Where is the Left in Israel? asked French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on November 10, ahead of the visit by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This seems to be the latest bon ton. "What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before, there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. There was a Left that made itself heard and a real desire for peace," Kouchner opined. Thomas Friedman, who has come a long way since he so publicly traveled From Beirut to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1980s, also seemed to question where the peace camp had disappeared to in his New York Times article last week. And Israel's Channel 10 news noted the irony that at the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin on November 7, postponed because of heavy rain the previous week, Labor leader Ehud Barak was heckled while Likud Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar was applauded. Addressing the gathering in a prerecorded video, US President Barack Obama declared: "Once more we've resolved to not be consumed by the pain of [Rabin's] death, but rather to be inspired by his life." There obviously have been changes in the Israeli psyche and politics since Rabin forged ahead with the Oslo Accords to world acclaim and much talk of "painful concessions." The Left, so enthusiastic at the time, has almost been blasted off the political map as wave of terror followed nauseous wave of terror. Many of the remaining camp seem to be in hiding: Perhaps they have taken refuge from the missiles that have rained down in both the North and South. Friedman's tone might have been condescending but he had a painful point. "Indeed, it's time for us to dust off James Baker's line: 'When you're serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.' "The fact is, the only time America has been able to advance peace - post-Yom Kippur War, Camp David, post-Lebanon war, Madrid and Oslo - has been when the parties felt enough pain for different reasons that they invited our diplomacy, and we had statesmen - Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, James Baker and Bill Clinton - savvy enough to seize those moments." AS I have pointed out in these pages and at a UN-sponsored peace seminar last year, the international push to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians may be well-intentioned, but it could prove to be another costly mistake. (And it will be the Israelis and Palestinians who pay the price. While others talk of feeling pain, it is our pain they're feeling.) Last December I wrote, "But how can you make real peace while holding a stopwatch? Peace is more than a signed document and photo opportunity. The aim should be to stop people from suffering or being killed. It seems more important to use the coming year to develop environmental, health and educational projects than to chase an elusive agreement, especially when the world's ability to fund even these projects is limited." Sadly, I see no reason to change that assessment a year later. I do have high expectations of Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech - the president has an undeniable way with words - but I am less hopeful that he will be able to achieve the sustainable agreement itself. Incidentally, at the same peace seminar a senior Russian journalist dedicated her passionate speech to a plea not to leave the diplomatic process in the hands of just the Americans and Europeans without Russian input. A Japanese participant also stressed the possible role of his country in the Middle East. Peace, it seems, involves a power struggle no less than war, although admittedly less painful. "Right now we want it more than the parties," wrote Friedman. "They all have other priorities today. And by constantly injecting ourselves we've become their Novocaine. We relieve all the political pain from the Arab and Israeli decision-makers by creating the impression in the minds of their publics that something serious is happening. 'Look, the US secretary of state is here. Look, she's standing by my side. Look, I'm doing something important! Take our picture. Put it on the news. We're on the verge of something really big and I am indispensable to it.' This enables the respective leaders to continue with their real priorities - which are all about holding power or pursuing ideological obsessions - while pretending to advance peace, without paying any political price." The fact that Obama very noticeably denied Netanyahu his photo opportunity last week did indeed hurt Netanyahu's pride and public image. And it will make it that much harder for the premier to garner support for any process he does decide to foster. The pain, however, has tended to come with the peace process itself. The Oslo Accords, which sounded so inspiring in the Norwegian capital, did not do so well in the Middle East, where the nearest neighbors aren't Swedes. No Israeli - Left, Right or Center - can forget the exploding buses and cafes causing the sort of pain that Novocaine can never cure. Nor are those of us who survived the trauma of the second intifada, after Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat just about everything he dreamed of, likely to forget the ensuing bombs, suicide missions and the missiles on Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. And the consequences of pulling out from Gaza and the security zone in Lebanon can, of course, still be felt today: No other country has had to resort to creating a rocket-proof indoor playground a la Sderot or a missile-proof emergency room such as was recently inaugurated at Haifa's Rambam Hospital, which was hit in the Second Lebanon War. ISRAELIS NO longer aspire to peace, moans Kouchner, a refrain being echoed in various languages elsewhere. What Obama told Netanyahu is lost like the photo op itself, but the premier stressed his (entirely predictable) stand when he addressed the General Assembly of the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America on November 10. "I want to make this clear. My goal is not to have endless negotiations, my goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations. My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and soon. I cannot be more emphatic on this point." I suspect that in splendid backrooms in capitals around the world diplomats and politicians are coming up with Plan B: If Israel and the Palestinians can't get their act together - and there are only a few weeks left until Mahmoud Abbas steps down and the PA holds elections - then we should look to the Syrian track for salvation. In case we had any illusions about what that entails, President Bashar Assad continued to vacillate between peace overtures and threats of war last week, stressing that resistance might be used to "return" the Golan Heights. "This does not contradict our unceasing desire to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of the return of the occupied territories, especially the occupied Syrian Golan," he clarified, "but the failure of negotiations to restore all our rights would make resistance an alternative solution." It sounds mighty painful to me.