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Wednesday, 4 January (83 days to election day)

By far the best-known artist's rendering of Ariel Sharon is also easily the most stomach-churning: a wild-eyed, monstrously fleshy prime minister kneels naked in the ruins of a bombed-out Palestine, devouring an infant head-first.

The cartoon, the British Independent's version of the Sharon re-election campaign of 2003, has something of an archaic air to it from this remove.

Yet as Sharon hits the campaign trail once again, his gustatory habits remain high on the menu of the media. Last week, leading political commentator Ben Caspit detailed the prime minister's Sabbath lunch the day before his stroke:

"Sharon ate kebabs, and steaks with chimichurri sauce, lamb chops that melted in the mouth, a little meat on skewers, as well as salads. Afterward he ate chocolate cake, and also another cake."

This week, Caspit was back with a scenario that amounted to an even bigger meal for Sharon: In effect, eating Palestine for breakfast.

The prediction holds that Sharon's next-term policy would reshape the West Bank by means of annexation of many settlements and evacuation of many more.

As sketched by Caspit and his Maariv editor-in-chief Amnon Denkner, along with at least one respected think tank, the prediction for a third and presumably final Sharon term goes like this:

  • The Palestinian elections will be followed by a wave of terrorism as fierce as any yet known. Sharon then drops the road map for an entirely new direction.

  • Israel, stating that there is no Palestinian partner for peace-making, opens talks with the Bush Administration as a caretaker-representative of the Palestinians in negotiations to determine the permanent borders of Israel.

  • Israel would complete the West Bank fence, which would constitute the new border.

  • Israel would gradually evacuate tens of thousands of settlers from settlements outside the major blocs of settlements to which bush has alluded in the past.

  • Washington would provide large-scale additional financial aid to cover the massive costs of moving the settlers and setting out the new border.

  • The U.S. would express blanket opposition to a Palestinian right of return to areas within Israel.

  • Israel would have sovereignty over all of the Old City of Jerusalem, with all Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ceded to Palestinian Authority sovereignty.

    "The assumption is that we have a window of opportunity until the end of President Bush's term in office," Denkner said this week.

    "Since this is the most supportive administration, the most attentive to Israel's needs that may be expected, it's worthwhile taking advantage of the opportunity.

    "How do you sell this to the United States? You tell them - in discussions which have already taken place - that the Bush Administration can notch a great achievement, the first American government which, along with Israel, delineates the eastern border of Israel, thereby also enabling the establishment of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory in the West Bank."

    Denkner says Bush would thus fulfill his "near-religious promise" regarding Palestinian statehood.

    How plausible is the scenario? Learned opinions differ. But there are at least a few sticking points that could render the entire idea moot.

  • The evacuation operation would make the disengagement from Gaza seem like a walk in the park.

    Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn believes that as many as 60,000 settlers would have to be uprooted, including ultra-hardline residents of the settlements in the Nablus area.

  • Washington might well rule out, or refuse to recognize, all annexation in the West Bank.

    It also might reject outright an Israeli proposal to annex a strip of land alongside the Jordan River and the adjacent Beka Valley Highway, as the United States is on record as seeing that land as part of a future Palestinian state.

  • Sharon may be unable to sell the administration the concept of Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. At the same time, he may be unable to sell his own constituents any concessions whatsoever on Jerusalem.

    All this, of course, also assumes that Sharon will come through his cardiac catheterization in restored health, that he will come through the bribery affair without being brought to trial, and that the wave of terror, if it does occur, will not make the dream of a third term vanish with the flick of a bomber's detonator switch.