Barak broke a longstanding taboo in Israeli public life: He actually faced up to the question of what peace would cost. He offered the Palestinian Authority almost all the West Bank and sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and some form of control of the Temple Mount. Until Barak appeared, Israelis in the peace camp could imagine that the price of peace would be less painful; Israelis in the hard-line camp could continue to delude themselves that a Palestinian state would never arise.
Barak's "red line," the one he could never cross, was not the question of a few more square kilometers that he might offer the Palestinians. It was the matter of the nearly four million Palestinian refugees, the descendants of some six or seven hundred thousand who had fled or been pushed out of Israel during the War of Independence in 1948. No Israeli prime minister, not even one who is more of a "dove" than this much-decorated general, could have agreed to let this refugee community return freely to Israel. The movement of even a substantial proportion of these refugees would tilt the country's demographic balance and make Israel ungovernable. Thus, Barak produced a peace plan in which he was willing to trade all the land he could possibly give to a Palestinian state in return for an end to the refugee problem.
Barak's offer would, perhaps, have been supported by Israelis, with some reluctance, if Yasser Arafat had accepted it, but he did not. He could not, because the Palestinian people are even less prepared to pay the price for peace than the Israelis. They would not -- at least not yet -- abandon their sense of themselves as victims of Israeli aggression. They seemed to be saying that nothing Israel could offer, short of national suicide, would ever be enough for the Palestinians.
Israelis will inevitably be disappointed in Sharon. They are not prepared to lose their sons and daughters defending the roads to isolated settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. No matter how successful Sharon is in defeating the Intifada, Israel without peace will be facing the prospect of seemingly endless war with the Palestinians and their Arab supporters. Even those who once found Barak's peace plans too generous will begin to wonder whether this approach should be revived.
Barak and Sharon are part of the education of two peoples: the Israelis and the Palestinians. As I think about the carnage that is yet to come, the firefights and the car bombs that will increase the death toll on both sides, my heart breaks. But evidently, warring peoples learn to make peace only when war becomes too painful.
The Israelis and the Palestinians are approaching that point. They are learning, slowly and painfully, that peace does not mean they must love one another. It means only that they sign treaties that guarantee they will stop killing each other. I have no high hopes for a glorious reconciliation between the two peoples, for that will come only in the messianic era. The light that might dawn, after Sharon has had his day, may show us two peoples who finally choose to live together because they have exhausted all other options.