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Is Ariel Sharon capable of dismantling settlements, as he alluded to in the interviews he gave on the eve of the holiday? Yes, he can do it. Sharon, more than any other Israeli politician, is a man of no scruples; and there is no reason to assume that this character trait won't come into play in his attitude toward the future of the settlements beyond the Green Line.

Does this mean that he will indeed evacuate Netzarim and Kfar Darom, not to mention Beit El and Shilo? Not necessarily. It depends on the circumstances - on just how convinced he will be that he has no choice but to do so, on just how much he will believe that such a step would be in the best interests of both the country and himself.

What, then, are his recent statements all about?

One possibility: Sharon has indeed come to the conclusion that the vanquishing of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the choice of Abu Mazen as Palestinian Authority prime minister have created an opportunity to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he truly wants to play his part in achieving this objective. In his statements to the Israeli press and The New York Times, he is trying a new - and surprising - approach aimed at easing the conciliation process that appears to be on the threshold.

A second possibility: Sharon is taking a gamble. He believes that the hopes pinned on Abu Mazen will prove unfounded. The man won't manage to free himself of the influences of Yasser Arafat and won't be able to live up to the principal condition placed before him by Israel and the United States - to bring about a cessation of terror and dismantle the armed organizations currently operating within the Palestinian Authority. If this is the case, the prime minister's magnanimous declarations were aimed at nothing more than sounding good and boosting his image.

A third possibility: Sharon is being deceptive. He is creating the impression of being willing to go to great lengths to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but has no serious intentions of doing so. He is standing firm on his well-known positions, which appear to reject giving up on any settlement whatsoever; but is pretending that there have been changes in his beliefs as a result of the far-reaching changes that have taken place in the Middle East in recent weeks. If and when the time of truth comes, he will come up with excuses and reasons to prove that the Palestinian side has not played its part, or that he, Sharon, was misunderstood - through no fault of his.

On the face of it, the third possibility is the least likely, considering that it could put Sharon in hot water with President George W. Bush, and on the backdrop of a credibility problem to boot - a development that Sharon is taking pains to steer well clear of.

Perhaps this third possibility holds no water at all, but it's well worth recalling Sharon's patterns of behavior ever since he was a young military commander - his tendency for craftiness and surprising his surroundings and superiors. Such was the case during Israel's acts of retribution in the 1950s, in the Sinai Campaign, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War. He never hesitated to present his commanders, the government and its head with faits accomplis; and he had no qualms about defining integrity as "a term steeped in hypocrisy" (at a press conference on June 3, 1992).

The police advised indicting Sharon in the Yanush Ben-Gal affair on serious charges, including fraud and a breach of trust; and the attorney general and state prosecutor, who rejected the recommendation on the grounds that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the allegations in a court of law, determined that his behavior had been improper.

Sharon was caught red-handed some two years ago, when he failed to tell the state comptroller the truth about the financing of the election campaign he conducted for leadership of the Likud; and last month, the prime minister denied the promise he gave to Dan Meridor about including him in the cabinet.

Is it possible that the man who was accused by senior military commanders of not including them in his plans, who was found by the Kahan Commission to have presented Menachem Begin with "rosy reports," and who was found by a court (in the case of Sharon v Haaretz) to have behaved dishonestly toward the prime minister is not plotting to act in a similar fashion with the president of the United States?