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Sharon Move Signals More Giant Steps

TEL AVIV – During his four-and-half years in office, Prime Minister Sharon has often been accused of avoiding the press. In interviews, Sharon has characteristically been curt and evasive. But in his first press conference after disengaging himself from the Likud, Sharon had all the time in the world. He answered every question, brimming with confidence and good spirits.

However, very little was heard by those who hoped to learn what he intends to do should he win the elections. As always, there were vague references to President Bush’s road map to peace, and there was talk of the “painful concessions” he would be willing to make should the Palestinians fight terrorism, but little more.

As always, the true Sharon is revealed more in deed than in words. The fact that he finally decided to leave the party he helped form 30 years ago indicates clearly that he has made up his mind to move ahead in the diplomatic field, and not in small steps. “I didn’t come here to spend my time idly,” he has told interviewers repeatedly. His recent political move seems to bear that out.

Sharon obviously would have won the election if he had stayed on as head of the Likud. He easily could have survived even the harassment of the so-called Likud rebels who opposed his Gaza disengagement and continue to threaten him from within. The one constraint he would have faced would be an inability to move ahead in negotiations with the Palestinians, much less to implement a second disengagement, this time from large areas in the West Bank. He might have accepted these constraints in return for easy re-election. But Sharon, fast approaching 80 years of age, has other things on his mind — although no one is sure what they are.

Sharon has said repeatedly that the withdrawal from Gaza is the last unilateral move he envisions. It’s not clear whether that can be taken as his final answer. Several of his closest supporters and advisers — Finance Minister Ehud Olmert being the most vocal — strongly favor another withdrawal, this time establishing Israel’s eastern border close to the security fence while de-facto incorporating the large blocs of settlements close to the pre-1967 border. Some key aides speak privately of a withdrawal from upward of 80% of the West Bank, close to what former prime minister Ehud Barak offered at Camp David in 2000.

Haim Ramon, the only Labor minister to join Sharon so far, told the Forward that he followed Sharon “to help him execute the second disengagement.” When reminded that Sharon had stated clearly that this was not his intention, Ramon replied rightfully that Sharon also had objected to the withdrawal from Gaza — right up to the moment that he himself decided to adopt it.

This is the main obstacle for those wishing to guess Sharon’s plans: He often seems to have no plans at all. He typically procrastinates until the last minute, seemingly preferring to be pushed into a decision rather than take it. Once he has decided, he moves forward with determination and rare political acumen. This was the case with the disengagement and again with leaving the Likud. There is little to suggest that he would act otherwise should he be re-elected.

He faces little pressure. The Bush administration is on his side, clearly preferring him to the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu and the unknown Amir Peretz. Israelis and Palestinians alike believe he is the only person capable of making historical decisions and following through on them. Old adversaries like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agree. Mubarak, who refused to talk to Sharon when he was first elected prime minister, was quick to congratulate him after he left the Likud.

Sharon has said many times that the onus is now on the Palestinians. He expects them to show real willingness and ability to confront terror. A success by Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for early January 2006, would allow him to further alienate himself from the present situation in the Palestinian Authority. However, this is at odds with his obvious desire to use what would perhaps be his last political hurrah to do what he believes only he is capable of doing: drawing Israel’s borders, if not for eternity then for a very long time.

Where would this lead? No one really knows. Before making those decisions, Sharon must win the upcoming election — he is currently the front-runner, but early polls aren’t worth much, as he knows too well — and form a governing coalition. At that point, he seems unlikely to launch another unilateral initiative along the lines of the disengagement. Rather, if the past tells us anything, he will wait for time and events to lead him to an opportunity, which he then will pursue relentlessly.

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