JERUSALEM — For 20 years, Daniel Savitch has despised Ariel Sharon. The veteran left-winger voted against the Israeli prime minister, regards his warrior career with revulsion and openly questions Sharon's honesty and integrity.
So Savitch appreciates the irony of the position Israeli leftists now find themselves in: rooting for the political survival of a man many of them have long loathed.
The leftists haven't changed stripes, Savitch insists, but Sharon has, at least on one issue. The conservative leader, a steadfast supporter of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, has promised to uproot all 21 enclaves in the Gaza Strip this summer, a step long advocated by many on the left.
"I don't trust the guy, but I don't think this is the main issue here," said Savitch, 43, the executive director of a Jerusalem synagogue. "Suddenly he's doing the things that should have been done long ago.... It's too dangerous not to back him, too dangerous not to give him a chance."
Ever since the Israeli leader announced his intention last year to pull troops and settlers out of Gaza, the usual party lines and loyalties have been scrambled as politicians and voters struggle to grasp the implications of a move few had expected.
The prime minister's about-face on Gaza has been especially discomfiting for the Israeli left, which has been in disarray since the collapse of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Grudgingly, many left-leaning Israelis and officials say they are swallowing their personal distaste and pulling for Sharon to prevail against the extreme right and the religious nationalists who want to derail his Gaza pullout plan.
"I support Sharon in spite of Sharon," one veteran left-winger said with a groan.
"It's extremely ironic that we now take up the campaign in favor of Ariel Sharon's program. However, history is full of surprises," said Janet Aviad, a leader of the Israeli activist group Peace Now, a longtime opponent of Jewish settlements.
"One shouldn't be stereotyped or locked into any one position," she said.
"When you see a person who adopts your positions and moves in the direction that at least a majority of Israelis now support, vis-a-vis the settlements in Gaza, you have to support him."
He needs the help. Although Sharon's Cabinet has approved his disengagement plan, to start at the end of July, opponents threaten to kill it by torpedoing his budget in parliament. Failure to pass a spending plan by the end of this month will automatically trigger new elections and imperil the pullback.
That has created an uncomfortable dilemma for some on the left, who wholeheartedly support evacuating the Gaza settlements but strongly object to Sharon's spending plan.
Zehava Galon, a leftist member of parliament with the Meretz-Yahad party, believes the proposed budget would help the rich and hurt the poor, which she can't abide. But if she votes against it, Galon could help bring down the government.
"We are really in a Catch-22. On the one hand, we can't accept this horrible budget. It affects so many people in such a bad way, the most miserable people in Israel," Galon said. "On the other hand, we can't afford for us to be blamed that because of us, [Sharon] couldn't implement his plan."
Polls consistently indicate that a strong majority of Israelis favor withdrawing the military and settlers from Gaza.
A survey published this month by the daily newspaper Haaretz showed that if a referendum were to be held on the pullout, more than 80% of voters from each of the left-leaning Meretz-Yahad, Shinui and Labor parties would back it.
By contrast, 52% of voters from Sharon's conservative Likud Party would support it, demonstrating "the extent to which Sharon is cutting himself off from his own party," the newspaper said.
In a more surprising finding, a majority of Labor Party voters surveyed -- a group traditionally hostile toward Sharon -- gave him a grade of 8 or higher, on a scale of 1 to 10, for his performance as prime minister.
"I think everyone is united now in the position that our task at the moment is to support him," Peace Now leader Aviad said -- words the longtime activist never thought she would utter.
Political analysts say Sharon is no mere ideologue but, in many ways, a pragmatist and a canny operator. When he entered politics in the early 1970s, for example, he joined a more dovish faction within Likud, but later took on more hawkish positions for tactical reasons, political scientist Abraham Diskin said.
"He was quite pragmatic over time," said Diskin, who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Whether Sharon is acting tactically or out of new convictions is beside the point for Aviad.
"I don't know if he's converted or seen the light. I don't know about anything that happened in his brain or heart that brought this change about," she said. "I just see that he has changed his mind and is doing the work we would have expected a left-wing prime minister to do."