Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the arch-conservative old warrior from the Likud Party, has undertaken something that no one would have thought possible: He has been engaging in serious negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It was Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa mosque as opposition leader in September 2000 that precipitated the Palestinian declaration of Intifada that has raged for more than four years. That Sharon is now at the center of not only quelling that storm, but of working toward an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, seems like the ultimate historical irony. But we shouldn’t be surprised. History provides some precedent for this apparent transformation.

Sharon is working toward complete Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, including the removal of Israeli settlers. For most observers of the crisis in the Middle East, Sharon would have been the last person they expected to challenge the settlers, make nice with the Palestinian Authority and take serious steps toward a long-term peace that would eventually result in a Palestinian state. There’s still a long way to go, but few would have predicted Sharon to make it even this far.

Two historical comparisons spring to mind when one considers the path that Sharon unexpectedly walks today: The first is President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. The other? South African president F.W. de Klerk’s freeing of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent negotiations leading to the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. The two men engaged in historical transformations at key moments, and they did so in ways that their constituencies never would have envisioned when they rose to office. Sharon seems to be following their example.

Consider this: All three heads of state, Nixon, de Klerk and Sharon, came from the conservative wings of their countries’ most prominent conservative parties. Their opponents inevitably painted them as reactionaries. Nixon was the Cold War hatchet man who had enabled the worst excesses of McCarthyism. De Klerk came from a National Party apparatus that had cracked down on anti-apartheid resistance in the 1980s. When he came to power he was perceived as being to the right of his predecessor, P.W. Botha. Sharon represented the Israeli settler community better than any politician in recent memory.

Yet despite their reputations, they engaged in liberal change that other leaders could not have accomplished. It’s almost a cliché that “only Nixon could have gone to China.” What this means is that had a liberal Democrat, say George McGovern, announced that he intended to do so, his opponents would have painted him as being soft on communism and worse. Because Nixon’s anti-communist credentials were impeccable, he could engage with the Chinese (and pursue the subsequent detente with the Soviets) without such fears. His record as an ardent Cold Warrior prevented anyone’s impugning his motives.

Similarly, only a staunch member of South Africa’s National Party, the party that had implemented and perfected apartheid, could have engaged with Nelson Mandela and lifted the ban on the African National Congress and other opposition organizations. De Klerk’s standing as leader of a right-wing establishment was essential to effecting the transition from apartheid to nonracial democracy. The Nationalists would have swallowed up a more moderate man.

All of which brings us back to Ariel Sharon. We can see hints of Nixon and de Klerk in the wily Likud prime minister. Sharon came from his party’s conservative wing, much as did de Klerk. He had a history of active support for Israel’s settler communities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. In the eyes not only of many liberal Israelis, but of the rest of the world, Sharon was retrograde, even less likely to withdraw settlers from Gaza, negotiate with the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for a two-state solution and ally with Labour in the face of conservative Likud opposition than Nixon was to travel to China or de Klerk was to seek rapprochement with Mandela.

Perhaps, then, history can teach us a lesson as we watch events unfold in the Middle East. Sometimes, having earned political capital within their own factions, savvy politicians are capable of using that capital to create space to operate in ways both unanticipated and seemingly against the grain. Many are suspicious of Sharon because he was, in their minds, the last person likely to bring about peace and promote a two-state solution in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

It may end up being less ironic than people think if he instead becomes the only man capable of doing so. Given the precedents of Nixon and de Klerk, we have here not an irony but the grasping of a historic opportunity.