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Once upon a time, there was a consensus. It was a fairy tale, but like many tall tales, it too has been preserved and handed down from one political generation to the next. It was generally believed that the people liked unity and unity governments, hated dispute and therefore preferred that crucial national decisions not be taken.

Look at what is happening all around, and you may be surprised to see how a matter that was seemingly so essentially part of the Israeli psyche has evaporated, vanished, gone. Now we have the exact opposite - dispute over everything and anything. This new vogue has a name: dissensus.

Not only is there, of course, no consensus over the shape the settlement with the Palestinians should take, there is dispute about it even within the different political camps. On the right, confusion is simmering, which in recent weeks has produced a plethora of opposing settlement proposals. They are the result of an increasing understanding that the existing deadlock can no longer be tolerated.

The extreme right wants to swallow Ehud Olmert alive for making his unilateral settlement proposal involving withdrawals. But there is no consensus even over the question of whether Olmert, the greatest of maneuverers in Israeli politics, coordinated positions with Ariel Sharon, his contender for that title, or whether this is yet another internal dispute.

Silvan Shalom opposes any unilateral device, and one may easily assume that any such proposal would fall fall on its face in the Likud Central Committee.

There is no consensus in the left either. Yossi Sarid is not exactly crazy about Yossi Beilin's Geneva Accord. Shimon Peres, the soloist, says this and that, and there is an argument among the pundits as to whether the somnolent Labor Party is pushing its way back

into a government of national consensus or not - and if not, why should it?

Around these disputes a storm of disagreements, unprecedented in intensity, is beginning to whip up over practically everything. A quartet of former Shin Bet directors recently presented a joint arrangement of end-of-days music in their production of the "National Catastrophe" opera. Pilots, in the past symbols of the unity around the Israel Defense Forces myth, declared quasi-refusal to serve. They were joined this week by the cherries on the army's whipped cream, the fighters of the Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, sending a reminder that the IDF itself is no longer at the heart of the consensus.

Forget about agreement on economics, education and cultural policy, welfare strategy, the quality of the Supreme Court. While the nation has indeed united around the National Lottery's giant stake, "Take me Sharon" and the improved quality of the doughnuts this year, it is having trouble presenting a clear majority in favor of anything of real national interest - except for the burning desire for peace that with its meaningless indefiniteness still manages to get a pretty good rating. Even a weekend in Antalya has been banished from the consensus.

We no longer have any way of knowing whether the villains of yore are still that bad: Is Gadhafi a danger to the world, or is he perhaps a rational leader seeking global understanding? Those who heard the former director of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy, predict at last year's Herzliya Conference that Iran would be taking far-reaching steps in the direction of moderation, must have been deeply perturbed to hear Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz speak in Persian on the radio about Iran's possible use of nuclear weapons against Israel.

A consensus in the intelligence community? Dump it. They knew nothing about Gadhafi's plans ahead of time and now even squabble about the crucial question of whether Hamas has indeed refrained from carrying out terror attacks in Israel. Advocates of the conspiracy theory, which flourish at such times of uncertainty, will suggest that this dissonance is yet another of the prime minister's dubious achievements. He peaks at times of dispute. It helps him create rifts among the hawks, and between the hawks and doves, and to sic one on the other.

Sharon is not one to rise above such confusion and rally the people around the one and only national consensus we still have left: a stable majority, until new developments in the surveys, in favor of a daring step toward a settlement with the Palestinians. This dangerous leader survives best in an atmosphere of political bloodshed, when there is no clearly formulated and close-knit camp to oppose him. Until such a camp arises from the ashes of Israeli politics, this new dissensus will continue to invigorate Sharon amid all his failures.