The biggest foreign policy achievement of Tony Blair's second term is disintegrating. He succeeded in persuading George Bush to pursue a Good Friday-style peace process in Israel/Palestine after three years of hyper-Zionism. Yet now Abu Mazen, the moderate Palestinian Prime Minister, has resigned in disgust, cursing that neither the Israeli government nor Yasser Arafat were sticking to the road-map championed by Mr Blair.
And - a nightmare unimaginable six months ago - Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat's four-decade game of Tom and Jerry seems to be nearing its final reel. The Israeli cabinet has decided to remove Mr Arafat from Palestine. Many commentators believe that assassination is now a real possibility. And the US has tossed dynamite on to the bonfire by actually vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution calling on Israel not to proceed. The Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein has rightly described this move as "a license to kill Arafat".
We now know conclusively that the Bush administration is going to put its own squalid electoral concerns ahead of peace in the Middle East. George Bush senior lost in 1992 partly because he alienated the crazed Christian evangelical vote in the States - the loonies who fanatically support Israel because they believe it is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy - by calling for a settlements freeze. Karl Rove, Mr Bush's political strategist, is eager to veto any moves that might dismay that 40 million-strong core constituency. The UN veto was an exclusively political act, and it was an offensive snub to Mr Blair, who has risked his political life for these neoconservatives.
We also know conclusively now that the Sharon government has no interest in peace based on compromise. Yitzhak Rabin - who ordered the Israeli army to "break the bones" of Palestinians during the first intifada - had a startling change of heart in the early 1990s. I thought Mr Sharon might - just might - have undergone a similar change. I was a fool.
With Abu Mazen, Mr Sharon had an opportunity to build up a moderate Palestinian leader who could act as a sane interlocutor. If Abu Mazen had been able to show ordinary Palestinians some real progress (rather than the derisory moves Mr Sharon offered, dismantling a handful of uninhabited caravan "settlements" and freeing 200 common criminals), the balance of power within the Occupied Territories would have begun to tip away from Mr Arafat and towards him.
An Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling has identified Mr Sharon's real goal as "politicide", a process that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people's existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity.
Mr Sharon seems to believe that removing Mr Arafat - the symbol of Palestinian national identity - will shatter Palestinian consciousness itself. This might seem like lunacy to people not engaged in the dialogue within Israel, but on the Israeli right, it has long been a truism that Palestinian identity is a "false", constructed idea. Because there was no Palestinian state before the state of Israel was created (Palestine was divided between several powers), they claim that the Palestinians aren't really a people at all. They have confected a national identity as a tool in their fight to reclaim all of historical Palestine and therefore to destroy Israel itself. This is, of course, preposterous. All national identities are constructed at some point. Italian national identity didn't exist until 1870; does that mean Italians were all impostors in 1890? Killing Mr Arafat will not cause Palestinian identity to revert to smaller, tribal nationalisms, as Sharonistas fantasise. It will not enable the Israelis to play Gaza off against the West Bank, or to establish compliant local leaders who squabble amongst themselves. It will strengthen Palestinian identity to an intensity never known before, and it will harden the determination of many Palestinians to never compromise with Israel.
The horrible joke is that Israel's aggression towards Mr Arafat has built up a dishonest, corrupt tyrant into a Palestinian national hero. Mr Arafat's greatest crimes have been against the Palestinians themselves. When he became head of the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo accords, he proceeded to construct an old-fashioned tyranny on the model that has been crushing people across the Arab world for the past century. Mr Arafat squandered his very limited financial resources on creating a vast apparatus of oppression, including what Amnesty International estimated was "probably the highest police to population ratio in the whole world". Prisoners were tortured on a regular basis at Mr Arafat's command, Amnesty showed, and, as his Palestinian biographer, Said Aburishi, documents, "the methods used were among the cruellest in the world. Prisoners were suspended from ceilings, whipped [and] burned] ... Not only is there no judicial recourse, but their families were threatened when they protested loudly".
Liberation from Israeli occupation into a Palestinian Arafatistan would be an improvement; but only a tiny one. The way to deal with Mr Arafat's human rights abuses is to establish a democratic Palestinian state, protected in its infancy by international troops to make sure Mr Arafat does not liquidate its democratic nature. The Palestinian people can then hold him accountable themselves, which won't take long, given his blithering incompetence.
Ah, even liberal Israelis object, but with Mr Arafat in charge, we will never get to a point where we can establish a Palestinian state. Only removing Mr Arafat will make negotiations possible, because he rejects every compromise deal.
There are a number of problems with this argument. Firstly, the famous "generous offers" made at Camp David and more importantly Taba, which Mr Arafat supposedly unreasonably snubbed, were far from generous. They left huge Israeli settlement blocks at the heart of a Palestinian "state". Mr Arafat agreed to negotiate over this and make detailed counter-proposals, but Ehud Barak broke off negotiations. Taba cannot be offered as "proof" that Mr Arafat is inherently rejectionist. This might be the case; we just don't know, because Israeli leaders have not made him a credible offer without then storming off.
But secondly, even if you give up on the idea of negotiating with Mr Arafat altogether, the alternative is to work with and encourage a moderate Palestinian leader who will marginalise him - Abu Mazen was the perfect candidate - and it is certain that no moderate is going to emerge in the wake of the murder or expulsion of Mr Arafat.
All but the most far-right Israelis accept that a division of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean must happen. This is because there is a demographic time-bomb ticking away. By 2010, there will be more Arabs in the land covered by Israel and the occupied territories than there are Jews. If the land is not divided into two states, Israel will have become an apartheid nation, where a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority. I do not believe the Israeli people - most of whom were living under oppressive, racist regimes just a generation or two ago - would stand for this. A Palestinian state is therefore inevitable, and soon; but Mr Sharon has just blown up one of the best possible paths to achieving this peacefully.Reuse content