It was always an absurd notion: That Hamas, avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel, would somehow transform itself into anti-Hamas, a movement reconciled to co-existence alongside Israel.
But an insistence that this would happen, however improbable, has been at the root of the political philosophy of Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, these past few weeks. Don't expect me to send my thousands of armed security personnel to arrest the few hundred bomb-makers and recruiters from Hamas and the other terrorist groups, he told the Israelis and the Americans. I don't have the power or support. And I wouldn't survive the Palestinian civil war I'd be sparking.
Moreover, Abu Mazen claimed, so seismic a confrontation wasn't necessary anyway. If Israel would only pull its troops out of West Bank cities and tear down its roadblocks, ordinary Palestinians would swiftly feel the beneficial impact and raise their voices against suicide bombings, Hamas would be deprived of backing, and Israelis and Palestinians would enter a new era of tranquility.
To his credit, Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, put aside some of his scepticism and tried to make a go of this. No sooner had Abu Mazen persuaded most (but not all) Palestinian factions to declare a three-month timeout from terror at the end of June, than the Israeli government pulled the army out of Bethlehem, issued thousands of work permits for Palestinian labourers, and began a limited release of prisoners. A short, bloody week ago, the prime minister was finalising the terms of the army's withdrawal from four more cities.
Mr Sharon did so even though the very term used for the ceasefire - hudna - was designed to emphasize that the respite would be short-lived: in Islamic history, a hudna has been employed by a regime too weak to vanquish its enemies, to provide a breathing space in which to re-group for subsequent victory. He did so even though Hamas was abusing the timeout, to manufacture more bombs.
But that absurd notion of a Hamas transformed literally exploded last Tuesday, when one of its recruits blew apart a civilian bus in central Jerusalem, and killed more than 20 innocents - ordinary men, women and children ripped limb from limb by a heartlessly assembled explosive concoction.
This carnage was justified by Hamas and the many Palestinian and international legitimisers of suicide bombings as some kind of acceptable "revenge" for the Israeli army's killing, a week earlier in Hebron, of a Hamas murderer, Mohammed Sider (found hard at work in his private explosives laboratory). With the same moral blindness, there are many who "understand" why, when Israel lashed out after the bus bombing and killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a leader of Hamas, the extremists have now terminated their hudna and declared open season on murdering Israeli civilians again.
Like the Oslo Accords before it, the American- and European-backed road-map is now crumbling. And just like the Oslo Accords, it will surely fall apart, as will every effort to bring harmony to this region, until Abu Mazen or one of his successors finds the moral backbone and tenacity to put the bombers out of business: to arrest and keep in jail those who employ and advocate violence against Israelis, Jews and anyone else who obstructs their Islamic fundamentalist death cult; to seize their weaponry and close down their bomb factories; to take their preachers out of the mosques, their leaders out of the television studios, and their message out of the classrooms.
Whether Abu Mazen is well-meaning and dumb, or disingenuous, nobody can seriously expect these groups to moderate of their own free will. It doesn't matter to them that most Palestinians were telling pollsters that they supported the ceasefire and wanted it prolonged. It doesn't matter to them that the road-map they are destroying promises the Palestinians an independent state within two years. For the now-renewed terrorist onslaught is not about liberating the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem to enable Palestine to rise. Had that been the goal, the bombers would have confined themselves to targets in the disputed territory. That kind of campaign would have prompted enormous argument within Israel, and quite possibly a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
The true goal, made bloodily plain by the deaths of hundreds upon hundreds of civilians blown to pieces all across supposedly undisputed sovereign Israel, is far more ambitious: to terrorise the entire nation, destroy its economy, prompt mass emigration, and ultimately overwhelm Israel completely. Yasser Arafat shares this vision. Abu Mazen says he opposes it, but has yet to prove this. If he is unable to do so, Israel will have no choice but to wait for someone braver and defend itself as best as it can in the interim - building fences, imposing curfews, killing bombers en route, and attempting to minimize the civilian casualties - against an enemy hell-bent on maximizing the number of Israelis it takes down to an early grave.
The writer is the editor of 'The Jerusalem Report' and author of 'Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism', to be published by Knopf (US) next MarchReuse content