The moment has come for the long queue of diplomatic high-wire artists to bite the bullet: there is no immediate prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. No matter how much Tony Blair huffs and Jack Straw puffs, the painful reality is that the Middle East 'road-map' is destined to join the slew of failed peace plans in the garbage can marked 'Diplomatic Good Intentions'.
True, both Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers have embraced the 'road-map', which provides a choreographed procession towards an independent Palestinian state. But their apparent accord ignores the reality on the ground. The spate of Palestinian suicide bombings that followed Israel's decision to withdraw from major Palestinian cities last month testified again to a Palestinian determination to scupper progress towards any diplomatic accommodation with the Jewish state.
Nor is there much cause for optimism at the political level. Offered an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, a share in Jerusalem and a limited return of refugees to Israel, Yasser Arafat's response has been the violence that has convulsed Israel for more than three years. The frequent complaint of the West's political and media classes, that Palestinian violence is a function of 'frustration and rage' over the lack of progress to peace, is ill-founded. On the contrary, the most intense spasms of violence have accompanied the most positive movements on the diplomatic front.
The reason is that a large body of Palestinians have still not reconciled themselves to the two-state solution. More specifically, they have not, despite the Oslo accords, come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state on what they call holy Muslim soil. The Palestinians remain as opposed to the existence of Israel today as they were when the Peel Commission recommended partition in 1936 and when the UN voted for it in 1947.
In Israel, by contrast, successive leaders, including the much-demonised Ariel Sharon, have warned Israeli voters to prepare for 'painful concessions' if a real opportunity for peace presents itself. No Israeli doubts that such 'painful concessions' would involve Israel's evacuation from most, if not all, of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to make way for the birth of Palestine.
The reason the Palestinians have not run with the ball is that they are convinced that they have far more to gain by playing for time. On present trends, say the demographers, Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – by 2020. At that point, Israel will cease to exist as a democratic and Jewish state.
Why accept a truncated two-state solution in the West Bank and Gaza when the one-state solution down the road will deliver Israel, too? Not by suicide bombers or conventional military means, but by the simple expedient of eroding Israel's Jewish majority. All the Palestinians have to do is breed for victory: make love, not war, and transform their womenfolk into what Arafat calls his 'biological bombs'.
For a vast majority of Israelis, territorial division is not a matter of ideology or whim. It is an existential imperative. But for the Palestinians, who realise the limitations of their military options, demography is the most potent weapon in their arsenal.
When I raised the one-state idea this week with a senior Palestinian academic who has been in active contact with Israelis for years, he responded with a curious question: 'Do we really need another state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan?' He went on, 'It would be much easier for the Palestinians to fight for equal rights rather than for another state.' If he accepted a two-state solution now, he said, it was simply to 'accommodate the Zionist desire for a Jewish state, not because I believe it is just'. As if Jewish national aspirations were uniquely illegitimate.
Few events have so galvanised Palestinian anger as Sharon's decision, supported by an overwhelming majority of Israelis, to construct a fence roughly along the Israel