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When "senior members of the General Staff" suddenly lashed out at the government's policy in the territories this week, it reminded me of the little boy who didn't talk for years until one day he opened his mouth and complained that the soup needed salt. Before that, he simply had nothing to complain about.

The same goes for the General Staff: Throughout three long years of bereavement and failure, no one had a word to say against government policy. And now, when some gripe bursts out, it's about salt, which is to say, tactics, rather than the whole concept of "consciousness-searing."

Altogether, this is a curious business: Since when does the General Staff criticize the government? Nevertheless, when even a conformist body like this starts to hem and haw, it goes to show the extent of the paralysis in the civilian sector. Seriously, where were the opposition, the extra-parliamentary committees, the professors, the man in the street, even the politicians in the ruling party, over the past three years? How many of them expressed misgivings or voiced any candid criticism? And not about the salt but about the dish itself, about the kitchen it was cooked up in, about the whole conceptual-political-military structure of the Sharon era, which has been leading us from bad to worse for so long, in such submissive silence.

True, there have been flashes of opposition and criticism here and there, especially of late: the Geneva Accord, which helped a little to rouse politics out of its slumber; the "social battle" of Vicky Knafo and the homeless; the militancy of the Histadrut labor federation; the protest of the soldiers' parents.

But, actually, these barren and belated examples only illustrate how pathetic it all is: A lone woman walking on the side of the road with a flag; one activist with a Trotsky mustache and the mannerisms of a revolutionary; a few stinging articles in the weekend papers; a handful of nighttime demonstrators; a simulation peace agreement, or, to be more precise, the rough draft of a peace agreement cobbled together by our regular panel of "left-wing politicians and writers."

What else has there been? That's it, more or less: a couple of self-contained bursts of noise - a distant bark, the cooing of a dove, the rattle of a tin roof in the wind - that only accentuate the eerie silence. The streets are empty, the squares are deserted, the Knesset is snoring, the media is preoccupied with reality TV rather than reality. Most of the critical buzz - political, social, cultural and satirical - that used to resonate in this country, has gone silent. What's going on here? Where is everybody?

By "everybody" I don't mean just opponents of the government on the left, but public criticism and independent thinking, in general. For example, the kind demonstrated a week ago by the chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Likud MK Michael Eitan, in an interview in the weekend magazine of Yedioth Ahronoth.

With refreshing and straightforward criticism of the kind we have almost forgotten, MK Eitan dwelled on the dimensions of nepotism and proteksia that Sharon and his associates have brought to the Likud: "The Likud is run like some Mom and Pop store ... Omri Sharon is in charge of appointments, from a clerk in the employment bureau to director-general of the National Lottery. Everyone there is standing in line ... Anyone who needs something has to go through Omri ... What kind of formal authority does he have - a guy who is suspected of breaking the law himself, who goes after criminals just to get more signatures for the Likud?"

Eitan's sharp tongue spares no one, not even the attorney general and the Supreme Court. But the main thing is the tone. It's been ages since we've heard it: the sweet sound of courageous, honest criticism, of pure, healthy anger. "What the dickens is this?" shouted the MK. "And the most absurd thing is that everyone keeps his mouth shut!"

In the past, charges like these were the bread and butter of public life. Today they are presented as the kind of thing that only a weirdo would say, with an emphasis on how "alone" MK Eitan is, which further accentuates the conformist rot all around.

Where is everybody - in the Likud, on the right, on the left, up, down, at every notch in the top decile - when NIS 130 million is slashed from the education and welfare budget, and coolly handed over to the settlements, as happened this week in the Finance Committee? Where is everybody when the Israel Broadcasting Authority becomes the spokesman of the prime minister? Where is everybody when poverty breaks new records and the government itself challenges the legitimacy of the rule of law? Where is everybody when the defense minister is busy laying down what appears to be his own private defense policy? Where is everybody when the situation is such that, in other places, the masses would be out in the streets with pitchforks, throwing rocks or rotten tomatoes?

And where, pray tell, are those who voted for Sharon, supporting his false "peace and security" platform, and ended up with an annexation fence, a Byzantine culture of government, a systematic policy of escalation and an upswing in settlement?

There could be a couple of answers to these questions. Either "everybody" is pleased as punch, or "everybody" is too depressed to say anything. In a kind of stay-at-home exodus, they're all here - but not exactly: "Everybody" has left the country, even if they're living in Tel Aviv, Sderot or Haifa. And no, they're not feeling so well, but thanks for asking.