It wasn't a particularly funny joke. Unveiling his plan for limited and unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank last month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was well aware his audience wanted him to specify which Jewish settlements in biblical Judea and Samaria he intended to remove. "I know you would like to hear names," he said. Then he paused, in the best comedic tradition, before delivering the punch line: "But we should leave something for later."
Not that funny, but quite remarkable. Less than five years ago, as foreign minister, Ariel Sharon urged Israelis to "grab more hilltops," so that no future prime minister would be able to relinquish the West Bank. Now, as part of his "Disengagement Plan," Sharon was signalling that he has become that very prime minister.
The settlers' champion, the construction bulldozer whose government incentives practically force young Israelis to move to the territories for affordable accommodation, has had a radical change of heart. The man who dispatched the Jews to the historic hilltops now intends to bring some back down. And he's feeling confident, even lighthearted, enough to joke about it.
There's a lot of healthy cynicism about Sharon's withdrawal declarations, which he has reiterated several times in recent days, including at a raucous convention of his own Likud party where he was heckled and howled at. On the left, the conviction is that this is all hot air. Among his rather rattled loyalists, there is a tendency to regard the Prime Minister's talk of unilateral disengagement, to new, more "efficient" security lines, as an ultimatum, designed to prompt the Palestinian Authority into an unlikely crackdown on terror groups, and thus pave the way for a return to the negotiating table.
But on the unreconstructed right, as the 100,000-plus demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday night underlined, they are taking him at his word. And they are worried.
Sharon does not intend to withdraw from an overwhelming proportion of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority is furiously protesting that the security barrier Israel is building to thwart suicide bombers has become a land-grab, routed far inside the West Bank in some areas. What Sharon has in mind for unilateral disengagement will have them angrier still: his vision is for a military pullback to the barrier in some places, but with deployments further east, deeper inside the West Bank, in others.
Yet any withdrawal at all is anathema to Israeli right-wingers. Radical rabbis have dusted off the pronouncements that condemned the late Yitzhak Rabin's territorial compromise as ungodly, and Rabin was at least acting in the context of a peace agreement.
Settlers have vowed to mass thousands of supporters to prevent the dismantling even of the dozens of small "unauthorized" outposts.
Should the Prime Minister indeed now follow his rhetorical transformation with action on the ground, he will force some of the smaller, rightist factions out of his multi-party coalition and into frenzied opposition, and could provoke a mutiny within his own Likud. Out in the territories, chaos, and worse, are almost guaranteed. If the army is heavy-handed and civilians are wounded, the settler struggle will attract wider support. But if settler extremists resort to violence, and soldiers are hurt, the general Israeli response will be solidarity with the army.
His rightist critics charge that Sharon has "gone soft", caved in to American pressure. But the truth is that Sharon has merely acknowledged the demographic reality: very soon, there will be more non-Jews than Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - in all the areas, that is, presently under Israeli control. If Israel does not separate from the Palestinians, the Jewish state will find itself replicating apartheid South Africa, its shrinking Jewish minority decried worldwide for denying voting rights to a growing non-Jewish majority. Only by disengaging from the territories can Israel remain both Jewish in population and democratic.
Sharon has been remarking for months that Israel's own existential imperatives mean it cannot annex the territories. And since he has concluded, in the aftermath of Mahmoud Abbas's brief unhappy term as PA prime minister last year, that there is "no one to talk to" on the Palestinian side, he sees his only alternative as unilateral action.
Ariel Sharon championed settlement for decades both because he believed in the Jews' right to build homes anywhere in the biblical land of Israel, and because he believed that a Jewish presence there boosted Israel's security. As recently as two years ago, he was resisting pressure to build the security barrier - because it would divide that biblical land - consenting only when the relentless onslaught of suicide bombers forced his hand. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, he was still defending the post-1967 War decision to establish settlements all over the territories. "But many things have changed since then," he allowed.
Joking aside, the Prime Minister has yet to indicate which of those settlements he now regards as counter-productive. And it is a safe bet that the unilateral withdrawal he has in mind will both antagonise the Israeli right and leave the Palestinians furious. But most Israelis are with him. Indeed, they recognised the demographic imperatives long before he did.
The author is editor of The Jerusalem Report.