Will Sharon sabotage the peace process?

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The Independent Online

From outside, things must seem to be going pretty well here in Israel/Palestine. No suicide bombers have blasted their way on to the front pages, no pictures of Palestinian children (or bits of them) have stained our consciences, and in a few days, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, will be shown grinning and sharing jokes with President Bush. The most powerful man in the world will insist that he is sensitive to Palestinian concerns, and wants to secure a state for those dispossessed people after 55 years in the wilderness. What more could we hope for?

Yes, it is true that there has been a ceasefire on the Palestinian side, even while Israeli military forces occupy their towns and villages. Nobody should underestimate that achievement, or the restraint it requires: Israel has already killed three Palestinians this week. The road-map - which is attributed by almost everybody here to Tony Blair - does indeed scrape from the tatters of the Oslo agreement a path to some kind of peace.

The fact that our Prime Minister has persuaded the most pro-Israeli US President in history to set a timetable for creating a Palestinian state is greatly under-appreciated in Britain. This is the stuff of history, not a sad but ultimately irrelevant suicide. But there are a series of huge obstacles ahead if the road-map's end-vision of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is to be realised. The word "viable" is crucial: a pathetic, withered set of bantustans still under an Israeli matrix of control - with settlements scattered liberally across the hills - would be completely unacceptable.

Remember what we are asking the Palestinians to give up. In exchange for some kind of state - details to be determined by two countries with a long history of doing them over - they have to carry out a task that, even 10 years into the Northern Ireland peace process, has not been offered by Irish paramilitaries. The Palestinians have pre-emptively to disarm their weapons; Abu Mazen's police force is aggressively rounding them up now. This means they have to give up completely their ability to protect their land from people who have a long track-record of snatching it, without seeing anything in return at this first stage except a few prisoner releases and a slight relaxation of the vicious military occupation.

On top of all this, they have to renounce the right of return. It is so obvious that this will have to happen - a full return to Israel would mean, in practice, the end of the Israeli state, and therefore the end of a two-state solution where both sides can feel safe - that we tend to underestimate quite how wrenching this move will be.

There are now four and a half million Palestinian refugees, many of them rotting in squalid refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. When you ask a Palestinian where she is from, she will invariably name the village that her family was expelled from all those years ago. In my tours of Palestinian refugee camps over the past week, I have yet to find a single Palestinian family that does not keep in a prominent place the key to the house that their family was forced to abandon in 1948.

We are asking Palestinians to surrender the dreams of three generations; we must have something very solid to offer in return. Giving up the right of return to Israel should be the sole concession that Palestinians have to make. They cannot be expected also to tolerate endless tiny cuts into the 1967 borders that make the Palestinian state into a joke.

Abu Mazen is not a wildly popular man here. No matter how pliant he may be to US and Israeli wishes behind closed doors, if he is not offered a strong deal, he simply will not be able to carry the Palestinian people with him. Yes, many Palestinians are jihadists who will never be appeased by anything less than pushing the Jews into the sea; but most will put up with their own space free from Israeli influence, if only the road-map can deliver it.

The risk that Ariel Sharon will sabotage the whole process - despite the fact that he is saying the right things at the moment - cannot be discounted. I have seen in several villages the "separation fence" that Israel is constructing. This is no English garden fence: it is a massive barbed-wire monstrosity that twinkles eerily in the sunlight. If this electrified fence were built on the 1967 borders following a peace deal, it would be a legitimate - if over-the-top - border. But in fact, as the Israeli human rights group B'tselem has documented, the fence is built way into the West Bank, cutting off many Palestinian villages from their land.

Sharon is trying to pre-empt any decision that might be taken in negotiations by creating a new de facto border that works exclusively in Israel's interests. (Water resources - which will soon be as important as oil - are overwhelmingly on the wrong side of the fence for the Palestinians.) This is totally contrary to the spirit of the road-map; if Sharon continues, he will be blatantly and openly mocking both Blair and Bush.

The only way for both Israelis and Palestinians to be safe is for both of them to have their own state. Blair knows that; but there is a real risk that Sharon is too pig-headed to realise it. The current fragile steps towards peace could easily be trampled to death by the old general.