It happens a lot. A figure once significant in our lives fades away gradually. Not with a slam of the door or a tough fight, but almost imperceptibly, a kind of slow evaporation, until one day we suddenly notice he has completely disappeared.
That's how peace has vanished from our lives. Nobody talks about it anymore; even the negotiations about it, the longest in history, are officially dead - and we didn't even notice. There is no peace, no negotiations, not even a dream. The only context it's mentioned in, if at all, is the awful danger lurking within it. It doesn't occur to anyone that there are also conditions of real peace, with few risks and the promise of another reality - that in peace there is no shooting, for example. Only in war.
Last week Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted his detailed answers to the Quartet, failing to elicit even a yawn around here. Jerusalem didn't even bother to respond. This week the prime minister gave his ambiguous speech at Ben-Gurion's grave, and it didn't occur to anybody he was talking about the most forgotten notion in our lives.
Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of "courageous decisions" and said "we are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision." He spoke about the founding father "who understood that that decision carried a heavy price, but realized that not making that decision had a heavier price" - and everyone knew what he meant.
"Courageous decisions" to advance a peace agreement? Decisions "we are all here because of" to end the occupation? No. Netanyahu was talking about bombing Iran. Until a few years ago we'd still have guessed he was talking about peace. Now it's clear that when the prime minister talks about historic decisions he is talking about bombing.
Thus peace dropped out of our lives. First the Israelis lost interest in it, then their proteges the Americans did too. Their envoys have scattered in every direction. The obvious condition posed by the Palestinians to finally freeze settlement construction serves as an excuse for Netanyahu not to conduct even make-believe negotiations. The "peace-making" game is over. It may seem a good thing that this masquerade has ended, but a troublesome thought remains - if there's no peace and no talks, what comes instead? There's only one certain answer - this void will fill up.
If there is no peace, no dream and not even negotiations, something else will take their place. If the Palestinians' faint hope of freedom is doomed, they will be forced again to take another path. What else can they do? Wait around doing nothing for an entire generation? Sit idly by for two generations? Of course not. This vacuum will be filled by another circle of bloodshed, more horrible than the previous ones. The first uprising was the stone-and-knife intifada, the second was the suicide bombers' intifada. The third is likely to be even more violent.
It's not waiting around the corner. The Palestinian people are divided, bleeding and without fighting spirit. Their lives are relatively comfortable now, but that won't be enough for the next generation. The Arab states won't sit idly by either. They are preoccupied with internal affairs, but when these are sorted out, maybe there will be a few free Arab states that mobilize to help their brothers who are not free.
When the storm passes, when the clouds clear, the new Middle East may be one in which the most oppressed Arabs live under "the only democracy in the Middle East." They will not be silent then. Nor will the world. Millions of people deprived of civil rights are not a matter to be tolerated indefinitely in the new world.
Sometimes even false hopes have value. As long as there was talk of peace here, as long as negotiations were held, we had a horizon. It was deceptive, illusive and receding, but it was there, somewhere. Now it too has vanished from the sky of our lives and the Palestinians' lives, and Israel bears critical responsibility for this.
The government appears to be pinning hopes on a bombing raid. The only courageous decision the prime minister can imagine is launching another offensive, and the thought that this could go on forever causes a shudder. It's hard to believe I'm writing this: Where's George Mitchell when you need him? Where's the illusion we need now?