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Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have a long history of battles of nerves. So far, it was Netanyahu who blinked first. He did so when Sharon offered him the treasury, and also backed down in the referendum affair.

This time Netanyahu does not intend to blink. He cannot afford another blink. This time it is all in Sharon's hands. The cause of the present crisis between the two is unclear. Quite a few ministers are absent from every Knesset vote, some for ideological reasons, and nothing happens. Sharon could have swallowed Netanyahu's planned absence from the vote on postponing the disengagement.

After all, the absence would not do Netanyahu any good. The right wing would scorn him, the media would write "Bibi fled." The public would receive more proof that Netanyahu is hesitant and doesn't go all the way. Sharon could have muttered some sarcastic barb at Netanyahu's expense and settled for that.

Instead Sharon chose to threaten Netanyahu with dismissal. Why does he need this some 40 days before the disengagement? Firing Netanyahu for ideological reasons would cause an earthquake in the Likud. It would change the power balance in the Likud's Knesset faction. The number of rebels would grow. Other ministers who oppose the disengagement like Dan Naveh, Tzachi Hanegbi or Yisrael Katz would feel uncomfortable in the cabinet as things heat up and the activists urge them to join Bibi.

The economy and stock market would suffer a major shock and Sharon would quickly have to appoint a worthy finance minister who would promise to continue Netanyahu's policy. It could be Meir Sheetrit, who has experience in the treasury, having served as finance minister at the end of Netanyahu's cabinet. It could be Shimon Peres. Peres has experience too. Placing the 2006 budget in his hands would be the best guarantee that Labor would not quit the government after the disengagement.

If the crisis was planned, then Sharon is striving to split the Likud and form a new political framework. There can be no other explanation for such a dramatic dismissal of Netanyahu, whom even Sharon describes as an excellent finance minister.

There is nothing that Bibi is doing to Arik today that Arik has not already done to Bibi. In a couple of days Netanyahu is due to leave for Entebbe, Uganda, to take part in a ceremony commemorating his brother Yoni. He is due to return on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the Knesset vote.

He could easily have arranged another ceremony or meeting, and return at night. He chose to be in his office, two minutes away from the Knesset, during the vote.

The intensity of the crisis will be measured Sunday morning at the cabinet session. If Sharon announces that any minister absent from the Knesset during the vote will be fired at once, an all-out war will erupt in the Likud. If Sharon avoids belligerent declarations, it would not indicate the end of the crisis, but would be a faint signal that there may still be a chance to solve it.