| Ariel Sharon during a party meeting in Jerusalem on Monday. (AFP)
Jerusalem, May 27 (Reuters): Unbelievable.
That was the word on everyone’s lips today after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a champion of Jewish settlement in areas Palestinians want for a state, described Israel’s hold on land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as “occupation”.
Stunned Israelis and Palestinians are trying to determine whether the veteran warhorse has actually changed stride or just made a tactical move to appease Israel’s main ally, the US.
Jaws dropped along with Sharon’s bombshell yesterday when he defended his Right-wing government’s acceptance of a US-backed peace plan that calls for creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 on land Israel seized in the 1967 war.
“We don’t like the word, but this is occupation. To keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel and the Palestinians,” Sharon, sounding like a spokesman for an Israeli peace movement, told angry legislators from his Likud party.
A former general, the 75-year-old Sharon has called the West Bank many things before — the Biblical land of Israel, the land of Jewish forefathers — but never “occupied”, a word Palestinians use as a rallying cry in an uprising for statehood.
Sharon’s office further confused the issue when, seeking to clarify his reference to “occupation”, it said today he meant “control over a Palestinian populace in disputed areas”.
In any case, few in Israel were taking his new-found word literally.
“Deep inside, he doesn’t really believe that anything can be done with (Palestinian President Yasser) Arafat still around,” said a veteran observer who speaks often with Sharon.
“So he says: ‘Why should I be the one to screw the Americans over and be the refusenik in peace moves'’.” Deep down, he doesn’t believe settlements will have to be evacuated, because the Palestinians will torpedo the deal.”
Since Sharon first took office in 2001, debates have raged in Israel on whether he would indeed deliver on a pledge to make “painful concessions” — never defined publicly — for peace.
Sharon has famously been dogged for the past 20 years by allegations that he deceived then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin about the planned scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Sharon denies misleading the late Begin.
Meanwhile speculation is rife that in his twilight years, the man nicknamed “the bulldozer” was determined to enter the history books as a peacemaker, emulating Begin who returned the occupied Sinai peninsula to Egypt under landmark peace accords.
Sending out mixed signals at the Likud meeting, Sharon pointedly coupled his support of the peace “road map” with a pledge that he would not press on with the plan if the Palestinians did not halt violence against Israelis. “If terrorism continues, the Palestinians will not receive anything,” he said. Confused Israelis prepared to sit back and watch as a summit, apparently next week, with US President George W. Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas approached.
“What is great about Sharon is that even today...he can still spin everybody like a top,” political commentator Chemi Shalev wrote in the newspaper Maariv.
Saeb Erekat, a former chief Palestinian peace negotiator, took a page out of Sharon's well-thumbed book of catch-phrases towards the Palestinians in commenting on his new use of the term“occupation”.
”We need to see deeds, not words,” Erekat said.