Quick, the House Is on Fire

If these were ordinary times, the chief of staff would be out of a job. For one thing, because both at home and abroad the IDF is losing its time-honored reputation of being an ethical army, an army that regards human life as sacred. From a series of recent incidents, a bleak picture arises of barbaric conduct toward the enemy and a serious decline in morale as highly motivated young soldiers find themselves operating in the heart of a civilian population. Bereaved families no longer feel that they have sacrificed their sons for some lofty patriotic goal. And the more soldiers feel that their comrades have been killed in vain, the greater the incidence of barbaric behavior toward the Palestinians.

The IDF spokeswoman, asked whether occupation corrupts, replied: "That is something only the citizen can say, not the army. The army receives orders and carries them out." Heaven help us that such words should fall on Jewish ears - words that were struck from the lexicon after World War II. Soldiers have an obligation to refuse illegal orders in the same way that armies are forbidden to issue them. It is hard enough that many of the soldiers sent to police the territories have to choose between their desire to be "ethical" soldiers and staying alive.

"The heavier the burden on the army, the more mistakes it makes," says Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. "But there is no justification for an ethical or moral mistake. Lying is something you don't do even if you are tired. And being under pressure is certainly no excuse for `confirming' a kill."

Retired general Yoram (Ya-Ya) Yair, a bereaved father himself, says that the ethical codes of the IDF were formulated for a war between armies. The rules have changed now that suicide has been turned into a non-conventional weapon. In the four years of the intifada, more than 100 people, some of them women and children, have blown themselves up in the midst of Israel's civilian population. An enemy that no longer cares about the sanctity of preserving its own life has led to this erosion of values that were once so dear. It is easy to say that occupation corrupts, but what are lovers of life supposed to do in a confrontation with those who want to die?

The rules of combat have changed with the times. We are looking not at a moral flaw per se but at a decline that must be stopped. There are more than 100 military checkpoints today whose job is to filter out potential suicide bombers trying to get into line with innocent Arabs. These checkpoints are manned by young soldiers who have to deal with masses of Palestinians trying to get from place to place. In light of the fact that there have been bombings at some checkpoints, it is only natural for the soldiers to be primarily interested in looking out for themselves and keeping terrorists from sneaking into Israel.

Thorough security checks are humiliating - and not only at IDF checkpoints. Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described the indignity suffered by Americans passing through security at domestic airports in the United States. That's the way it is. Those who have experienced mega-attacks carried out by suicide bombers can't be nice at checkpoints. Soldiers have to treat every Palestinian standing on line as if he or she were wired to a bomb. If God wants, even an old broom can shoot, to quote a song by Itzik Manger. This is a tough situation, but unethical? I'm not so sure. To say that it drains our finest young people physically and morally is probably more like it.

The intifada, the longest war this country has ever known, is not the winner. But it has eroded fundamental values and coarsened public discourse. The importance of Sharon's disengagement initiative is that it will reduce the largest and most populated source of friction with the Palestinians and open new vistas of hope for an accord. Cease-fires, like gestures of good will, are short-lived if there is nothing to nourish them.

This is not the time for political backbiting and squabbling over seats. The broad government that comes to power, if it comes to power, must grab this opportunity for a political solution and get to work. And do it quickly. The house is on fire.