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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
Sharon's peace: A change of heart?

Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Sharm el-Sheikh

Ariel Sharon
Are Mr Sharon's moves tactical or does he really want an accord?
For decades Ariel Sharon has insisted that the occupation of large parts of the West Bank and Gaza is essential for Israel's security.

Now, as prime minister at the head of the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen, he has formally endorsed the roadmap, a peace plan that would establish a Palestinian state.

So has the old warrior had a change of heart, adopting the role of peacemaker as he nears the end of his career?

Mr Sharon presented his acceptance of the roadmap in terms of pragmatic self-interest rather than as a step towards peace.

He told his cabinet that approving the US-backed plan would safeguard Israel's strategic relationship with Washington.

And it would help the country's struggling economy because, he said, diplomatic progress would lead to economic benefits.

This largely negative endorsement faced strong opposition from the far right, but Mr Sharon is really swimming with the tide.

Polls show that a solid Israeli majority supports the roadmap.

Ambiguous

There is debate in Israel about what the prime minister is really up to.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank
Mr Sharon has long insisted Israel must control half the West Bank

Some analysts believe his new moves are only tactical, concealing old policies of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Others believe he does want to achieve a settlement of the conflict in his final term as prime minister.

Mr Sharon's view of the roadmap is ambiguous enough to allow for both readings.

For example, he says he accepts its call for a provisional Palestinian state before a final peace treaty.

But where the roadmap is vague about the entity, Mr Sharon is clear: he has said it will cover no more than 50% of the West Bank and have no control of its borders.

That would allow him to keep most of the settlements in place, consistent with his long-held position that Israel needs to control at least half of the West Bank for its security interests.

What is yet to be tested is whether this would be compatible with George Bush's vision of a viable Palestinian state

At the Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh marking his engagement in the peace process the US president said Israel would have to deal with the settlements and make sure the Palestinians had territory continuous enough to call home.

Palestinians fear the provisional arrangement could become Ariel Sharon's permanent solution.

For them it would be a state in name, but occupation in practice, and it would not end the conflict.


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