Leading article: Once more into the darkness

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How fast the political climate can change in the Middle East. It is less than one year since Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza. However self-interested, even cynical, the Israeli government's motives might have been, the withdrawal provided an opportunity for a fresh beginning. There was even the hope that a new mood might spread through the region as a whole.

When Israelis voted in March, the new centrist party, Kadima, emerged with most seats. Here was confirmation that more Israeli voters believed in peace as a necessary condition for security than believed that security came first. The formula: "two states, living side by side in peace" looked almost feasible for the first time in many years.

The question now is how definitively those hopes have been dashed. Yesterday was a dark day indeed. The uneasy peace on the northern border was shattered as Israel launched an assault on southern Lebanon by land, air and sea in pursuit of two of its soldiers captured by Hezbollah. Seven Israeli servicemen had been killed in an assault on a border post, the heaviest losses suffered by Israel for more than a year.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli forces killed more than a dozen people, including nine in a bomb attack on one house. Having refrained from going far into the territory before, Israeli ground troops entered from north and south, in effect cutting the Gaza strip into two. Before the end of the day, Israel had troops engaged on two fronts and had announced the call-up of reservists. The peace that so many Israelis hoped they had voted for suddenly seemed as far away as ever.

Many elements have contributed to the new flare-up, most immediately the capture by Palestinian militants two weeks ago of the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This was bound to elicit a response. It was probably inevitable, too, that Israel would exploit the stand-off to try to end the persistent missile attacks from Gaza once and for all.

One way or another, the months since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza have been one long chain of missed opportunities. There was the highly negative US and Israeli response to the election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, matched by the immaturity of Hamas in trying to adjust to its new status. There was the continuing inability of President Mahmoud Abbas to bring the militias in Gaza to heel, and now the growing sense in Israel that Ehud Olmert is no Ariel Sharon.

When the dust settles, the hope must be that both sides will move towards a common acceptance that two states can coexist in peace. The alternative is that the considerable gains of the past year will be lost.

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