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In the stand-up comedy act from hell that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been staging for two years, the "Naomi Blumenthal shtick" will be remembered as one of the show's classic acts. It will stand beside the "prepare the underground shelters spin," "the Lybian threat piece," the "I don't know, ask my son" prank, as well as the one-liner "Iraqi-Syrian axis," and the so-called "scolding of the central bank governor."

The frozen skull smile that doesn't budge off the face of the fired functionary provides an apt illustration for this comic part, which culminates in the "integrity sermon" - that fiery speech in praise of truth, integrity and honesty in public figures that Sharon gave as he fired the deputy minister. Had it not been accompanied by those unmistakable signs of ticks and nose-twitchings - hinting that the comedian himself is having difficulty controling his facial expressions and not bursting into laughter - this speech might have been taken seriously. One way or the other, it can be compared to another classic comedy shtick - the address of Richard Nixon on his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1968: "Let's begin with committing to the truth; to see things as they are, and say them as they are, to find the truth, to say the truth and to live the truth. And that's what we'll do."

The success of "The Sharon Show" on its two-year run was based on what can be called "the charisma of cynicism" - that delicate balance between the man's personal lack of basic credibility, which was already famous in Ben Gurion's time, and the public's feeling that this unreliability has ripened like mature wine and is the most credible and stable thing in our region, or in any case, the most useful thing. Against the endless lying, deviousness and deceit of Arafat and his gang, Israel has placed like a doomsday weapon Sharon's winking cynicism - the Arrow Missile bluff, opposite the Scud bullshit. Thus, Sharon's talk of "seven days of quiet" required "to start serious negotiations" were received with the same winks and smirks that accompanied his announcement about "agreement on the American road map" or his promise of "a Palestinian state." Between us everything is baloney, more or less like Arafat's "peace of the brave" and "reforms." It's all hogwash, poppycock. But what virtuosity! How naturally it comes to him!

As long as it was aimed at the Palestinians, Sharon's amoral cynicism won support and even sweeping admiration. The rejoicing was also great when he abused Labor's opportunism or Shas's greed. But as in stand-up acts in which the joke sometimes crosses some thin, hidden line of insult to the intelligence, and someone in the audience gets up to punch the comedian or file a suit against him - so it seems that something snapped in the Naomi Blumenthal affair. Suddenly the show's magic evaporated.

It's one thing to bluff, it's one thing to wink - but to cloak oneself with holy rage and pious righteousness? That is too much, even for a virtuoso like Sharon. Perhaps the public is beginning to understand that there is a cumulative price to be paid for a leadership based almost entirely on tricks, bluffs, winks and sly spins.

Even if Sharon is not personally and criminally responsible for the air of cynical corruption that has spread through our public life like a plague - perhaps it is not by chance that it is happening in his time.

After two years in which Sharon showed us how to stay at the top, it is beginning to dawn on us that it is from this very same top that the stink of rottenness is coming.