I know this is a stretch, but imagine, if you will, that Ariel Sharon is one of those suave, high-rolling gamblers at a Monte Carlo casino. Slim in his white dinner jacket, he sips from his martini, his eye never leaving the roulette wheel. Standing beside him, one supportive hand on his shoulder, is his elegant partner: the Likud party. Sharon is on a winning streak: each spin brings more chips to his pile. He calmly stacks up his winnings, calculating the odds. His partner is not so cool: she's getting excited. Finally, Sharon decides he has hit his peak; the heap of chips before him is not going to get any bigger. He wants to cash in his winnings.
"You can't leave now!" insists his companion, firmly pushing him back into his seat. "We're winning. Let's keep playing! Who knows? We might take the lot!" Sharon is determined to quit while he's ahead; his Likud partner won't let him.
OK, so the bit about Sharon looking slim in his tux is a bit fanciful but that, in essence, is the situation currently playing out in Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon has spent the best part of four decades gambling for the prize that is Greater Israel: a Jewish state in roomier, more spacious borders than those that confined it until 1967. Bit by bit his pile of chips in the form of the network of settlements that dot the West Bank and Gaza has got larger.
About a year ago he calculated that it was time to visit the cashier and realise his gains. Sure, he would have to leave behind the last prize on the table the Gaza Strip but, in return, he would be able to keep choice cuts of the West Bank. Not Greatest Israel, perhaps, but Greater Israel most definitely. What's more, he would do so with the explicit backing of the US president, defying all those who insisted that any gains Israel made after 1967 would eventually have to be handed back.
Sharon reached his assessment by looking around the table. He concluded that his Palestinian rival was weaker than ever before. Ostracised internationally, faulted for failing both to improve security and to reform the way the Palestinian Authority does business, Yasser Arafat now faces an internal revolt. Last month it came on the streets of Gaza, with anti-Arafat riots; yesterday it took the form of a vote of no-confidence, slated for a meeting of the Palestine Legislative Council. Hobbled by long-standing accusations of corruption, the only peace process Arafat is engaged in right now is between himself and the disaffected within his own ranks.
The Israeli prime minister also noticed a change in the demeanour of the dealer at the table. For years the US sought to be an honest broker, insisting it showed no favour to either of the competing players. But since George W Bush took up the job, that neutrality has been shelved. Washington won't so much as meet the Palestinian leader; meanwhile the White House's Middle East coordinator takes his summer holidays in Israel. With an election looming, and a Bush campaign determined to peel off at least some of the 80% of Jews who traditionally vote Democrat, Sharon gambled that this was the year when Washington would not dare refuse him.
Taken together, these amount to the most conducive circumstances advocates of Greater Israel are ever likely to enjoy. Wait around and the weather could change, Sharon reasons, bringing either a renewed Palestinian leadership or a John Kerry presidency either of which could revive the old demand that Israel give up most of the territories it gained in 1967.
Sharon's reasoning is, in his own terms, shrewd, far-sighted and strategic. He knows that now is the moment to strike, when the Israeli right has a chance to achieve the closest approximation of its dreams imaginable. Gaza, a hard-scrabble strip of land with few of the biblical resonances stirred by the West Bank, will be the price but the reward will be a US licence to hold on to all the key settlement blocs west of the River Jordan. Large Jewish cities standing on what is now fiercely contested occupied territory will be absorbed into Israel itself in perpetuity. Just in case anyone missed the point, Sharon underlined it last week by announcing plans to build 1,001 housing units on the West Bank. Lose Gaza, but tighten the grip on the West Bank: that's the deal.
The Israeli prime minister must be cursing his Likud party for failing to see what a huge prize he is bringing home to them. Each time he seeks their approval, most recently last week, they rebuff him convinced they can win all that he promises and keep Gaza too. They are being strikingly obtuse, denouncing him for abandoning the Greater Israel project when he is, in fact, about to entrench an albeit modified version of it, forever.
It is clear enough why Sharon is pursuing this strategy. He is not a hawk turned dove, as some initially hoped. On the contrary, the Gaza pullout plan is aimed at keeping as much land as possible, while easing the "demographic" strain of ruling over too many Palestinians. Sharon's goal is the same as it ever was: he is just pragmatic enough to know a bargain when he sees one.
Harder to fathom is the reasoning, even the basic stance, of the Americans. Saturday's New York Times reported that Washington had shifted its view, now tolerating some settlement growth while before it had insisted on a total freeze. On Monday, however, a state department spokesman denied any policy change, insisting that all settlement activity must stop. How to explain this contradiction?
A starting point is to remind ourselves that the Bush administration is no monolith: the state department has long been less indulgent of Greater Israel aspirations than the Bush White House. It is hardly a surprise that they take different lines now.
It's also true that Washington in 2004 is addressing at least two audiences on this issue. In an election year, pro-Israel voters are one constituency: the White House will hope Saturday's message in the New York Times reaches them. But next month Colin Powell will meet America's partners in the quartet the EU, Russia and the United Nations which authored the road map that calls for a settlement freeze. Monday's "clarification" is aimed at them.
Not that anyone should be shocked if Washington has indeed given a green light to 1,001 new apartments on the West Bank. When Bush gave his approval to Sharon's Gaza plan in April, he said "new realities on the ground'', made it "unrealistic" for Israel to give up settlements in major population centres. That surely gave Sharon his signal.
With each day, the Israeli prime minister inches closer towards his lifelong goal. Ironically, the greatest obstacle in his way is the Israeli right, a Frankenstein's monster partly of his own creation. The Palestinians themselves pose little resistance: they are too divided and too depressed. Never have they cried out more urgently for stronger leadership. What they need is a player every bit as shrewd as Ariel Sharon.