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One morning, Sharon woke up and decided he was not only a prime minister but a national leader. His opponents sneered it's all tactics and Sharon is the same Sharon. It's hard to argue with that, but it's also hard to argue with what the eye sees and the ear hears.

With Sharon's decision to drop the "seven days of quiet," negotiate under fire, release Arafat to travel to Beirut at the end of the month, and keep the army from penetrating deeper into Ramallah, he has taken a brave leap that has landed him right in the center of the political map.

If it were only a matter of tactics, Lieberman and company wouldn't have fled in horror, leaving Sharon alone with the Labor party. Particularly impressive was the way he stood up to the Likud ministers, who nearly hit the ceiling when they heard of his about-face and demanded a military resolution to the conflict plus reoccupation of the territories. "I will not lead this people to war," Sharon said. "A Palestinian state is a fait accompli."

"This is a leadership decision which is my responsibility and mine alone," said the prime minister on television. Sharon admits he has changed his tune. In private company, he quotes the well-known motto of Moshe Dayan, who before the Yom Kippur War, preferred peace over Sharm e-Sheikh: "Only a mule never changes its mind."

People will say that Sharon is zigzagging again. They will say he blinked first. One way or another, there are three possible explanations for this turnabout:

a) Sharon may have reached the conclusion that there is no military solution for this conflict. For a year, he has tried everything - assassinations, pre-emptive strikes, closures, sieges, air strikes, bombing from land and sea, and incursions deep into Palestinian territory. This cycle of terror- assassination-suicide bombs-revenge-retaliation which was supposed to work like a charm, has left in its wake 350 Israeli dead, 200 of them in the days of Sharon, the man who promised peace and security. Meanwhile, normal life has come to a standstill, the economy has lost 27 billion shekels and people are running out of steam. Apart from the insane option of reoccupying all the territories, Sharon has no other strong-arm tactic left.

b) Sharon's steep drop in the polls is being exploited by Netanyahu. Sharon has been competing with him for the radical right. It has taken him time, but Sharon now realizes that Bibi, clever fellow, is contending for the center - not the far right, together with Lieberman and company. More and more people in the center - the "peace camp" more or less - have started saying Netanyahu was not as bad as they thought. He gave up Hebron, kept a certain level of negotiation going, had far fewer terrorist attacks in his time, and did not resort to invasive military operations. Sharon may have concluded that the secret of survival lies in the center, with those hundreds of thousands of citizens who cast their vote for him and who no longer believe in a military solution.

c) The U.S. administration is showing anger at the escalation and provocative military operations in the territories which could harm America's plans for an attack on Iraq. Dissatisfaction with Arafat has not prevented the United States from demanding that Sharon stop the military deterioration. This time, Zinni will be arriving with sharpened claws, determined not to go home empty handed. During his stay, Sharon will order the army out of the territories and free the stranglehold on Palestinian cities. Zinni will find himself in a situation similar to Kissinger after the Yom Kippur War, when lifting the encirclement of the Third Army became the springboard for a settlement.

About two months ago, Sharon made this confession to the members of the foreign press: "I'll be 74 soon. I've already done everything in my life. I have no more political ambitions. What I do want is to achieve a political settlement that will bring peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. Then I can go back to my ranch to ride my horse and tend my sheep."

Indeed, the conditions are ripe, with Israel a step away from catastrophe, for Sharon to meet the greatest challenge of his life, with charity, not cruelty. The man who was granted a hundred days of grace when he came to office, only to disappoint, is suddenly being granted another hundred.

Maybe he can rise above himself and go down in history not as a warmonger but a person who paved the way to peace. It is he who can make it happen that one day, switching on the evening news, we will hear Haim Yavin utter the thrilling words: "A great breakthrough has been achieved today."