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Following over two years in office and no peace in sight, the question has become old hat, but after Ariel Sharon signalled a possible policy shift in a Haaretz interview, it is being asked with fresh urgency: Is this a new, more flexible Ariel Sharon. If so, will his old comrades on the right bring him down before he can make peace?

The prospect of a 'new' Sharon was quickly discounted by figures in the center-left opposition. But rightists were taking no chances, breaking ground of their own in declaring verbal war on the idea of Palestinian statehood, the U.S.-backed road map for peace, and on Sharon himself, should he choose to back up moderate hints with substantive action.

Making headlines around the world, Sharon went beyond previous statements that acknowledged an eventual Palestinian state as an inevitability, inching closer to spelling out the 'very painful steps' he envisaged Israel taking under a possible future peace.

Choosing his words with care, the prime minister, who once equated the security importance of the small, beleaguered Gaza Strip settlement Netzarim with that of Tel Aviv, refrained from ruling out the possibility of dismantling Jewish enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He also hinted Israel might someday cede such sites of biblical importance - and current settlement activity - as Bethlehem, Beit El, and Shilo.

To the further consternation of hardliners, the interview appeared on Sunday, the eve of talks between Sharon's senior troubleshooter Dov Weisglass and Bush administration officials, who are to hear Israel's "red line" demands over the internationally sponsored road map for Middle East peace.

At the heart of the road map, endorsed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, are demands that Israel match Palestinian official reforms and curbs on terrorism with a freeze on new settlement activity. The steps are meant to lead to the centerpiece of the proposal: the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Appropriating the language of the left, Likud founder-leader Sharon came in for the ultimate rightist insult - a comparison to Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres - when he addressed the issue of an independent Palestine.

"One has to view things realistically. Eventually there will be a Palestinian state," Sharon said. "I do not think that we have to rule over another people and run their lives."

Adding insult to injury, the prime minister then departed from custom, casting doubt on the ability of Israelis to continue to bear the burden of retaining the whole of the territories. "I do not think that we have the strength for that," he continued.

Leading hawks within Sharon's own cabinet lost no time in chiding the prime minister and blasting away at the road map as mortally dangerous, widely opposed and ultimately impossible to fulfill.

They pledged to do all they could to keep the word "Palestine" from entering the rolls of the world's independent nations.

Again and again, interviewers asked leading political figures Sunday if the remarks signalled the emergence of a new Sharon, a warmaker-turned-peacemaker in the model of slain prime minister Yitzkak Rabin, whom Sharon once served as a senior adviser.

Moderates doubted that it did. Hawks voiced fervent hopes that it did not.

Lawmaker Aryeh Eldad of the far-right National Union, the most hardline of the partners in the Sharon coalition government, said he also hoped to see the road map proposal remain unrevised, not despite its calls for a settlement freeze and a Palestinian state, but precisely because of them.

"If the so-called road map initiative is not 'corrected' [to take into account Israeli demands], it will be clear to all of the people of Israel that it is a plan for the annihilation of Israel."

Pressed on the point, Eldad stopped short of accusing U.S. President George W. Bush of formulating a plan for the extermination of Israel.

"I am only accusing those who join the road map plan of taking entirely uncalculated risks. The road map means a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, which, as generations of past prime ministers have pointed out, means the beginning of the complete ruination of the State of Israel."

The small, still voice of the secular-centrist Shinui party, which endorsed Sharon's remarks in a Sunday cabinet meeting, was drowned out by an unprecedented wave of condemnation by the cabinet hard-right flank.

National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler, led the rightist charge by arguing that if the Palestinians were granted statehood, Israel's million-plus-strong Arab minority would be next in line to secede.

Lieberman claimed the road map was an attempt by Western leaders, including Bush, to placate the Muslim world and shore up domestic support by selling out Israel.

"The last thing I want is for everyone to try to solve his own electoral problems or warm up relations with the Arab world at our expense. My impression is that the Americans to a large extent, as well as the Europeans, are using us as the coin to settle their debits in the Muslim world."

Referring to Palestinian demands for self-determination and an independent state, he said, "There are about 200 member nations in the UN. There are 2,000 peoples in the world. If we grant self-determination to every people, we will very quickly reach a state of anarchy."

National Religious Party chief Effi Eitam said that even the pro-Israel U.S. AIPAC lobby and a senior Republican Congressional leader were opposed to the road map. He voiced confidence that more than enough obstacles could be put in its way to last until Bush faced re-election.

In any event, Eitam cautioned, "The moment we reach the stage in which the establishment of a Palestinian state is about to be implemented, we can always break up the government."

Palestinian officials, for their part, dismissed Sharon's remarks as part of an attempt to appear moderate, while sticking to hardline guns. They said the real test of Sharon's intentions could be seen in his bid to revise the road map, which Palestinians have publicly accepted in its entirety.

The opposition Labor Party, picking its formulations as carefully as Sharon had, said it would not come to Sharon's aid unless the prime minister's lock on a course of peace was genuine.

On the other hand, Labor Party Secretary General Ophir Pines-Paz quickly added, "If the prime minister reaches the conclusion that reviving historic peace negotiations on the basis of an American plan is only way to move Israel forward, if he is truly prepared to do so, and as a consequence his right-wing partners the National Union and the NRP abandon the government and he turns to us, only the irresponsible would slam the door in his face."

As the day, and the barrages of hawkish criticism, wore on, Likud cabinet minister Danny Naveh sought to draw down the heat generated by Sharon's comments, saying that he was unworried by the road map.

"I am opposed to unilateral concessions by Israel, therefore the government, in its current discussions with the United States, was right in insisting that progress in the road map be phased. First of all, it must be proven that the Palestinians are really fighting terrorism."

Naveh welcomed the recent appointment of the Palestinian Authority prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as a part of effort to reform the PA and sap the authority of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

But he said that the test of the step would be in its results. "As yet, there is no Palestinian war on terrorism. There is still, in fact, incitement to terrorism. The burden of proof is still on the Palestinians, at this stage, at any rate."

NRP leader Eitam said that in the end, he wasn't worried either. He still had his ace in the hole: a threat to send the government to the bottom.

"If this thing [the road map] gets underway, it will need to pass through all the required 'intersections': that there be no terrorism, that there be no Arafat, that the Palestinians give up on the Right of Return, and that the Quartet be outside the picture.

With a hint of satisfaction in his voice, Eitam went on: "We will then be very close to the presidential elections in the United States, so I can't see how these things will actually reach any implementation."

All in all, he concluded, "a bit of talk, a bit of maneuvering - this is reasonable."