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The place: Mul Yam restaurant in Tel Aviv. The time: one day last week. The event: Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is eating a meal. Business magnates and bankers make the pilgrimage to his table, whispering and gossiping. An armed bodyguard from the Shin Bet is positioned next to the table, staring at the minister's plate. Another Shin Bet guard stands at the entrance to the small restaurant, and another waits in the car parked opposite the entrance.

A few days earlier, a similar drama is seen late in the evening at the Masa restaurant, which is no less prestigious. Minister Haim Ramon is out with his spouse. Two Shin Bet men are deployed in the restaurant.

Saturday morning in Ramat Hasharon: Dov Weissglas, the prime minister's adviser, goes out for a brisk walk. A bodyguard hustles behind him in pursuit. The same morning at the Tel Aviv promenade, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz is busy in similar sporting activity, a bodyguard on his tail. Only a few people recognize the minister.

It is hard to imagine that this is what the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz had in mind when he spoke about his vision of a Shin Bet state, which has since fully materialized. In a state where the personal security of its residents is abandoned, where violence and, until recently, terror are present everywhere, there is a privileged class that is afforded massive protection.

Since the assassinations of Yitzhak Rabin and Rehavam Ze'evi, it seems like all proportion has been lost. A Shin Bet man for each "personage." The distinction between "personage" and just any "person," the intolerable gap between the protection of members of the select elite and the shaky personal security of everyone else, is infuriating.

Thus, in addition to the gap between poor and rich, there is also a widening gap between the protected and the unprotected. The spectacle of ministers accompanied by husky Shin Bet men, brimming with self-importance at prestigious restaurants, as grotesque as it is, arouses sad thoughts. The fact that the prime minister cannot attend almost any public event due to the exaggerated security raises tough questions about the extent of his connection with his countrymen.

Thus, on one hand, there is a complete array of protection that has expanded in recent years, including the Shin Bet's VIP protection unit; on the other hand, there is the blue-uniformed police force with meager budgets and a lack of personnel. The one looks after the elites, while the other looks after the rest of Israel's residents. The targets under protection also have expanded: there is barely a single political, defense or judicial celebrity, from the army chief of staff to the president of the Supreme Court, who is not under protection. This is a group of many dozens of personages who are under constant protection, day and night, and who go about their regular routine - some frequently go out to enjoy themselves in public places, in Israel and abroad - as if the whole thing did not cost a fortune, at the taxpayer's expense.

An attack against public figures constitutes an attack against the democratic regime, and it is clear that there is a need to protect them - especially after two political assassinations demonstrated that their lives are, indeed, at risk. But many more bus passengers and young people out on the town have been killed here in recent years, and the protection for them was and remains negligible.

This excessive protection for VIPs carries a heavy price. First, the economic one. The Shin Bet does not publish data on the budget for the VIP protection unit, but it has grown substantially in recent years. The budgetary question should have been raised for public discussion: The taxpayer is entitled to know how much the excessive protection costs him, and for what else the money could have been used. Disclosing this information would not have violated any security secrets.

The other price relates to the social and moral image of Israel. A state whose streets are closed to traffic when the prime minister passes by, and where Shin Bet men protect the recreational outings of ministers looks bad. A prime minister who shelters himself behind a thick screen - sometimes to a ridiculous extent - of dozens of bodyguards, armored cars, "sterile" areas and whining sirens, damages the essence of democracy, rather than strengthening it. In The Hague in the Netherlands, a country that has also experienced two acts of political murder in recent years, the prime minister's bureau looks like a post office branch in its modesty and the amount of security surrounding it. There, they understand that there are some risks that must be taken.

The outgoing Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, said in one of his farewell interviews that he sees his greatest failure - and apparently the only one in his eyes - in the murder of minister Ze'evi. Not in the murder of about 1,000 Israelis, not in the fear in which the public has had to live for long periods at a time, partly because of his organization's policy of force and killing, but in the single act of murdering a minister. Despite the garlands heaped upon the retiring Dichter in recent days, his long-term failure in the war on terror is liable to become evident when the terror returns. However, if there is an area where Dichter and his organization actually fulfilled their duty above and beyond what was reasonable, this was in protecting VIPs. The "personages" - but only them - can sleep here in safety.