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Sharon's peacemaking

FOR AN ISRAELI who opposed the land-for-peace deals of years past, Ariel Sharon is making his own way down the road toward a settlement with the Palestinians. For an Israeli leader who rejected the idea of erecting a security fence along Palestinian lands, the prime minister is building his way toward a physical separation of the two peoples. The former general whose military campaign on the West Bank led to the detention of thousands of Palestinians has now released hundreds of prisoners.

Has a powerful politician undergone a political transformation or has a prime minister with power transformed the political prospects for peace? Mr. Sharon's ideology remains solidly hawkish. But as the leader of the Jewish state in an era of unsparing violence, Mr. Sharon has crafted a pragmatic approach toward meeting Israel's obligations under the U.S.-backed road map to peace. He expends the least amount of political capital to achieve the minimum required of him.

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Consider the following: He pulled back Israeli troops from Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip, two areas with limited threat potential to the state. He ordered the removal of a dozen or so settlement outposts on the West Bank, sites nearly uninhabited. His release of 334 prisoners last week -- though not required under the plan -- included few detainees from the 33 months of violence that ended with a June cease-fire by Palestinian militants. The release of detainees -- an unlikely prospect -- would signal a shift in Mr. Sharon's thinking.

Each action is calculated to show Mr. Sharon's apparent willingness to support U.S. efforts to end Israel's 36-year occupation of Palestinian lands and establish a Palestinian state. His recent decision to delay building part of the security fence -- an issue not included in the road map -- should address President Bush's concerns on the expropriation of West Bank lands.

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If the peace initiative unravels, Mr. Sharon has a ready defense to any claim that Israel didn't support it. He will point to hilltops cleared of settlement trailers, the removal of checkpoints, an increase in work permits for Palestinians. Mr. Sharon is confident in his position. Well-liked by Mr. Bush, he has a powerful ally in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who views the breakup of militant groups as a precondition of any deal.

But the key reason Mr. Sharon can move at his own pace is Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' inability to carry out his prime responsibility under the peace plan: dismantling the militant groups. Mr. Abbas needs to improve the daily lives of Palestinians before he can take on the militants.

And for that, he needs Ariel Sharon, a willing warrior and reluctant peacemaker.


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