On the eve of Passover, Ariel Sharon crossed the line he has so far refused to step over and publicly spoke about evacuating settlements. "Genuine peace requires concessions," he said in a holiday interview to Yedioth Ahronoth. "It is possible that there will be towns that we will need to evacuate," said Sharon, reinforcing his message in a Haaretz interview earlier in the week.

Aides and political associates of the prime minister have spoken about the possibility of evacuating settlements in a future deal with the Palestinians, and even specified some by name: Netzarim, other settlements in the Gaza Strip, and 17 isolated settlements in the West Bank. However Sharon himself was careful and always avoided providing direct answers to the question. At most he refused to guarantee that Israel would not evacuate settlements. During a visit to the U.S., when Sharon presented maps for a future resolution of the conflict, President George Bush asked him about the future of the isolated settlements. "This will not be a problem," Sharon responded. He did not elaborate.

Now Sharon has opted to "lift the vagueness from the subject," according to one of his senior aides. What has changed? "We are now at a strategic juncture," the senior source explains. This is so "both because of the war in Iraq and because of the developments in the Palestinian Authority. Something is happening, and it is important to signal to the world, to the Americans and the Palestinians, that we are also feeling a certain weight of history, and know exactly what we need to do if we discover that the Palestinians are, for the first time, carrying out what they promised to do a long time ago. So, it was decided to be more clear." In the past it was forbidden to talk about this in Sharon's presence, and there was also no reason to grant the Palestinians a "ray of hope." But now the circumstances have changed.

The international media have emphasized Sharon's conciliatory message. Senior members in the U.S. administration also responded favorably. The prime minister did not restrict himself to quotes in the Israeli press and gave an interview to his friend, William Safire, a New York Times columnist.

However, despite the crossing of his political Rubicon, it is still early to bid farewell to the enormous settlement activity that Sharon and his friends have carried out over the years in the territories. The carrot Sharon gave the Palestinians was accompanied by a toughening of the demands presented to them, especially the demand that they relinquish, ahead of time, their demand for a "right of return" of refugees to Israel, in exchange for Israeli recognition of the creation of a Palestinian state. This is a demand that will be difficult to meet, especially for PA Prime Minister Abu Mazen, considered to be a moderate on matters of defense and terrorism, but particularly tough on the issue of the refugees.

Sharon is not the first prime minister who found himself between "Bush and Zambish," between his wish to further the peace process and his commitment to the settlers. His four predecessors - Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - tried to satisfy both sides, and continued constructing settlements as if there were no peace process, while negotiating a withdrawal and the removal of settlements. Sharon's dilemma is no different, and the question is whether he will make a decision or march along both paths, as his predecessors did.