Analysis / Wonder Wheeler Dealer

Ariel Sharon has an old habit. During a crisis, he hosts a meal in the Knesset dining room. The worse the crisis, the more welcoming the host to the many reporters who hover around him like bees around a plate of honey. Yesterday, as opposed to that day two years ago when Labor left the government, Sharon didn't even bother to pretend he was interested in Shinui's staying in the government. Lapid, Poraz & Co. will pay a cruel price so Sharon can make history through disengagement.

Yesterday, MK Ronnie Bar-On likened the coalition to an apartment undergoing renovations. Only one wall is left standing; now construction starts. From now on everything depends on the handyman, the engineer and the architect. Careless planning, a mistake, and everything could come crashing down around the builders.

Ten ministers have left or been fired from Sharon's second government since June 6; they came from three parties - the National Union, the National Religious Party and Shinui. With his own two hands Sharon dismantled the government that was touted at the outset as a rock of stability. Sharon is now left with only 40 MKs, the Likud faction. He is more fragile than ever. In the name of the inexplicable urge that has overcome him to end the occupation of the Gaza Strip, Sharon has ravaged his government and is now at the mercy of the Likud Central Committee, that hostile, vengeful body that has handed him defeat after defeat.

The Likud Central Committee may decide Sharon's fate as early as next week. If it approves, he can work to have Labor join the government. If it does not, Sharon will have to run for election, first, among the Likud rank-and-file for leadership of the party against Benjamin Netanyahu, and then, if he is chosen by the party, for prime minister.

When Sharon presents the Labor option to the Likud Central Committee, he will try to sweeten the bitter pill by means of United Torah Judaism. But the problem is, of course, disengagement. Most members of the Likud Central Committee don't want it to happen, and Sharon is asking them to allow him to form a government that will promote that very thing. How can the contradiction be resolved? It can't. One hopes for the best.

If Sharon could bring Shas into the government alongside UTJ and Labor, his life would be a lot easier. But so far, Shas has still not declared its support for disengagement and so it is faction non grata. And even if Sharon wanted Shas in, Labor would not accept it.

Labor will have a hard enough time as it is, with Shinui in the opposition and Yosef Lapid as opposition leader. That is Lapid's punishment for issuing one ultimatum too many at the wrong time to the wrong individual: to be in the opposition with Shas on one side and Meretz on the other.

Sharon strode toward this crisis with eyes wide open. He realized he could not continue in his existing coalition because of the blockade called Shinui; the liberal, secular party that followed him with dogged loyalty had become an obstacle to the expansion of the government. He coldly sacrificed Shinui.

When the results of the Likud Central Committee vote are in, it will become clear whether this was the most brilliant political maneuver of recent years or a shot in his own foot that will spell the end of Sharon's political career.