"Do you remember where you were 50 years ago today?" Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was asked by his advisor Raanan Gissin on Monday morning. Sharon remembered, of course. On February 28, 1955, lieutenant colonel Ariel Sharon was leading the Paratroop battalion under his command to Gaza. The operation was called "Black Arrow." The target was an Egyptian police station. Thirteen Israeli soldiers and 40 Egyptian soldiers were killed. The action caused an international furor. As a result of it, the Soviet Union signed its first arms deal with Egypt. "Things have come full circle," said Gissin to Sharon. "Then you went into Gaza, now you are leaving it."

Sharon is closing a lot of circles these days. At the end of last week, he celebrated his 77th birthday. Two days later, he marked two years since the establishment of his second government, the Sharon/Yosef Lapid/Avigdor Lieberman/Effi Eitam government. And this coming Monday, March 7, will mark the fourth anniversary of the establishment of his first government. Two and half governments in a period of time that not long ago sufficed for a single term.

The making of a statesman

Ostensibly, Sharon has been one of the strongest prime ministers Israel has ever had. According to the public opinion survey published here, he is one of the most popular. But in fact, for about a year now, he has been on the brink of a political abyss. He is subject to the mercies of a number of Knesset members from his own party, who without him could have entered the Knesset only through the visitors' entrance - and after a thorough search.

As long as Sharon did nothing, he enjoyed a stable coalition. As long as the number of dead was rising, along with the number of unemployed and the number of poor - his coalition partners and the members of his parliamentary faction had no complaints about him. But from the moment he spoke of the disengagement plan and began to make his way toward it, stubbornly, ruthlessly, brutally, as only he is able, everything changed.

"Sharon got to where he is [i.e. to the disengagement - Y.V.]," says a close associate, "when he realized that life is not a picnic. He saw what Menachem Begin saw: a complex reality, with no simple answers, without swift achievements. It became clear to him that the days of Unit 101 [the commando unit headed by Sharon in 1953] belong to a different world. He looked right, and he looked left," added the associate, "and saw that there was no prime minister around whom he could attack. He saw that he was the prime minister. This is how he matured. This is how he changed from a politician - into a statesman."

The investigations against Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri, played no role in the original decision on the disengagement, stresses the associate. Even if this is correct - and we will probably never know, unless Sharon writes an autobiography and confesses - there is no doubt that the disengagement move has produced exactly the result that Sharon desired. Everything to his discredit has been forgotten. Sharon is getting out of Gaza, more popular than ever, purified and clean as a baby after a warm, fragrant bath.

A blind eye

Okay, not exactly like a baby. Israelis (62 percent) recognize that he is corrupt. The millions did not fall from the clear blue sky into his bank accounts. But Israelis (80 percent) also think he is a leader - and as everyone knows, a leader is needed. Israelis (62 percent) think he is predatory. Only 44 percent of the respondents think he is honest. Honesty, it turns out, it the quality that least sticks to Sharon. In other words, the public is clear-eyed with respect to Sharon. It knows who he is and what he is, but is prepared to turn a blind eye as long as he leads the country in the right direction.

The survey, the findings of which are published here, sought to sum up Sharon's four years in office. But in fact, this is not a summation of four years, but rather of one year, perhaps half a year. From the moment the public was persuaded that Sharon in all seriousness intended to withdraw from Gaza, end the occupation and bring a spark of hope to a battered nation, his popularity soared and is continuing to soar.

The usual question that is asked in the Haaretz survey, conducted by the Dialog company under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, is: "What grade would you give to Sharon on his performance?" And this grade is rising like a yeast cake: 6.6 today, as compared to 6.3 in January and 6.05 in November 2004. An outstanding student, Sharon. The citizens are giving him good grades. Fifty-three percent of Labor voters give a grade of 8, 9 or 10. In Shinui, he is even more admired: 58 percent of Shinui voters shower Shaorn with grades of between 8 and 10. It would be interesting to know what grades they would give to the leader of their own party, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, who left Sharon over a few million shekels and is threatening to topple him in the approaching vote on the 2005 budget. Altogether, Sharon receives the highest marks from Labor and Shinui voters. Sharon's own voters, who a little more than two years ago gave him 40 seats in the Knesset, have not yet digested the extreme change that has come over him, and they are a bit more restrained.

Back to the ranch?

As will become clear further along, Sharon has the trust and the support of the public, especially from voters for the left and center, both on personal issues and on political issues, but the most surprising finding that emerges from the survey concerns the job future of the most elderly prime minister who has ever served in Israel.

In answer to the question of whether, if elections are held as scheduled, in October 2006, when Sharon will be almost 79, he should run again or retire to his ranch, 61 percent of the public sent grandpa Sharon back to the ranch. Only 34 percent of the respondents said he should run again. On the right, of course, there is sweeping support for Sharon's return to the alfalfa fields.

Ostensibly, there is a contradiction between this and findings that indicate clear support for Sharon. The explanation is simple: When the public was presented with Sharon's age in the coming elections (12 years older than the customary retirement age in Israel), the respondents replied the way they thought they were expected to reply. Does this indicate that most of the public believes that Sharon will end his historical role after the disengagement? That he will have done his bit and then he can leave? This is not at all certain. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the alternative. If there is no alternative in 2006, Sharon will again be the right man in the right place, despite his advanced years.

The Haaretz-Dialog survey sought to check a question that has never been examined: If a referendum on the disengagement plan as approved by the government were to be held today, how many of us would go to the polls and how would we vote? The result was unambiguous: Of those who replied that they would go to vote and know how they would vote, 68.5 percent said they would vote in favor of the disengagement and 27.6 percent said they would vote against it. Only a few percent have not formulated an opinion. It is clear that in light of these findings, the Jewish settlers in the territories and the people of the extreme right who are pleading so hard for a referendum would not really allow it to be held. It is certain that they would find an excuse to sabotage it.

Secondary findings of the survey are also unambiguous: 100 percent of Meretz voters would vote in favor of the disengagement. Eighty-nine percent of Shinui voters would vote in favor (Tommy, take note), and 83 percent of Labor voters would vote in favor. But only 52 percent of Likud voters would support it. On the one hand, this is a majority. Plain and simple. On the other hand, it once again shows the extent to which Sharon is cutting himself off from his party.

Hope and fear

Meretz-Yahad MK Yossi Sarid is reminded of poems by everything these days. This week he recalled a poem by Rachel called "A Day of Tidings." In it are the following lines: "But I will not rejoice at tidings of redemption / If they come from a leper's mouth."

"I very much identify with the poet's moral position," says Sarid. "I too don't want to receive good tidings from the mouth of a leper - that is, someone who is corrupt. But it can't be helped. Not all the children of Israel are poets and I am not at all certain that even poets will understand if the disengagement plan fails because of us." Readers can draw their own conclusions as to how Sarid intends to vote on the budget.

The rehabilitation that Sharon is being granted in leftist circles is not only retroactive. Labor, Meretz and Shinui voters believe that Sharon will continue to evacuate more Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), even after the completion of the disengagement. Seventy percent of the public as a whole believes he will do this. A definitive majority of Likud voters (60 percent) also believes it. This sense also prevails on the right and in the ultra-Orthodox factions. On the left, this is a hope; on the right, it's a fear.

Sharon will win

In the Likud, despite this assessment, Sharon is still the preferred candidate of voters asked to choose between him and his rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the eve of a possible race between them. Fifty percent of the general public chooses Sharon and 30 percent, Netanyahu. Very similar percentages, with a slight improvement for Bibi (Netanyahu) also appear among Likud voters.

After the Sharon era, the picture of the contenders in the Likud (those who have announced that they intend to run for the position) is known, more or less, although there has been a marked improvement in the standing of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. He is already posing a real threat to Netanyahu. Apparently the sacking of Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has already been forgotten. In internal surveys currently underway among registered Likud party members, who constitute the body that chooses the chairman of the Likud; and in the Likud Central Committee, where the list of candidates for the Knesset is determined, Bibi is gaining relative to Sharon, apparently because of his "no" vote in the government on the issue of the disengagement. The gap between Netanyahu and Sharon among the registered party members stands at about 12 percent in favor of Sharon.

And in the Haaretz survey, after Sharon, Netanyahu and Mofaz come Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is gaining strength among the general public (13.3 percent), Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (9.5 percent) and Education Minister Limor Livnat (with 2.2 percent support). Among Likud voters, Olmert plummets to 7.3 percent, Shalom is weaker (6.4 percent) and Livnat paddles along at 3.6 percent. A few interesting secondary findings: Olmert is the preferred candidate of Meretz voters - 31.6 percent of them would like to see him as the next prime minister, after Sharon. He is also strong in Shinui: 22.2 percent chose him. Olmert is the prophet of the disengagement. If the move fails, he and Sharon will pay the political price. If it succeeds, perhaps Olmert will benefit. The question is what he will do with it.

The survey sought to check Sharon's situation compared to the five Israeli prime ministers who served since 1990. Yitzhak Rabin prevails, with 50 percent admiration. After him, with a huge gap, come Yitzhak Shamir and Sharon - quite close together, with 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Where did Shamir pop up from all of a sudden? Perhaps this is a kind of nostalgia for the elderly. For the modest. For those who did not do much, went in for the small stuff, evinced responsibility when necessary (the Gulf War), but also did not do any significant damage. For those who knew how to accept fate, to retire to their homes after they were defeated and sink gradually into oblivion.