Peace Crept Up as Israel Was Looking the Other Way

Six years after the signing of the Arab initiative in Beirut, Israel still believes in cease-fires more than in better relations.

There are short moments like these. Rare ones. As one turns the kaleidoscope, slowly and carefully, among the scenes we have seen hundreds of times, something surprising appears: a new shape, still flickering and not yet clear, but with promise. As long as our hand doesn't shake and make the image disappear.

So these are the scenes in general terms: Israel is negotiating with Hamas; Egypt is minding the border with the Gaza Strip; the negotiations with Hezbollah are reaching a conclusion; there is "significant progress" in the Israel-Palestinian Authority dialogue, according to the prime minister; Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has made it clear that Bashar Assad will not shake Ehud Olmert's hand in Paris, but they will sit around the same table; the head of the new government in Lebanon has declared that there will be no direct negotiations with Israel. In other words, indirect negotiations are an entirely different matter.

Even Shaba Farms, that troublesome sliver of land Hezbollah has used to make threats, may be lifted from the conflict.

The natural inclination under such circumstances is to offer warnings and be wary. With Hamas the deal is temporary, with Syria it is not yet mature because Damascus wants, at best, to receive better treatment from Washington.

Hezbollah will come up with a different excuse for war against Israel, the Palestinian Authority lacks a charismatic leadership capable of implementing agreements, and in Lebanon - get serious - who is there to talk to? But not only the future is hopeless; a look back suggests that for the past 41 years we have done fine - thank you very much - without peace with Syria, Lebanon or the Palestinians, and this does not even include the years before the occupation. So why change old habits?

Actually, the cease-fire with Hamas explains the need for change. Because, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt, Israel has been in a condition of temporary cease-fire with its neighbors. In a systematic way, the country's citizens were trained to believe that this is the peak of expectations they can aspire to.

The lack of confidence in the neighborhood is so entrenched that it has managed to push into a dark corner the Arab states' historic proposal to reconcile with Israel, normalize relations, and provide it with a safety belt. Six years after the signing of the Arab initiative in Beirut, Israel still believes in cease-fires more than in better relations.

The changes taking place in the Middle East are passing it by. The Arab states, like Israel, see Iran as a threat, Hezbollah is seen as hostile by countries that have no ties with Israel, the infamous "no's" of the Arab League conference in Khartoum are disappearing from the Arab lexicon, and most Arab regimes are preoccupied with countering radical Islamic terror in their own territories, not with preparations for war with Israel. But all this is not considered to be genuine change, just camouflage for hidden agendas.

A cease-fire is not only the most stable and recognizable thing - it is theoretically also cost-free. It does not require recognition of Hamas, nor a pullout from the Golan Heights, or giving up territory in the West Bank.

The feeling of constant emergency and danger is perceived to be an acceptable price, especially when the public is blind to the terrible economic and cultural cost of a state of emergency.

For example, even if the cease-fire with Hamas lasts six months or five years, even if Syria does not fire a single shot toward Israel during the next decade - as it has not done for the past three and a half decades - in Israel the slogan "the IDF is prepared for any eventuality" will persist. This permanent state of alert costs a fortune, even though that same IDF is not really ready for war in the Gaza Strip, just as it was not ready for war in Lebanon. It is highly doubtful whether the people are ready for another war.

When cease-fire tactics replace political strategy, it is no surprise that just when events combine to create an opportunity for change, Israel is busy doing something else - like tying its shoes and not paying attention. Because whoever really wants to move forward on peace with Syria must prepare public opinion for a pullout from the Golan Heights, and the ones who are really intent on peace with the Palestinians must prove that they are determined to remove outposts, or at least prevent new construction in the territories or lift some of the roadblocks.

The truth is that there is no one to complain about. It's as if it's the devil's work: Just when an opportunity appears on the horizon, there is no prime minister in Israel.