May 28, 2003

Straight Talk From Ariel Sharon

Important changes have been occurring in Israel in recent days. On Sunday, the Israeli government, for the first time, gave its support to a Palestinian state when it accepted the so-called road map for Middle East peace. On Monday, an equally significant moment occurred when Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and the father of Jewish expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told his party faithful that Israeli rule over Palestinians must be brought to an end.

"You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation," he told Likud members of Parliament in a heated two-hour session. "Holding 3.5 million Palestinians is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy."

Mr. Sharon has not abandoned his support for the scores of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He seems to think that most of them could continue to exist on land that Israel would keep and that would not be part of any future Palestinian state. Yesterday, Mr. Sharon pulled back on the advice of his attorney general, who said the legal term from Israel's perspective was "disputed" rather than "occupied" territories. Mr. Sharon is also a clever politician. He knows that by edging to the center, he can portray himself as besieged from the right and unable to yield all that the Americans may ask of him.

Nonetheless, Mr. Sharon said what needed to be said, succinctly and clearly, and by doing so, he shifted public debate in Israel. No Israeli has spent more time on the battlefield or developed a more deserved reputation for hard-nosed patriotism than Mr. Sharon. When he told his party members that he knew every stone in the West Bank, he was hardly exaggerating. Anyone who has spent time with the prime minister knows him as someone who has a profound attachment to the biblical lands of what he calls Judea and Samaria. Giving them up or a large chunk of them in the name of security for Israel will not be easy for him. Perhaps this 75-year-old warrior has taken a realistic look at his nation's future and understood that Israel must not rule over another people.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company