The prospect of a two-state solution has faded - Israel and the Palestinians are now digging in for all-out existential war.

Despite the havoc wrought by Palestinian suicide bombers, it is Israel that has proven to be the incontestable historical master of controlled and directed fury; from the callous, calculating terrorism of its pre-state underground to the most recent thorough and systematic lynching of the Palestinian Authority - security agencies and civilian infrastructure alike. Against this background, recent events take on a certain cyclical consistency: Israeli oppression met by Palestinian acts of resistance - sometimes bold, often bloody - met in turn by Israeli force, always excessive, invariably disproportionate and purposely designed to inflict maximum pain.

 

Indeed, there is even an ironic symmetry in the fact that Ariel Sharon's old "special" forces Unit 101 was as active in Jenin this month as it was half a century ago in the attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya in October 1953 when 69 civilians were killed, their houses blown up over their heads as the future Israeli prime minister oversaw the operation in person. Jenin can thus be seen as the latest episode in a long-running Israeli attempt to break the back of the Palestinian national movement by attacking its soft civilian underbelly. Sharon's ongoing assault on the authority in many ways represents a return to the raw existential confrontations of 1948 in the land of Palestine, albeit with an even greater imbalance in tools of confrontation available to each side.

 

Sunday's apparent resolution of the impasse over Arafat's imprisonment in Ramallah should not be misconstrued: Israeli rightwing triumphalism is in full swing and its appetite for colonial expansion and a "greater Israel" whetted again. Even before the latest violence, 34 new settlement outposts had been established by Sharon on the West Bank and plans are apace to expand into densely populated areas of Hebron and Arab Jerusalem. The apparent defeat of the authority can only serve to fire the right wing's enthusiasm for yet more radical solutions - including a return to the basics of "transfer", or ethnic cleansing, supported by about 50% of the Israeli electorate, according to opinion polls. Sharon is now likely to extend his war to Gaza and is still bent on the political, perhaps physical, elimination of Yasser Arafat. His ultimate goal is no less than the total subjugation and dissolution of the Palestinian national movement.

 

Consequently, the outlines of the solution that has served as the underpinning of the peace camp on both sides since the mid-70s are beginning to fade. As "Sharon's way" has moved to occupy the Israeli centre, the very notion of a viable two-state solution is being called into question. Sharon is setting up fences and buffer zones outside the main Palestinian urban centres that will effectively designate the de facto boundaries between the two sides. Far from eliciting an Israeli return to anything like the 1967 borders, the coming political-diplomatic tussle is likely to centre on forcing Israel's retreat from the April 2002 lines. Sharon may well offer a political solution, even a " Palestinian state", but it will be nothing near the minimum required for a fair and sustainable peace, and he has already declared his refusal to dismantle a single settlement now or in the future. The Israeli Labour party, tainted by its association with Sharon's enterprise and unwilling or unable to suggest a viable alternative, has lost all credibility with the Palestinians -and its own electorate. For the foreseeable future, it looks as the notion of a "return to Taba" and a comprehensive two-state solution is sheer illusion. The two sides will simply not get there on their own, and the international community (read the United States) will simply not take upon itself the task of making both sides - and Israel in particular - an offer they cannot refuse. On the Palestinian side, other ominous trends have begun to emerge: in the West Bank and Gaza, Fatah and the other Palestinian political factions will be digging deep underground and preparing for the next -lengthy - phase of bloody armed resistance. Gone will be the hopes for an imminent end of occupation and with them the belief in a meaningful political process. Arafat's successors will not be some enlightened democrats rescued from the wreckage of the authority, but the hardened and embittered veterans of Sharon's war seeking revenge and retribution.

 

With the destruction of the authority, the centre of Palestinian political gravity is likely to shift back to the PLO on the outside. As long as it is at the mercy of Israel's superior firepower, it is evident that the authority, with its current or any subsequent leadership, will not have the freedom of action or credibility to sign and deliver a political solution that can carry the majority of Palestinians with it. The alternative is for the Palestinians inside and outside to prepare for the long haul.

 

Inside Israel itself, the 20% of its citizens who are Arabs can be expected to feel more alienated than ever from the Jewish state. Their fears will create new bonds with their Palestinian compatriots outside. Likewise, in the refugee camps and elsewhere in the diaspora, different Palestinian factions will be seeking to draw upon the vast groundswell of popular sympathy felt by a new generation of Arabs touched once more by the drama of Palestine. Innovative and more destructive modes of armed struggle will be sought and developed. April 2002 seems to have brought us back to where we all started in 1948, an all-out existential war for the land of Palestine. Only this time the way forward will be harder and more hazardous than ever before - not least for Israel itself.