But there is no guarantee he will succeed. Indeed, his government's fate is in the balance even as he manoeuvres for political advantage.

Notwithstanding fierce opposition from within his party, the Likud, Sharon has been holding talks with Labour leader Shimon Peres aimed at forming a national unity government.

For the same reason, he is also wooing at least one ultra-religious party.

Israel's Likud-led government lost its parliamentary majority a few weeks ago after two extreme rightwing parties, the National Union and the pro-settler National Religious Party (Mifdal), left the coalition, protesting against the cabinet's approval of the Gaza withdrawal plan.

Ever since, Sharon has been presiding over a minority government whose survival depends to a very large extent on the so-called safety net provided by the Labour Party, headed by Peres.

Hawks unimpressed

Earlier this week, Sharon warned disgruntled members within his party, including key cabinet ministers, that he would call for general elections if they thwarted his plans to include Labour in a national unity government whose main job would be to implement the disengagement plan.

Peres is ready to help Sharon in
pushing the Gaza plan forward

However, Likud hardliners, led by the ultra-nationalist Uzi Landau and quietly backed by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (and possibly also Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu), are not impressed by such threats.

They appear to have opted for a fight to prevent a renewed marriage with Labour and, ultimately, the implementation of the plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle some Jewish colonies in the northern West Bank.

Yossi Alpher, a prominent Israeli political analyst, says Sharon is facing a real rebellion within his party, which began earlier this year when 59% of Likud's registered members voted against the disengagement plan.

"I think he's got a real problem. He has to find ways to neutralise or at least reduce the opposition from within his party before forging a national unity government with the Labour Party," said Alpher.

Hard choice

The problem facing Sharon - the original architect of the plan to settle Jews on occupied Palestinian land - is that many within the rank and file of his party are strongly opposed as a matter of principle to dismantling Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

"Sharon has to find ways to neutralise or at least reduce the opposition from within his party before forging a national unity government with the Labour Party"

Yossi Alpher, Israeli political analyst

Some do so for deep ideological and religious convictions while others, such as Landau, believe that Israel should never give the Arabs anything in return for nothing.

Clearly, it would be very difficult for Sharon to convince them to support the plan.

On the one hand, his bid to form a national unity government with Labour, and possibly one or two ultra-religious parties, hinges on his ability to keep the Likud solidly behind him.

On the other hand, Sharon will have to take into account the possibility of a certain division within the Likud if he decides to ignore his critics and opponents.

According to Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, Sharon realises that the bulk of Likud members would probably oppose the inclusion of Labour in the government should the matter be brought to a vote before the party.

The dilemma

"He knows he would be defeated. This is why he will not agree to present his plan for national unity government for a vote  by the Likud," Tibi told Aljazeera.net.

Once their benefactor, Sharon is
now Jewish settlers' hate figure

Sharon, though, could find himself outmaneuvered by the supporters of Netanyahu, who sees himself as Sharon's "natural successor" for Likud's leadership.

By all accounts, Sharon is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Were he to stick with the disengagement plan, he would have to bring Labour into the government.

In that case, Sharon would in theory be assured of a comfortable parliamentary majority of 65-75 lawmakers out of the 120 members constituting the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

The alternative would be to dissolve parliament and prepare for early elections.

If Sharon remained leader of the Likud, and if the disengagement plan became the central issue in the elections, it would be difficult to imagine the party - which just a few months ago overwhelmingly rejected the plan - standing solidly behind him.

Ironic twist

The general picture would look even more bizarre if one took into account the real possibility of both the Labour and Shinui parties running on the disengagement ticket.

In the final count, despite the odds Sharon may yet succeed in forming a grand coalition with Labour, the United Torah Judaism (formerly Agudat Yisrael) and the ultra-secular Shinui Party, headed by Justice Minister Tommy Lapid.

"Sharon knows he would be defeated. This is why he will not agree to present his national unity government plan for a vote  by the Likud"

Ahmed Tibi, Israeli-Arab member of Knesset

But such a coalition is guaranteed to further polarise Israel's polity as well as population, especially if it embarks on dismantling Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Indeed, one cannot rule out the possibility of elements from the Israeli far right eventually resorting to violence – specifically assassination – in a desperate act of political defiance.

The irony would be at once cruel and unmistakable should Ariel Sharon - the man many Israelis call "father of the settlements" – become the target of one such plot.