The language hasn't changed. To his critics, Ariel Sharon is still a brutal criminal, indifferent to suffering as he bulldozes through his security strategy. To his backers he is a visionary, prepared to take bold steps to protect Israel. But those who historically supported or opposed Sharon through his decades as Israel's most controversial warrior and political leader have swapped places.
The prime minister's former allies among Jewish settlers and the land-grabbing right are against him now for the same reason his peacenik opponents of many years rally to his support. They all believe that Tuesday's vote in the Israeli Parliament backing the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip is a historic step that will inevitably lead to the unraveling of his life's work at the vanguard of expanding Israel's colonies and borders.
With it, the prime minister may also be realigning Israeli politics by turning his back on the once powerful religious and far-right factions in Parliament to emerge as the champion of the center. Some of his former Israeli critics now go so far as to compare him to Israel's visionary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Shimon Peres, the leader of the Labor opposition, believes that the prime minister's "unilateral disengagement plan" has set in chain a process that it will be difficult to reverse. "Once it starts, it will continue. It's the beginning of a journey to a permanent solution with the Palestinians," he said. "Sharon cannot stop it even if he wanted to."
Sharon has laid out only the beginning of the process -- the removal of about 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank -- but not how he imagines it will end beyond oblique references to creating a Palestinian state and holding on to the major West Bank settlements.
The Palestinians fear that the blueprint is the prime minister's earlier vision of an emasculated Arab state on the 42 percent of the occupied territories placed under Palestinian administration by the Oslo accords and spotted between the sprawling Jewish settlement blocs that divide up the West Bank.
The result would be a homeland without control of its airspace, water resources, borders or foreign policy. Cut off by the vast steel and concrete "security" fence and wall under construction through the West Bank, it would amount in many people's eyes to little more than a bantustan reminiscent of apartheid South Africa.
The Palestinians are keenly aware that while Sharon talks of disengagement, his government is still expanding the major West Bank settlements. "It's clear that Sharon is using the withdrawal from Gaza to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian cabinet minister. "There is no reason to see this as a step toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state."
But some of Sharon's harshest critics say that he has set in motion a process that will force Israel to give up most of the occupied territories. "No matter what he says about his intentions -- he wants to keep the West Bank and all that -- basically this move is unleashing a new political dynamic," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute. "What he does has consequences which are unlikely to be what he says he wants to happen. The public wants it and expects it. The rest of the world wants it.
"He has made a turn based on the replacement of ideology by reality and necessity. I think he is walking against his own vision and his own ideology because he began to see the reality of the Israeli situation."
Nearly two years ago, Sharon decisively won a general election over an opposition Labor Party committed to unilaterally withdraw from most of the occupied territories. The then Labor leader, Amram Mitzna, offered to take his party into a national unity government under Sharon if the prime minister would commit himself to dismantling just one small Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Sharon refused, saying that to do so would weaken Israel's defenses. Less than a year later, he announced the disengagement plan that went much further than what Labor was demanding.
"Three years ago nobody would have imagined that this government would dismantle settlements," said Peres. "This prime minister and this government began to realize that we have to answer some very serious questions in the domain of demography, in the domain of geography. In 10 years' time we are going to lose our majority in Israel. So we don't have very much time."
Sharon said as much in his speech to Parliament on Monday when he warned that Israel could not claim to be a democracy and go on governing millions of Palestinians who will soon come to outnumber the Jews in Israel.
This month, Sharon's chief aide, Dov Weisglass, said the prime minister was also driven by fears that an alternative peace process might be thrust upon him and a realization that over time even American support for Israel would erode. The Israel Democracy Institute's Ezrahi said Sharon's attempts to paint Israel as a victim rather than a cause of global terror rebounded. "He realized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of great interest to the West as one of the causes of international terror," he said. "In the beginning, when the terror started, everybody on the right was hoping that would actually globalize support for our war against the Palestinians. What it did eventually is to globalize the intolerability of our occupation to the Western world. This pressure can only grow."
Weisglass, Sharon's aide, also mentioned concerns that growing dissent within the military, particularly the refusal of elite pilots and commandos to carry out what they characterized as immoral operations in Gaza, was tearing at the tight bond between the Israeli public and its army.
Peres believes that no Israeli prime minister can resist such pressures and that whether he likes it or not, Sharon will eventually have to re-embrace the U.S.-led "road map" to a Palestinian state.
The price for Sharon has been to split his own party, possibly irrevocably. Peres believes the prime minister will have to put together a new coalition of centrist parties to remain in power. "In a very few days the prime minister will have to decide whether to build a new government or go for elections. We are ready for both," he said.
But Ezrahi believes that Sharon remains the most powerful figure on the Israeli political stage. "Despite his difficulties, Sharon radiates the kind of power that few Israeli prime ministers have, only Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion. He is a tragic figure, but he's also going to become a kind of heroic figure who was able to see at a certain moment that his life's enterprise was self-destructive to what he was trying to achieve," he said.