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"A world without Israel," screams the cover of the new January 2005 issue of the American magazine, Foreign Policy. Imagine that Israel never existed, asks the subheading, would that solve the problems in the Middle East? Would America then be loved by the Muslim world?

Not at all, responds the author of the article, Josef Joff, the publisher and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. The problems of the region, the poverty, ignorance and political oppression, did not come about as a response to Zionism and the establishment of Israel. The Arabs have plenty of problems of their own, unrelated to the Jewish state.

It was Joffe's intention to write a defense of Israel, one that would demolish the claims of its critics. But there is something disturbing, very disturbing, that a debate about Israel's right to exist is being held at all. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is one of the highest prices Israel is paying for the current intifada and the war in Iraq.

Here we are, still arguing about the evacuation of Netzarim and Gush Katif, and in increasingly widening circles in the West, some are already asking whether the establishment of the state wasn't perhaps a mistake, and maybe an end should be put to the whole affair once and for all - for example, by means of soft destruction of Israel, the option being offered by the supporters of a "State of all its citizens" from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

The arguments in the debate are not new. Those who support the elimination of Israel accept the prevalent view in the Arab and Muslim world that the "occupation of Palestine" is the source of the regional outrage against America and the West. In their view, Israel is a rogue satellite state that the West planted by force in a region where it does not belong; and that what was given can be taken away.

The war in Iraq has bolstered their position, because of their belief that a gang of Jews (the "neocons") has shanghaied President Bush and American foreign policy in order to "help the Likud" and humiliate the Arabs. For Israelis, who view their state as an existing fact, the entire debate appears spurious and bizarre. But it is occupying an increasingly important place in the intellectual discourse in the West, in articles with headings such as "Who needs a Jewish state?"

In the political debate in Israel, the call to abolish Zionism appears to strengthen the position of the right, which maintains that the occupation of the territories is not the problem; it is only the pretext. After all, if the very right of Israel to exist is being questioned, the uprooting of the settlements will not resolve anything, and withdrawal from the territories will not only not bring an end to the conflict, it will cause Israel to lose a vital line of defense.

In the international community, the debate reverberates mainly in the declarations by European politicians regarding their support for "Israel's right to exist." An important European ambassador remarked on an article written here in condemnation of these declarations: We are not the ones casting doubt on Israel's existence, said the ambassador. It is your government that brings up the cries from Iran and the Hezbollah to destroy Israel, and we are only making it clear that this is not our position.

The ambassador related that before a visit by his foreign minister, an internal debate was held on whether to raise the matter, and it was decided to express support for the existence of Israel but only in private meetings rather than in public. In any case, this kind of the talk was not heard before the intifada, and Iran and the Hezbollah opposed the existence of Israel then too.

American, Indian and even Egyptian statesmen do not talk about Israel's "right to exist." The prime minister, foreign minister and other Israeli leaders tend to ignore the entire matter, listening politely to their European hosts, wiping the spit off their faces, and continuing the conversation. Perhaps their approach is the right one: If Israel justifies its existence and by doing so becomes a party to the debate, it may legitimize it. But despite the silence, the calls to destroy Israel are not dying out and the debate on them is just growing stronger. The time has come for the government to take note of this problem, and try to come up with appropriate ways to deal with it.