Sharon's plan is to drive Palestinians across the Jordan
THE leading Israeli historian Martin van Creveld predicts that a US attack on Iraq or a terrorist strike at home could trigger a massive mobilisation to clear the occupied territories of their two million Arabs
Two years ago, less than eight per cent of those who took part in a Gallup poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favour of what is euphemistically called "transfer" - that is, the expulsion of perhaps two million Palestinians across the River Jordan. This month that figure reached 44 per cent.
Earlier this year, when a journalist asked Ariel Sharon whether he favoured such a move, the Israeli prime minister said he did not think in such terms. A glance at his memoirs, however, shows that he has not always been so fastidious.
In September 1970 King Hussein of Jordan fell on the Palestinians in his kingdom, killing perhaps 5,000 to 10,000. The then Gen Sharon, serving as Commanding Officer, Southern Front, argued that Israel's policy of helping the king was a mistake; instead it should have tried to topple the Hashemite regime.
He has often said since that Jordan, which, according to him, has a Palestinian majority even now, is the Palestinian state. The inference - that the Palestinians should go there - is clear.
During its 1948 War of Independence, Israel drove 650,000 Palestinians from their homes into neighbouring countries. If it were to try something similar today, the outcome could well be a regional war. More and more people in Jerusalem believe that such is Mr Sharon's objective.
It might explain why Mr Sharon, famous for his ability to plan ahead, appears not to have a plan. In fact, he has always harboured a very clear plan - nothing less than to rid Israel of the Palestinians.
Few people, least of all me, want the following events to happen. But such a scenario could easily come about. Mr Sharon would have to wait for a suitable opportunity - such as an American offensive against Iraq, which some Israelis think is going to take place in early summer.
Mr Sharon himself told Colin Powell, the secretary of state, that America should not allow the situation in Israel to delay the operation.
An uprising in Jordan, followed by the collapse of King Abdullah's regime, would also present such an opportunity - as would a spectacular act of terrorism inside Israel that killed hundreds.
Should such circumstances arise, then Israel would mobilise with lightning speed - even now, much of its male population is on standby.
First, the country's three ultra-modern submarines would take up firing positions out at sea. Borders would be closed, a news blackout imposed, and all foreign journalists rounded up and confined to a hotel as guests of the Government.
A force of 12 divisions, 11 of them armoured, plus various territorial units suitable for occupation duties, would be deployed: five against Egypt, three against Syria, and one opposite Lebanon. This would leave three to face east as well as enough forces to put a tank inside every Arab-Israeli village just in case their populations get any funny ideas.
The expulsion of the Palestinians would require only a few brigades. They would not drag people out of their houses but use heavy artillery to drive them out; the damage caused to Jenin would look like a pinprick in comparison.
Any outside intervention would be held off by the Israeli air force. In 1982, the last time it engaged in large-scale operations, it destroyed 19 Syrian anti-aircraft batteries and shot down 100 Syrian aircraft against the loss of one.
Its advantage is much greater now than it was then and would present an awesome threat to any Syrian armoured attack on the Golan Heights.
As for the Egyptians, they are separated from Israel by 150 miles or so of open desert. Judging by what happened in 1967, should they try to cross it they would be destroyed.
The Jordanian and Lebanese armed forces are too small to count and Iraq is in no position to intervene, given that it has not recovered its pre-1991 strength and is being held down by the Americans. Saddam Hussein may launch some of the 30 to 40 missiles he probably has.
The damage they can do, however, is limited. Should Saddam be mad enough to resort to weapons of mass destruction, then Israel's response would be so "awesome and terrible" (as Yitzhak Shamir, the former prime minister, once said) as to defy the imagination.
Some believe that the international community will not permit such an ethnic cleansing. I would not count on it. If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only country that can stop him is the United States.
The US, however, regards itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have supported Osama bin Laden. America will not necessarily object to that world being taught a lesson - particularly if it could be as swift and brutal as the 1967 campaign; and also particularly if it does not disrupt the flow of oil for too long.
Israeli military experts estimate that such a war could be over in just eight days. If the Arab states do not intervene, it will end with the Palestinians expelled and Jordan in ruins.
If they do intervene, the result will be the same, with the main Arab armies destroyed. Israel would, of course, take some casualties, especially in the north, where its population would come under fire from Hizbollah.
However, their number would be limited and Israel would stand triumphant, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Are you listening Mr Arafat?
Prof van Creveld is author of The Sword and the Olive; a Critical History of the Israel Defence Force (New York, 1998). He lives in Jerusalem