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Moves Toward Peace Shine an Enigmatic Light on Sharon

Overtures worry the right, but skeptics say the Israeli leader may be playing for time.

June 02, 2003|Megan Stack and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — He has alarmed the settlers whose homesteads he forged and financed, annoyed the right-wing party that pushed him to power and baffled erstwhile foes by calling for the end of Israeli "occupation" and pushing for a Palestinian state.

Perhaps most of all, however, he has bred a deep uncertainty over his intentions: Is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intent on bringing peace to his troubled homeland -- or is he playing a savvy political game to buy time?

Long before he wore neckties and barreled through corridors of power, Sharon was a soldier and a farmer. But now, under pressure from the United States, the aging leader is hinting that he might exchange both military control and land for a historic peace with the Palestinians.

The trouble is, nobody can figure out whether the famously enigmatic Sharon is sincere in his push for peace. And the prime minister isn't clearing things up.

"The Sharon riddle wasn't solved this week," the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported dryly Thursday.

From the earliest whispers of the most recent round of peace talks, Sharon has undergone a series of whiplash reinventions. Consider the events of a recent week: He made history by cajoling the Cabinet to endorse a peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state. He set off what former Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called an "ideological earthquake" by telling his Likud Party that it was time to end the "occupation."

But the Sharon who swore he'd beat the Palestinians with might and never negotiate under fire was still around. In the course of the same week, the Israeli leader vowed to keep a grip on East Jerusalem and publicly reassured an irate Jewish settler that his family could grow and flourish for generations to come on occupied Palestinian land.

His friends say even Sharon is wondering what Sharon will do.

"He has a debate with himself," said Eli Landau, the former mayor of Herziliya who was an army buddy and aide to Sharon and remains a confidant. "But he has to decide. Because everything is on his shoulders, and he knows it."

Even in this small country, a land where politicians appear to have nine lives, the rebirth of Sharon as Israel's peacemaker is a peculiar phenomenon.

The son of hard-bitten Russian immigrants who pioneered land in what was then Palestine, the 75-year-old Sharon has been fighting for Jewish nationalism longer than Israel has existed. He was still a teen when he took up a gun and joined the paramilitary Haganah to fight British occupation.

Ever since, throughout his controversial military and political career, Sharon has pounded away at two projects: fighting Arabs and building a network of Jewish townships throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For years, he dismissed Palestinian nationalism with an edged quip: Palestinians already have a state, he'd say -- it's called Jordan.

Some analysts are convinced that Sharon has undergone a sort of ideological change of life. The prime minister wouldn't be the only Israeli to conclude that demographics, economics and public opinion are stacked against the occupation.

In the tradition of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- like Sharon a former soldier -- many Israelis have concluded that the Jewish state's best hope for survival is to make peace, pull out of Palestinian territory and draw a hard border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

"I really believe this is his strategy," said Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar, head of a peace research center at Tel Aviv University. "I think he came to terms with the idea that in order to achieve peace and security, Israel has no choice but [to] facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state."

And there are those who believe Sharon just might make peace -- but only because the United States wants him to. President Bush will meet Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in Jordan in an effort to move the process forward.

For better or worse, Sharon has cast his lot with the Americans.

When Bush surveyed the wreckage of the World Trade Center and declared a global "war on terror," the Israeli prime minister was quick to link that campaign with Israel's fight to put down the Palestinian intifada.

Bush was sympathetic, and the two leaders developed a sort of meeting of the minds. Last summer, at the bloody height of the intifada, Bush gave a landmark speech that called for new Palestinian leadership and offered international support for an end to militant attacks on Israel and tangible Palestinian governmental reform.

The United States helped write the so-called road map to peace, which set out phased steps to Israeli security and a Palestinian state.

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