Many Israelis feel Sharon has undergone a conversion

Monday, January 12, 2004

JERUSALEM -- To his critics, Ariel Sharon has not changed: he remains an enemy of Palestinian aspirations and believes in the use of force to hold on to Arab lands.

But many Israelis have come to believe the premier has undergone a startling ideological conversion -- one capped last week when he told his hawkish Likud Party that Israel may have to dismantle some of the settlements he helped nurture, and pull back from some of the West Bank and Gaza.

A majority of Israelis, including significant numbers of Likud supporters, back the idea of a pullback.

Analysts say Sharon's apparent turnabout may have been a response to the nation's mood. "Sharon always was a very pragmatic person," said Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University.

A strong strain of skepticism remains. Some say Sharon is simply trying to buy time and pacify the Americans and the Israeli public by changing his rhetoric -- while settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza continues, as do military operations.

"The bottom line is ... Sharon has not begun to dismantle settlements or withdraw unilaterally," said political analyst Yossi Alpher.

But even skeptics concede that words have power. Former Likud Cabinet minister Dan Meridor said that whatever Sharon's intentions, his statements could build public pressure on him -- or his successors -- to follow through.

A key threshold was crossed last week when Sharon told Likud leaders that "it is clear that in a permanent peace accord, we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements."

He was jeered and booed -- but Sharon was politically unharmed.

Last month, he unveiled a plan that would have Israel pull back from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and impose a boundary on the Palestinians if peace efforts continue to flounder.

That would be an abandonment of Likud's ideology of Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank and Gaza -- territories captured in the 1967 war -- based on a belief in Israel's right to control the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many in Likud see the areas as the Jews' biblical birthright, and as crucial for Israel's security.

Palestinians have reacted with concern and confusion to the threat of unilateral action. Last week, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia warned that if Sharon implements his disengagement plan, the Palestinians will give up their push for a two-state solution and focus instead on achieving a bi-national state, where they would soon have a majority at the ballot box.

Sharon's evolution -- at least rhetorically -- came gradually over three years as prime minister.

In late 2001, he publicly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state. Last May, he acknowledged that Palestinians were "under occupation."

He later accepted the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, with significant reservations. The plan calls for an end to violence, a settlement freeze and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

The road map has stalled, with Israel continuing settlement building and Palestinians not fulfilling their obligation to dismantle terror groups.

Sharon has unsuccessfully tried to end the violence with raids against militants and with travel restrictions that have devastated the Palestinian economy.

Pressure from the Israeli public, fed up with 39 months of Mideast violence, coupled with U.S. demands for progress, have forced Sharon to consider another tack.

"Sharon has to please a lot of different audiences," said Alpher.

The U.S. administration does not oppose Sharon's idea of dismantling some settlements. However, it has also said the conflict will only be solved with a negotiated solution.

Some top officials in Likud, including Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, support Sharon's stance.

Their shift appears to be driven by fears of the so-called "demographic threat" posed by the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs whose higher birthrates could make Jews a minority between the river and the sea in a few years.

Sharon's disengagement plan would leave the majority of Palestinians on the other side of the "boundary" -- in the hope that this might buy Israel decades to resolve the conflict.

"The Likud is forced by reality to change the positions we had earlier," said Meridor.

In a way, the disengagement plan is already being carried out as Israel erects a barrier in the West Bank, with the stated aim of thwarting suicide bombers. Palestinians see the partly built network of fences, walls and trenches as a land grab.

Some Likud stalwarts are horrified by the new Sharon.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens told the party that Sharon's proposed unilateral steps would be a tragedy for Israel and "bring terror to our door."

Former Knesset speaker Dov Shilansky remembers holding a hunger strike a decade ago with Sharon in protest of interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Sharon was more extreme than me," Shilansky recalled with disbelief. "Sharon ... is talking now like a leftist."

Right-leaning commentator Israel Harel says that if Sharon has truly changed his mind, he should resign and beg Israelis for forgiveness for fostering the settlement movement, which now comprises 230,000 people in about 150 communities.

Sharon's "turnaround (is) simply inconceivable," he wrote. It leaves the settlers "unable to comprehend how the man who worked with such intensity and achieved such impressive results in realizing one belief can act ... for the promotion of another belief, diametrically opposed to the first."

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