Fresh nod to peace process in Israel?

In interview, deputy prime minister says Sharon is considering unilateral steps.

Following sharp internal and external criticism of his policies, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is indicating that he is contemplating "unilateral measures" intended to ease Palestinian suffering and perhaps to invigorate a moribund peace process.

In a Monitor interview Sunday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Mr. Sharon had told him and other ministers that "we have to make every possible effort to take notice of the human needs of the Palestinian population ... and this is unconditional to the question [of] whether there is terror or not. Because if we will condition it to terror then we will never take these measures because terror will continue."

For a leader who has made resumption of substantive peace talks with the Palestinians conditional on an absolute cessation of violence, Sharon's position - as recounted by Mr. Olmert - seems to be evolving.

While Israel has never made a policy of linking humanitarian gestures with reduced violence, in practice it has seemed that way. In the name of easing Palestinian suffering, Israel has frequently rolled back restrictions that curb many Palestinians' ability to earn money, attend school, and get healthcare - and then reinstated them following a Palestinian attack.

Sharon seems to be cultivating a sense of mystery about his plans. "Thus far, I haven't discussed it with anyone," he told the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth over the weekend, but he did not deny a report, the newspaper said, about his intention to evacuate some isolated settlements - Jewish communities built on occupied Palestinian land in contravention of international law.

Olmert said that Sharon did not address settlement evacuation in his meeting with four top ministers on Sunday, but regarding outposts - mini-settlements used to expand existing Jewish communities or establish new ones - "there will be a close examination of all the commitments made by Israel within the context of this issue and we will make exceptional efforts to fulfill [them]."

Israel's removal of outposts is a requirement of a US-backed peace plan known as the "road map"; settlement removal is a longstanding Palestinian demand. While many analysts consider the road map a dead letter, in the face of flagging US enthusiasm and continued violence, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority periodically reiterate their allegiance to it.

Sharon may be vague about his intentions, but what is easier to deduce are his reasons for hinting of peace. Israel is enjoying a period of relative calm - there has not been a Palestinian suicide bombing in seven weeks - but the prime minister has been buffeted by criticism.

President Bush, whose administration has generally supported Sharon, offered some blunt language in a speech in London last week: "Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and not prejudice final negotiations with the placements of walls and fences."

The final phrase is a reference to Israel's "security barrier," an elaborate system of barbed wire, electronic sensors, and patrol roads that it is using to wall off the Palestinian territories from Israel proper in the hope of diminishing Palestinian attacks. In its route around the West Bank, the partially constructed barrier strays in many places from the "green line" - the imaginary boundary that demarcates the Palestinian lands that Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab- Israeli war - giving rise to the presidential criticism that Israel is subverting any future peace deal by drawing a de facto border that the Palestinians reject.

At home, the chief of staff of Israel's military in late October publicly criticized government policies, saying they embitter the Palestinians, and in mid-November four retired directors of Israel's internal intelligence service convened for a group interview to urge a rethink of Sharon's policy toward the Palestinians.

In the interview, which appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, former General Security Service director Yaakov Peri said: "If something doesn't happen here, we will continue to live by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud, and we will continue to destroy ourselves."

Sharon, a former general and a member of Israel's founding generation of leaders, has often styled himself as a "warrior" - the title of his autobiography - determined above all to defend Israeli and Jewish interests.

But in recent years, he has also voiced an ambition to be a peacemaker and to make "painful concessions" toward that end.

The ambiguity has been political gold, because it has allowed dovish Israelis to think that he might make peace and hawkish Israelis to rest assured that a man of resolve is in charge.

But Sharon has yet to spell out what the painful concessions might be or to take any dramatic action in pursuit of a negotiated solution.

In Monday's Maariv, another widely read Israeli daily, an opinion writer urged readers to "realize simply that [Sharon's] far-reaching state announcements are the best way to obtain quiet in the American sector, internal survival, and immediate political gains."

Olmert, a member of Sharon's Likud party who is on a short list of future leaders, characterizes the duality of Israeli leadership this way: "On the one hand, we are not happy and are really terribly disturbed by the fact that we are dominating the lives of many Palestinians who definitely suffer from this way of life. And yet at the same time, we must find an appropriate way to defend ourselves, to prevent terror, to stop this extreme fundamentalism.... I think Sharon is torn between these two horns of the dilemma."

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