Sharon's new thinking


IT IS HARD to know which is the more startling: Ariel Sharon's apparent readiness to renounce Israel's occupation in the ''disputed territories'' or President Bush's immersion in Mideast peacemaking and the daunting work of nation-building in Iraq. Although each of these transformations may turn out to be ephemeral, both open up curative possibilities for peoples badly in need of healing, so both should be encouraged as if they were sincere.

It should be recognized that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's tyranny in Iraq created new opportunities to realize the promise of the road map for Mideast peace, with its vista of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005 and security for Israel within internationally recognized borders.

The link between Saddam's overthrow and the dramatic conversions of Sharon and Bush appears more evident to Israelis than to Americans or Palestinians. With Saddam gone, Israel's strategic situation is greatly enhanced -- at least for several years. At the same time, Sharon is in no position to defy the American president who changed the regime in Baghdad. Certainly not when the road map Bush wants Israel and the Palestinians to follow could eventually extricate Israelis from a situation that is becoming more and more untenable, not only psychologically but also economically.

This is how Yoel Marcus, columnist for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, described the background to Sharon's acceptance of the road map and Israel's need to end the occupation: ''Especially after the war in Iraq and America's troubles there, Bush has had less patience for Sharon's stalling tactics and excuses.'' Marcus recounted Sharon's attempts to alter the road map and Bush's refusal to budge. ''So why is Sharon giving in?'' Marcus asked rhetorically. ''Because Bush said so.''

It should be obvious not only to the peace camp in Israel but also to Palestinians and Washington that Sharon's reluctance to get on the wrong side of Bush cannot, in the absence of other incentives, be a sound basis for the historic compromises called for in the road map. This is why the pragmatic reasons Sharon gave for accepting the road map so alarmed Israeli hawks and delighted doves.

''You may not like the word, but what is happening is occupation,'' Sharon told Knesset members from his Likud party Monday. ''Holding 3.5 million Palestinians is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for the Israeli economy.''

When he meets with Abbas and Sharon on June 4 in Jordan, Bush should press Abbas to end terrorism and Sharon to act upon his recognition that Israel's long-term interests can best be served by ending the occupation and negotiating terms for peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state.

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