A few days before Pesach, Israel's prime minister gave the country's citizens the finest of holiday gifts: hope. Predictably, some local commentators - who tend to become excited at every new statement by every Arab despot who rearticulates his call for Israel's annihilation - were quick to dismiss what the prime minister of Israel said. Predictably, some local commentators - who are ready to adopt and embrace every deceptive formula adduced by the Palestinians - were quick to reach the conclusion that Ariel Sharon is once again being deceptive. However, the majority of Israel's citizens, in common with the majority of the world's observers, read the prime minister's remarks as they should be read: cautiously but with interest; suspiciously but with hope.

Ariel Sharon has earned the suspicious attitude people have toward him honestly. On countless occasions during the 50 years in which he has taken an active part in forging Israel's fate, he has behaved with a cleverness that borders on craftiness. His ability to equivocate has led him to the greatest of achievements and the harshest of debacles. However, even people who did not see the expression on the face of the old fighter when he said what he did about Beit El and Shiloh could discern that this was no hollow statement. Even those who did not hear the tone of voice of the master of the settlement project when he took leave of the terraced valleys of the land of the tribe of Benjamin could understand that this was not just another stratagem. Something has happened to Ariel Sharon. The guile is the same guile but the discourse is new.

No, Sharon has not moved to the left. But he has internalized a large part of the left's arguments about the futility of the occupation. No, Sharon has not become Yitzhak Rabin. But he feels the same weighty generational responsibility that Rabin felt in the early 1990s. No, Sharon does not accept the map put forward by Ehud Barak - to him, it was and remains a suicide map - but he is well aware of the historical and strategic context within which Barak acted.

Accordingly, what Sharon said on the eve of the holiday is meaningful, even if not naive. It is revolutionary even when it sounds measured. It shows that those who think Sharon will behave like de Gaulle by ending the occupation and evacuating the settlements are wrong, but it shows also that those who think Sharon will never make a move are also wrong. Those who think Sharon will bring peace are wrong, but so are those who think Sharon will not take a few initial and important steps on the road to peace.

Exactly 10 years ago, a group of talented, energetic, well-intentioned Israelis were in Oslo. By their deeds and blunders in that spring of 1993, they defined an entire decade. Out of an impressive fusion of good intentions, lofty ideals and unforgivable amateurishness, one of the most destructive political moves of the late 20th century was fashioned.

Now, however, 10 years later, we see for the first time the possibility that the tormented country will get another chance. A rare concatenation of circumstances that no one could have foreseen two or three years ago is turning the Middle East into a basin of open possibilities. Just as the old window of opportunity was about to close, a completely new window has opened by surprise.

The result is that for the first time in years, the bad and the very bad and even the worst of all are still looming on the horizon, but they are not the necessity. They are not unavoidable. After 10 years of the Oslo tunnel and after 30 months of the tunnel of blood that branched off from Oslo, it is possible for the first time to discern the flickering light of hope.

Will things turn out well? It's not certain. Arafat is still there, Palestinian extremism is still there, in Hebron the messianists have just celebrated another Jewish feast of sacrifice. The occupation of Iraq could go wrong, Iran is ticking, the underlying problems of the Middle East are far from being resolved. Nevertheless, the military achievement that Sharon and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon scored in their war on terrorism and the military accomplishment achieved by George Bush and Tony Blair in their war on the sources of terrorism have created an opportunity to build a true peace process here, one that will correct the mistakes of Oslo from the ground up. It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

So when prime minister returns to work from his vacation today, he cannot allow himself to bask in the glory of the support he gained from the holiday interviews he gave. Sharon does not have the liberty of covering himself with the blanket of the alibi that Yasser Arafat continues to provide him diligently. No, at the age of 75, Ariel Sharon is caught in the penetrating gaze of history. At this very moment, it is examining him very closely indeed.