Even close associates of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon say that his sudden burst of activity over the last few days portends his awakening from the hibernation into which he sunk at the end of the summer. Suddenly, Sharon is making the decisions that have piled up on his desk, touring Israel Defense Forces positions and declaring a new policy of "unilateral measures" in the territories, including vague hints of evacuating settlements.

It is too early to know what, if anything, will come of all this, but about one thing, there should be no mistake: Sharon's vague statements reflect a turnabout in his positions. Only a month ago, he declared in a television interview with Udi Segal that he rejects unilateral measures - but now he has placed them at the forefront of his policy. In the past, Sharon had avoided the zigzags that characterized his predecessors, demonstrating an impressive consistency in his approach to the struggle with the Palestinians, even in the face of terror attacks and domestic and international criticism.

What happened to the prime minister? His return to an active role highlights the depths of his previous seclusion, whose reasons are unclear - whether the pressures of the police investigations, tiredness and depression, natural passivity, or, as his aides say, "a gradual process of thinking and formulating in the ivory tower of his ranch."

It is true that he never disappeared entirely. He made numerous trips abroad, brought the route of the separation fence to the cabinet for approval and pushed through a prisoner exchange deal with unaccustomed determination. But he lost control of setting the agenda. Yossi Beilin, who returned from the political dustheap, once again seized the diplomatic initiative and shook the political system out of its torpor.

It was precisely in a period of relative security quiet that Sharon's magic began to fail. His relations with America, the crown jewel of his achievements, were coming more and more to resemble those of Yitzhak Shamir's premiership, with the same explanations from Jerusalem: "There is no crisis, just disagreement among friends." Sharon went to visit his friend Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and suffered a humiliating defeat. He exaggerated the dangers of the Russian initiative to have the Security Council adopt a resolution formally backing the road map peace plan, and was then forced to swallow the resolution - which even garnered American support.

Sharon's greatest achievement was his success in convincing the international community that Yasser Arafat was an incorrigible villain. But a military victory in the conflict with the Palestinians escaped him. To understand the change, it is enough to compare the whittled-down list of demands that Israel is presenting for negotiations with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to the broad demands for multifaceted reform of the Palestinian Authority that it raised after Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Even the issue of removing Arafat has been dropped.

In retrospect, it seems that the killing of two female soldiers in Netzarim on October 24 was the "strategic attack" that caused the turnabout in the system. What the Palestinians could not achieve through dozens of horrific suicide attacks in Israel's heartland, they succeeded in achieving in one pinpoint attack aimed at the most sensitive spot on the map of the settlements. The Israeli consensus, which had held firm for more than three years, fractured in the barracks of the female soldiers at Netzarim.

It was there, and not in Jerusalem buses or Haifa restaurants, that the will to fight collapsed in a moment and the hopes of searing the Palestinian consciousness evaporated. The first to break was the chief of staff, followed by the Shinui ministers, and then, four weeks later, by Sharon. From this perspective, the attack on Netzarim had the same effect as the helicopter and naval commando disasters in Lebanon - or for fans of comparisons between Vietnam and the territories, it was the Palestinians' Tet Offensive.

The reason for the turnabout is clear. The murder of civilians riding buses is a war of "no choice." But attacks on soldiers guarding controversial settlements, no matter how shocking, is a war of choice.

Therefore, even if Sharon's recent declarations melt away like his previous promises, they indicate that Israel is on the way out of the territories. And it will be very hard to retract them, because from now on, the government will have difficulty justifying each new death in an isolated settlement or outpost. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that in Lebanon and Vietnam as well, it was years before the turnabout in consciousness culminated in a final withdrawal.