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Shortly after the Israel Defense Forces undertook Operation Defensive Shield last spring, one of its commanders used an interesting metaphor to describe the significance of the wide-scale military operation. What we're doing in the West Bank, said the senior officer, is putting a blanket over the flames. We are not putting out the fire and are not eradicating its sources. But by covering the burning territories with a military blanket we are managing to prevent the spread of the firestorm and we are slowly trying to smother it.

True. But in recent months it turns out the IDF occupation blanket is not having a long-term influence. Worse: While the IDF and Shin Bet were putting a suffocating blanket on Palestinian terrorism, the terror threw a suffocating blanket over the Israeli public. And the Israeli economy. And the clarity of Israeli thinking. In the second half of 2002, it has become apparent that Palestinian terror has succeeded in significantly blocking the flow of necessary oxygen that so far fed Israel's resilience.

The most outstanding expression of that weakening of Israeli resilience in recent months is Mitzna's momentum. The fact that otherwise sensible Israelis are now ready to be enraptured by the strange promises being made by the Haifa mayor is testimony to the fact that ultimately the Palestinians are exhausting Israel more than Israel is exhausting them. The fact that so many Israelis are ready to accept Mitzna's terms of surrender - negotiations under fire, withdrawal under fire, and immediate establishment of an armed and hostile Palestinian state, shows that something in us has broken. After two years of impressive resistance in the campaign, important parts of the Israeli public are starting to consume false ideas again.

Mitzna's formula is so embarrassing that it's almost unpleasant to argue with it. The principle of negotiating under fire means the collapse of Israel's two-year effort to move toward some form of stability. Its price will be rivers of blood. The principle of withdrawal under fire means incentives for repeated attacks on Israel. The price will be war. The principle of the immediate, unconditional establishment of an armed Palestinian state means Israel will lose its ability to defend itself with conventional means. The price will be danger to our national existence.

True, there's no chance that Mitzna's formula will be adopted as the basis for Israeli policy. When the election campaign heats up and Omri Sharon and Reuven Adler make clear to the public what the formula really means, the Israeli left will go through the same process that happened to the American left in 1972 under George McGovern: It will be roundly beaten. But the mere fact that in the last six months the new political eccentricity proposed by Mitzna has won supporters among so many good Israelis shows that the Israeli elite remains a Bourbon elite - it has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. More accurately, it learned something for a little while and then immediately forgot it. Under Palestinian pressure, it once again chose to forget.

Thus, with the end of the primary season, the man in the Muqata can chalk up a not-so-small victory: the Mitzna phenomenon is unequivocal proof that in the arm-wrestling match between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, Sharon does not necessarily have the upper hand. The Palestinians may be suffocating under Israel's iron fist, but ultimately, it was the Israelis who blinked first. The suffocating blanket thrown over them by terror won a strategic success greater than the military occupation blanket thrown over the Palestinians. The American road map is also proof of that, as are the profound processes of depression and loss of hope in Israeli society.

The campaign has yet to be decided. Israeli sanity has yet to speak the last word. But to win the great war of terror that was imposed on us, Israel needs another kind of thinking. To meet the existential challenge of the coming decade, Israel must go through a process of creative and dialectic thinking that would create a new ideological synthesis. That's why the most frustrating aspect of the Mitzna phenomenon and its parallels on the right is the total indifference of the politicians to the urgent need for some kind of ideological restructuring. The despair from the way the election campaign has been conducted so far results from the fact that it offers us a choice between two polar anachronisms that share a joint deliberate ignorance of reality.

There are, however, 60 days left in the campaign. The only public in the Middle East that has the right to choose its fate at the ballot box can still apply moral pressure on those who dare pretend to be its leaders. But it is intolerable that after all we've been through in recent years, our candidates will behave as if they just arrived from outer space. It is intolerable that we will once again allow them to lead us into the fool's traps that have been shown by experience to endanger our very lives.