JERUSALEM — Even though experience has taught us that Ariel Sharon must be judged by his actions and not by his words, it may well be that his words last week set in motion a process that Sharon could not have envisioned. He may have intended to do no more than get on the good side of international public opinion, or he may have been serious. But whatever his intentions, his words have roused strong feelings. He has been accused of being a left-winger -- a traitor even -- by his colleagues in the Likud Party. Senior right-wing Cabinet ministers have accused Sharon of pushing Israel toward something more dangerous than the Oslo accords, which were until last week the most despicable thing they could think of.
What was it that Sharon said? In an emotional speech to his Cabinet, he declared explicitly, for the first time, that Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories was bad, that it was unsustainable, that Israel could not indefinitely rule over 3 1/2 million Palestinians and that Israel should not remain forever in Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem.
Sharon was the architect of Greater Israel. He was the real force behind the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Immediately after the Six-Day War of 1967, he began planning a map that would place settlements in locations designed to prevent any future Israeli accord with the Arabs. He virulently attacked Yitzhak Rabin when the latter began to shake off Israel's dream of permanently occupying the territories.
Yet it is Sharon who has, in the last week, single-handedly shattered the historical ideology of the Israeli right. Staunch conservatives are now in a state of shock, unable to believe that it is Sharon who has knocked them down.
His former allies are expressing astonishment and revulsion as they attempt to reorganize their worldviews in accordance with these changes. They are trying to save what they can of their ideology but are also trying to adjust to the emerging vox populi. A majority of Israelis support Sharon's move. They are weary of the stalemate and are prepared to make painful compromises.
It is still too early to fully comprehend how significant the events of recent days are. There can be no doubt that the Israeli government, under Sharon's leadership, has taken a most meaningful step. It has accepted in principle that the conflict with the Palestinians will be resolved by -- among other requirements -- an end to the occupation, an evacuation of many Israeli settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
However, it is still a long distance from this point to serious negotiations, and to the full implementation of the "road map" for peace proposed by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- not to mention to a stable and lasting peace. Mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians is even further off.
One reason the road will be difficult is that we can count on Palestinian terror attacks aimed at undermining any progress toward peace. Another is that the new Palestinian government is horribly weak. Still another is that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will, for his own reasons, do his best to undercut whatever Mahmoud Abbas, his new prime minister, tries to do.
There are also Sharon's well-known deviousness and volatility. Despite the important step he has made, Israelis are left to guess what his actual vision is, and whether he has fully internalized the concept that, to achieve a stable peace, he will have to take difficult, painful steps.
He will have to evacuate settlements, divide Jerusalem, withdraw from sites of religious and historical importance to the Jewish people and release Palestinians being held in Israeli jails as terrorists or potential terrorists. Taking these steps will require Sharon to turn his back not only on old friends who have supported him and believed in him for decades but also on his well-entrenched view of the conflict. He will have to turn his back on his own personality and biography.
The hope he has created is premature and excessive, even though it sent the Tel Aviv stock exchange shooting upward at a rate not seen for the last six years. Such high hopes ignore the barriers built into the road map itself, and also Israel's reservations, which Sharon has insisted must be addressed. These reservations, if acted on by President Bush, will turn the plan into a bad joke before it has even begun.