Last week's vote by Israel's Cabinet to proceed with the withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank solidified a trend that seemed to confirm our greatest hopes. Combined with the decision by Palestinian terror groups to observe a cease-fire, progress toward peace in the Middle East seemed suddenly real.
But in the Middle East, such hopes die quickly. Friday's terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that took the lives of four Israelis, put the idea of a lasting cease-fire in perspective.
Up until that moment, despite all of the very serious reasons to doubt the ultimate intentions of the Palestinians and their president, Mahmoud Abbas, the four-year-old war of attrition against Israel appeared to have ended. And, as Israeli Prime Minister Sharon stated, in such a context, dialogue was once again possible, and hope for a peace settlement was no longer merely a pipe dream.
There will be those who will say the Tel Aviv attack means nothing. That so long as Abbas keeps saying he is a peace partner, Israel and its friends abroad must trust him and keep supporting the process. In particular, the Bush administration which is heavily invested in Abbas may feel it has no choice but to take this position.
But if we merely sympathize with Abbas and concede that he can't take on Islamic Jihad and Hamas despite the very considerable military forces at his disposal, then nothing will have changed from the regime of Yasser Arafat.
Yet even if were to accept the dubious thesis that Abbas can be trusted to stop terrorism, before we start celebrating, supporters of Israel must not forget: The war against Israel's existence still isn't over.
Acting with the full support of the Bush administration, Sharon has made it clear that if the Palestinians keep the peace, the return to the pre-intifada status quo, with the Palestinian Authority in control of their own cities, will be possible. From there, even if the cease-fire held, you might think it is a short, hop, skip and a jump to Gaza withdrawal and negotiations on a final-status treaty. But such negotiations would involve issues on which there is little indication that either side will give in.
They include the future of Jerusalem that Sharon has promised he will not divide in order to hand over part of Israel's capital to the Palestinians. While cynics believe that, having given in on Gaza, Sharon will cave in on Jerusalem, as well as on the future of Israel's major settlement blocks on the West Bank (which President Bush indicated last year that Israel ought to be allowed to keep in any peace agreement), that appears unlikely. Indeed, Sharon has made it clear that he conceded on Gaza so as to strengthen Israel's hold on Jerusalem, not to weaken it.
Sharon has long since conceded Palestinian statehood as inevitable. He is right to do so. But he, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Americans, is willing to do so only in exchange for peace and secure borders for Israel.
There are other factors that should impel supporters of Israel not to let their guard down. That's because the international campaign of delegitimization of Israel and Zionism hasn't ceased.
The agenda of Israel's critics in the United Nations, the European Union, and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world remains unchanged, despite the shifts in policy that Sharon and Abbas have made. And even if the Palestinian terror groups observe the cease-fire, the killers of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah almost certainly will not.
Nor will Sharon's concessions convince those Americans who would wage economic warfare on Israel via economic divestment plans to halt their incitement. In fact, just this past week, the World Council of Churches, a Geneva-based group of 347 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, recommended to members that they give "serious consideration" to divesting from companies that aid Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Presbyterian Church USA made a similar decision last summer.
That these churches should be attacking Israel precisely at a time when progress towards peace is being made shows just how deep the hatred for the Jewish state runs. What this means for Americans is that far from being a signal to lessen our pro-Israel advocacy, recent events ought to be an incentive to work harder and speak up even more strongly.
One key point of contention, among many sticking points that may ultimately derail the peace train, remains Israel's security fence. Along with ratifying compensation for the settlers who will be evicted from their homes, the Cabinet also voted this week to complete the barrier. The fence is crucial to the debate in the coming months not merely because its existence will continue to be a pretext for a continued barrage of unfair abuse of Israel and its government, but because its success was key to the Palestinians decision to admit defeat and stop their terror offensive. But that means nothing to Israel's opponents, who will use the fence to hammer the Jewish state as an "oppressor." That's not a minor point, because accepting Israel's existence is meaningless if it is not accompanied by a similar acquiescence to its right of self-defense, something no other nation is denied.
As we learned to our sorrow after the euphoria of the 1993 Oslo accords and after the Palestinians decision to reject peace and launch a war in the fall of 2000 just because Israel is in the right doesn't mean it won't be unfairly pilloried. Indeed, the more Israel gives, the more it seems to embolden those who hate Jews and their right to self-determination in their own land.
The death of Yasser Arafat coupled with Israel's military victory over terrorism, and Sharon and Abbas' moves toward peace were truly milestones. But the latest attack combined with all the reasons why negotations may still fail should show us that this is no time to relax. Advocacy for Israel must continue without abatement.