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'Occupation' Must End, Sharon Says

Facing U.S. pressure, Israeli leader takes on the role of peacemaker, drawing his party's ire. Skeptics say he may be trying to buy time.

May 27, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Under a torrent of criticism from his right-wing party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uttered words Monday that few fellow Israelis ever expected to hear from the battle-hardened political hawk: The nation must end its occupation of Palestinian lands.

"It is not possible to continue holding 3 1/2 million people under occupation," Sharon told an assembly of enraged lawmakers from his Likud Party. "You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation. This is a terrible thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy."

The foray into peace rhetoric came one day after Sharon coaxed the Israeli Cabinet to endorse a U.S.-backed peace plan calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. The prime minister's support of the so-called road map left the Israeli right reeling -- and drew the sharp ire of his party, some of whose members voted against Sharon or abstained.

Analysts debate whether Sharon is bidding to go down in history as the man who guided Israel to peace after nearly 32 months of intifada -- or whether he is a crafty politician who knows how to buy time against U.S. demands.

"He's trying to have the best of both worlds. He's not the Arik Sharon of 10 years ago, but at the same time he's not Arik Sharon the peacemaker," said Israeli political scientist David Newman. "He's not the person who's going to sign the Palestinian state into existence. It'll be one step forward, then one step back."

Anti-peace plan graffiti had already appeared on Jerusalem buildings Monday, and furious settlers' representative Eliyakim Haetzni dismissed the Cabinet vote as "an act of national treason." In the afternoon, emotional Likud lawmakers gathered to berate their leader for abandoning party ideals.

One by one, his colleagues upbraided an unapologetic Sharon, whom they accused of leaving them out of the decision to endorse the peace plan -- only Cabinet members had a chance to vote. Characteristically quick on his feet, Sharon countered that there was no need for a party discussion, because there was no peace agreement -- only an endorsement of the idea.

The peace plan is "the document containing the worst things ever faced by the government of Israel," Likud official David Levy told Sharon.

It was "hell," said Michael Ratzon, the deputy minister of industry and trade.

"The Cabinet decided to establish a Palestinian state," complained Levy, a former foreign minister. "At this price, the left could have bought peace a long time ago."

Under immense pressure from a United States eager to prove its commitment to Middle East peace, Sharon has pulled off an almost overnight political turnaround. For years, he was considered a hard-liner, but now he has become a midwife for a peace plan that represents a radical departure for Israel because it endorses a Palestinian state.

Despite Sharon's history as one of Israel's foremost hawks, his strong words and tone Monday appeared to indicate "clear emotional commitment" to the idea that Israel's occupation cannot continue, said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

"This was not something he was doing for the Americans," he said.

But Sharon has swung for months between talk of peace and renewed pledges to use force to crush the Palestinian uprising. He has warned Israelis to expect to make sacrifices for peace, only to retreat to unabashedly bellicose positions on Jewish settlements and military crackdowns in the Palestinian territories.

There were moments Monday when the prime minister seemed as determined to keep fighting.

At one point, Sharon even offered a bit of encouragement for the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- construction explicitly banned under the peace plan.

"I want to know whether I can stay in my home," settler and Likud lawmaker Yehiel Hazan said to the prime minister. "Will my children and I continue to bleed?"

"It will definitely be possible, and there is no restriction here," Sharon replied, according to Israel Radio. "You can build for your children and grandchildren and, I hope, even for your great-grandchildren."

The settlements are a key question for Sharon. The peace plan calls for the abandonment of some outposts and a construction freeze on others. Analysts have predicted that a serious attempt to tear down settlements could spell Sharon's political demise.

But for the moment, the prime minister remains very much in charge. A move among the ultraconservative National Union Party to split from the prime minister's coalition petered out Monday.

For now the right appears prepared to swallow deep ideological chagrin and stick with Sharon. They won't leave the government, they say, because they fear the left will slide easily into their place.

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