The UN General Assembly strongly supported the Palestinian Authority at an extraordinary session on 20 December; it condemned Israel's policy of occupation and was displeased with the US veto of a resolution demanding international protection for the Palestinians. But the UN and international law do not figure in solutions to the conflict despite Israel's ferocious offensive in the West Bank and Gaza. By trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority, Ariel Sharon acts against the interests of the Israelis, offering only an endless war without any winners.

"All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall" (1).

Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky wrote these lines in his 1923 article "The Iron Wall". Ten years later the founder of revisionist Zionism quit the World Zionist Organisation, condemning it for refusing to fight for a Jewish state on both banks of the River Jordan and for failing to create a powerful Jewish army for this very purpose. The current Likud party is a successor – via the Irgun, Lehi and Herut – of the revisionist movement. Following in the footsteps of Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, though once a member of Mapai (a forerunner of the Labour party), is now leader of the Likud and Jabotinsky's heir.

The iron wall did not only inspire the descendants of Jabotinsky, known to Mussolini as a fascist. The iron-wall concept became the enduring strategy of the Yishuv (as the Jewish community in Palestine was known before statehood) and of the state of Israel itself. In 1982 the strategy failed miserably when Israel mounted its disastrous invasion of Lebanon, overseen by Ariel Sharon, then defence minister. Yasser Arafat and his fedayin managed to escape, under the protection of a multinational force; Sharon also failed to bring about his dream of installing a pro-Israeli government in Lebanon. Three years later the Israelis withdrew to a self-appointed "security zone".

There was a second setback. From December 1987 until 1991 the Palestinian intifada raged; in response, Israeli brutality harmed the country's international standing. David became Goliath. Israel reclaimed its "victim" status during the Gulf war, but Iraq's Scud missiles showed that occupation of Palestinian territories no longer guaranteed Israel's security.

These events confirmed the outmoded nature of the iron wall; and Labour prime minister Yitzhak Rabin put this lesson to good use during the official negotiations launched by the Madrid conference in 1991, followed by the secret negotiations in Oslo. The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP) on Palestinian autonomy was announced on 13 September 1993. Despite its inherent limits, the DOP broke with the past by endorsing the belligerents' mutual recognition, together with Israel's gradual withdrawal from the territories it had occupied in 1967, the creation of an elected Palestinian Authority and negotiations on the Palestinian territories' final status. Between the lines of the DOP a Palestinian state was in sight. In 1995 the Palestinian cities were liberated, Arafat was elected president, a legislative council was elected, Oslo I was signed and the Palestinian Authority came into being. Oslo II was signed in late October 1995.

On 4 November 1995 Rabin's courage brought about his death. For several months Sharon and friends had been waging a hysterical anti-Rabin campaign, with some even portraying Rabin in Nazi uniform (2). On 29 May 1996 Likud was returned to power: Binyamin Netanyahu had defeated Labour's Shimon Peres by exploiting a wave of Hamas attacks, which had pushed the Israeli electorate to the right. In addition, Israel's bombardment of south Lebanon as part of Operation Grapes of Wrath reduced Israeli Arab support for Peres. Although the ageing General Sharon cheerfully loathed Netanyahu (his brilliant and younger rival), he supported his policies. Netanyahu blocked any implementation of the Oslo accords, though he was unable to abrogate them.

On 29 May 1999, three years after he was elected, Netanyahu lost in a landslide to Labour's Ehud Barak. Sharon was greatly alarmed by Barak's stated desire for compromise and full-scale peace. But Barak failed in his efforts to reach an agreement with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad that would have granted Israel full sovereignty over Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee). He unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon in May 2000. On the Palestinian front, he simultaneously boosted Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories to historic levels and began negotiating with the Palestinian Authority over the territories' final status. The failure of the Camp David peace talks in July 2000 did little to reassure Sharon and the other opponents of the Oslo accords: Arafat and Barak were continuing to negotiate behind the scenes, and the Israeli right saw the risk of further Israeli concessions.

On 28 September 2000, protected by hundreds of soldiers and police officers, Sharon made his provocative visit to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque complex. The outcome was three-fold: Sharon set off the second intifada, sabotaged the resumption of negotiations and, with Netanyahu relegated to the sidelines, launched his own election campaign. Four months later Sharon handed a crushing defeat to Barak, who had sealed his political fate by failing to finalise the provisions of the Taba talks in January 2001 or to sell them to the Israeli electorate.

The lessons of Beirut

Sharon had learned the lessons of Beirut: there was to be no question of allowing the international community to rescue the PLO leader again. The newly elected prime minister also reflected on Netanyahu's failures: simply putting the brakes on the so-called peace process was not enough; it had to be destroyed. But since Western leaders and a large part of the Israeli electorate would not support an all-out assault, Sharon's solution was to launch a "counter-offensive". Within days of his election, Sharon was regularly goading the Palestinians into committing terrorist acts. With the media's active participation, such acts would serve to justify the Israeli government's own wave of terrorism.

Sharon knew exactly what he was doing. As Israeli journalist Alex Fishman revealed last December, Sharon set his trap on the basis of a plan devised even before his election by retired major-general Meir Dagan. The thinking was that "Arafat was an assassin with whom negotiation was impossible", that the Oslo accords were "the worst misfortune to ever befall Israel" and that "all steps must thus be taken to destroy them". Hence the idea of gradually isolating Arafat, both at home and abroad. According to Dagan, once the intifada was over, Israel would "negotiate separately with the Palestinian forces governing each territory, with Palestinian officials, security forces, information services and even the tanzim fighters". Fishman concluded that "Now that Sharon has caught his prey, he won't let it escape easily" (3).

Since 11 September three series of events have unfolded. During the first, Sharon mistakenly believed that US president George W Bush had given him the green light to attack the Palestinian Authority; Sharon was then forced to withdraw his troops from the autonomous Palestinian areas and to authorise Peres to meet with Arafat. And after accusing the US of having abandoned Israel just as the Western powers had abandoned the Sudetenland, Sharon was forced to accept the new US plan for an independent Palestinian state.

A second phase began on 17 October with the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, by forces belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) after the killing of the PFLP's West Bank leader that August. The revenge attack on Zeevi gave the Israeli army a pretext to reoccupy the autonomous areas. Despite US pressure, Israeli soldiers went on to launch a five-week reign of terror.

The third phase began with the assassination of Abu Hanoud, a top Hamas figure in the West Bank. Those behind his death knew that the Islamists would respond in spectacular fashion, providing the Israelis with an excuse to wage total war against the Palestinian Authority – this time with the Bush administration's support. Although Arafat was ordered to crack down on Hamas, he was unable to for logistical and political reasons: his police forces had been paralysed and his hopes for any future negotiations had been dashed. In any case, Israel's – stated – aim was to harass 3m Palestinians and to marginalise, if not eliminate, their leader.

Peres warned that "In his place, we will have Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah" (4). To which Uzi Landau, minister for internal security, replied: "I prefer Hamas without a mask, rather than a Palestinian Authority hiding behind one" (5). The bets began. Who would succeed al-ikhtiyar (the old man), as Arafat is known? The old guard, the new guard, the head of a security service? It almost didn't matter: Sharon wanted very simply to have no negotiating partner recognised at home or internationally, so that he would no longer have to negotiate. It mattered little whether he reoccupied the Palestinian territories or left 40% of them to be run by "governors" who would collaborate with Israel. As his minister Landau said, "We'll see about peace plans later. … What's sure is we will never accept the existence of a Palestinian state. It would be a catastrophe" (6).

'Here death governs'

The reverse proved true. For with the second intifada and its brutal repression, the conflict took a turn unknown since 1948. "You have the feeling," said Israeli historian Tom Segev, "of being back in the period of the British Mandate, before the formation of the state of Israel, when the two communities slogged it out with arms" (7). There had not been such atrocities for half a century: Palestinian children murdered, anti-Arab pogroms, two Israeli soldiers lynched, Joseph's Tomb destroyed, bombings from helicopters and F-16s, suicide attacks. It is as though the conflict had changed from a political battle for freedom by an occupied people to an ethnic-religious fight to the death.

These nightmare 15 months are but a foretaste of what could become the battle of Palestine: a civil war between two interlinked peoples, of which the Palestinian citizens of Israel are part. For their solidarity with their brothers on the other side of the Green Line, heightened by the brutality they experienced in October 2000, could in the future express itself with violence, creating a second front for Israel. What use would missiles, tanks and atomic bombs be then?

The key to any victory is demography. The Zionist movement knows that well: from the start it demanded that the fight for land be accompanied by Jewish immigration, in the attempt to create a Jewish majority. In Sharon's Greater Israel there are now 5.1m Jews against 4.1m Palestinians; these Palestinians will become the majority in 2010, and in 2020 they will grow to 8.1m against 6.7m Jews (8).

Israel has only two weapons with which to counter this threat: massive Jewish immigration and/or an equally great expulsion of the Palestinians. Immigration on such a scale seems scarcely credible, short of an outbreak of extreme anti-Semitic violence in the West. Expulsion, known as "transfer" – the dream of part of the Israeli right – could hardly take place in cold blood. It would require some extreme situation, a regional conflagration, and what Arab country would be mad enough to oblige?

Unless Israel allows an independent, viable Palestinian state to grow up beside it, it will face a major contradiction: it may define itself as a "democratic Jewish state", but it will have to choose between these definitions. Either it can opt for democracy, which means giving the vote to all its inhabitants and no longer being a Jewish state, or it can opt to keep its Jewish character, in which case it cannot be democratic. Further, maintaining a real system of apartheid against an ever-growing Arab majority will provoke uprisings and repression the like of which we have not yet experienced. Such a scenario could lead to the end of the Israeli state.

Does Sharon, master of short-term tactics, have any long-term strategy to avoid this eventuality? The reverse is true: he is hastening its arrival, doing everything he can to fight the creation of a Palestinian state – even though that is precisely what can ensure the survival of Israel and its Jewish character. Already, in the space of one year, Israel has had its diplomatic or commercial ties broken with Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Oman – all fruit of the Oslo years – not to mention its first contacts with Algeria and the United Arab Emirates; only the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan remain, but their ambassadors have long been removed from Israel.

Sharon's suicidal policy has serious implications for Israelis. Look at security. The proportion of Israeli to Palestinian victims has increased from one against five last spring to one against two during the first two weeks of December. Look at economic growth. That has fallen from 6% in the first half of the 1990s to 4.7% in 2000, then to 2.7% in 2001, and is expected to drop to 1.7% in 2002. Look at foreign investment which, from January to September 2001, dropped by 70% compared to the same period the year before. Tourism has gone down by 65%, with one in four in this sector now without a job. Unemployment is set to reach 10% of the working population in 2002, compared to 6.7% in 1996. And the 1999 figure of 300,000 families under the official poverty line, that is 18% of the population, has greatly increased.

How will Israeli public opinion react to all this? For now, certainly, Palestinian attacks have reinforced the feeling that the survival of the state is in danger and have not surprisingly pushed a large majority of Israelis to support Sharon. But there is ambivalence here, for many of the people who are calling for revenge also support a return to the negotiating table (9).

The future of Israeli society is itself in question. There is no justification for saying that ultranationalist fever can replace the immense hope of normalisation of a population that dreams more of the material pleasures of peace than of making war to save the settlers. Or that confrontation with the Arabs could once again be used as the cement of a mosaic of successive immigrations, disrupted by globalisation, torn by internal quarrels (between Arab and Jew, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi) and bereft of all ideal. Peace at home cannot be disassociated from peace abroad.

In an interview published by Haaretz last April, Sharon, not long elected, said something strange: "The war of independence of 1948 has not ended. No. 1948 was only a chapter" (10). The meaning of this has since become clear. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, the daughter of General Mattityahu (Matti) Peled, one of the great figures of the peace camp, wrote in Le Monde diplomatique in 1997 why she held Netanyahu responsible for the death of her daughter Smadar, killed in a suicide attack in 1997 at the age of 13 (11).

Now she has also blamed Sharon. She did it when the European parliament awarded her the Sakharov prize in December, with Palestinian writer Izzat Ghazzawi. She said: "Dylan Thomas wrote a war poem entitled 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion'. In Israel, it does. Here death governs: the government of Israel rules over a dominion of death" (12).

(1) First published in Russian under the title "O Zheleznoi Stene" in Rasswyet, 4 November 1923.

(2) See Amnon Kapeliouk, Rabin, un assassinat politique, Le Monde éditions, Paris, 1996.

(3) Yediot Aharonot, Tel Aviv, Friday 14 October 2001.

(4) Yediot Aharonot, 1 October 2001.

(5) Le Monde, 14 December 2001.

(6) Ibid.

(7) L'Humanité, 12 October 2000.

(8) See Arnon Sofer, Newsweek, New York, 12 August 2001; and Youssef Courbage, "Demographic stakes", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, April 1999.

(9) The percentage of those supporting negotiations fell, however, from 55% on 23 November to 32% on 3 December 2001 (Maariv, Tel Aviv).

(10) See Ari Shavit, "Sharon is Sharon", Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 12 April 2001.

(11) See Le Monde diplomatique, October 1997.

(12) Quoted on the Indymedia website.