Give us a Mandela: a Palestinian Mandela; an Israeli Mandela; a Mandela to cut the knot. Vote no confidence in Sharon and elect a Mandela; retire Yasser to a Tunisian villa and appoint a Mandela. Send all the acid-brained spokesmen and hardline Zionist journalists and Jew-hating high-school principals and prating mullahs off to Antarctica to wage war on penguins and each other amid the ice.
On Sunday Maher Habashi, a 21-year-old plumber from Nablus acting under the instructions of the Hamas organisation, got on a bus in Haifa and blew himself and 15 others – Jews and Arabs – to pieces. It was quite something to kill so many in a place where – by and large – the different faiths had managed to coexist. Quite an achievement. Celebratory shots were fired outside Habashi's home and – if they follow the pattern of others – his family will even now be sitting down in front of the telly to watch his last tape. According to recent polls (though how these are conducted, I really cannot imagine) up to 70 per cent of those living on the West Bank and Gaza support such attacks.
Of course, some almost say, what else could Habashi do? He was desperate and desperate people do desperate things. Take away the causes of their desperation and all will be well.
The people who run Hamas are not desperate. They are exultant. They are stupid, egotistical and cruel. Those who exploded their bombs among teenagers in a Jerusalem street, teenagers whose faces and smiles they could see, were as coldly cruel as any SS man standing at the edge of a pit, shooting in. And brave. But not brave like the Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in Saigon in the 1960s, or even like the young civil rights workers who headed for Mississippi and Alabama in the same decade.
And their cause is not just, because they do not want peace. They want victory. The first suicide bombs of the 1990s were set off (as one of the earliest, though – axiomatically – unsuccessful volunteers later admitted) when hopes for peace were greatest. The intifada – for the time being – had melted in the Oslo sun. "It had all gone quiet," the would-be martyr told an interviewer. "Too quiet." So he helped to add a little noise. The next great tranche of suicide bombings came just in time to blow Binyamin Netanyahu, that carrion crow of Israeli politics, into office, at the expense of Shimon Peres. Much more noise.
But even if Hamas is not desperate, desperation or hopelessness is part of what permits the passage of the bombers through Palestinian society. Some of this is the result of Israeli intransigence and myopia over the years, and some the consequence of the resounding failure of Arab secularism as a basis for government. It is not the fault even of Sharon that there are no Arab democracies and few Arab states that are not tyrannies. Into the vacuum has sidled – sometimes invited, sometimes not – the ecstatic nonsense of Islamic theocracy.
Any person who cares for peace can see that the Palestinians and the Israelis need to be wooed away from the shouters. Peace requires the slow detachment of support from the millenarians and its re-attachment to political strategies based on argument and persuasion. But now the Israelis feel themselves to be desperate – and desperate people do desperate things. The voices of compromise and progress in Israel are pushed to the outer limits of an increasingly violent discourse. Rocketing the Islamic University in Gaza somehow appears to be a rational response to the provocation of Hamas. Give us a Mandela!
The Israeli spokesmen proclaim the successor to Catch 22 – the Arafat Catch. If Arafat is powerless to stop the suicide bombings then there is no point in talking to him, and if he's not, then he is an accomplice in terrorism, and we can't talk to him. So Hamas and Islamic Jihad exercise precisely that kind of effective veto on peace that they sought to obtain when they sent out the deluded Nablus plumber to murder bus passengers. They have no power to construct, but they have ultimate power to destroy. What could better suit a vengeful, male God?
Arafat is a deeply ambiguous figure. The suspicion is that to some extent these groups are pumped up or damped down according to the needs of the moment. Certainly that pattern seems to happen in other failing Arab nations. Though it is hard indeed to know whether The Chairman has the power significantly to constrain the forces of terror, my own feeling is that he has been badly weakened by these latest atrocities and would have prevented them if he could.
Sharon says different and accuses the Palestinian leader of assembling "a coalition of terror – the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hizbollah, the Palestinian police, his own presidential guard". Now the patience of Sharon – that archetypal anti-Job – is exhausted. "Because we wanted peace, we did not do enough," he said on Sunday. "I will urge the cabinet to take wider, harder steps to arrest the terrorists, to cause them casualties."
Who smiles at that? Who wants less peace and more casualties: Arafat or Islamic Jihad? Meanwhile one of Sharon's friends in America, William Safire, suggests that what is needed is a Palestinian civil war. If Arafat is serious, then let him destroy Hamas et al physically, or be destroyed by them. If it's the former, we can do business with the cleansed polity, and if it's the latter, we can have a proper war and get it over with. QED.
This piece of appalling advice preserves the illusion of the hawks on all sides – that victory is the best peace. In Israel and Palestine you cannot simultaneously be in favour of peace and victory. Not unless you are prepared for genocide. If you will not sign a peace deal that relinquishes the Israeli settlements, you are in favour of victory and not peace. Because that means no Palestine. If you will sign only a peace deal that makes explicit and meaningful the right of all refugees and their descendants to return to their former homes, then you are in favour of victory and not peace. Because that means no Israel. Your terms require, in effect, the annihilation of the other. Because they cannot possibly agree, you can only kill them.
The bombers and their Israeli counterparts do not want peace. As peace nears they become more desperate. Fewer will share their apocalyptic vision of a cleansed Islamic state or an Arab-free Greater Israel. Peace is what will destroy them. So, bit by bit, in the face of provocation and difficulty, the Middle East peace movement has to be built. We must do everything we can to assist those genuinely brave people on either side who still try to understand and to maintain a dialogue. They exist, for all that we hardly ever hear about them, and their courage is far greater than any suicide bomber's.