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It's one of the surrealistic manifestations of our region that every political move, no matter how hesitant, and the very fact of the arrival of a mediator-emissary such as General Zinni, is automatically accompanied by the expectation of a renewal of terrorist attacks and bloodshed. The whole region seems to have become so addicted to the inertia of violence that all the antibodies against peace and conciliation leap into action in the face of any threat to the continuation of the war, and not only on the Palestinian side.

Indeed, if the implications weren't so gloomy for ourselves, it would be almost comical to follow the twists and turns of the government and the prime minister in coping with the decrease in the number of attacks following Arafat's speech and ahead of Zinni's second visit. Like the patriarch Abraham, who bargained with God over the number of righteous men in Sodom - only in reverse - the official and unofficial members of Israel's war cabinet, including its representatives in the media, tried to bargain (with whom? Themselves?) and prove that there is not one righteous person in the Palestinian-terrorist Sodom.

At first they disdainfully shrugged off Arafat's very declaration of a halt to the terrorism, saying that it would be not be translated into action on the ground. When the incidence of violence nevertheless fell sharply, they said this was meaningless, because the cessation of attacks was not binding on Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

When those organizations also showed readiness to abide by a cease-fire in return for a stop to the liquidations by Israel, the cabinet stated that it "rejects" this outright. And in any case it's meaningless, since the Palestinian Authority is not arresting Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. When it turned out that arrests were in fact being made, Prime Minister Sharon said that this was irrelevant, because "even those who were arrested are in very spacious apartments."

Following the bloody clashes between PA forces and Hamas, government and Israel Defense Forces spokesmen were ready to admit - in a barely audible mutter punctuated by coughing fits - that on the face of things the PA is operating against terrorism, ostensibly, "but only superficially," and "even if there is no terrorism, there are actions that are liable to bring about attacks," as Sharon put it.

And besides, the momentary quiet is not relevant because it stems from our preventive operations and from international pressure, and not from any authentic "intentions" on the part of Yasser Arafat. "We have not identified any such intentions," said the outgoing director of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malka, who also let slip this remark: "If damage was caused [to Israel by the refusal to allow Arafat to visit Bethlehem for Christmas], it will be forgotten after the next Palestinian terrorist attack."

We are now in a period, it seems, in which Israel's only political and propaganda escape hatch is "the next terrorist attack" - which, of course, makes us the world's darlings again and restores Arafat to his irrelevant dimensions; the attack that, though it may tarry, shall surely come; or perhaps it took place in midweek without anyone noticing, if we heed the words of Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, for example, who revealed that the Palestinians are letting waste flow from Beit Jala to Jerusalem and are thus "perpetrating environmental terrorism."

The old Revisionist slogan that "silence is garbage," literally, has never been applied with such ardent seal. It's doubtful whether there was ever a government that sniffed the quiet so suspiciously and with such great recoil - as though it were a gutter - as the Sharon government. Indeed, not only did the cabinet ministers, and primarily the prime minister, go out of their way to deny every rumor of quiet, they also rebuffed any attempt to deepen or broaden it - consider Sharon's efforts to block the initiative by President Katsav to address the Palestinian parliament, to keep Arafat out of Bethlehem, to arrest Palestinian moderates and to torpedo any gesture of good will on either side of the divide.

Not that there are no good reasons for being suspicious of the Palestinians. There is certainly room for healthy skepticism with regard to the behavior of Arafat and his organizations, and we shouldn't shrug off intelligence warnings, either. But there is a difference between a proper realistic and suspicious attitude, and even a politically cynical one (considering that the continued existence of the national unity government depends effectively on the continuation of terrorism), and the erosion that is occurring in the very fact of Israel's self-definition.

For it is not only the national unity government that has become terrorism-dependent: In the absence of any other agenda, Israel itself has become defined by Palestinian terrorism. We are "united" because of terrorism, we get "freedom of action by the army" because of terrorism. But what is there besides that? The whole of Israeli existence has been reduced to small-scale, circular tactics in which we move from a publicity advantage stemming from a terrorist attack, to political setback stemming from a reprisal attack or from an attempt to preempt the terrorist attack, and so on and so forth. The narrow-mindedness, the cynical vested interests and the visionary vacuum of the present government are gradually making us all forget who we are and what we are without terrorism.

In the past, even in the most turbulent of times and under the gravest threats to the country's existence, Israel succeeded in utilizing for its own good the moments or years of quiet: to be blessed by their beneficence and to build its identity as a distinctive society and culture. Today, though, not only the terrorism but even the quiet that prevails in its temporary absence, is considered a kind of strategic threat.

No wonder, then, that counting the "days of quiet" is considered to be more necessary to the Americans than to us. The fact is that the Sharon government is incapable and not built to deal with quiet: It's afraid of quiet, because it has no idea what to do with it.