He is the current prime minister of Israel and the longtime standard-bearer of the country's right wing. Known for his blunt-spoken nature and hawkish policies toward Palestinians, Ariel Sharon would seem the wrong man at the wrong time to push for peace in the Middle East.

Yet in recent weeks, Sharon has moderated some of his staunchest positions. He has tentatively endorsed the so-called "Roadmap to Peace" and said he considers Israel's military presence in the West Bank and Gaza to constitute an occupation.

The latter might appear a relatively minor rhetorical concession, yet it represents an acknowledgement that the so-called Occupied Territories are not actually part of Israel proper. It also calls into question the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Sharon has long championed.

Perhaps the unique pressure that comes with being Israel's top-elected official has tempered Sharon's hard right views. Maybe it is the desire to leave behind a legacy as a leader, not as a warrior or provocateur. Or perhaps he has realized that the current standoff is enormously detrimental to the Israeli economy and that something has to give in order for the Jewish state to survive.

Whatever the reason, his decision to engage in the peace process surprised and infuriated some of his closest conservative allies. After the cabinet approved the roadmap, they lashed out at Sharon during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

He defended his government's position saying, "Today there are 1.8 million Palestinians fed by international organizations. Would you like to take this upon yourselves? Where will we get the money?

"I don't know whether we'll succeed, but I'm telling you in the clearest way that I'll make every effort to reach a diplomatic arrangement because I believe that it's important for Israel," Sharon said.

A political veteran, the 72-year-old Sharon has held a number of cabinet positions in Israeli governments dating back to the '70s.

He also has had a long and, at times, checkered career in the Israeli military. He earned the nickname "the Bulldozer" by leading the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Later, it was revealed that forces under his command turned a blind eye to a massacre in which Christian militiamen killed hundreds of Palestinians.

In 2000, Sharon touched off the second round of the Palestinian Intifada, or "uprising," by paying a visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. It was a bold and provocative move that infuriated Arabs, who regard the mosque as the third holiest site in Islam.

Critics said Sharon knew the visit would trigger violence, sway Israeli public opinion toward a conservative government and further Sharon's ambition of becoming prime minister. All three ultimately came to pass but whether that was by design only Sharon truly knows.

Sharon and Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat are long-time nemeses who met in combat during the 1980s when Sharon was a general in the Israeli military and Arafat was leading the PLO in armed rebellion. Enmity between the two clearly remains.

Unlike his predecessors, Sharon has steadfastly refused to shake Arafat's hand during their previous meetings. Last year, he said he was sorry he did not kill Arafat on the battlefield when he had the chance. And Sharon says that he now considers Arafat "irrelevant" to forging peace in the region.

But Arafat is not the public face of the Palestinian Authority these days. Relations between Sharon and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas appear to be somewhat less frigid. The two held several face-to-face meetings prior to President Bush's visit to the Middle East on June 4.

Even many of Sharon's harshest longtime critics lauded his recent endorsement of the roadmap. But they have also expressed doubt that he has the true conviction to pursue the peace process through all the difficult negotiation stages to come.

Building lasting peace will require Sharon to ignore many of his past positions and actions and set a new course. Whether the Sharon of 1982 or the Sharon of 2003 takes part in negotiations with the Palestinians could determine where the road to peace ultimately ends up.

— Ethan Zindler

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