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Like distinguished lawyers who have been appointed the executors of a wealthy individual's estate in the face of a dubious group of slimy, greedy heirs, the justices of the Supreme Court are about to deal with the caprices and passions of politicians on the Central Election Committee. If the CEC were not chaired this year by Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin - whose richly colorful comments rise above even the usual baroque language of our judges - it would have been necessary to invent him. With his incredulities, his propensity to be shocked, and his sarcasm - a kind of Petronius figure in collapsing Rome - Justice Cheshin reflects the harsh spectacles of the 2003 elections.

"I am still in shock at the vote," he said after the CEC decided to allow Baruch Marzel, a follower of the banned Kach party, to run for the Knesset. "The decision threw me into mental turmoil," he added with patrician sensibility, only to take a blow in the face from the plebeian representative of Shas -- "He's not worth a piece of snipped meat" (referring to a particular snipped part of the male anatomy) - and that was nothing compared to the "mental turmoil" of the justice in the wake of the disqualification of MKs Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara.

If the justice gave the impression of being a school principal who was dealing with a gang war, that's because in the atmosphere of conformism and paranoia, and in the face of the waves of spin, cynicism and manipulation of the executive branch, which is under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's control, the members of the Supreme Court have never appeared more lofty in their isolation. How long will they stand in the breach? And how many tasks can be imposed on a dozen or so judges who are no longer young? In the current state of affairs, the answer is apparently a whole lot. Almost everything. The rest having collapsed, the justices of the Supreme Court are now carrying on their stooped backs - in ever-growing isolation - Israeliness itself, or what's left of it.

Lately there has been much talk about "shrinkage," especially in the economic sphere: the shrinkage of the economy, the shrinkage of the GNP. But what has shrunk more than anything is our actual Israeli identity - our "normal" state existence, "like all the nations," if not more. Indeed, we always harbored the hope that the new Hebrew civilization would feel itself sufficiently resilient, vital and self-confident to open itself to the world, even to assimilate into itself adherents of other religions and creeds, to strive for peace and to integrate into the region - and to accomplish this without losing, indeed while continuing to develop, its Jewish cultural identity. This effort at "inventing Israeliness" was always a heroic mission, with many enemies lurking outside, but especially inside (in the spirit of the well-known dictum that "you can take the Jews out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jews"). It was an effort that required defined sovereignty within demarcated borders and the existence of a dominant Jewish majority within them. In that situation it would certainly be possible to talk about a "state of all its citizens" without intending the state's undermining. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was a serious blow to that vision, and the "failure of Oslo" (meaning the failure of the dream of establishing normality) seems to have been the coup de grace.

With suspicious, almost ardent, eagerness, immediately after the failure of Oslo, the attempt to forge Israeliness was savaged by all its longtime abhorrers and assailants - the haters of borders, the haters of compromise, the haters of secular legislation, the haters of normalization. We are now witnessing the results of the activity of this de-Israelizing, communal coalition - from Kach to Shas, from the settlers to Sharon himself - in the ignominious face of Israel today: the country's ethnocentricity, which is becoming ever more insular; the desire to join the herd; the monolithic culture; the deliberate alienation of the Arab minority; the attitude toward the foreign workers; the treatment of non-Jewish new immigrants; and even in the attitude toward foreign correspondents and ordinary visitors to the country. What can we say? The ghetto mentality has triumphed over Israeliness: Israel has become the largest and most insular Jewish ghetto in the world and also the most dangerous and most threatened of them.

Some of these paranoid reactions are understandable, given the terrorism and the concrete threats. But something more basic, something deeper is collapsing in this twilight-zone period between the first Sharon government and what is shaping up as the second Sharon government. But what is it, exactly? It's being described as an "atmosphere of corruption," "nepotism," "fascism," "McCarthyism," "a danger to proper government," "a threat to democracy," "the undermining of the rule of law." But Israel was not established for properly-run government and not even for democracy. It was established for the Israelis. And we will take the easy way out if we appeal solely to the legalistic aspect and pretend that the collapse of Israeliness, which is taking place before our eyes, is no more than a series of "aesthetic" flaws or misdemeanors, which can be dealt with by the police and the courts.

Alas: if only it were just a criminal matter; if only it were just "corruption"! Watching the leaders of Meretz and Labor and Shinui reiterating the mantra of the "rule of law" and "punishing the guilty," as almost their only world view, one sometimes feels like saying, in a paraphrase of James Carville's remark about the economy in the first Clinton campaign, "It's not `the law' (after all, the law can be changed); it's not `proper government'; it's not even `equality' or `the Haredim,' the ultra-Orthodox. It's the Israeliness, stupid! Who will raise - in an explicit platform, in clear, ringing phrases, and not only in the passing remark of a judge - who will raise its trampled banner?