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Something very profound is reflected in the apparent inability of Meretz to find a substitute for Yossi Sarid. As long as Sarid was there, the peanut gallery was always abuzz. Not charismatic enough, they'd say, not aggressive enough, not radical enough. Too security-conscious, too much of a Mapai apparatchik, too responsible. But as soon as Yossi Sarid left the stage - if that is indeed the case - it developed that there was no one to take his place. Without Sarid, it seems, the Israeli left hasn't got anyone capable of carrying the torch. There isn't a single rational leader of the left who can offer the Israeli public any real message.

Truth be told, it isn't only the leader that is missing. It is the message, too. At a time when Yossi Sarid is going back to writing poetry and Yossi Beilin is going back to writing fiction (his new literary work, "Beilin-Abed Rabbo," will once again prove that the vitality of this gifted scribe has not declined, and that he is still capable of detaching himself from the harsh realities of the Middle East and charting a course for Scandinavian castles in the sky), there is no real message.

Six weeks after its historic downfall, the Israeli left has not even begun to consider the reasons or implications behind the defeat. A battered political camp that should be at the height of a process of acute self-clarification is still in the throes of sweet cognitive slumber. A political camp that lost over half its strength in approximately 10 years - from 56 seats in 1992 to 25 in 2003 - is still not earnestly or candidly asking itself where it went wrong. What was the bug in the software? What was the bug that caused the software of peace to self-destruct?

No, the bug is not Arafat. Abu Ammar is serious trouble, to be sure. Abu Ammar brought down the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But it would be wrong to blame the rupture solely on his personality and his passion for destruction. The problem is more complex. Nor is the bug the Israeli right. The right is in serious trouble. By perpetuating the occupation, it brought disaster on the Jewish national enterprise. But it would be wrong to blame the rupture solely on the right and its whims and its hammer of destruction. The problem is much more complex.

The problem is more or less this: While the left was and is correct about Israel's long-term goals - the need to end the occupation, uproot settlements, set up a Palestinian state - it was and is wrong about the short-term measures that need to be adopted: how to end the occupation, how to uproot settlements, how to set up a Palestinian state. While the left enjoyed the broad support of most Israelis regarding its end-stage position, there is a pervasive lack of trust by the majority of Israelis regarding the left's ability to reach that stage in one piece.

Therefore, when the elections came, the reasonable Israeli - the Israeli whose dovish beliefs are sober, pragmatic and a little jagged - was compelled to choose between the knowledge that the right is leading him toward a dead end in the distant future, and the fear that the left is leading him toward the edge of the abyss in the near future. He or she was compelled to choose between the knowledge that the right has no solution and the suspicion that the left has no sense of responsibility. When the choice is between hemorrhaging slowly under Sharon or endangering one's very survival under Mitzna-Beilin, the result is obvious. The result is a peace camp that shrinks in a decade from 56 seats to 25. The result is a Meretz that collapses from 12 seats to 6. And it isn't over yet.

Any company that had lost over half its customers within a short period of time would be asking itself where it went wrong. It would not suffice with merely griping about the wily competitors and would not indulge in the illusion that its customers are stupid. Instead, it would without hesitation engage in a profound examination of its product and would make all necessary structural changes. The starting point of this endeavor is that a million customers cannot be wrong. The loss of a million customers cannot be chalked up to coincidence or accident.

The Labor-Meretz bloc has lost close to a million voters over the past few years. This bloc will never be relevant again until it regains the trust of these million Israelis. But for that to happen, the left has to weed out the bug in its software. The left has to bridge the gap between its strategic correctness and the tactical irresponsibility that has characterized it.

For 35 years, the finest and most fair-minded Israelis have spoken out against the occupation. Yet all through these years, all of these fine and fair-minded people were unable to formulate even a single serious program that would offer a legitimate response to the inherent dangers of ending the occupation. Millions of words have been written, hundreds of discussions held, but when all is said and done, the critical five-year plan that might offer a well-considered, balanced and cautious way to end the curse of the occupation has not yet been formulated. The time has come to do so. On the day after the war in the Persian Gulf ends, there will be an urgent need for this sort of five-year plan.