Published: 08 May 2006
I still remember the picture. A settler child in his early teens kicks a Palestinian woman, while his parents watch, laughing. I was in Hebron, and the Palestinian residents were showing me the random scraps of evidence they were hoarding. It had been hard to get through to talk to them because, for most of the year, more than 180,000 Palestinians are locked away by the Israeli army so that the 450 racist, raghead-hating Israeli settlers can move around freely. If the Palestinians break the "curfew" and step out, they are shot. The residents are given an hour a day to scramble for food while they dodge stones and faeces hurled down by the settler children, and as a result their own kids have been reduced to sub-Saharan levels of malnutrition.
So when I saw the pictures yesterday of the racist Hebron settlers being cleared out of a clutter of Palestinian homes they had illegally seized, I was tempted to hope. When I look at the speech just delivered by Ehud Olmert, the new Israeli Prime Minister, which makes it clear he will abandon some of the wildest, cruellest settlement blocks, including Hebron, I want to smile. The people of Hebron will at last be free from this tyranny, and part of a free and democratic Palestinian state - won't they?
Olmert's plans are still impressionistic, but, in his clouds of rhetoric, some shapes are becoming clear. He has said he will negotiate with the Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen, but he will open with the talk-to-the hand position that Israel will never, never renounce the tastiest chunks of Palestinian land. The settlements of Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion will remain, troops will stay in the Jordan Valley, and there will be no return to the Green Line. And if the negotiations break down within two years - as Olmert's own left-wing wife predicts they will - then he will simply impose his own borders.
As the pro-Olmert Mideast Mirror reassured its readers this week: "The sum total of the Olmert plan is to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians in the territories, but it's not to give up control over the West Bank even as Israel evacuates as much as 90 per cent of it. Troops would remain in the territory."
Yet still Olmert's plan is being presented as "generous". This is only true if you see the problem entirely from the Israeli point of view. Since the Israelis want to give up nothing, withdrawing from a few scraps of the West Bank and leaving the Palestinians with around 13 per cent of historical Palestine is generous from their perspective. But if you look at it from the perspective of what the Palestinians are entitled to under international law, the picture is very different.
The Palestinians can legally demand a return of all refugees and their descendants ethnically cleansed in 1948, an immediate and unconditional withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and full compensation for their years of horror. It is the Palestinians who are being generous by offering to negotiate on all of these basic legal rights.
It will be a tragedy for Israel if Ehud Olmert's government does not move towards a defensible peace deal now, because the country may be about to face the biggest existential threat it has ever known. Some day in the next decade, a fanatical Holocaust-denying anti-Semite who believes Israel should be "wiped from the map" is probably going to have a nuclear weapon pointed straight at Tel Aviv. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, does not want the 1967 borders. If we are to take him at his word, he wants the Dachau borders, a radiation-soaked elimination of the Jews from the face of the Middle East. He says the Jews should go back to Germany, the country where they (weren't) herded into gas chambers. If they won't go, he hints, they might need a little nuclear nudge.
He seems to believe the solution to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 and their dispossession ever since is to commit a genocide against their oppressors now. I believe there is only a small risk that Ahmadinejad is crazy enough to act on his words - but that's still a small risk of a very big bomb.
The UN Security Council meeting today cannot stop this looming West Bank Missile Crisis, and it looks very unlikely that anybody else can either. Ahmadinejad has stockpiled enough resources to sit out three years of horrifying Iraq-style sanctions. Military options are even less feasible. Even if the US and Israel knew where Iran's dispersed and hidden nuclear sites were, even if they had the moral authority to take them out with their own nuclear weapons in tow, Ahmadinejad has the world over an oil barrel. With rising oil prices already causing political pain in the US, is any president going to risk $100-a-barrel prices and a global recession?
Invasion would be even more absurd. A fat majority of Iranians support Ahmadinejad in his desire for nuclear weapons - one of his few popular policies. There's a simple reason. Iran is a country that has been chopped and changed from the outside by anti-democratic forces for more than 50 years.
By the early 1950s, the Iranians had a democratically elected parliament and (along with Israel) the most sophisticated democratic society in the Middle East. But then the Iranian people chose to nationalise their own oil fields, to ensure the profits flowed into their own Exchequer rather than into the bank accounts of foreign multinationals. President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to liquidate Iran's democracy and install - at the end of a barrel - an anti-democratic dictator, "Shah" Reza Pahlavi.
My family lived for a time under the Shah. While he and his secret police lived in abundant luxury, Tehran - a sprawling city of 7 million people - did not even have a sewage system. The horrors of Khomeinism were a response to this tyranny. The Iranian people are frantically afraid of an external intervention because, half a century ago, an external intervention set their country on a course that has led to unimaginable misery. Unless somebody is proposing to invade and install another dictatorship that would ignore this impulse - a horrifying idea - then the Iranian nukes are going to come.
So Israel is about to need all the friends it can get in an indefinite nuclear stand-off with a man who calls for the country's "annihilation". That is when hard pressure and bribery from the US and EU will be essential. But how forthcoming will this support be if Israel continues with a policy of unilateral theft of Palestinian land and water resources, leaving the Palestinians with a glorified Native American reservation in the centre of the West Bank? If Israel does not act now to make itself morally defensible, it may find itself no longer practically defensible - and soon.