Once again, Israel has reached a critical juncture in its tragic conflict with the Palestinians. In last week's Observer, Alex Brummer, a prominent member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote an article on the demise of the Greater Israel vision. The article shed some useful light on the great debate that is going on within the Likud ruling party about the future of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, Mr Brummer's analysis of where Israel is heading is based on little more than wishful thinking.
Mr Brummer interprets Ariel Sharon's recent move towards a unilateral Israeli disengagement from the heavily populated parts of the West Bank and Gaza as a sign of his conversion to the cause of peace based on a two-state solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout his long career as a soldier and politician, Sharon conducted a savage and relentless war against the Palestinian people and this is what he is doing today. Force is the only language he understands. Negotiation and compromise are completely alien to his whole way of thinking. The burly 75-year-old Israeli leader is no diplomat and no statesman. He is the unilateralist par excellence. His aim is to annex to Israel as much Palestinian land with as few Palestinians on it as possible. Anyone who believes that this is a contribution towards a stable solution of the 100-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine will believe anything.
The main reason behind the Likud's partial abandonment of the project of Greater Israel, as Mr Brummer notes, lies in population statistics. Between the Jordan River and the sea there are 5.4 million Jews and 4.6 million Palestinians (including the Israeli Arabs). Experts predict that the Arabs would attain a majority within six to 10 years because of their higher birth rate. This is what Israelis refer to as 'the demographic problem' or 'the demographic time-bomb'. The language is offensive. How would we feel if Arabs referred to the number of Jews in Israel as a demographic problem, or, worse still, as an existential threat?
The real problem is that there are two nations and only one land. It follows, as the Peel commission of inquiry recognised back in 1937, that the only solution is partition. The Palestinians are not a nation of fanatics wedded to violence but a normal people with a natural hankering for freedom and independence. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in June 1967 was a catastrophe for all concerned, not least for Israel itself. For the past 36 years, the Palestinians have been chafing under the yoke of Israel's heavy-handed occupation. Having lost 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine in 1948, they gradually scaled down their aspirations to a state of their own over the remaining 22 per cent alongside Israel, not in place of Israel.
By signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinians opted for a historic compromise, for the peace of the brave. More than 10 years on, they confront an Israeli leader who rejects the Oslo Accords and is determined to impose on them the peace of the bully. The conflict that is unfolding in the Holy Land today is a conflict of Biblical proportions - between a little Palestinian David and a massively armed, overbearing Israeli Goliath.
There is no better illustration of Ariel Sharon's sinister designs or of his cruel brand of Zionism than the wall he is building on the West Bank to separate Israel from the Occupied Territories. The essence of Zionism is territorial expansion and its principal method is 'creating facts on the ground' by means of Jewish settlement on the land. Sharon is a leading land-grabber and the chief architect of Likud's policy of building Jewish settlements on Arab land. It is not for nothing that he is called 'the bulldozer'. His so-called 'security barrier' has relatively little to do with security and everything to do with expanding Israel's territory at the expense of the Palestinians by dispossessing them, harassing them, and making their life intolerable.
Sharon's monstrous wall is not the prelude to a viable two-state solution, as Mr Brummer would have us believe, but a recipe for never-ending strife, violence, and bloodshed.
Over the past 36 years, Israel has tried every conceivable method of ending the conflict with the Palestinians except the obvious one - ending the occupation. And as long as the occupation continues, there will be no peace and no stability in the Middle East. Unilateral disengagement is an illusion. It takes two to go forward on the peace front. A negotiated settlement is the only way out of the impasse. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the two communities are doomed to remain locked together in this macabre dance of death.
Avi Shlaim is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Penguin, 2000)