At first glance, these were four good years. After the Second Lebanon War a quiet prevailed over the north the likes of which it hadn't known since the 1960s, and Operation Cast Lead brought a calm to the south the likes of which it hadn't seen since the first intifada.
The architects of the 2006 Lebanon war may claim criticism of that campaign was overblown, while those of the Gaza campaign may claim that criticism of theirs was self-righteous. The bed and breakfasts in the north were fuller than they had been in decades, and the south flourished as never before. The economy bloomed and tourism boomed; Tel Aviv's beaches became known as among the finest in the Mediterranean. Israelis finally felt content. Despite the corruption, the economic concentration and the criticism abroad of Israel's actions, the last four years were good to us.
The calm, however, was deceptive. Had the Israel Defense Forces not subdued Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War it would have grown into a monster, and an Iranian rocket base would have sprouted up across the scenic northern border. Tel Aviv's beaches would have come under Iranian missile threat from both north and south. Thanks to the diplomatic fallout of Olmert-era policy and the hard-line stance of his successor, Israel's very legitimacy has been eroded, and with it the IDF's ability to respond to looming threats with disproportionate, devastating force.
The future is clear: The Israel of the last four years was living on borrowed time. Israel's diminished strategic potency led it to launch diplomatic initiatives, and the prevailing calm allowed it to do so. And still, Jerusalem dragged its heels. Realizing the calm was deceptive, the government destroyed it while failing to take advantage of it.
In Ehud Olmert's defense, he did try. In the wake of the Second Lebanon War he abandoned his convergence plan, which called for withdrawal from much of the West Bank, and tried instead to conduct negotiations with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. But no diplomatic vision lay behind Olmert's pragmatism. That's why he extricated Syria from attempts to isolate it before he managed to wring any real concessions from it toward a peace deal. That's why he tried to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians that they didn't even want. The diplomatic moves made by the Kadima government were all in vain. They gave Israel a period of quiet, but didn't use that calm to effect any real change.
Benjamin Netanyahu says he's trying. He says Olmert's Lebanon war has made life difficult for him. He says Mahmoud Abbas, Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni are making life difficult for him, as are Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in a way, he's right. After his predecessors allowed the creation of Iranian bases in Lebanon and Gaza, one can understand why Netanyahu feels apprehensive about an Iranian base in Syria.
But the prime minister has yet to demonstrate that he has turned over every stone to make diplomatic progress, that he understands the significance of Israel's current predicament, or that deterrence for its own sake is no longer a tenable strategy.
The Lebanese sniper bullets that killed Lt. Col. Dov Harari and seriously wounded Capt. Ezra Lakiya on Tuesday did not spark a war. They didn't shatter the calm, but merely splintered it. This week's isolated border clash is reminiscent of similar ones on the Syrian frontier in the 1960s. Then, as now, troops engaged in planned ambushes over land squabbles in the context of a broader arms race.
The border incidents of that decade ultimately led to the Six-Day War, and those of the last 10 years could well lead to another military conflagration. It's time Netanyahu realizes the good years are coming to an end. Unless the prime minister acts at once to change Israel's strategic landscape, the quiet will not last.
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