Ariel Sharon vowed yesterday to make every effort to end the century-old conflict with the Arab states and the Palestinians in the wake of the war on Iraq.
The Israeli Prime Minister reiterated his readiness to recognise a Palestinian state and to make "painful concessions" in return for "real peace". But he hedged on whether he would evacuate Jewish settlements. That reluctance prompted the Palestinians and the Israeli left to question his sincerity.
The victory of Anglo-American forces in Iraq, Mr Sharon said in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, had created an opportunity that did not exist before. "The Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular have been shaken. There is therefore a chance to reach an agreement faster than people think." He added: "I am 75. I feel that my goal and my purpose are to bring this nation to peace and security. I think that this is something that I have to leave behind me."
The Palestinians have heard it all before. Yasser Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, dismissed the interview as "not serious". Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, saw it as a familiar "verbal manipulation". But she added: "Even if it's a bluff, we should call his bluff."
Ms Ashrawi said the Israeli leader had made repeated references to "painful concessions". She told The Independent: "When he starts from his own ideological assumption that all Palestine is his, then returning any inch is going to be, in his mind set, a painful concession."
Galia Golan, of the Peace Now pressure group, was also sceptical. "It sounds great," she said, "but I don't believe a word of it."
Ariel Sharon is promising a new peace initiative, but it won't succeed without regime change in Israel