ISRAEL'S politics are among the most complex in the world. Although prime minister Ariel Sharon is routinely regarded as leader of the governing Likud party, Likud is not his own party and it is perfectly possible that at the next election he could lead and win with a new party in opposition to Likud. On Monday Mr Sharon got a narrow vote of confidence, by 104 in 2'789 cast, following the challenge made by the former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The issue behind the vote was Mr Sharon's withdrawal of the 35-year-old Israeli settlements in Gaza, a policy bitterly contested by Mr Netanyahu and a substantial number of Israeli people. A columnist in the respected newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said yesterday that the vote of confidence would not be the last word: “For many members of Likud it is important to establish the fact that a prime minister who withdraws from Israeli territory cannot stand. He is either murdered or ousted.” Admiration for the 77-year-old Sharon's fighting qualities must necessarily be tempered by the reality that his need to show he has not changed his basic position on negotiations with the Palestinians leads him to actions which are not always conducive to the peace process. The withdrawal from Gaza was not a concession to the Palestinians but a recognition that the settlements were unsustainable. His position on the West Bank settlements has hardened. Unfortunately, if he were to be succeeded by Mr Netanyahu, who has campaigned for even wider settlement activity in the West Bank, the propspects for peace would not improve either. The reality is that the road-map for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and the prospects for the two-state solution favoured by President Bush are both held hostage to the vagaries of Israel's volatile democracy.