In order to understand the significance of the decision by Gilead Sher and Yossi Kucik to give a hand to the establishment of a new left-center movement, it is worth imagining the following scenario: A few years from now, Yoram Turbowicz, Ehud Olmert's bureau chief and the Prime Minister's representative to the negotiations with Syria, and Raanan Gissen, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, announce that Kadima, under Olmert's leadership, "has failed in advancing the ideas in which I believe." Therefore, the two will say, we are seriously considering a run for the Knesset on a competing list. A similar exercise had been done with Dov Weissglas versus Ariel Sharon.

It is no wonder that Kucik and Sher were among the first whom Defense Minister Ehud Barak called following the publication of the report in Haaretz about their joining the expanded Meretz. Kucik used to be Barak's faithful director general and Sher, in addition to running the Prime Minister's Bureau, headed the team for negotiations with the Palestinians. Many years earlier he had been a company commander in Barak's armored corps brigade. It is clear that it his hard for him, Sher, to say a bad word about his former boss. The Tel Aviv attorney also finds it difficult to let go of diplomatic formulations. After all, he was raised by one of the senior people in Israel's foreign service.

"I admire Barak," he wished to stress Monday. "Kucik and I told him that in truth our decision to enlist in the new movement has to do with the substance. What is motivating us is only the interest of the general good - the desire to follow a courageous path and not to be led to places we don't believe in. In recent years Labor has not succeeded in facing this challenge. This has nothing to do with Barak the person and I would be glad if he were to join his strength and his party with our challenging move. We maintain a continuing dialogue and I am waiting for him to implement the things I have been working on all these years in the context of dialogue for the solution of the conflict."

Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are familiar with the diplomatic papers which Sher participated in preparing, together with Palestinian and international elements. A week ago Sher returned from a meeting of this sort that took place at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston and last night he set out for Madrid to participate, together with Professor Shlomo Ben- Ami, in a work group that is trying to draw up a solution to the issue of Jerusalem. Sher says he welcomes with open arms people from the right who have understood, even if belatedly, that our self-definition, separately from the Palestinians and the territories, is the only way to ensure a Zionist existence for generations. At the same time, the 55-year-old retired colonel warns that anyone who tries to threaten the existence of his state "will encounter determination and uncompromising force." He is also referring to destructive movements from within.

Sher wishes to stress that he and his colleagues in the group, among them Kucik, Peace Now founder and former Labor MK Tzali Reshef, businessman Arik Reichman and others are not eager for political battles. Meretz leader MK Haim (Jumes) Oron was the one who approached them with the proposal that they contribute something of their abilities and their experience to strengthening the movement. "We have all gone into this arena pretty much out of having no alternative, out of a sense that we have to coalesce a new leadership," says Sher, "We care about the state of Israel and our future here at least as much as anyone who is perceived as a rightist. Our children and we, ourselves, deserve to live a normal life - to study, to laugh, to love, to work, to hope and to know that a strong Israel is a just, egalitarian, and in solidarity with an Israel whose citizens and soldiers know what they are living for - and if necessary, for which values they are prepared to die."

'The settlers can stay in Palestine'

Orientalist Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University recently conducted a telephone interview, or rather a pointed ideological-historical debate, with the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Dr. Saeb Erekat. In the transcript that has been sent to a number of journalists, there are questions that reflect the interviewer's worldview quite as much as the interviewee's positions. For example: "Is it right in your opinion that Israel should commit suicide in order to realize the dreams of the Palestinians?" Or: "If Israel were to give up all the territories that it has, how long will it take before Arab armies inundate it, in your opinion?" And: "Many people in Israel say that the Arabs have 22 countries - so what do they need this tiny country for?"

It is obvious that Kedar tried to irritate Erekat and extract from him replies that would strengthen the 'no partner' argument. After attempting to clarify Ereket's opinion of Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman's idea about population exchanges (the idea was rejected), Kedar ambushed him with the question: "And do you agree that the settlers can remain under Palestinian rule?" Erekat, however, did not supply the goods: "Any Israeli who wants to live under Palestinian rule, with all the rights and obligations, will be most welcome to do so," replied the chief of the negotiating team. "The state of Palestine will be an open state with sovereignty, and if the Jews want to live with us we make no distinction between one religion and another."

Kedar did not concede: "Do you mean that you are prepared to accept towns like Gush Etzion and Ariel under Palestinian rule for all eternity?" And Erekat held firm: "In principle, there is no problem with there being Jews who are citizens of Palestine. We are not racists. In our constitution, there will be no difference between a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian."

And another try: "Are Jaffa and Acre Palestinian cities?" And this time, too, Erekat refused to cooperate. "Jaffa and Acre are territory that used to be Palestinian but now belongs to Israel."

And when the ammunition runs out, it is possible to trust the Palestinians to pull out the right of return. But here, too, the Arab did not do the work. "We say that the refugees have a just right to return to their homes," Erekat replied, and immediately went on to say that "the solution must be agreed upon ... I can't force Israel to accept the Palestinian solution, just as you can't force an agreement on me with which I don't agree. Your attempt to break the discussion down into separate questions or to take some of the questions off the negotiating table derives from domestic Israeli considerations that are not concerns of ours."

In the end, it looks as though Erekat lost his patience. "You are trying to beat me on points," he charged Kedar. "It seems to me that you want to continue the conflict in this region and you aren't at all prepared for tolerance and fair dialogue. That's your right, but there are many people who do want to reach an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We are getting close to peace now and I suggest that you leave your way of thinking and move up to the appropriate level."