Ariel Sharon had a principle: no retreat under fire. During the second intifada, the 11th prime minister insisted that Israel wouldn’t enter a peace process before Palestinian terror desists and seven days of quiet prevail in the land.
Sharon’s principle made a lot of sense. Any retreat under violent pressure was destined to cause the violent pressure to resume immediately afterward, expecting to extort another withdrawal. If dividing the land is not to lead to a bloody maelstrom but create a stable two-state solution, it is necessary – as it was necessary in the past – to have a quiet time-out, which would separate between the active confrontation stage and the withdrawal stage.
It is impossible to end the occupation or even reduce it when the Grad rocket launchers roar, the terrorists commit suicide and the youths are abducted. Suspending the violence is the first, vital stage on the way to peace.
But in the past decade Israel has been granted a suspension of violence. True, eight years ago there was a war in the north and five years ago there was Operation Cast Lead in the south, and from time to time there was rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. But a relative calm descended on the West Bank, the likes of which we haven’t had before.
Sharon demanded seven days of quiet? Israel received seven years of quiet. The suicide bombers’ offensive abated already in 2005, but from 2007 onward Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, the IDF, the Shin Bet security service, Palestinian security forces and the separation fence managed to silence the next violence from the east. The number of Israeli casualties from terror attacks – and the number of Palestinian casualties from Israeli fire – dwindled in the last half-decade to levels the likes of which we hadn’t known in previous decades. The second intifada dissipated and even the street pressure of the first intifada wasn’t resumed.
Until the abduction of the three youths in Alon Shvut a week ago, no strategic attack had been launched. The bloody attacks on Israeli cities and even the attacks on the settlements and settlers dramatically diminished. The economic prosperity, cultural boom and good life (including the civil agenda and struggle for social justice) since 2007 were possible only because the violent reality we had lived in was replaced with a reality of quiet borders, a quiet West Bank and astonishing stability.
But what did Israel do in the seven quiet years? What peace process did it initiate when it was given a rare, precious respite? To Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni’s credit, they tried to do as much as they could in the first 18 months of the undeclared truce. But since Benjamin Netanyahu entered the prime minister’s office – nothing. Ceremonious speeches, moderate declarations, one construction suspension – but beyond that, no Israeli initiative indicating a serious intention to take advantage of the quiet to divide the land.
After long years of demanding to suspend the violence, we received long years of suspended violence, which we totally missed. We misused the calm that descended on the West Bank’s roads and towns and settlements. We wasted the laid-back prosperity that visited Israel’s cities and shopping malls. We let the seven good years slip through our fingers.
Will we be granted an eighth year? This is not certain. Beyond the human horror inherent in the youths’ abduction, the act also poses a strategic danger. As I wrote on the morning before the abduction, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot tolerate a vacuum. When there’s no movement forward, a backward slide is expected. When there’s no peace process, an escalation is expected.
At this point, there no peace process, no organizing principle and no stabilizing framework to prevent deterioration. This is an explosive situation in which any pessimistic scenario is possible. So if there are statesmen in Jerusalem, they must see the red warning light. The quiet is not something that can be taken for granted. If we’re lucky enough to receive another small part of it – we must hurry and take full advantage of it.