The Israeli prime minister is seeking help from his Egyptian counterpart to rescue his plans for the future of the occupied territories.
Ariel Sharon will send his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to Cairo on Wednesday to discuss "a number of Egyptian ideas" about the Israeli premier's "disengagement plan" from Gaza.
These ideas reportedly involve a "considerable Egyptian security presence" along the Gaza-Sinai borders, dispatching Egyptian personnel to train Palestinian security cadres, and enabling a "responsible Palestinian leadership" to assume authority in Gaza following a prospective Israeli withdrawal.
Israel also hopes that Egypt will convince Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat to "transfer his powers" to his premier Ahmad Quraya, and settle in the Gaza Strip instead of staying in his battered Ram Allah headquarters.
In return, Israel would withdraw its occupation forces from the entire Gaza Strip, including the so-called Philadelphia Route, a buffer zone separating the Egyptian town of Rafah from the Palestinian Rafah.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Aljazeera.net that details of the visit were still being worked out, saying the visit was a sincere effort on the part of Sharon to advance the disengagement plan.
"The government is making sincere and labourious efforts to approve the plan. Yes, Sharon is facing problems, but this is what often happens in democratic countries," said Amira Oron, alluding to the fierce opposition to the plan by a majority of Sharon’s cabinet ministers.
When asked why Sharon was sending Shalom, who opposes the plan, to Cairo when he has been unable to get either his government or his party to support the plan, Oron claimed that Shalom was supportive of the plan.
However, Shalom fiercely opposes the disengagement plan, especially the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
"I think he is putting his entire premiership at risk. He has never sufficiently explained to the Israeli public why he must dismantle the settlements, especially given the fact that he has always been the settlements’ godfather"
Israeli political analyst
The Israeli spokeswoman admitted, nevertheless, that Sharon might eventually be forced to "introduce changes" into his government if all other doors are shut.
"Now, he is trying to get the present government to support the plan, but if he finds out that this is impossible he may well resort to taking other steps."
Some Israeli analysts contend that Shalom's dispatch is aimed at obtaining Egyptian inducements that might change the positions of some government ministers.
"I think Sharon is hoping that by getting favourable Egyptian responses to Israel’s requests, he will be able to change the minds of some his ministers, especially Shalom himself," said Yossi Alpher, a noted Israeli analyst.
He told Aljazeera.net that Sharon was trying to sell the disengagement plan to a sceptical public, but without making sufficient and adequate preparations for this "tremendous task".
"I think he is putting his entire premiership at risk. He has never sufficiently explained to the Israeli public why he must dismantle the settlements, especially given the fact that he has always been the settlements’ godfather.
"So, he is facing a crisis which could make him end up losing his party if not his government."
Despite the fact that Sharon is under no real pressure from an election-embroiled Bush administration, Alpher said he had to do something to avoid the appearance of failure.
President Mubarak is said to want
to facilitate Israel's Gaza pull-out
"He is committed to Bush; he is now committed to Mubarak. He feels he has to do something while nobody is pressuring him. He is also facing personal legal difficulties."
As an observer of Sharon for many years, Alpher expressed his doubt that the "bulldozer" who destroyed thousands of Arab homes would actually be audacious enough to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza.
"I will eat my lips up if he did it. I really doubt it. I am very sceptical about it."
Israeli public support
The Palestinian Authority has reacted with caution to the latest diplomatic activities.
PA Deputy-Foreign Minister Abd Allah Abd Allah labelled the Israeli efforts with Egypt "an expression of the depth of the political predicament facing Sharon".
"He is facing a real dilemma. If he abandoned the plan or failed to pass it through his government, he would upset the Americans and alienate the Egyptians and the Europeans.
"On the other hand, if he clings to it, he would probably lose the support of his party and might even lose his entire government and his own job as well."
On Monday, a US State Department spokesman tacitly warned Israel that failure to approve the disengagement plan would open the door for other European and Arab initiatives which the US could not stop.
Abd Allah said Sharon’s problems were with his Likud party, not with the Israeli public.
He pointed to a recent opinion poll showing that up to 78% of Israelis supported the disengagement plan.
Israel wants to maintain several
major West Bank settlements
It is not clear if and how Sharon will succeed in getting a majority of his cabinet ministers to support the plan, especially after a resounding majority of the Likud voted against it in a recent referendum.
Alpher pointed out that not all dissenting ministers opposed the plan for ideological reasons.
"Many of these ministers are cynical politicians who have not a sliver of ideological commitment in their hearts. They only oppose the plan for selfish, expedient and election-related considerations."
However, Sharon’s problems with his party (and the powerful rightist camp in Israel) will not end with the government voting for the plan.
Implementation will be the real and ultimate test of Sharon’s political leadership and true intentions.
This, at least, most Palestinian, Israeli and foreign observers take for granted.