Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

Has Sharon changed and can he be trusted? Memory and lessons of the past mingle with the heart's tendency to give Sharon credit, warning against it: Do not fall into the trap. The man is prone to deceive.

If Ariel Sharon could be taken at his word, then his speech in the Herzliya Conference last Thursday is great news and we should hold him to it in the next few months. Sharon formulated his positions vis-?-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in principle terms that even Yossi Beilin would gladly sign.

Sharon said in the Herzliya Conference the following things: The new year beginning in two weeks brings Israel a historic chance to change its strategic situation from the foundations; the lever for change is the renunciation of the Gaza Strip; the disengagement plan is among the goals worth fighting for because our life depends on them - compared to goals which everybody knows will not be realized and which most of the public is not willing, quite rightly, to sacrifice so much to achieve; the realization of the vision of two states in Eretz Yisrael is a huge renunciation on both sides' parts, and Israel is indeed ready to make that concession, because the alternative, in which one nation dominates the other, is a terrible disaster for both nations.

In his Herzliya address Sharon developed the position he presented in the Knesset some two months ago, when he asked it to ratify the disengagement plan. Sharon said then that Israel does not want "to rule over millions of Palestinians forever" and "Israel, which wants to be a model democracy, cannot sustain the occupation for a length of time."

On the face of it, Sharon is not making do with words alone. He has taken steps that indicate his intention to realize his new vision: He dismantled his right-wing cabinet and replaced it with a cabinet leaning on the Labor Party; he paid a considerable political price in confrontations with his party to impose the new line on it; he created the administrative and legal infrastructure to implement the disengagement plan (the evacuation-compensation law, setting up the disengagement administration, coordination with international bodies to provide vital services in the strip after the withdrawal). Furthermore, in his speech, he signaled a willingness to coordinate the evacuation with the new Palestinian leadership. In other words, Sharon has retracted the principle of one-sidedness he had set for his plan, thus opening the way to turn it from a rigid security move to a political lever with the chance of creating a turning point in the relations between the two nations.

These are not insignificant issues. Sharon's statements over the last year, and to a certain extent his acts, reflect a radical change in his declared positions as the public knew them until his election as prime minister. From the unequivocal declaration that Netzarim is as integral to Israel as Tel Aviv, he jumped to the conclusion, which is seemingly self-evident, that "everybody understands we will not remain in Gaza." From the cry to "run and capture the hills," he skipped to the insight "that recognizes the demographic reality which has been formed."

Granted, the practical steps he has taken to implement his new concept are merely preliminary and appear to be laying the infrastructure for disengagement, rather than the beginning of executing his plan, but he is permitted to enjoy the benefit of the doubt: They make logistic sense and can be explained as necessary preparations for an orderly evacuation of the settlements. In addition, one cannot ignore that Sharon is displaying willingness to jeopardize not only his political future, but also his life, in coming to formulate his updated political philosophy and implement it.

However, memory and lessons of the past mingle with the heart's tendency to give Sharon credit, warning against it: Do not fall into the trap. The man is prone to deceive. He must be tested on his deeds at the crucial moment, not on his declarations, or on the impression that his preparations create.

The crucial question is whether the change, which seems to be taking place in Sharon, also applies to his attitude to words and their customary meaning.