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Intentions Unclear, Sharon Remains Sphinx of Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Does he or doesn’t he? This is the question asked most often these days about Prime Minister Sharon. Does the Israeli leader seriously intend to push the peace process forward, as he professes with growing vigor, or is he just playing for time, waiting for an opportunity to abort the process?

The signals are mixed, the evidence is conflicting and the testimonies of those who purport to know are contradictory. A recent poll published in the daily Yediot Aharonot showed that 60% of Israelis believe Sharon is genuinely interested in promoting peace. But those who know him best are divided. In the end, where the Middle East peace process is concerned, Sharon remains the Sphinx of Jerusalem.

Sharon seems to have enjoyed keeping everyone guessing while playing the ends against the middle. But he may have to supply some answers soon. The deal reached this week between Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate Abu Mazen means a Palestinian Cabinet may be confirmed next week, clearing the way for President Bush to publish his much-anticipated road map to peace. Bush’s aides say they intend to launch a new round of serious Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy involving real concessions on both sides. If so, Sharon’s juggling days could be over.

Sharon is in a dark mood these days, his confidants report. Some

ascribe the melancholy to fears of failing health, after doctors removed a cancerous mole from his cheek last week. Others say the ongoing police investigation of Sharon and his sons is souring the prime minister’s spirits. But most observers believe Sharon’s reported funk is due to his realization that the time for decisions is approaching, and that he will soon have to make up his mind one way or another.

He has recently dropped broad hints about his willingness to leave important parts of the West Bank, even such sacrosanct Jewish sites as Shiloh and Beit El. But it was only a few months ago, during coalition negotiations, that Sharon lectured Labor leader Amram Mitzna at length on the “vital strategic importance” of Netzarim, the Gaza settlement that is arguably the most isolated and superfluous of Jewish outposts in the territories.

Sharon has publicly embraced President Bush’s “vision” for peace, including Palestinian statehood, and despite his reservations he has pointedly refrained from rejecting Bush’s Middle East road map to peace. But at the same time, he has placed a new and powerful political land mine in the way of progress, with his recent demand that the Palestinians renounce their “right of return” as a precondition to — rather than in the course of — serious talks.

Sharon claims he recognizes the “window of opportunity” resulting from regional changes in the aftermath of the recent war in Iraq. But he has shown no change on his own part in his basic mistrust of the Palestinians, with whom a deal must be made if the opportunity is to be seized. He stated early on that Abu Mazen was an acceptable negotiating partner as far as Israel is concerned, but he refused to buttress the prime-minister designate’s precarious position with any Israeli gestures in the territories. And while Abu Mazen floundered, Arafat continued to call the shots, nearly aborting the whole process.

Not Sharon’s fault, say his supporters. It’s just what he had in mind, his critics counter.

These days everyone is looking to Sharon’s personal history for clues to his future behavior, but the clues are contradictory, their significance mainly in the eyes of the beholder. Sharon is the “father of the settlements” and wouldn’t dare abandon his offspring, say opponents of the peace process. But it was then-defense minister Sharon who gave the green light to then-prime minister Menachem Begin to evacuate the Yamit settlements in the Sinai Desert in 1981, paving the way for peace with Egypt and creating the precedent of total withdrawal in exchange for total peace. Then again, Sharon has publicly expressed regret for supporting the evacuation of Yamit, just as he has disowned his own crucial role in the 1998 Wye River Agreements with Arafat, signed by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sharon is the architect of the Lebanon War, a critic of every peace agreement signed by Israel, a champion of the eternal “iron fist.” But he was also one of the first Israeli politicians to contemplate an independent Palestinian state, as early as 1977, when he tried to entice ultra-dove Yossi Sarid to join his short-lived Shlomzion party. “We do not wish to rule over another people,” he often states. But he is perennially critical of surrendering any of the land on which these people happen to live.

Nor does the makeup of Sharon’s new coalition provide conclusive evidence one way or another. Sharon preferred the moderate Shinui over the much more rightist Shas, but he also reneged on his pledge not to include the far-right National Union Party in his coalition. His current coalition is unlikely to support any sweeping concessions, even under pressure from Washington, but Sharon has carefully kept his options open by cultivating Labor, which seems eager to come on board if the right walks out.

Perhaps the most important clue to Sharon’s future behavior lies in his widely accepted image as a brilliant tactician but a mediocre strategist. According to this theory, Sharon may have some ultimate strategic goal in mind, but what will ultimately make or break his peace-making efforts is the real-time situation that develops on the ground, in military, diplomatic and economic terms.

Sharon and his advisers are already busy rethinking their basic premises in the wake of the inconclusive talks held last week in Washington by his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass. Contrary to initial projections and to Weisglass’s own repeated assertions, the Bush administration refused to countenance Israel’s list of amendments to the road map. Still, Israeli officials say the administration has begun differentiating between the “presentation” of the road map, which is to come on the heels of the installation of the new Palestinian Cabinet, and the map’s “implementation,” which will require further Israeli-Palestinian “dialogue.” As long as Washington does not ask Israel to take it or leave it, Sharon’s advisers say, the prime minister still has plenty of room to maneuver.

Sharon’s aides point out that his positions on the peace process enjoy considerable support in Congress and in the American Jewish community. The prime minister has yet to mobilize all his political assets in the United States, the aides say, preferring to save them as a “weapon of last resort” if and when differences between Jerusalem and Washington become irreconcilable.

In recent months, Sharon has linked Israel’s deteriorating economy to the continuing strife with the Palestinians, claiming that only the solution of the latter will improve the former. But some of his advisers claim that the Treasury’s controversial new economic plan will provide at least stopgap relief. Besides, some economic indicators show that the aftermath of the war in Iraq might lead to a general global recovery. That would reduce the urgency of a solution with the Palestinians.

It appears that Sharon will make his fateful decision, to be or not to be, only when all other options have been exhausted. His stated preconditions of a total end to terrorism and a genuine reform in the Palestinian Authority are still far from being realized. If and when they are, Sharon will weigh the potential damage to relations with the United States, the ramifications for Israel’s ailing economy and the domestic political consequences of any drastic move. Only then, if at all, will he commit himself. Only then will history be able to decide which of the two personalities to whom Sharon is often compared is more fitting — Charles de Gaulle, who extricated France from Algeria, or Yitzhak Shamir, who spent seven years making sure the peace process got nowhere.

In any case, as even those who believe in Sharon the peacemaker admit, he is unlikely to lead to Israel to the very final stages of negotiations with the Palestinians. In final-status talks, most experts agree, Israel will have to relinquish most of the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and evacuate most of the settlements built in those territories. Sharon, even at his most generous and expansive, appears incapable of making such drastic concessions.

Sharon, at best, can be taken for what he’s worth. He appears capable of reversing the violent trends of the last two years and of kicking off a peace process that will include the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state, perhaps with some symbolic removal of a settlement or two. The rest will have to be left to the future, and to Sharon’s successors.

Sharon will then be remembered as the prime minister who relentlessly fought the terrorism of Palestinians, forced them back to the negotiating table and paved the way to a new era of coexistence. Whether that is the legacy he wishes to leave behind is still, as noted, highly uncertain.

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