Israel's favorite pastime this Passover is Sharon-ology.
Stated simply, it is the science of discerning what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the veteran architect of the Israeli settlement drive in the occupied territories, means by being ready to make "very painful concessions" for peace.
The riddle, which began when Mr. Sharon coined the phrase during his election campaign two years ago, intensified this week.
Sharon told Ha'aretz in an interview published Sunday that the US victory in the Gulf opens a chance for "a new fabric of relations" with Arab countries.
He came closer than ever before to saying he would uproot West Bank settlements in exchange for genuine peace. Referring to the West Bank as the "cradle of the Jewish nation," Sharon said: "Our entire history is bound up with these places: Bethlehem, Shiloh, and Beit El. And I know that we will have to part with some of these places."
The old voice of Sharon also reverberated. He flatly rebuffed discussing a freeze on the building of settlements until the "last stage" of peace talks.
This contravenes the approach of the Middle East peacemaking quartet, the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, which view a freeze as helping to catalyze the process.
Sharon's stance - and Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - will help spell success or failure for the quartet as it seeks to calm the Middle East arena after two and a half years of bitter confrontation, analysts say.
"Sharon has the key," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
The quartet completed a "road map" for peace in December, but its publication was repeatedly delayed by Washington, at Sharon's request. Its goal is the establishment by 2005 of a Palestinian state at peace with a secure Israel. Sharon's aides are now visiting Washington with a list of 15 reservations about the road map.
Mr. Shikaki predicts that the prime minister designate, Mahmoud Abbas - known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mazen - will name his cabinet within days. This would meet a quartet demand that a prime minister acquire powers from Yasser Arafat, who remains as head of the Palestinian Authority.
But unless Israeli army actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are moderated, Mr. Abbas will be unable to crack down on Palestinian armed groups, Shikaki says. "Abu Mazen will not be able to arrest and prevent attacks while Israel does what it is doing now: incursion and occupation," he said.
During the period April 3-9, Israeli military operations, including an incursion in the Gaza Strip and an F-16 air strike, killed 18 people including many civilians. During the period of April 1-13, one Israeli civilian and two security personnel were killed in the Occupied Territories.
But Ephraim Inbar, head of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, argues that the onus is on the Palestinians. "Sharon has no intention of giving up demands for the Palestinians to deliver in countering terrorism," he says. "Without this, there will be no deal because the Israeli public will not accept concessions."
Mr. Inbar says that Sharon's remarks are a signal to the United States and to the Israeli public that he "means business."
"He has made it clear that he does not want the army to stay in the Palestinian cities and this is what the public wants," he said. But Sharon has not abandoned his hope of avoiding negotiations on the final status of issues, such as the right of Palestinian refugees to return and the administration of Jerusalem, that were to be broached according to the now defunct Oslo agreement.
"I think he still wants to go for an interim agreement," Inbar says. "He understands the differences are too large for a final agreement. He may be willing to sacrifice a settlement or two for an interim agreement."
Danny Yatom, a member of Knesset from the opposition Labor party, said that taking down one settlement would not be enough to prove Mr. Sharon is dedicated to pursuing a genuine peace process. "Meanwhile, we are talking about statements only. They remain too general. From our perspective, until we know Sharon's policy has changed and he is talking about concessions to reach peace, we will not join in a unity government."