Grab the Wheel, Sharon

With the opinion polls showing that most of the public wants out of Gaza, Sharon has three options. The first option is to hang in there as long as possible, and end his career at a ripe old age - as a lame duck. The second is to push for early elections, and the third option is to gear up and confront his own party.

The anarchy in Gaza and the anarchy in Jerusalem have one thing in common: Both began from the top, set off by the big chiefs and linked to the unilateral disengagement plan fathered by Ariel Sharon.

When the prime minister delivers a speech about the demographic problem at the IDF Staff and Command College, and says that "we cannot have a democratic Jewish state while ruling over a million Palestinians, and anyone who thinks we can hold on to both Maaleh Adumim and Netzarim will find himself with neither," the music may be Sharon's but the words are those of Peres. Never, on any issue, have the two sung in such perfect harmony.

The Palestinians, the Israelis, and above all, the Americans, have been right to take Sharon seriously. When he first broached the subject in February, he didn't say "I'll think about it" or "I'll consider it." He used the take-charge language of an army general: "I have given the order to carry out all the necessary preparations for leaving the Gaza Strip and its settlements," he said. Many people had their doubts, but Sharon hasn't shown any intention of pulling a rabbit out of his hat or backpedaling at the last minute. If anything, the opposite is true.

The settlers and extremists who have gained a foothold in the Likud in the hopes of sabotaging his efforts have dragged him into a situation where he doesn't have the majority he needs to implement the plan. His big mistake was falling into the trap set for him by the Feiglins of the Likud, taking their suggestion to hold a referendum among the party members. He was so sure of a majority that he made no effort to drum up support, leaving the field wide open for the fanatic brigades, rich in resources and motivation. Many of these people didn't even vote for Likud.

The idea of forming a unity government to carry out the disengagement plan was born in a tete-a-tete between Peres and Sharon. Likud-Labor-Shinui plus United Torah Judaism would yield a generous 78 MKs. According to their calculations, even with 15 deserters from the Likud they could count on a majority for disengagement and, if all went well, possibly whiz through the process at breakneck speed.

Disengagement can be decided on unilaterally, but it must be implemented bilaterally. In other words, there has to be someone on the other end to receive what we leave behind, said Peres. What this did was stoke the flames of the Palestinian battle for leadership in Gaza, henceforth "the recipient," and ignite sparks of panic and protest in the Likud, henceforth "the donor," at the thought of having to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Sharon, surprised, flustered and shooting every which way, launched across-the-board coalition negotiations, considering every combination from bringing in Shas and United Torah Judaism to kicking out Shinui. In the span of a week he managed to transform Peres from top-seeded player to just "one of the options." Peres, tarred and feathered by the media for being a toady, was mortally offended. It's not fun to start the weekend like a tiger and end it whimpering like a dog.

Sitting on high in prime minister land, Sharon, who practically invented the art of political manipulation, seems to have lost his touch. But now is not the time for tricks. Now is the time to show firmness and resolve.

With the opinion polls showing that most of the public wants out of Gaza, Sharon has three options. The first option is to dawdle, hang in there as long as possible, and end his career at a ripe old age - as a lame duck. The second option is to push for early elections. The Israeli majority, ready for an agreement, is not going to vote into power a motley crew of fanatics and Haredim headed by Netanyahu, which will only catapult us straight into Intifada III.

The third option is to gear up and confront the very thing that Sharon feels most threatened by - his own party, taken over by politicos who are dragging it in the wrong direction against the will of the people, while the country goes up in flames. The more determination Sharon shows at home - replacing those who need to be replaced, firing those who refuse to cooperate, bringing in anyone who can strengthen the government - the better his chances of moving ahead on disengagement, which is the first step on the long road toward the end of occupation.

Crossing Likud central committee member Uzi Cohen is easier than crossing the canal. Grab the wheel, Sharon.