Amid all the lives lost over
the last week in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon, perhaps the biggest casualty
is an idea: the idea of Israel’s unilateral disengagement.

Olmert took power in his own right three months ago with great
international goodwill. His mandate, at least as he interpreted it, was
to impose peace on the Palestinians by unilateral action. Lacking (in
his view) a “partner” for peace on the Palestinian side, Israel would
define its new borders itself and withdraw from the rest of the West
Bank, as it had withdrawn from Gaza and southern Lebanon.

hindsight, the strangest thing is how any of us, whether outside
commentators or Israeli voters, could ever have believed this would
work. The enemy doesn’t go away if you refuse to fight them. Even if
you build a big fence, it won’t stop missiles. The Americans in Vietnam
had the option of simply declaring victory and leaving, but Israel is
stuck where it is.

The current conflict has shown that Israel
can do enormous damage to its enemies’ infrastructure, but without
reoccupation of territory the problem won’t go away. At some point the
troops and planes have to come home, Hamas and Hezbollah will rebuild,
and the cycle starts over again.

So what is the answer? It’s
possible that there isn’t one; not every problem has a solution. But
before both sides commit themselves to perpetual war, negotiation
should be given every chance.

We know that last month Hamas were
almost on the point of accepting proposals that implicitly recognised
Israel’s right to exist (a step that is overwhelmingly supported by the
Palestinian population). Perhaps a few gestures from Israel could bring
them the extra distance. Free some prisoners, release some customs
revenue, make some symbolic concessions, and see what happens.

Sure, it might not work. But it’s worth a try.