The Bulldozer, dancing

PRESENTED with the best chance for Middle East peace since the 1993 Oslo accords he despised, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finds himself fighting his own hawk-like instincts. The man the Israelis call "The Bulldozer" must now dance the delicate minuet of peace.

On Sunday, under heavy pressure from the Bush administration, Mr. Sharon cajoled his Cabinet into approving the road map for peace backed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. It "was not a happy decision," he said, but "if we reject the road map, it could lead to confrontation with the Americans."

Flush with victory - the Cabinet vote was the first time Israeli ministers have ever agreed to the principle of a Palestinian state - Mr. Sharon spent Monday defending his position before his conservative supporters in parliament. "Ruling three and a half million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely," said the man perhaps most responsible for Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza. "You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation."

Mr. Sharon's use of "the O-word" set off diplomatic rockets. The word "occupation" is anathema to conservative Israelis, who insist that Israel "liberated" Palestinian territory during the 1967 war and has since been "administering" those "disputed" territories. On Tuesday, Mr. Sharon tried to dance away from his use of the O-word, saying "people did not understand me."

He was right the first time, and should not apologize for it. Polls show that 56 percent of the Israeli people favor the road map, and the Israeli stock market jumped 7 percent on the hope of Cabinet approval. It was a courageous, giant step, and one for which George W. Bush deserves enormous credit. The dramatic shift in rhetoric (if not Mr. Sharon's heart of hearts) also prepares the way for Mr. Bush's personal involvement in brokering peace; he must seize the moment.

The presence in "disputed" Palestinian territory of Israeli settlements - many of them built at Mr. Sharon's insistence - suggests that occupation is not mere semantics. What happens with those settlements is a large part of the road map for peace.

The plan calls for an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders to be established by the end of the year, and the state fully established by 2005. Israel would gradually withdraw troops from Palestinian areas, and growth in new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would stop immediately. Israel's reservations about the road map center on its timetable, including what "immediately" means.

Mr. Sharon assured his Cabinet that President Bush had assured him Israel's 14-point list of reservations would be "fully and seriously" addressed. But if Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas completes his first obligation under the road map - the end to suicide bombings and other violence - Israel will be obliged to remove its security troops from "disputed" territory - immediately.

Mr. Bush, who will meet with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas next week, should remind them of these imperatives. Peace comes at a price. For Mr. Abbas, it is reaching an accommodation with Hamas and other terrorists. For Mr. Sharon, it is abandoning his political base, and the instincts of a lifetime, to reach out to old enemies. The Bulldozer has come a long way; the world's peace may ride on his ability to complete the journey.