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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 April, 2005, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Analysis: Forging Israel's destiny
Jonathan Marcus
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon's change of heart has turned Israeli politics inside out

At almost every bus stop in Israel there are posters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - his face staring out from behind prison bars - over the slogan "disengagement will not save you".

It is a blunt message from his former friends in the settler movement.

They have been enraged by Mr Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Some 8,000 people will be uprooted, their homes and businesses left behind.

Four other Jewish settlements in the northern part of the West Bank are also to be abandoned.

Change of mind

It is an extraordinary reversal. Mr Sharon was for many years the champion of the settler movement.

His muscular Zionism seemed to be in tune with the religious and ideological zealots who sought to take advantage of Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War to settle on what they saw as the Jewish people's Biblical lands.

But no longer. Mr Sharon has seemingly changed his mind - at least about Gaza - and in so doing he has turned the Israeli political spectrum inside out.

Poster Ariel Sharon
Posters protray the feelings towards Mr Sharon

He has deeply divided his own Likud Party and he is now reviled by the settlers.

Nonetheless many, more liberal Israelis who would never have had a good word to say about their controversial prime minister are now backing him to the hilt.

This, despite the fact that all sorts of rumours of corruption and impropriety have wafted around Mr Sharon and members of his closest family.

"I was very much against Sharon," a left-leaning lawyer told me.

"But being what he is, he is the only man that is capable of really executing disengagement, so now I am supporting him.

"Only Sharon can bring about a withdrawal."

It's a view I heard time and time again.

Some even likened him to an Israeli De Gaulle - a reference to the conservative French president who at the outset of the Fifth Republic shocked many of his right-wing supporters by abandoning French control over Algeria.

The Israeli ship-of-State is changing course and this change of course is of dramatic long-term historical significance
Professor Asher Susser

It is not a far-fetched comparison, says Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv university.

He says that the debate that is getting under way is not just about disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

It is the beginning of a re-definition of what Israel is.

"The Israeli ship-of-State is changing course and this change of course is of dramatic long-term historical significance," he says.

In Professor Susser's view Mr Sharon has belatedly realised that Israel cannot continue to be a majority Jewish state while ruling over large numbers of Palestinian Arabs.

Tightening grip

Critics argue that Mr Sharon is intent on giving up the Gaza Strip and a small number of settlements in the West Bank in order to simply tighten Israel's grip on those that remain.

But Professor Susser argues that the dynamic that is being created is totally opposed to the dynamic that controlled the policies of this country since 1967.

Ephraim Sneh
Ephraim Sneh expects yet another u-turn

"It's a dynamic of contraction rather than of expansion," he says.

"It's starting in Gaza; it makes no sense if it ends there."

But how far has Mr Sharon really changed? He still, for example, wants to hold onto the large settlement blocs in the West Bank, like Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion.

For all the talk of the roadmap peace plan and the hopes invested in the new Palestinian leadership, many people that I spoke to believe that Mr Sharon is now engaged in a wider struggle to define Israel's borders, with or without an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Does Mr Sharon really have it in him to make significant further territorial concessions in the West Bank?

Veteran Labour politician Ephraim Sneh expects yet another U-turn on the part of the prime minister ahead of the next election in an effort to retain the leadership of the Likud.

But difficult decisions will be necessary whoever holds the reins of power.

Expanding the settlements, he said, would only bring about a third intifada that may be more violent and more brutal than the second one.

This is the pressure of the reality, he argued, and this will drive Israeli society to a long over-due decision.

"What do we really want," he asked, "to preserve the current map of settlements or to put an end to the war?"

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