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In the 10th month of the Israel-Palestine war - perhaps not the most justified but certainly one of the most bizarre and destructive of Israel's wars - a desperate and even somewhat hollow note could be detected in the remarks of Ariel Sharon this week when he rejected a proposal for diplomatic initiatives: "I suggest that we repeat to ourselves every day, and throughout the day ... that there will be no negotiations with the Palestinians until there is a total cessation of the terrorism, violence and incitement."

Indeed, the constant reiterating of that mantra worked pretty well for almost a year, but something of its spell is now beginning to fade. Especially when it becomes clear that it is not in fact serving any concrete Israeli interest, apart from the political survival of Sharon himself, and of the government he has woven around himself.

The impression, in fact, is that, whether out of a lack of choice or out of a lack of creativity, the prime minister and his cabinet have simply fallen in love with the protracted unbearability and volatility of the situation, and even with its systematic escalation; for it is only in the territory between the intolerable and the inconceivable, between absorbing terrorism and mutterings of restraint, between the doses of the daily action provided by our missiles and our choppers, that they can maneuver and survive together for another month, another year.

So, if time is on anyone's side, it is, as usual, only on the side of the government's life-span, whereas from the point of view of the country and the public the situation is deteriorating amazingly from one day to the next, from one hour to the next: in terms of personal security, national fortitude and Israel's international status. It is simply not to be believed how we have become used to a permanent and ongoing existential decline, which only a year ago would have been perceived as an absolute nightmare: with terrorism and fear of death lurking in every corner, with a way of life suited to "drugged cockroaches in a bottle" (as former chief of staff Rafael Eitan once said of the Arabs), with international isolation and hostility from every part of the globe.

Yet this is the distinctive talent of all Israeli governments - in the previous Intifada and in the Lebanon War, too: to depict even the most intolerable, unnecessary and protracted situation as the default situation, as a situation of "no choice."

But what in fact has been accomplished in these past 10 months for the sake of which we should and ought to go on, teeth gritted, walloping the Palestinians and being walloped in return, all the while chanting the "no negotiations" mantra?

Not only has the notion of returning to the June 1967 boundary not been removed from the agenda, it is alive and well and exists as an option and is gradually turning almost into salvation (witness the beseeching for buffer- fences to be built along the Green Line); and not only has the idea of a Palestinian state not even begun to disappear - despite all the waves of terrorism, despite the "exposure of Arafat's true face" - it is now accepted as a fact, even by the right wing. What, then is the goal of the war and the purpose of "tenacity" and "gaining time" when it is obvious that time is not working on our side at any level?

Because the government of national paralysis, which is interested only in its own continued existence, has effectively turned over the national agenda to the care of the army and the police, there is a tendency to estimate the price of the war in purely military-security terms, which the chief of staff likes to elaborate at every opportunity: this-and-this number of victims on our side as against this-and-this number of victims on their side; and this-and-this number of terrorist attacks as against this-and-this number of "intercepts."

The trouble is that the damage done to Israel has long since gone beyond this little khaki-type calculation: the damage to Israel resides in the fact that every day of war - with or without restraint, with or without the intercept of a terrorist, or a blood balance "in our favor" - is gradually removing us from Western civilization and is eroding our identity as a country that seeks normality.

It is in vain that we will reiterate "every day and all day" arrogant mantras such as that we will not conduct negotiations under fire, or that "we and the Arabs belong to different civilizations" (as President Katsav said). By this desperate and insane, directionless and purposeless back-and-forth slogging, which to the world resembles a dog fight in a dusty backyard, we and the most despicable of our enemies are becoming appallingly alike: two murderous, ugly entities pursuing revenge like dogs running after their tails, a liquidation for a liquidation, a bombing for a bombing. Who in the world cares any longer who is in the right and "who started first" in each new round of bloodletting, and what differentiates reprisal-liquidation from terrorism-vengeance?

The major damage of this continuing slugfest is, therefore, that we are being dragged into unimaginable realms of ugliness, evil and suffering, which from a certain stage may well vanquish us strategically, too, because they run contrary to the whole reason for existence of a Jewish state.

What, then, is the point of stubbornly "accumulating time" and also escalating the violence that is destroying us and leading us to perdition? On the contrary, out of a supreme national interest, in order to save our soul in the deepest sense of the word - the Jewish-Israeli soul - we must strive to abbreviate this war as quickly as possible: even at the price of negotiations under fire; even at the price of diplomatic initiatives or unilateral actions - including an initiative to end the occupation and fortify ourselves behind shortened lines. When we and the Palestinians look like and also become monstrous Siamese twins, the situation has only one urgent remedy: separation, by way of emergency surgery.