It would make a beautiful biopic: the blood-splattered old General, in his 77th year, discovers the cause of peace. The movie opens with a young Ariel Sharon leading Unit 101 - a notorious Israeli death-squad that was sent into Palestinian villages to burn houses and terrorise civilians in raw revenge attacks. Cut to Sharon 50 years later, sitting over a plate of gefilte fish with Abu Mazen, the elected Palestinian leader, haggling over he status of east Jerusalem as grandchildren play at his feet.
This story is so intoxicating that many Israelis -desperate for an end to the grinding war of attrition that has haunted the country since its creation - have convinced themselves it must be true. Look at the changes Sharon is bringing, they say: he has now dismantled two big settlement blocs in his career - Sinai in 1982, and Gaza in 2005. He has torched the Israeli political landscape by quitting his own right-wing party, Likud, and formed a new centre party for peace. His people are briefing the Israeli press that they want a binding peace treaty and the creation of a Palestinian state in Sharon's third term. So is it time to clear the Israeli film studios and start casting the movie?
The facts, alas, do not back up this blissed-out fantasy. Ariel Sharon has dedicated his career to destroying any sort of peace negotiations, and to denying the Palestinians a viable state. Far from representing a Damascene conversion, his statements reveal the underlying continuity of his plans. Just a year ago, Sharon said he accepts the road-map because "first and foremost, it does not demand a return to the 1967 borders; it allows Israel permanently to keep large settlement blocks which have high Israeli populations; and [it entrenches] the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel." Yesterday his top political strategist, Eyal Arad, said that the idea of swapping land for peace was "false philosophically, and naive politically", and insisted Sharon would never lead his new party to a return to the Green Line. You can't say they didn't warn us.
In reality, what Sharon means by "peace" and a "Palestinian state" is so withered and weak that the Palestinians can never accept it. He is proposing - as a non-negotiable starting point to talks - to annexe much of the West Bank, one of the few remaining scraps of land inhabited by the Palestinians.
Today only 22 percent of historical Palestine is designated for its Arab inhabitants, and this is too much for Sharon: he will append even more to Israel by force and seal it off with an iron wall. All that will remain on the other side is a Palestinian statelet consisting of the scrag-end of the West Bank, an isolated Gaza, and a lonely east Jerusalem. Three decades ago, Sharon said the way to control the Palestinians was to "salami slice" their land, separating them from each other and surrounding them with armed Israeli settlers. That is precisely what he is proposing today.
Even to get to the miserable position where this offer is made, the Palestinian leader Abu Mazen has to do the impossible and dismantle "all terrorist organisations" operating on his soil. This is hard when almost all your police stations have been demolished or blown up. And it is harder still for Mazen to persuade a people living under vicious occupation that they should pre-emptively hand over all their weapons, on the off-chance that Sharon is now suddenly interested in peace after all these years of killing them.
Yet most of the world is ignoring Sharon's explicit statements and buying the rhetoric of Sharon as centrist peacemaker. Partly, this is because the genuine shift that occurred in Sharon's political thought in the early Noughties has been poorly understood. He has genuinely moved - but only a few inches. He used to believe in a Greater Israel stretching from the river to the sea, populated by new waves of pioneering Jewish settlers like his parents. He was the leading champion of these settlers in the Knesset, allocating huge funds for them to build homes on Palestinian land.
But then - some time earlier this decade - he began to understand that this bloated Israel was resting on a demographic time-bomb. Because Palestinians have far more children than Jews, within 20 years Israel was set to become an apartheid state presiding over an Arab majority. This is unthinkable - so Sharon had to claw back Israel's borders to accommodate a firmer Jewish majority. His advisor Dov Weisglass explained that Sharon gave up as little as possible to the Palestinians, shedding Gaza - "which is of no strategic importance" - precisely so he could retain control of the choicest morsels of the West Bank. "The settlers should have been dancing around the Prime Minister's office" in glee at this clever move, he said.
So here's the reality: Sharon has shifted from believing in Greater Israel to believing in the greatest Israel compatible with a Jewish majority. This is enough to enrage the crazies in Likud, but it is hardly a conversion to the cause of peace. It is not likely to end in a Palestinian state that even moderates like Abu Mazen can settle for. That's why I am extremely nervous about the pre-emptive selling of Sharon as a dove: it is setting up the Palestinians up for another fall.
There is now a real danger that Sharon will be elected on a "peace" landslide, sweep up to Mazen with a derisory, dangerous offer, and be rejected. (If Mazen gives in to American pressure to accept a lousy deal, there is a risk of triggering a third Intifada among an outraged population.) Cue the accusations once again that the Palestinians have inexplicably rejected Israel's Generous Offer (copyright Ehud Barak), when in fact they have merely been offered a cheap Tesco Own Brand peace they could never accept.
I hope I am wrong. I hope Sharon has - in his late seventies - undergone a much larger change of heart than is revealed in his words and actions.
But everybody who has put their trust into Sharon seems to have been cruelly disappointed. Levi Eshkol - the Israeli Prime Minister during the 1967 war - trusted the general, only to find out years later that Sharon had suggested mounting an anti-democratic military coup against him. Menachem Begin - the first Likud Prime Minister - trusted Sharon in 1982 when, as Minister of Defence, he led the country into an invasion of Lebanon he claimed would last a matter of weeks. Israeli troops remained for 18 years, and Begin retired into near-seclusion, believing Sharon had deliberately deceived him. Sharon's own soldiers trusted him, until he was found by the Israeli Knesset's own investigation to be indirectly responsible for the 9/11-sized massacre of over 2,000 innocent Lebanese civilians.
If you were a Palestinian or an Israeli peace activist, would you trust in this half-offer of a half-state?Reuse content