On Sunday, Shalom, a Sephardic Jew of North African descent, hosted some 1000 Likud members who he hoped to mobilise against the proposed national unity government between the Likud and the Labor parties.

"We must preserve the Likud by preserving its essence. We can't do so by setting up a secular-left government," Shalom said.

"Are you for such a government?" he asked, and the big multitude responded in unison: "No."

Many of the attendants were reportedly religious members of the Likud espousing the ideas and doctrine of the messianic Jewish settler movement, known as Gush Emunim, which preaches that the entire land of Palestine, as well as large parts of the Middle East, belong to Jews by divine decree.

The meeting coincided with a huge demonstration by Jewish settlers and their families who formed a human chain extending some 90km from the Gaza Strip to the Buraq Wall (or Western Wall) in East Jerusalem.

According to Israeli political commentators, Shalom realises that he stands to lose his job as foreign minister if and when the Labor party joins the government.

In such a scenario, Labor leader Shimon Peres is likely to become Israel's next foreign minister.

Hence, Shalom has also been trying to woo the religious parties in an effort to keep Labor out.

"It is inconceivable that the Likud should be in power, yet its voters are out of power… We must not mortgage the Likud to the Labor party… Can we imagine a government without any religious parties? Without any nationalistic parties," the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz quoted Shalom as saying on Sunday.

Internal wrangling

The tug-of-war between Sharon and Shalom underscores a brewing crisis within the Likud that is partly personal and partly political.

According to Knesset member Ahmed Taibi, the "muscle-flexing" within the various wings of the Likud is basically over "personalities" not "ideas".

Israeli opposition leader Peres is
considered a diplomatic charmer

"Sharon wants to appoint Peres as foreign minister in order to enhance Israel's ugly face at the international arena. And Shalom wants to keep his job. This is basically the problem."

Taibi says that Sharon, an Ashkenazi Jew originally from Eastern Europe, would eventually succeed in forming a government of national unity with the Labor party and some other smaller parties.

He said efforts were being made to cajole Shalom into accepting the post of interior minister.

Deeper crises

This is not the way the crisis is viewed by Lev Grinberg, professor of political science at the Ben Gurion University in Bir Sheva.

Sharon's disengagement plan is
seen by some as just a US pleaser

He told Aljazeera.net that the crisis with the Likud is institutional rather than personal in nature.

"I think the Likud is undergoing a deep crisis to the extent that the party is unable to function properly. The Likud simply lacks a viable strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. That is the crux of the matter."

Grinberg downplayed the political significance of Sharon's unilateral plan for withdrawal from Gaza calling it "a mere tactical move by the Israeli military designed to please the Americans and assuage international public opinion".

Sharon has said that failure to go ahead with the Gaza withdrawal would risk losing unprecedented US assurances that Israel would be allowed to keep land in the West Bank.

Risky strategy

Grinberg argued that Sharon will eventually lose status and stature however he behaves with regard to the disengagement plan.

Finance Minister Benyamin
Netanyahu opposes the pullout

"He will lose any way, if he sticks with the plan, he will lose his party, and if he abandons the plan, he will lose his status and stature in Israel and the United States."

Shalom, like Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has never been enthusiastic about the Gaza plan.

Both reportedly sought, from behind the curtain, to incite the Likud rank and file against it, prompting Sharon to threaten to call for new elections in case they were clinging to their opposition to the plan.

Shalom has all along argued that the implementation of the withdrawal from Gaza shouldn't be carried out without a price from the Palestinian side, possibly in the form of far-reaching concessions pertaining to the settlement and refugee issues, both of which considered central to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Post-Oslo deception

Sharon, for his part, rejects Shalom's way of thinking on the grounds that it would oblige Israel to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), an entity which Sharon and his right-wing general, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, view as irrelevant and have made every possible effort to weaken and virtually destroy.

More to the point, Sharon seems to be worried that any formal resumption of talks with the PA would ultimately force Israel to negotiate pursuant UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, as well as the land-for-peace formula.

Shalom and Sharon are alleged to
be at loggerheads over FM post

As to what Sharon's alternative plan is, Grinberg believes that the Israeli prime minister is trying to behave very much like former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir did nearly 15 years ago.

"I think he is trying to emulate Shamir and buying more time in order to make irreversible facts on the ground."

Soon after the Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference in 1991, Shamir reportedly said that he had intended to deceive the Americans and the international community for ten years in order to be able to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and consequently make it impossible for any future Israeli government to withdraw to the 1967 borders.