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The Seven Lost Years of Peace in the Middle East

TEL AVIV — As the war rages on and the civilian casualties mount, those of us living here are often haunted by thoughts of opportunities missed. Before the abductions that touched off this latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, Israel had enjoyed seven long years of largely uninterrupted peace. And Israel squandered it.

It’s been seven years since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip following a brutal civil war with its arch-rival, Fatah. Since then, a combination of poor governance, an Israeli sea blockade and the new Egyptian regime’s unwillingness to open the border with Gaza has forced the self-proclaimed party of Palestinian resistance into a corner. They have few allies and are financially weak — but now they feel that time is on their side. That feeling is the source of the true existential threat to both the peace process and Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state.

Former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon always had a simple rule about war: Never retreat under fire. During the second intifada, Sharon insisted that Israel wouldn’t enter a peace process until Palestinian terror stopped and Israel had seven days of quiet. Sharon’s principle was sound: Any retreat under violent duress was bound to lead to more violence immediately afterward. If the two-state solution is to work — and not degenerate into another bloody frenzy — you need a ‘time-out’, something to separate active war-making and withdrawal.

This is Israel’s current dilemma: It can’t end the occupation or reduce the pace of military operations while Hamas continues firing rockets into its territory. The road to peace starts with the cessation of violence. But peace is more than the absence of war — and the absence of war can’t guarantee peace unless the parties make a concerted effort to build a lasting peace.

Sharon demanded seven days of quiet — Israel got seven years of (relative) quiet. The suicide bombers’ offensive terminated in 2005, but from 2007 onward Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, the IDF, the Israeli security service, the Palestinian security forces and the separation fence managed to keep the West Bank stable. The number of Israeli casualties from terror attacks, and the number of Palestinian casualties from Israeli fire, declined in the last half-decade to levels Israel hadn’t seen in previous decades. The second intifada ended and the street pressure from the first intifada did not resume.

Until the abduction of the three Israeli youths in Alon Shvut on June 12, no strategic attack had been launched. The bloody attacks on Israeli cities — and even the attacks on the settlements and settlers — had significantly diminished. Israel had enjoyed economic prosperity and a cultural boom since 2007, made possible by quiet borders.

But what did Israel do with those seven quiet years? What peace process did it initiate when it was given a rare, precious break? In Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni’s defense, they both tried to do as much as they could in the first 18 months of the undeclared truce. Since taking office, however, Benjamin Netanyahu has done nothing. He’s made some speeches, issued some moderate declarations and suspended one settlement construction project. But he has made no moves toward exploiting the quiet to pursue a two-state deal.

Netanyahu mishandled the peace. Israel let the seven good years slip through the cracks.

Will Israel be granted an eighth year? Probably not. The current war of attrition has claimed too many lives to end quickly. International calls for a ceasefire are being ignored. When there’s no peace process, escalation follows. Israel has a chance to build seven years of peace into something lasting by negotiating in good faith with Abbas and his unity government. Instead, it took peace for granted. Now, Israelis and Palestinians are paying the price — in blood.

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