Is Ariel Sharon's unilateral decision to withdraw from Gaza a turning point or a cul-de-sac? "Historic and courageous", pronounced President George W Bush after his meeting on 14 April with Israel's prime minister. The United Nations and the European Union (with Britain unhappily ambivalent) were much cooler, while Palestinian leaders dismissed the plan angrily. That Bush appeared to have swallowed whole all of Israel's unilateral conditions for peace struck a chill everywhere. But perhaps the most relevant question now is whether, when bilateral negotiations are hopelessly stuck, a durable peace can indeed be built from unilateral action. The answer is probably yes, but only when such action is generous, and allows for bilateral movement later on. This is not true of Ariel Sharon's plan.
Sharon, a dedicated patron of the Israeli settler movement ever since it sprang up in the aftermath of Israel's conquests during the 1967 war, is determined to retain the main Jewish settlements in the West Bank as permanent parts of Israel. The assassination on 17 April of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, the political leader of the Islamist group Hamas and successor to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin - whom the Israelis assassinated last month - was a dangerous if predictable development; Hamas members have threatened "a volcano of revenge". But worse was Sharon's success in securing Bush's blessing for Israel's new "realities on the ground". Israel has always relied on the policy of creating "facts", building settlements in the face of the international laws that forbid them. By accepting these "facts" the US president has, in effect, endorsed the frontiers that Israel wants, prior to any negotiations.
Sharon wants an expanded Israel that has as few Palestinians in it as possible. He wants to get rid of the awkward non-Jews in the occupied territories by packing them into separated, fenced-in, self-governing population centres. Gaza would be one of those centres. He would not allow a single one of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven out in 1948 to return to their family homes in Israel.
If Sharon's plan is endorsed in a referendum of the 200,000 members of his Likud party on 2 May, the prime minister intends to withdraw the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and to dismantle the Israeli settlements there. He is also prepared to throw in the dismantling of a handful of the more far-flung outposts in the West Bank. But he insists on retaining the right to "self-defence", which would mean sending the Israeli army back into Gaza if violence emanates from there.
Hamas has been interpreting Israel's proposed retreat from Gaza as a victory for the armed struggle. But many Palestinians see the Gaza tactic as a blow to any future negotiation, and a cynically unilateral decision about the destiny of the all-important West Bank.
Gaza, which could be a pleasing part of Palestine, with its fertile citrus groves and its Mediterranean beaches, has been destroyed by history. Its towns are packed tight with Palestinians, many of them refugees twice over (first displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and then again by the 1967 conflict). Israel's occupation, which actively discouraged economic activity, resulted in Gaza's working population becoming labourers in Israel: when the fear of terrorism caused Israel to slam the gates shut, the whole lot became unemployed overnight. Despair has turned Gaza into a hotbed of extremism where radical clerics offer comfort.
Sharon's policy rests on the belief that the Palestinians will accept tenuous autonomy in Gaza and in non-contiguous segments of the West Bank. It is this uncompromising approach on the Israeli side, the confusion on the Palestinian side, and America's pre-negotiation adoption of Israel's position, that make a true peace so improbable. The situation is about as bleak as it has ever been in the past half-century and more of Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since the mid-1970s, when Egypt, then the leading Arab nation, accepted Israel's permanence in the Middle East, there has usually been a smidgen of hope. Outside commentators tended to point to this or that measure which looked like it stood a good chance of advancing the cause of a decent Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now, the Gaza proposal notwithstanding, I at least find myself flummoxed.
Why are the times so bad for a genuine Middle Eastern peace? There seem to me to be three main reasons, all of which interact. First, the Israelis are in the grip of an angry mindset. They are convinced that their security depends on squeezing the Palestinian people into separate, sealed-off enclaves, of which Gaza would be one. Second, the collapse of Palestinian institutions and authority has left the Palestinians without central leadership, and the field open for Islamist extremists who direct their desperate and deluded followers to turn their bodies into bombs that kill innocent Israelis. Third, America's black-and-white war against international terrorism, in which Israel is accepted as a loyal ally, has created an external context that, in effect, precludes outside intervention to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The convergence of these three factors makes a reasoned approach impossible.
Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be far from insoluble. It is, after all, a simple question of sharing a patch of land where the borders are mostly delineated, and where the decision to share has already been taken, at least in principle. True, the Arabs took a long time to accept that Israel had won its way to 78 per cent of the old Palestine Mandate, and was there to stay. But when they found out that they could not eject Israel by force, and indeed had lost the remaining 22 per cent (the West Bank and Gaza) in the 1967 war, most of them accepted the compromise of partitioning the mandate into two states. As a result, the Palestinians got the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel kept the rest.
Yet tentacles from a dispute over a tiny spot of land stretch over the entire region - from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east - and beyond, distorting foreign policies and creating a fog of misunderstanding between the Muslim world and the west. Islamist terrorists everywhere find in Palestine a much more solid-sounding cause than their vaguer anti-Americanism. And while the world's 300 million Arabs may actually not care much for the nine million Palestinians (half of them resident in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel; the other half living in the diaspora, mostly in Arab countries), they have adopted their cause with zeal. When the US asks something of the Arabs, the question comes flying back: when is America going to do something about Israel?
And the Americans, to do them justice, have tried in the past. Bill Clinton, when he was president, gave time and skill. The Israelis and Palestinians got close to an agreement at Camp David in 2000. Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Barak, was prepared to concede more than any Israeli leader before him, but held back from making firm his offer. Yasser Arafat, for the Palestinians, dithered, listening to hostile public opinion at home. Clinton, at last, got impatient. The chance was bungled by all sides.
Israelis have never recovered from their sense of betrayal. Not only did the Palestinians reject their good offer at Camp David, but they then threw it back violently in their faces. The al-Aqsa uprising, named for Sharon's provocative visit to Jerusalem's holy places, broke out at the end of 2000 and developed cruelly. Israelis voted in a government led by Sharon, who promised security for Israelis, toughness with the Palestinians, and no more bargaining away land. Sharon decided it was no longer possible to do business with Arafat and his people; America, by then under George W Bush, agreed that Arafat was a non-person.
Three and a half years on, this remains the Israeli mood, but hardened by the Palestinian suicide bombings. Israelis voted for Sharon a second time: even if he goes, his successor is expected to be even more of a hawk. The admirable Israelis who speak out and act in the cause of peace are a minority, barely listened to.
Sharon is a disaster, not because he is a tough ex-military man with a brutal record, but because he still does not believe in the basic, two-state, land-for-peace equation.
Yet given the terrorism, the enmity and the remoteness of any prospect of substantial bilateral talks, his earlier unilateral decision - to create a secure barrier between Israel and the West Bank - could have been a good idea for bad times. But this would have been so only if the barrier had been kept to the dividing line of the pre-1967 border. As it is now planned, however, the security barrier will cut deep into the West Bank to protect Israeli settlements, fragmenting Palestinian land and consigning the Palestinian people to little more than 10 per cent of the old mandate.
Both the Israelis and the Americans have decided that Yasser Arafat is the villain, the obstacle in the way of resumed peace negotiations. When Bush asked his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, what was the "fundamental problem" in the way of a peace agreement, she replied that it was Arafat, his refusal to stop terrorism, as well as the absence of democracy and accountability in Palestinian political institutions. This insight, said Rice, countered the prevailing wisdom that the conflict was "just about land".
This is deeply misleading. The democratically elected Arafat is indeed a terrible leader: authoritarian, surrounded by corruption if not corrupt himself, ambivalent about violence, obstructing his prime minister at every turn. But not even the best of Palestinian presidents would be able to negotiate a peace agreement with an Israeli premier fundamentally opposed to a viable Palestinian state. It is true that the conflict is not just about land. But it is primarily about land, and Israel's occupation of that land.
Although Bush largely accepts Israel's judgement on Arafat, he can foresee the upheavals that would follow his forcible removal or elimination. So Israel has, thus far, been dissuaded from exiling or executing him. Instead, it has imprisoned him in his Ramallah compound, where he impotently frets out his days.
Arafat's people are restricted by Israel's anti-terrorist "closure" policy to their region, and often to their villages. Their houses and orchards are demolished as Israel builds its security barrier. The Palestinian intifada, or armed uprising, has fizzled into acts of bloody defiance, including the dreadful suicide bombings. And Palestinians can look to no central authority to direct or lead them. The Palestinian Authority, though still officially in charge of most Palestinian areas, has been disabled by the punishment Israel has given it, and by its own incompetence. Fatah, Arafat's ruling party, is split and in confusion.
As such, many Palestinians turn instead to local leaders and to Hamas, the Islamist opposition and sponsor of terrorism. The Islamists, who were once encouraged by Israel as a counterweight to secular Palestinian nationalists, first gained Palestinian support for their schools and health clinics, and their unostentatious lifestyles. Now Hamas, founded in 1987 from roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, is lauded for being in the front line against the Israeli oppressor. It used to oppose stridently the two-state solution, though recently it has suggested that two states could be a temporary solution. But now, with so many of its top political and military men murdered, Hamas is in a dangerously leaderless state, calling for revenge. Opinion polls show that Fatah (the Arabic acronym for "Movement for the Liberation of Palestine") and Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) each command about one-quarter of Palestinian support, but whereas Fatah's share is declining, Hamas's is rising fast. Fatah is now vying with Hamas in the terrorist stakes: its semi-autonomous military wing, al-Aqsa, is turning to suicide bombings inside Israel.
Although Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are undoubtedly a calamity, it is the external context that makes these times so particularly unpropitious for a Middle Eastern peace. Because the United States is the only country with any influence at all on Israel, US leadership of a peacemaking effort is crucial. But the world changed for America on 11 September 2001, and the change has turned out disastrous for the hopes of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Bush's war on terrorism is represented as good against evil, and Israel, through its friends in the US, has identified itself with the good. Its friends are powerful in Bush-led, Republican America: the neoconservatives, always among Israel's most ardent supporters, are now joined by the fundamentalist Christian right. Sharon managed to lump his Palestinian terrorists alongside international terrorism in one unsavoury pile: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Israeli government says, was our Osama Bin Laden.
Consequently, there is no pressure at all from the US on Israel to advance towards an agreement, at least so long as Palestinian groups continue terrorist activities.
America's high-handedness in its own defence against terrorism reflects assumptions long held by the Israelis: the impunity of the strong; a disdain for international law; the concept of anticipatory retaliation (the right to attack people if you think they are going to attack you). Above all, the simple, black-and-white view of the struggle militates against any understanding of the grey Israeli-Palestinian complexities.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration's so-called Greater Middle East initiative, calling on Arab governments to become more democratic, govern themselves better and allow their people more freedom, is scheduled to be launched at the G8 summit of rich industrial nations in June. The aims are fine, but Arabs are indignant at being told what to do by the US.
What, at this stage, can be done? Even the most sanguine observers have a quiver in their voice when they talk of Israel's unilateral decision on Gaza being a step in the direction of the "road map". This map, produced by the "quartet" of the United States, the EU, the UN and Russia, looks destined to follow all previous plans - the Oslo Accords, the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan, the Rogers plan et al - into extinction. Like the Oslo Accords, the road map did not say what a final agreement should be, merely laid out a process towards it (to which Israel added 14 reservations which are not in the text, but would be very much on Tel Aviv's mind when it came to implementation). To see peace at the end of the road calls for a huge leap of the imagination.
And yet. A "process" of negotiation is not to be sneezed at. Nor should Sharon's unilateral decision to withdraw from Gaza be written off entirely: withdrawal is withdrawal, however cynically it happens. What is surely bad is Bush's limp acceptance, before any negotiations even begin, of Israel's position - first, on the West Bank's shredded borders and, second, on Palestinian refugees giving up all right of return, in theory as well as practice.
Until there is again a US president prepared to stand up to Israel, there is really not much point talking about a permanent solution or a final agreement. What needs to be done now is to make the best of Israel's self-serving withdrawal (if that happens) by giving the Palestinians full-blooded help to make something of themselves in Gaza and, second, to try to prevent the things now going on - the transformation of Palestinian resistance fighters into cruel, suicide-bombing terrorists; the steady encroachment of settlements in the West Bank; the inroads of the security fence - from ruling out all hope of a decent agreement at some future date. That is task enough to be getting on with: probably too much.