It has been impossible to be both sane and an optimist when it comes to the Middle East this past three years. And then this weekend, something happened - something so odd and so significant that it is hard to know how to react.
Ariel Sharon - the protector of the settlers, the high priest of the hard-right Likudniks - became, it seems, a passionate advocate of Palestinian statehood. "To keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians," he declared as his cabinet accepted the creation of a Palestinian state in terms that the Israeli peace movement have been lobbying for now for nearly 40 years. Sharon suddenly seemed to be an advocate of a return to something like the 1967 borders - and to give some idea of how striking this is, you have to imagine Tony Blair emerging on the steps of Downing Street hand-in-hand with Tony Benn to declare the nationalisation of Britain's leading industries.
We will have to be understanding if the Palestinians react to Sharon's words with the wariness Red Riding Hood should have shown when she heard the wolf saying, "Come closer my dear - granny loves you." In the eyes of many, he is a war criminal because of his association with the massacres in Sabra and Chatila. And even this is only one stain on a dripping CV.
The man who now seems to be advocating the retrenchment of the settlements - constructions on Palestinian-populated land by zealots who usually advocate the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes - was a key player in the settlement explosion that rolled on relentlessly throughout the 1977-92 Likud-era of Israeli government. Sharon was the loudest and most thuggish defender of the settlers as they increased by more than 2,000 per cent during this period to approximately 110,000 people. They now stand, after three years of his premiership, at 400,000.
When he was first elected, many of those who hoped to salvage something from the wreckage of Oslo became fond of comparing Sharon to Charles de Gaulle or Richard Nixon. De Gaulle was virtually synonymous with French nationalism, and his loyalty to France could not be impugned - so, the theory goes, it was only the General who had enough trust across the political spectrum to be able to pull France out of its appalling occupation of Algeria. Similarly, Richard Nixon made his name as a ruthlessly red-baiting Commie-hater, so only he could recognise and begin talks with Red China.
Yet this analogy seemed to collapse when Sharon set up barrier after barrier to negotiating with the Palestinians. It would be churlish - and foolish - not to now cautiously welcome Sharon's new move, though. His new statements are right: even if you do not care in the slightest about Palestinians, the occupation is a terrible idea because of the horrors it causes to rebound on Israel proper.
The decisions to "crack down" on Palestinians by reoccupying their lands - decisions taken by Sharon himself - have been a terrible betrayal of the next generation of Israelis: long after Sharon himself is nothing but a statue and a skeleton, his grandchildren will be living - unless there is a just resolution, and fast - with the homicidal rage of the children of Palestine who have grown up humiliated and terrified. Is it inconceivable that Sharon himself has realised this?
Yet a lasting resolution to this problem will require the decent Israeli majority - possibly, perhaps, led by Sharon - to endorse one specific model of Zionism over another. Unlike, say, Swiss nationalism - which has clearly delineated borders and a broadly agreed nature - Israeli nationalism is unusually pluralistic and differentially understood.
There are two different Israels within the minds of the people of Israel. The Israel that frightens the world is a mirror image of the Israel-hating fanatics of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This fundamentalist Israel is represented by the settlers and their supporters. They seek to reclaim the historic, Old Testament Land of Israel - which includes Gaza and the West Bank - as a matter of right. They believe that the Zionist project was not achieved in 1948, and will only be realised when a Greater Israel is a fact.
The Palestinians will either be ethnically cleansed from this Israel - as many of their forebears were back in 1948, a fact which Yitzhak Rabin documented in the first, non-censored draft of his autobiography - or they will be outnumbered by wave after wave of Jewish settlement and repressed. This is not an Israel that can be permitted to achieve its goals, despite the support they are offered by millions of Christian fundamentalists in the US (Bush's core supporters, by the way) who believe, bizarrely, that Jewish settlers are fulfilling the predictions of the Book of Revelations.
But there is another Israeli nationalism, that of two-thirds of Israel's Jewish population (the nationalism of the 20 per cent Arab population is another, more tricky question, of course). This is an Israel happy to live within the 1967 borders; an Israel which seeks to be a Jewish state in that it has a Jewish majority, but which also seeks equality for its Arab population. Contrary to the claims of Israel's home-grown far right, this is the Israel closest to the dreams of Israel's founding fathers.
Theodor Herzl, for example, saw nothing particularly sacred about the Old Testament Land of Israel; at one point, he considered Uganda as the possible site for a Zionist state. The founders of Zionism believed there is no inherent relationship between the notion of a Jewish state, which I support, and the Old Testament, which I believe is a ridiculous foundation for a modern state. In addition, Herzl always thought that, once Israel was established as a fact, it would become normalised as a secular democracy with full equality for its Arab citizens.
Until now, Sharon has been a defender of the first, frightening Israel. He does not seem to have backed this pro-settler agenda for fundamentalist reasons but because he believes a larger Israel taking in Gaza and the West Bank will be easier to defend from Arab aggressors, and because it was helpful to his own career. He now seems to have jumped to the second Israel. In order to show this is sincere and to earn his place in history, he will need to take on many people on his own side. He will need to renounce the notion of a Greater Israel altogether, and advocate not just the freezing of settlements involved in phase one of the US-EU road-map but their actual dismantling.
He has already named, in an interview with left-leaning Ha'aretz, a few settlements he is prepared to dismantle, and we should heartily welcome that. If he articulates a vision of Israel within the 1967 borders - and sincerely seeks to achieve it - the tide of anti-Israel feeling that has washed over Europe and even some parts of the US might be turned.
There will still be some Arab fanatics who advocate that even Israel within the 1967 borders should be destroyed, and there will still be some suicide bombers trying to achieve that awful goal (although far fewer); but far, far more people will stand in solidarity with that Israel than with the aggressive country we see - and recoil from - today. I find it hard to believe that Sharon will do any of this; but for the first time, I think there is a tiny chink of hope gleaming through the old general's rusty suit of armour.Reuse content