Israelis seem to have lost their belief in the rightness of our cause, as various observers have recently noted with alarm. Whether you attribute this to ideological fatigue, the universal tendency to pursue personal and material goals over collective ones, or loss in the belief of God's promise of this Land to Abraham, there is real cause for concern. Given Israel's challenges and the demands placed on its citizens, a national consensus on war and peace, relations with our Arab neighbors, and over societal priorities is no luxury, but a necessity. How did we get to this situation, and how do we get to a better place? Israel's cataclysmic victory in the Six Day War released a wave of euphoric energy inside the country and in the entire Jewish world. Among other things, it led to the aliya of people like me. But it also launched many on a gigantic tangent, deviating from the pragmatic Zionism responsible for the creation of the Jewish state. Huge energies, vast resources and endless creativity were poured into the settlements in territories conquered in 1967. I IDENTIFY with the Jewish and Zionist motivations, though not with the actions or the messianist ideologies of many of the people living in these settlements. They include some of our finest citizens. They also include a small minority, extremist and violent, whose deeds have harmed the cause of the Jewish state, and the settlement project itself. I recently read David Shulman's Dark Hope, which is an eyewitness report on the abominations committed in the West Bank in the name of the Jewish people. My sharing of commitments with many settlers does not change my contention that they are profoundly, dangerously wrong in mortgaging the entire Zionist enterprise to the cause of the settlements. In so doing, they have unintentionally caused grievous damage to the rightness of our wider national cause, on two levels. First, the perception of the essential rightness of our cause by the nations of the world. This was an indispensable condition for Israel's birth in 1948, and it remains critical today. It is criminally foolish to underestimate or scoff at its importance. Maintaining it is tough, as our enemies market the calumny that Israel is merely a colonial implant, another apartheid South Africa, or, at best, Europe's export of its Jewish problem to the Middle East. The most important proof in the arsenal of our enemies is precisely the settlements, and the accusation that we are stealing the land and livelihoods of our neighbors. A security wall more or less along the 1967 armistice lines would not have aroused much opposition, international or local. The same barrier exploited for an extensive land grab confirms our enemies' claims. The recent announcements about extensive Jewish construction in east Jerusalem, right after the Annapolis meeting, fit right in. SECOND IS the impact settlements have had on our internal consensus and belief in the rightness of our cause. Election results, not to mention our daily conversations, confirm the deep split in Israeli society over the settlements. The symptoms of the division abound, from the Second Lebanon War, to the disheartening bitterness and cynicism of so much of our public discourse, to the post-Zionism of many of our intellectuals, to the emigration rate. The settlements are not the only cause, but they are a strategic one. The settlements thus undermine both the external perception others have of us, and our own internal perception of the rightness of our cause. As such, in utter contradiction to the intentions of so many of their residents, settlements wind up weakening rather than strengthening us, and seriously endangering the existence of the one Jewish state we do have. There is a bizarre, paradoxical connection between the settlers' yearning for the whole land of Israel and the Arab demand for a single, secular, democratic state of all its citizens: Both would have the consequence of destroying Israel. WITHDRAWING from the settlements will not appease our enemies, nor should we leave unilaterally, without guarantees, safeguards and milestones. But withdraw we should, for our own needs and benefits: Occupying the Palestinians is devouring us from the inside, like a cancerous growth that needs surgical removal in order to enable the organism to survive. It is no accident that many of our most prominent generals-turned-politicians - Dayan, Weizman, Rabin, Barak and Sharon - concluded that separation from the Palestinians of the territories was critical for Israel's survival as a Jewish state. We must sober up, prioritize and consolidate before it is too late. We have to relinquish our profound internal split over Greater Israel in order to unite effectively in favor of pre-1967 Israel (plus minor, negotiated additions). Our shared belief in the rightness of our cause - without which we shall fall - cannot be rebuilt so long as we are occupying and dispossessing another people. It will be tragic to leave the sites associated with our cherished collective memories. But it would be infinitely more tragic to risk Israel's disintegration by a refusal to leave any work for the Messiah to complete. The cost of the settlements is much, much too great to bear. The writer, a Ra'anana-based businessman, is a native of Montreal who made aliya in 1976.