"I don't see how we could run together in the next elections, while I support the disengagement [from Gaza] and you do not," Sharon told a stormy session of Likud Party lawmakers, according to a government source.

The lawmakers had rejected a bid by Sharon's supporters to dismiss four Likud opponents of the Gaza pullout from parliament's finance committee, where Sharon is not guaranteed to win a scheduled vote on Tuesday on the 2005 state budget.

"The Likud is simply committing suicide," said Transport Minister Meir Sheetrit, a Sharon backer.

Under Israeli law, if the $62-billion budget does not get passed by the finance committee and then the full parliament by 31 March, Sharon's coalition would fall, forcing early national elections, which could delay the pullout scheduled for around the middle of the year.

Israeli elections are currently scheduled for late 2006, but would have to be held by late June if the budget fails.

Jewish settlements

Sharon's coalition holds 67 of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset but the margin has been jeopardised by the threat of about a dozen pro-settler Likud members to vote against the budget.

"The Likud is simply committing suicide"

Meir Sheetrit,
Israeli transport minister

Since Sharon proposed to dismantle 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank last year, his aides have threatened several times that he would seek early elections in hopes of upsetting opponents of the pullout.

One Israeli official said with the budget showdown approaching, Sharon was repeating the threat and hoping party deputies would rally behind him rather than risk losing their seats in an early election.

The official said Sharon could seek an early national election even if he passes the budget to try to silence critics and prevent violence by those who have vowed to resist any withdrawal from land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Opinion polls show that a solid majority of Israelis support the pullout from Gaza, a coastal strip where more than 8000 Israelis live in fortified enclaves surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians.