Politicians and journalists love to gamble on the date of the next elections. Will they be held in the winter, in the spring or the summer of 2006? Or perhaps at their scheduled time - in November of next year? Will the disengagement lead to the immediate collapse of the government, or will it survive? And if it does survive, till when?

Such questions are good for Knesset cafeteria chatter, but the answers aren't really important. Election year has already begun, and the political establishment is behaving accordingly.

Even if Ariel Sharon remains in office and makes it through to November 2006, his attention and actions have already turned toward politics - to the Likud primaries against Benjamin Netanyahu, in which a win for Sharon would see him running for prime minister for the third time. There's no other way to understand his actions - the clumsy reconciliation efforts with the rebels and settler leaders, the invitation to Netanyahu to attend the memorial service for his wife, Lily, the demonstrative shutdown of contact with the Palestinians, and the blatant upgrading of supporters and rebel-lite Gila Gamliel to positions of ministers and deputy ministers.

Netanyahu's much-publicized invitation to Sycamore Ranch was the latest ploy from the production house of Sharon and his advisors. It appeared to be the final handshake of two duelists just moments before they turn and head to their respective firing positions.

The finance minister took a sharp right turn, and the prime minister was dragged in his wake, with his declaration that the upcoming disengagement will be the last, that Ofra and Beit El will remain in our hands forever, that the settlement blocs will be fenced off despite U.S. opposition - truly "the old Arik." After sparking the ire of his party for two years since the last elections, Sharon is feeling for his way home, now that the fight to win approval for the pullout is over. The notions of a "big bang" - something to the effect of Labor headed by Sharon - have been dropped from the agenda for now.

Sharon is now contemplating whether he may have been too hasty with the first decision he made on taking office - the cancelation of direct elections to the post of prime minister. Who said politicians can't change their minds? In 2001, it seemed to be the right move. At the time, Sharon was an unpopular leader with a problematic record who didn't come across well on television.

But suddenly, things changed: The public fell in love with the national grandfather, and the party he established turned its back on him. Under such circumstances, it is easy to understand his longing for the direct election process in which he would skip over the troublesome members of the Likud Central Committee and faction and into the arms of his loving voters.

But Sharon knows there is no going back, and he is attempting a complex maneuver - to reunite with the Likud, and also to maintain the public's affection.

Things in Labor are somewhat sleepier, primarily because of Shimon Peres, who is acting as if the elections will never come. Peres is remaining silent "until the disengagement" so as not to hinder Sharon, and is blatantly ignoring his party's primaries, scheduled for the end of June. His rival, Ehud Barak, is wandering around the media outlets, speaking about preserving the settlement blocs, and exuding confidence in his ability to overcome the divided and squabbling Likud. The disputes in Labor will come bursting out soon.

All these ploys mean just one thing - the government's political maneuverability will come to an end after the disengagement. The expectation for a rapid move that would wash Israel out of the territories won't come to pass in the near future. Mahmoud Abbas will have to find a way to survive without too many Israeli gestures, because the Arabs get no concessions in an election year.

True, Sharon's promises to keep half of the West Bank in Israel's hands don't hold much water; if he remains in power, he will do whatever he pleases in any case. But as he prepares for his final showdown in the Likud, even Sharon will have to act somewhat like a Likudnik.