In the heat of their negotiations with the Likud and National Religious Party over the religious character of the state, Shinui's negotiators forgot to talk with their potential partners about the future of the democratic-Zionist state.

The future is no longer a matter for philosophers and academics. The theoretical question of whether a Jewish minority will rule over an Arab majority is going to be an existential problem during the course of the 16th Knesset. But despite all the demographics showing that by the end of the decade the number of Arabs living between the sea and the river will be greater than the number of Jews, the elected representatives to the Knesset are sweeping the issue to the dustheap. While all the "road maps" agree that the deadline for the solution (meaning an end to the occupation) comes at the end of 2005, a little more than halfway through the 16th Knesset, representatives of the political center are working hand in hand with the representatives of the Greater Land of Israel.

The "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" approach, which has characterized the coalition negotiations in recent years, is over. We're on the bridge, and it is crumbling. It's no longer prophets of doom from the left who are warning that avoiding a decision on the country's borders now will be a curse for generations to come.

Last March, Dan Meridor, a scion of the Revisionist family, was already saying that the demographic-democratic problem, "is not comfortable to discuss, but of all the major questions - security, political and other - it is an imminent threat we cannot avoid."

And in an anthology recently published by the Truman Institute, Meridor goes on to say that in four to five years, instead of talking about a Palestinian state, they'll say "there's no need for shooting, just let us vote."

Meridor is also working on the best solution for Israel. He rejects the ideas shared by his colleagues on the right. After rejecting the Transfer idea as "immoral and impractical," Meridor turns to the suggestion that the Palestinians make do with autonomy and vote in Jordan. He quotes Menachem Begin, who said in December 1977, "We will not be Rhodesia ... even South Africa did not succeed with that approach."

That leads Meridor to the best solution: the establishment of a Palestinian state, with or without an agreement. He doesn't make do with general statements, saying, "Of course, for the sake of peace, we cannot leave 20 enclaves. There has to be some form of territorial contiguity."

Meridor, who was at Camp David in 2000, testifies that there was an Arab understanding that "the areas of massive Jewish settlement will remain part of Israel, but not those areas where there is thin Jewish population density".

In private conversations, Meridor admits that he doesn't have a clue whether Sharon is referring to "the thin Jewish population density" when he speaks about "painful concessions." Sharon put Meridor in charge of formulating Israel's "road map" but the former minister isn't ready to say that the prime minister's commitments to Netzarim are a tactical ploy for coalition bargaining, or diplomatic negotiations. He doesn't know if at the moment of truth, Sharon will put away his creative idea, called "transportation contiguity," which offers the Palestinians bridges and tunnels between their areas. Meanwhile, for safety's sake, Meridor is in the warm embrace of government.

Sharon's readiness to give up the Labor Party and to perpetuate the alliance with the National Religious Party is a hint of where he's really going. But during the Likud-Shinui-NRP negotiations, a no less worrying flaw was discovered: A lawyers' party, proud of its votes from Peace Now supporters, found a common denominator with a party whose leadership stands by lawbreaking settlers. Hallelujah! Tommy Lapid and Rabbi Yitzhak Levy reached an accommodation on matters of religion and state. Less than a decade after the first agreement was signed with the Palestinians, we're back to the days when Israelis negotiate with themselves. To hell with Zionism, forget about democracy, what matters is that the shopping malls stay open on Saturdays.