As I pointed out some time ago in this column, Ariel Sharon is one of those leaders about whom I have changed my mind at least 20, if not 30 times. This is not because one day he can snuggle up to left-wing peaceniks like Yossi Sarid and Amos Keinan, and the next day to a right-winger like Yitzhak Shamir; and not because he was a soldier in an era when it was customary not to reveal the whole truth to the government, and it became habit-forming; but because he's such a pro at convincing you to believe one thing and then the opposite.
Sharon, who turned the whole country upside down a few weeks ago with his talk about evacuating 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip, because they won't remain there in a permanent accord anyway, is the same Sharon who explained a year or two ago that every settlement in the Gaza Strip is imperative for Israel's defense and impossible to give up. This man was elected on a peace and security ticket, but has brought neither. Instead, the Israeli death toll has risen to 1,000. He promised painful concessions, but not a single illegal outpost has been dismantled.
No wonder his unilateral disengagement initiative, the first step of which is pulling out of the Gaza Strip, has been received with skepticism. Is he serious or playing games again? If he's serious, why aren't there any blueprints? Why hasn't the plan been brought before the government for a vote? If he is really prepared to give up so many settlements in one blow, why isn't it being done in conjunction with the Palestinians? Why hasn't he done anything to get the ball rolling? Why is Bush so hesitant to give his blessing?
Sharon's unilateral separation speech, read out by Ehud Olmert at the gravesite of Ben-Gurion; his remarks at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya; his interview with Haaretz on February 3; his unequivocal statements at the Likud convention later that day - together with the undisguised fury of the settlers - all clearly show that Sharon is going somewhere. The direction he has taken is based on the pragmatic conclusion that Palestinian terror cannot be beaten by force. A strategic change of this kind is typical of an old war horse soon to be put out to pasture - been there and done that. Now he is looking for a suitable finale for his political career.
Is it serious? Ehud Barak says yes. Sharon is doing the right thing and he has faith in him. Peres and Mofaz heard from members of the U.S. administration that Sharon's plan represents a "historic opportunity" to move forward in resolving the conflict. At any rate, if his plan is put into practice - and there is a plan - he will be the first prime minister since Menachem Begin to voice his opposition to occupation in no uncertain terms and evacuate settlements in the occupied territories.
As I flip though the nine pages of notes I took during my talk with Sharon, I keep finding answers to the questions now being thrown at the prime minister. Why unilateral disengagement without an agreement? Because the Palestinians can't follow through on the first prerequisite of the road map, which calls for security before making concessions. Yes, folks, we're talking about evacuation under fire. Why must we pull out of the Gaza Strip entirely? Because leaving a vacuum is dangerous and we have to get our act together in the places where Jews will live after a permanent accord goes into effect.
For all those who wonder why there is no blueprint yet, and why the government has not made a decision, the answers are in this interview. It all boils down to the timetable formulated by Sharon himself. The first thing on his list is to win the consent and support of President Bush. Sharon is obsessive about coordinating every step of the way with him. Next comes working out the operation in detail, preferably with the approval of the Strip's 7,500 settlers. From start to finish, the pullback should be wrapped up in a year or two.
While this is happening, Sharon will drum up political support for the move. Media pundits say that if he submits his proposal to the government now, it doesn't stand a chance. But Sharon is the one who will choose the timing. The current government is preferable, although he may have to settle for second-best - a coalition with Labor. "I hear what the Likud is saying," says Sharon, "and I'm not dismissing it. But I cannot allow it to change what I think must be done from a national point of view."
Sharon has gone too far to assume that he is kidding around with his people, America and our potential allies in Europe, now waking up to the grim reality of mega-terror. Until proven otherwise, there is no reason not to take him seriously.
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