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As the U.S. commission investigating the events of September 11 was about to wrap up its work, American journalist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a surprising column. He confided to readers that he wasn't keeping track of the investigation and wasn't planning to read its findings - because 9/11 wasn't caused by an intelligence failure. It was caused by a "failure of imagination."

The world had seen hijackings and planes exploding. It has seen booby-trapped cars and suicide bombers. But who could imagine that a gang of extremists would spend two years plotting to turn passenger planes into missiles, topple the Twin Towers and destroy a wing of the Pentagon? No intelligence analyst could have caught on to an operation as mind-boggling, unconventional and unexpected as this from among the millions of snippets of intelligence data picked up every day.

Ever since Israel was taken by surprise by the Yom Kippur War, people around here are wary of "concept" - adhering to some preconceived notion of what will be. But the truth is, putting together bits of data that appear to be unconnected is very tough without a "concept," without defining the hypothetical danger, however zany it may sound, that we need to prepare for.

America, never expecting a Japanese attack at the height of World War II, went into shock when the U.S. navy was bombarded at Pearl Harbor. Intelligence services around the world and even the greatest Sovietolgists were left open-mouthed by the sudden implosion of Communism.

In the year before the Yom Kippur War, the Israel Defense Forces came across a few dozen bazooka-type missiles with the name "Sager" imprinted on them. No one gave them a thought until the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and hundreds of infantry soldiers, each equipped with a Sager missile launcher, wiped out our tanks on the Bar Lev line. We learned our lesson, but not entirely. When the IDF went in to do some housekeeping in Lebanon, it discovered the roadside bombs that maimed and killed our soldiers for 18 years.

Intelligence agencies tend to prepare for the next war based on the experience of the previous one. Security at American airports is designed to keep 9/11 from happening again. But what are they doing to get ready for the next surprise in bin Laden's bag? With Islamic fundamentalists brimming with hatred for Israel and a growing number of religious-national extremists, the only conclusion is that we, too, could be headed for something very unexpected - sprung on us by both Jews and Arabs.

When he was head of the Shin Bet, Carmi Gillon warned that verbal incitement could lead to the murder of Jews, but he failed to take sufficient precautions to safeguard Yitzhak Rabin. The Shin Bet chief today has announced that at least 200 Jewish fanatics would like to see Sharon six feet under. Are the security arrangements being made to protect him based solely on the Rabin assassination scenario?

Tzachi Hanegbi says he is concerned that Jewish extremists may try to attack the Temple Mount. Is this a way of covering his ass, or does Hanegbi know something we don't? What will it be? A cropduster smashing into the Dome of the Rock? Or, maybe, in keeping with the theory of expected unexpectability, a Baruch Goldstein knock-off blowing himself up inside Al-Aqsa? How about an attack by the Jewish underground on the Islamic holy of holies over in Mecca?

The atmosphere in Israel today has turned poisonous, a blend of vitriol and incitement to civil disobedience. The "human chain" stretching from the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem, the convention of Likud dissidents headed by Silvan Shalom and Uzi Landau, the talk of Jewish terror cells - all these are signs that Sharon's initiative is in danger. The seeds of evil and violence are taking root, mainly among the religious fanatics - the hilltop kids, the settlers, the rabbis who blithely issue permits for murder and preach rebellion against the will of the majority.

Despite all the warnings, there is a feeling in the air of impending catastrophe on a scale that no one is either expecting or preparing for. It is not enough for the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to sound the alarm. They must crack down and do whatever is necessary to nip these afflictions in the bud. If not, we may wake up one morning to disaster - and then wonder how we didn't see it coming.