In Menachem Begin's final months as prime minister, months of physical and mental decline, his condition was concealed by people in his office, starting with the cabinet secretary at the time, a young lawyer from the Likud named Dan Meridor. Now, there's a Meridor of this generation, Yisrael Maimon. Participants at meetings chaired by Ariel Sharon report that Maimon usually sits to the premier's left, and is in charge of waking the premier from occasional dozes into which he sometimes falls. Maimon holds a pen or some other object, knocks the table once or twice like a hypnotist at the climax of a performance, and Sharon wakens and returns to the discussions.

Politicians who follow the activities of their senior colleagues, like impatient hawks take note of every slight movement in their health. Pay attention, said one of the Likud ministers to his aide, Sharon has suddenly lost weight and has moved his wristwatch from his left arm to his right. Something has happened to him. No, the minister reported a few weeks later, it must have been a tendon or his elbow, because the watch is back on the left wrist.

Last week, in the southern dunes, in a performance carefully controlled and filmed by the cameraman from his office, Sharon was seen in an outburst of energy, haranguing Defense Ministry officials and contractors in charge of building the housing for the settlers due for evacuation from Gaza. "Start working," he said about seven times, like someone searching for new words or forgetting what he had just said. He wanted to emphasize the work going on, but the impression that was received was that the work hadn't started. Sharon wanted to project power and control, and was perceived as lacking both.

There's a gloomy spirit pervading the entire chain of command. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz suffered a ringing slap in the face from senior Defense Ministry officials who are retired and not subject to his commands, when many of them - as a former Mossad chief pointedly noted as colleagues nodded - didn't show up for the annual Defense Ministry reception on Independence Day evening, protesting the display of bad manners toward Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon.

Without discounting Ya'alon's own contribution to the gloom in the defense establishment, those of equal rank in that community lay more blame on Mofaz.

It's no accident that all-out war has broken out in the General Staff on Ya'alon's ("liars won't be officers") and Mofaz's watch, reaching a climax this week with the judge advocate general's recommendations on the matter of the three major generals suspected of financial misdeeds. The decay has spread through their court.

The use made by former chief of staff Mofaz of a misleading document from the Manpower Branch to move up the date of his demobilization retroactively so he could run for Knesset, was met by silence from Ya'alon and the head of Manpower at the time, Gil Regev - an appointment Mofaz made as chief of staff. The false presentation made by Mofaz was only blocked from outside the army, by the press, the Elections Commission and the High Court of Justice.

Ya'alon and Mofaz are experienced dairymen and neither are tender young calves. In recent weeks, a new Web site called www.yoshra.com has been running, operated by Ya'alon admirers, not all from his Kibbutz Gofrit, and calling for Mofaz's resignation. "Likud Central Committee members should be enlisted into the cause not to support the defense minister and keep him away from any ministerial position - not to depose the defense minister will harm Sharon's reelection in the coming elections."

That's an Israeli innovation if ever there was one: an unofficial Web site for a chief of staff, an officer in uniform, against the defense minister, from the political echelon. The chief of staff has not been heard forbidding his disciples from attacking the elected echelon above him. The site has been quite successful, with eight operators who have brought it to second place, a hair's breadth away from the sites that support Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, which displayed only 3,753 names in Zakai's favor, against Ya'alon.

"If I had been asked to fill out a form evaluating Ya'alon," sighed a veteran of the military justice system, "I would write that `the officer is not experiencing what is happening in his unit.'" Ya'alon is thus a worthy partner to Mofaz and Sharon. All of them, each in his own way, is contributing to the atmosphere of the twilight of the gods in Israel.