JERUSALEM - It has been viewed variously as a trial balloon, a propaganda stunt or a move to steal his critics' thunder.
Whatever its intention, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent mention of undefined "unilateral steps" he might take to tame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vague but volatile remark that has created an uproar in Israel. It comes at a time Sharon is fending off foreign and domestic pressure to jump-start the stalled peace process with a new approach.
The words were barely out of Sharon's mouth when Israeli media, citing unnamed sources close to the prime minister, immediately interpreted them to mean that isolated Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could be evacuated by next summer and other settlements could be clustered behind the controversial fence Israel is building to partition off the West Bank. That analysis triggered dismay among settlement supporters, including some in Sharon's ruling Likud party.
At a meeting of Likud parliament members Monday, he faced a barrage of criticism. Cabinet minister Uzi Landau reportedly said the Likud would "not permit" Sharon to withdraw from settlements without a peace deal. "Whoever talks about withdrawing from settlements simply invites more terror," he said.
Gilad Erdan, spearheading the party's right wing, pointedly reminded the prime minister that the "Likud was elected into power because of its policies, and not because of its leader."
A year ago, over Sharon's objection, the party adopted a position flatly opposing a Palestinian state.
Since then, with no sense Israel is any closer to peace, with the mistrust between Palestinians and Israel widening and calcifying by the day, critics are speaking out and to a degree trying to take matters in their own hands.
Several privately sponsored peace proposals and a chorus of influential voices, including the army chief of staff and four former directors of the Israeli internal security service, have warned of impending disaster for the Jewish state unless Sharon changes his military approach to the conflict and fosters diplomatic initiatives.
"It's typical of the political scene in Israel," said Yossi Ben-Aharon, an adviser to the regional council of Israeli settlements. "The left says the comment means nothing, he's just hoodwinking us. The right fears he is painting himself into a corner and sooner or later will be called upon to produce something concrete.
"Nobody knows for sure whether Sharon is playing a game, buying time and just posing as a leader willing to take steps to meet the Palestinians halfway while maintaining his hold on the settlements and expanding them," said Ben-Aharon. "Or whether he is influenced by people around him - his bureau chief, his sons and others - and is laying the groundwork for an eventual shift in the government's position to carry out the main elements of the road map."
The internationally sponsored road map peace plan is a centerpiece of U.S. policy in the region. It calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. It calls on Palestinians to end violence and incitement. After a series of reciprocal steps, it would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Sharon has answered his critics by saying the unilateral steps are just ideas and would not become an initiative until he presents them to his cabinet for approval.
"What [the Palestinians] didn't receive today, they won't necessarily receive tomorrow," he told concerned Likudniks. "Unilateral steps means non-negotiable steps, and these won't always be to [the Palestinians] benefit."
Trying to calm the criticism, he added, "There is no need to be upset by reports of journalists who write more than they know. I said one phrase, 'I don't rule out unilateral moves.' No need to get excited. Nothing has happened yet."
While avoiding any direct mention of the settlements, Sharon also stirred more consternation when in the context of speaking about "painful concessions" he said, "it is obvious that ultimately we shall not be in all the places we're in now."