The Hilton Cavalieri hotel is built on a towering hill, offering its guests breathtaking vistas of Rome. Its huge statue garden, Roman-style indoor swimming pool, and elegant interiors radiate Old World splendor. A perfect backdrop for one of the boldest, most astonishing adventures of contemporary Middle Eastern diplomacy.

On Monday, November 17, 2003, the Hilton Cavalieri hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had come to visit his Italian counterpart and friend, Silvio Berlusconi. That evening, Sharon retired early to his suite after meeting members of the local Jewish community. Most of the Israeli delegation were off exploring Rome's culinary delights. Nobody noticed a lone man walking up the hill toward the hotel lobby. Inside, the man was met by Asi Shariv, a young Sharon aide, who shepherded him through security and past unsuspecting reporters, to the prime minister's suite. Waiting for him, for dinner, were Sharon and his top policy adviser, Dov Weissglas.

The surreptitious guest was Elliott Abrams, the White House official in charge of the Middle East and Israel's main contact in the Bush administration. By Sharon's account, Abrams had been sent by his superior, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to fathom Israel's response to a peace feeler from Syrian president Bashar Assad. Sharon was unimpressed; he rejected Assad's proposal to renew peace talks, telling Abrams that it was a Syrian trick to fend off American pressure.

As the meeting moved on to the Palestinian issue, Sharon dropped a bombshell. He was considering, he informed Abrams, a unilateral move to break the deadlock after three years of fighting: evacuating Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Considering Sharon's political past, such a move was almost unimaginable. Even the most dovish Israeli governments had refrained from removing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon, more than any other leader, had been the architect and political patron of the settlement enterprise.

There are differing reports on what happened next. According to one version, Abrams was "shocked" and returned the next day to learn more. According to another account, Weissglas had already alerted the Americans to the possibility of unilateral Israeli action, but it was only in Rome that Sharon gave such a move his own stamp of approval.

Back home, three days later, Sharon spoke vaguely in public about "unilateral steps." It took a while before the media and the public detected his dramatic policy change. When it dawned on them, the revelation was shocking: In 2002, Sharon had equated the strategic significance of Netzarim, the most isolated settlement in Gaza, with that of Tel Aviv, pledging to maintain the territorial status quo until the Palestinians effectively surrendered.

In January 2003, Sharon had vanquished his election rival, Labor leader Amram Mitzna, who had proposed leaving Gaza unilaterally if another attempt at peace talks failed. During the campaign, Sharon had derided such an idea. By the end of that year, however, Sharon appeared keen on leaving Gaza. Laying out his agenda in a major policy speech at the Herzliya Conference, on December 18, he unveiled the term "disengagement" - a term coined by Eyal Arad, a PR adviser, who sought to avoid the more sensitive term "separation," with its apartheid-like connotation. Sharon revealed his plan for settlement relocation, aimed "to reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population."

By February 2004, following discussions with the Americans, he had disclosed the full scope of the plan: leaving all of the 21 Gaza settlements - withdrawing to the pre-1967 lines in the process - and four more in the northern West Bank.

Oslo becomes history

What happened? How did the former builder of settlements turn himself into their destroyer?

Sharon's ascent to power was the Israeli popular reaction to the second Palestinian intifada, which erupted in late September 2000 following the collapse of peace talks at Camp David. Its spark was a controversial visit by Sharon, then opposition leader, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - the most hotly contested piece of real estate on the planet. With the battle lines drawn and violence spreading rapidly, the Oslo process that had guided Israeli-Palestinian relations since 1993, became history.

At the time, Sharon was a highly unlikely candidate for national leadership, considered a political has-been. But with Benjamin Netanyahu choosing not to compete for Likud leadership, he prevailed in the party and went on to defeat the incumbent premier, Labor's Ehud Barak, by a landslide in February 2001. His slogan - "only Sharon will bring peace" - surprised many Israelis, for whom Sharon's name was synonymous with war, occupation and battling the Arabs.

During his first year in office, the former "bulldozer" shifted to low gear. His main concerns were preserving domestic consensus and close coordination with the United States. Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliation intensified throughout 2001, but Sharon refused to talk to his life-long nemesis, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The September 11th attacks put Sharon among the "good guys," while Arafat remained on the wrong side of Bush's "war on terror."

During this period, debating the "Sharon riddle" became a favorite pastime for Israelis and interested foreigners. Where was Sharon headed? Some believed he would eventually become Israel's De Gaulle, turning his back on the settlements and using his unrivaled military credentials to do so. His actions, though, convinced the skeptics that Sharon had not changed, that his only aim was to wear down the Palestinians and not give an inch. Sharon had pledged to make "painful concessions," but was ambiguous about their nature or timing.

The tide turned in 2002. In January, Arafat was caught red-handed running an illicit arms shipment from Iran, which was intercepted by the Israel Navy. This led Bush to boycott the Palestinian leader, who was effectively put under house arrest in Ramallah when Israel barred him from leaving the West Bank city. In February, as terror attacks intensified, Sharon gave an "address to the nation" in which he called for the creation of "buffer zones with fences" to achieve "security separation" from the Palestinians.

The remarks, however, were drowned out by Palestinian suicide bombers who blew up more buses and cafes. March was the worst month of the war, with 135 Israelis killed. The deadliest attack, on the eve of Passover - 29 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Park Hotel in Netanya - prompted Sharon to launch Operation Defensive Shield, during which Israel recaptured the main Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

Israel succeeded in moving the war to its enemy's territory, but this victory rapidly slipped away.

Birth of the fence

Faced with growing public despair, economic collapse and pressure from his security chiefs, Sharon agreed in the summer of 2002 to build a physical barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Until then, he had opposed the idea, apparently sensing that no matter what it was called, it would effectively recreate the so-called pre-1967 Green Line border, leaving many settlements on the "other" side.

Initially, Sharon designed the route to include as many settlers as possible on the Israeli, western side of the fence. Most settlements, however, remained outside its perimeter. Under international pressure, the route moved closer to the Green Line, eventually annexing 8-10 percent of West Bank territory - similar in scope to Barak's rejected Camp David proposal of 2000. The fence won overwhelming support from Israelis, who believed it would be effective in stopping suicide bombers.

In retrospect, the separation fence has been the precursor of disengagement. Sharon has tried in vain to describe it as "only another counterterrorism measure." Never-theless, it looks like a border and behaves like one, with barbed wire, electronic devices, concrete walls, watchtowers and checkpoints. Its creation set a crucial precedent in the unilateral division of the land, which came to fit Sharon perfectly. His mistrust of "the Arabs" is deeply embedded in his psyche, rendering him all but incapable of conducting negotiations with them.

The Bush administration had tried at first to avoid Mideast peace-making, wary that it was a quagmire. But, prodded by his Arab and EU allies, who blamed him for neglecting the bloody conflict, President George W. Bush laid out his vision in a major speech on June 24, 2002. He called for the creation of a Palestinian state, living alongside Israel "in peace and security," but demanded a Palestinian leadership change first. On the eve of the Iraq war, Bush presented the Road Map for a two-state solution. Sharon accepted it grudgingly, and quickly focused on the demand for a Palestinian crackdown on terror in the first stage. The quick defeat of Saddam Hussein prompted Bush to "move from Baghdad to Jerusalem" with Clinton-style diplomacy. He forced Arafat to appoint the moderate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as prime minister.

On June 4, 2003, Bush traveled to Aqaba, Jordan, to chair a peace summit with Sharon and Abbas, where both leaders delivered American-drafted speeches. A fragile cease-fire ensued, accompanied by high-profile visits by Abbas to Sharon's office and the White House. But the Aqaba process collapsed in mid-August, following a Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 23 people.

Trapped between pressure from the terror groups, Arafat's incessant attempts to undermine him and Sharon's timidity in making concessions, Abbas resigned in early September. His successor, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) was an Arafat confidant, distrusted by Sharon. Diplomacy was left dangling in a void. The Bush administration cut its losses, recalled its small monitoring team from Jerusalem and left the dueling parties to their own devices. They lost no time in resuming full-scale violence.

`Rewarding terror'

Meanwhile, against this gloomy backdrop, Weissglas began talking to Sharon about a unilateral move to break the deadlock - on Israel's terms. The plan: removing several settlements in the Gaza Strip. Weissglas argued that with Abbas gone, Israel and the Palestinians would return to the pre-Aqaba stage, with no change in sight. There is no point in waiting in vain for the Palestinians, he told Sharon. In August, the prime minister tested the idea on Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who had opposed it before on the grounds that it was "rewarding terror."

It was not a new concept: General Eival Giladi, the head of IDF strategic planning, had been floating it already since October 2001 in internal memos and discussions. Giladi proposed "giving territory for time," removing all Gaza settlements plus seven in the West Bank, thus gaining international support and shortening Israel's defensive lines. Sharon disliked the idea, denying the story when it was published in August 2002.

Just over a year later, Sharon was still hesitating, telling interviewers in late September that any unilateral move, without an agreement, will bring Israel to retreat under terror, and that the terror would continue.

But as the autumn approached, Sharon's domestic standing eroded and his popularity sank. The resumption of the intifada frustrated the public, and for the first time in three years, the consensus over the war began to crack. The Israeli left, devastated by the collapse of the peace process, rose from the ashes. Yossi Beilin, the architect of Oslo, launched the Geneva Initiative, a model for a final-status agreement, signed it with Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PA cabinet minister and Arafat confidant. The initiative proposed an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and almost all the West Bank; from the Palestinian standpoint, it was an "improved Camp David" deal.

Sharon sensed trouble and lost his nerve, for good reason: The Geneva proposal won 30 percent support in the polls, and was applauded worldwide. Later, Sharon would argue that he feared an imposed solution along its lines.

While this may be exaggerated, Geneva exposed the fruitless nature of Sharon's policies, and the domestic and international craving for a way out of the morass. Beilin's initiative was also buffeted by several other developments. A group of reservist pilots signed a petition against flying combat missions in the occupied territories. Most were no longer in active duty, but unlike previous "refuseniks," they came from the heart of the Israeli establishment. Their leader had taken part in the 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor. A group of former elite fighters followed suit. The protest widened. The chief of staff, Ya'alon, criticized the political leadership for not doing enough to keep Abbas in power. In mid-November 2003, just before the Rome meeting, four former chiefs of Israel's Shin Bet security service gave an unprecedented joint interview - the four were hardly talking to each other in other circumstances -, warning that the country was on the "verge of catastrophe."

This all amounted to one simple conclusion: Sharon had no strategy for ending the war, and Israel was drowning in endless, pointless bloodshed. The protest was further compounded by Sharon's legal problems: The law enforcement agencies were investigating several corruption cases involving the prime minister and his sons, Gilad and Omri, which gained momentum toward the end of the summer of 2003.

Sharon's critics - most of whom also oppose the disengagement - have argued that he desperately needed to divert attention from the investigation, and a spectacular move like leaving Gaza, which had long enjoyed wide public support, was his way out. Sharon's aides deny this accusation, arguing that the bribery case involving the prime minister was weak and had no influence on his policies. Indeed, the case was dropped several months later. However, the change of heart had clearly influenced public opinion regarding the investigations: leading columnists who had called on Sharon to resign due to the suspicions surrounding him, now called on the attorney general to spare him, lest it disturb the historic exit from the occupied territories.

Freedom of movement

It is hard to weigh the factors influencing public opinion, but the combination of Sharon's troubles and loss of direction badly damaged his leadership image. For three years, he had been Israel's most popular prime minister, maintaining a steady approval rating of 55-60 percent in the polls. Now he was losing his points: On November 7, 2003, Sharon's approval rating, in a Maariv newspaper poll, plummeted to 34 percent. Only after he announced his plan for a Gaza withdrawal, did he regain his popularity in the polls.

Sharon has kept his decision-making process over the withdrawal clouded in secrecy and his public explanations changed over time. At first, he emphasized the security advantages of "settlement relocation." Then he argued that keeping the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians was bad for Israel. Later he adopted the demographic argument, which had long been a mainstay of the Israeli left. Given the higher birth rate of Arabs, the argument went, Israel would soon have to choose between holding on to the territories with their 3.5 million Palestinians and preserving its Jewish majority. The right, including Sharon, had formerly denied the existence of this problem. "Time is on our side," he had argued. But as the right turned away from him, Sharon appeared to have adopted the left's cause. He told a Jewish audience in Paris in late July: "Disengagement will secure the Jewish majority."

Once disengagement was on the table, Israel enjoyed wider freedom of military action, culminating in the assassinations of Hamas leaders in 2004. From Sharon's perspective, the biggest prize of disengagement has been George Bush's letter of April 14, 2004, in which the president acknowledged: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Sharon portrayed this as a pledge to keep the large West Bank settlement blocs "part of Israel forever." His critics argue that this is an empty diplomatic gesture.

Before launching the disengagement, Sharon enjoyed the warm, comfortable environment of a stable, center-right coalition. Following his change of heart, many in his Likud party rebelled against the prime minister, handing him a humiliating defeat in a party members' referendum on his withdrawal plan. His right-wing partners left the government in protest. But he prevailed, slicing the political process into stages, changing coalition partners, until he won the approval of the cabinet and Knesset for his plan. As Sharon won approval for it at home, international support for him grew. The one-time "regional bully" was now hailed for his "courageous leadership." When Arafat died, in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas returned to the fore, raising hopes for a new peace process. But first, the world expected Sharon to deliver Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Once disengagement is implemented, the "Sharon riddle" will return: How far is he prepared to go? Is a similar move in the West Bank imminent, as many believe, or will "Gaza first" also be "Gaza last," as the Palestinians fear? Sharon has pledged recently that there will be "no second disengagement" and any progress toward Palestinian statehood is dependent on a serious crackdown on terror. Moreover, he has promised to keep large parts of the West Bank in Israeli hands, even beyond the separation fence. Few take him seriously; after all, Sharon pledged not to withdraw before the last election. With the resignation of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over his opposition to a unilateral Gaza withdrawal, he is now also facing a tougher contest for leadership of the Likud. He may be forced to leave the party he initiated back in 1973 and find a new political home.

Future scenarios

There are three main possible scenarios in the wake of disengagement:

1. Given the precedent of full withdrawal to the Green Line in Gaza, Israel - under any leader - would face unbearable external pressure to follow suit in the West Bank, and would have to cede over 90 percent of the territory to a Palestinian state, plus make some land swaps inside Israel proper. A third Palestinian intifada could speed up the process. A withdrawal of this scope would force Israel to evacuate dozens of West Bank settlements, with the ensuing political difficulties and popular trauma. The West Bank is the heart of the settler movement, and it has deeper historical importance than Gaza. Sharon's loyal deputy, vice premier Ehud Olmert, who promoted unilateral withdrawal before his master did, is now advocating this line, proposing to leave 90 percent of West Bank territory for demographic reasons.

2. Sharon will try to put the peace process in "long-term parking," counting on the Palestinians to avoid dealing with the terrorist groups, thus sparing Israel the pains of further settlement removal. Sharon's recent statements are in line with this assessment, as was a controversial interview given by Weissglas last October, in which he argued that disengagement has put the peace process "in formaldehyde." But it may be too costly for Israel, both militarily and diplomatically, to continue holding on to large chunks of the West Bank for an extended period of time.

3. Further disintegration of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas' weak leadership would turn Gaza into a "Hamastan," ruled by Islamic extremists, and separate it from the West Bank, until eventually Egypt will regain control of Gaza - and Jordan will return to the West Bank. Several Israeli officials advocate this scenario, stressing that an independent Palestinian state is not viable if it does not get more territory from its Arab neighbors. This is the nightmare scenario for the Hashemite rulers of Jordan, who fear the West Bank security barrier will push the Palestinians eastward at their expense.

The Bush administration wants to keep Abbas in power and implement the president's vision of creating a Palestinian state by early 2009. Sharon and Abbas have yet to show they are able to negotiate. For now, they present irreconcilable opening positions, with Abbas opting for a quick final-status deal, and Sharon insisting on a long, gradual process. But both sides will hold elections in 2006, and no serious diplomacy can be expected before then.

The future of the process will be determined by the political realignment inside Israel and in the PA, the fate of the cease-fire, the lessons both sides draw from Sharon's withdrawal - and last, but not least, by the determination of the United States to shape conflict resolution in the Holy Land.n