of the oligarchic rich, and the parties of God at the other end of the spectrum, there are at present only two significant political forces, the Likud and Shinui and the latter, for all its success, has probably peaked and lacks the organizational base for a guaranteed long-term existence. A Likud in which Arik Sharon had lost on Monday night, leaving it a party of ideologically blinkered Landaus and fanatical Feiglins led by opportunistic Bibis, would have been a disaster for Israel. Instead of a single strong, liberal, pragmatic right-wing party flanked by illiberal right-wing splinter groups, we would have gotten, after Sharon and his backers had left it, one more ultra-nationalist splinter. This would have left a gaping hole in the middle of the Israeli political scene that no new Sharonista party could have filled. INDEED, EVEN if, barring a loss to Netanyahu in the Likud's April primary, such a party is no longer on Sharon's agenda, we know enough from past experience to say just what its political course would have been. It would have started out with a bang, faded slowly during the electoral campaign, still done well at the polls possibly even well enough to re-elect Ariel Sharon prime minister and then slowly or quickly have collapsed as the various stars, celebrities, and political refugees from elsewhere who composed its leadership began to squabble over policies and pride of place. Parties that are built from the top down, as this one would have been, rather than from the bottom up like the Likud, have nothing to fall back on when they crack at their apex. And with our Sharonistas in disarray, and both Labor and Likud decimated by prior defections to them, our entire political system would have been on the verge of chaos. So thank God that Sharon won Monday's vote, especially since he did practically everything in his power to lose it. To tell the truth, if I had been a Likud Central Committee member myself, I would have been tempted to vote, in spite of my better judgment, against Sharon just in order to wipe the exasperating leer (how can one best describe it? It's a smile so irrelevant, so unrelated to anything he's talking about or listening to, that its sole purpose seems to be to demonstrate his supreme amusement at the idea that he owes anyone an explanation for anything) off his face. Although his decision to disengage from Gaza was a wise and important one, he has demonstrated such arrogance in promoting it, both with the country and his own party, as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that should be accepted solely because Arik-is-always-right that one can sympathize with those Likudniks who voted to leave it even though their rational faculties told them to take it. Sharon, indeed, although he once seemed to be better at politics than other ex-generals who fizzled out at the party leadership level (think of Yadin, Dayan, Weizmann, Barak and Mordechai, to mention a few), has been reverting to the classical military mold of treating the running of a country like the running of an army: You give an order and expect it to be carried out. That your fellow citizens, let alone your fellow politicians, aren't soldiers that they need to be talked to and reasoned with by their leaders, not just ordered about seems more and more to escape him. He may have to do better than that to win the Likud primary in April. One wishes, for the country's sake as well as his own, that he does. With all his faults, he is at present the only politician who can hold this country together while gradually extricating us from a conflict with the Palestinians without giving away too much or too little. A choice between Netanyahu and Peres is a choice between the frying pan and the fire. Neither is a place for anyone who doesn't want to get burned. Sharon and the Likud need each other. An electable leader without a real party behind him is not worth a great deal more than a real party without an electable leader at the head of it. They go well together, too. The Likud's central committee members have the temperaments of fighting cocks and Sharon has the skin of an elephant. Why break up such a perfect shidduch?