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Ariel Sharon knows a disgruntled general when he sees one. Particularly, when he commands one.

An ex-general of brilliance and bull-headedness, who was repeatedly upbraided and passed over for consideration as IDF chief of staff - in part for vocally questioning the wisdom of his superiors, in part for taking actions in direct contradiction to that wisdom - Sharon has shown limited patience for army chiefs who question his.

This week, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon twice voiced statements construed as veiled criticism of the prime minister's policy ace-in-the-hole, a much-discussed plan for a unilateral withdrawal from settlements the length of the Gaza Strip.

Could Ya'alon and other key generals be mounting a rearguard political action aimed at sabotaging a plan that the army chief, in his formally apolitical post, is forbidden from openly fighting?

The question could be critical, in that Sharon may now face a tougher challenge in passing his proposal for a Gaza withdrawal than did predecessor Ehud Barak when he prepared to meet Yasser Arafat at the doomed Camp David talks.

If, as the right wing fervently hopes, the Gaza disengagement plan can be rendered stillborn, the arena that seems most congenial to hawks is Sharon's cabinet. And, in a move that Sharon had hoped to forestall, at least until after a planned visit to Washington at the end of the month, the cabinet is now set to open a debate next week on the so-called Gaza First proposal.

The right has already intensively marshaled to its anti-disengagement offensive the spoken reservations of key generals. Earlier this year, Military Intelligence chief Aharon Ze'evi told a closed-door session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Palestinian militants might perceive a unilateral withdrawal from the Strip as a victory, effectively granting a "tailwind to terrorism." Almost overnight, the settlers' Yesha Council festooned electric poles, high-rise facades and street corners with bright banners bearing an official-looking triangular military stamp reading "IDF warning" and the legend: "Uprooting Settlements - Victory for Terror."

Hawks have also found an unlikely ally in Hamas, which has already claimed Gaza First as proof of victory in the bloody conflict with Israel. "Hamas actions are what made Ariel Sharon decide on a retreat from Gaza," said Mohammed Def, Hamas military wing chief and public enemy number one on Israel's most-wanted list.

In a rare statement released from hiding, Def said Monday that "in the past he promised security and said Netzarim was like Tel Aviv and now he is ready to leave Gaza unconditionally."

The settler-dominated national Religious Party and the far-right National Union have pressed hard for a cabinet debate over the proposal, maintaining that a clear majority of ministers, including some from Sharon's Likud, would ultimately vote to kill the disengagement.

At present, Sharon can count on only a portion of his Likud cabinet contingent, bolstered by the ministers of the centrist-secular Shinui. A critical grouping of senior Likud ministers is sitting firmly on the fence, among them Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and most significantly, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Moreover, so heavily and personally invested is Sharon in the disengagement plan, with a range of criminal investigations hanging in the near background, that it constitutes a do or die proposition, says Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar.

"The price that he would pay for a u-turn on the plan, is the end of his career," Eldar says. Moreover, the unilateral plan is strikingly unlike prior Sharon positions, in which Israeli action was dependent on reciprocal measures by the Palestinians, for example Sharon's onetime demand for "seven days of calm" before entering cease-fire negotiations.

"Here, all the Palestinians have to do, is nothing," Eldar continues. "And they are very good at that."

There are a number of possible factors influencing Ya'alon in pointedly refraining from endorsing Sharon's plan - to the point of having been quoted in closed-door meetings as having described the potential consequences of the Gaza First proposal as "disastrous, catastrophic."

Whatever Ya'alon's goal Sharon's patience with the army chief's veiled criticisms appears to have run out.

"The Chief of Staff is causing enormous damage," a respected Israel Channel Two television commentator quoted an "enraged" Sharon as saying Monday.

Ya'alon, Sharon was quoted as telling an unnamed source, "is intervening in a political matter, blatant intervention. He is trying to influence cabinet ministers."

The report, echoed by similar prime-time dispatches on competing stations, was promptly slammed by the Prime Minister's Office.

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Later in the week, the prime minister will summon Ya'alon for "sichat birur nokevet," said Israel Channel Two television commentator Amnon Avranovich.

"he is machdir inculcating lack of security."

"the chief of staff must act freely from a military standpoint, according to his will and his understanding, but he must adapt his activity to policy data."

Ya'alon as army chief is formally proscribed from taking political positions. He has repeatedly stated that he cannot speak publicly against decisions taken by the cabinet, which by law is the body empowered as the commander-in-chief of the army and its chief of staff.

But Sharon's proposal has yet to be brought to the cabinet for debate, allowing Ya'alon a loophole for elliptical potshots at the plan.

Asked if the disengagement plan was the motivation for the Erez terror attack, Ya'alon told reporters, "I cannot tie it directly, but it's impossible to rule it out."

Later, in a meeting with bereaved parents, Ya'alon was quoted as saying that as IDF chief, he would have to "invest more forces to fix the damage caused by evacuating settlements under fire, considering the tailwind that this move will give to terror."

"If we evacuate Netzarim and save a battalion, if we evacuate a settlement, this issue will not be solved. to meeting with bereaved parents.

Four months ago, Ya'alon briefing