Sharon's insight

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon delivered an extraordinary speech Thursday to the UN General Assembly. It was a speech that few of his detractors in the past could have imagined him giving and that current rivals in his own Likud Party excoriated him for making.

After speaking in personal terms about his attachment to the land of Israel and his people's bond with Jerusalem, Sharon said: ''The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own."

The words caused his Likud nemesis, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to say that Sharon -- once the patriarch of the settler movement -- had ''veered to the left" and ''will continue the policies of concessions and withdrawals" that began with the recent disengagement from Gaza.

Israelis more lucid than Netanyahu recognize that Sharon is following a trajectory like that of Yitzhak Rabin, another tough-minded military man who came to see that Israel's ultimate security requires a relinquishment of land and a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Neither Rabin nor Sharon reached this conclusion by way of a personality transplant. Both remained what they had always been -- fierce patriots and secular security hawks. As leaders obliged to make realistic assessments of the likely consequences, should Israel seek to prolong its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank indefinitely, they came to see the pursuit of a Greater Israel as a dangerous delusion.

Just as it is a mistake -- albeit a disingenuous one -- for Netanyahu to accuse Sharon of turning into a leftist, it would be wrong to take at face value Sharon's assertion to the General Assembly that the retreat from Gaza should be understood as a painful concession proving his government is prepared to make others ''in order to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians." The Gaza withdrawal was painful politically, but it was hardly a concession. It was a military commander's solution to a security problem. Sharon has greatly reduced the perimeter the Israeli Defense Forces have to protect.

Sharon's conversion is to the realization that settlements are not to be equated with security. On the contrary, settlements that are not accepted by Palestinians in a negotiated two-state peace agreement are a threat to Israel's security. What remains for Sharon or a successor is to enter those negotiations and make that peace.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company