After several years in office that have been characterized by ongoing violence and diplomatic stalemate, Ariel Sharon says he is determined to press ahead with new peace moves that could include "painful concessions" to the Palestinians.
The prime minister's remarks last week elicited scathing criticism from within his own Likud Party. But opposition leaders and senior Israeli pundits remain skeptical. Sharon has made similar bombastic announcements before, they say, but never delivered.
Sharon confidants have been dropping broad hints that the prime minister's grand plan includes dismantling some Jewish settlements to pave the way for the establishment of a mini-Palestinian state by next summer. Even if peace talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's new government fail, aides say that Sharon -- for profound strategic reasons -- intends to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from some Palestinian territories to create a clear line of separation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The National Religious Party and the far-right National Union bloc are threatening to bolt the coalition if Sharon goes ahead. Leaders of the opposition Labor Party, though, say that if Sharon is serious, they'll be ready to join his government.
It all started with one enigmatic sentence. "I don't rule out unilateral steps," Sharon declared emphatically -- but without elaboration -- at an exporters' conference in Tel Aviv on Nov. 20.
The remark sparked a flurry of exegesis. One explanation was that the prime minister meant Israeli gestures to help bolster Qurei's position on the Palestinian street; another was the more radical notion of unilateral withdrawal if negotiations with Qurei failed.
Both ideas stung Likud politicians, who called a Knesset party meeting Monday and demanded that Sharon explain himself. However, the prime minister declined to retract his hints or spell out in any detail what he meant.
Sharon refused to deny reports that he intended to evacuate some settlements and said he had spoken about "painful concessions" so that "people wouldn't wake up one day and say they didn't know."
"It is obvious," Sharon continued, "that ultimately we will not be in all the places we are in now."
As for the unilateral steps, Sharon said he meant steps in "our favor" -- in other words, "moves in which the Palestinians would get less than they could have got through negotiation." Sharon warned the Palestinians that Israeli patience was not endless, and that if the Palestinians did not work seriously toward a peace deal now, they should not expect to find the same offers still on the table in the future.
Critics within the Likud Party charged that unilateral moves meant giving in to terror, contradicting the party's official policy. Despite the vehemence of the Likud clash, pundits remained unconvinced.
Ha'aretz's Yossi Verter argued that the party simply was playing the role assigned to it by Sharon's spin doctors, making Sharon look like a moderate.
It was, Verter wrote, a "shop-worn ritual" in which "Sharon goes to the Likud Knesset faction, which is comprised mainly of rightists, some ideological, some opportunistic. They jump all over him. He bangs on the table and reminds them that they owe their jobs to him, and once again earns the media's plaudits. And all without saying a single word in his own voice that would commit him to evacuating settlements."
But others say three factors are spurring Sharon to try to break the current impasse: U.S. pressure, grass-roots peace initiatives that are invigorating the Israeli opposition and the so-called demographic problem -- the fact that, within a few years, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
Now that Qurei is in place, the United States is stepping up pressure on Sharon. Bush's top Middle East adviser met with Sharon last week in Rome to discuss U.S.-Israel differences over the route of the planned security barrier and the dismantling of settlement outposts. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, picked up the same themes in discussions Tuesday in Washington with Dov Weisglass, Sharon's top adviser.
In addition, William Burns, the top U.S. envoy to the region, will meet with leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah this weekend -- his first visit since August -- showing Bush's renewed commitment to peace making there.
So what does Sharon really have in mind? Is it all spin or does Sharon really mean to act?
According to his aides, who insist that Sharon is serious, the prime minister has a two-tiered plan. The overall aim is to reach a clear division between Israel and a mini-Palestinian state by the summer.
Plan A would do so through negotiations based on the "road map" peace plan. Plan B would do so unilaterally if the road map negotiations fail.
Analysts say the demographic bogeyman should not be underestimated, because Jews soon could constitute a minority in the area including Israel and the Palestinian territories. Then, instead of a two-state solution in which the states of Israel and Palestine coexist side by side, the Arabs may well demand a single "Greater Palestine" comprised of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- with an Arab majority. That would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
To preempt this situation, people close to Sharon for the first time are talking in terms of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In mid-November interviews with Ha'aretz and Israel Radio, Deputy Prime Minster Ehud Olmert gave the first inkling of the new thinking.
Olmert, one of the ministers closest to Sharon, declared that if the road map negotiations fail -- as he expects -- "Israel will have the right to take unilateral actions to separate from the Palestinians through a fence or other measures."
To counter the demographic problem, he said, the line between Israel and the Palestinian areas should be drawn in such a way as to include the maximum number of Jews and a minimum number of Palestinians.
Sharon, too, apparently is concerned that failure to reach a two-state solution could expose Israel to demands for a binational state. That, his aides say, is partly why he is so intent on separating from the Palestinians, with or without agreement, by next summer.
All this, too, could be spin. But if Sharon really is serious and if negotiations with the Palestinians fail, the big question will be where Sharon draws the dividing line between the two peoples.
Will it be a line that entails dismantling settlements and keeps open future chances for a two-state deal, as many on the right fear? Or does Sharon plan to leave the Palestinians with 50 percent or less of the West Bank, undermining prospects for a future agreement, as many on the left fear?
The pundits suggest a third option, that Sharon is merely playing for time, using feints and dodges to impress the Americans and the Israeli public, with no intention of making meaningful political moves.
As usual in the Middle East, what the future holds is anyone's guess.