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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's greatest cruelty to his subjects is that he isn't prepared to reveal the method behind the madness into which he has dragged them. It would have been possible to manage somehow were it not for the mystery of this unique experiment in Western democracy: One person brings an entire country into an experience of the absurd that ranges between Samuel Beckett's plays and Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin's satires. It is not only the street, where most people do not believe him any more, that he has managed to hoodwink. An entire political establishment is flipping through his fingers like a card in the hand of a master of deception. Last week he was just a single vote away from no-confidence in the Knesset. This week, a sortie on Sheikh Ahmed Yassin slipped him easily into the Passover recess with an extreme right purring in satisfaction and a stammering main opposition.

This stalling of all of the political apparatus' wheels is already considered an incurable national malady. In the midst of the sound-and-light effects of the attack, helicopters, and vain policy promises, the fact that there has never been a period of such crashing in the parliamentary system has been forgotten. It is infected with the suspicion of corruption from the Sharon family on down. The insubstantial gallery in the Knesset is insulting. Even since Haaretz proved for the first time in the 1970s that there is organized crime here, the elders of Safed never dreamed that the mafia would penetrate there. The left in the age of former Meretz head MK Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin (formerly a Labor Party MK and minister, now extra-parliamentary head of the new party Yahad) has become the target of unprecedented enmity. Even a first-rate journalist and sworn dove like Nahum Barnea of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth heaps syntactical acrobatics of scorn on this beleaguered camp.

With Sharon, even more than in the nightmarish days of former prime minister Golda Meir, Israel has become a state without a conception, or what in Hebrew they call a konseptzia. Golda had at least two conceptions. One was that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people. The other, most famously, was what led to the Yom Kippur War. And she also had a third - that the protesting Sephardi Israelis "aren't nice." For three decades, the former hegemony party has spent most of its time at the playing field on the bench. The Labor Party has become accustomed to this to such a despairing extent that hardly anything remains of the slivers of creative enthusiasm in its political thinking. This is a special achievement of Sharon's, because there has not yet been - and you can count in Benjamin Netanyahu - a right-wing leader in power so destructive and so worthy of being deposed.

The hoof and mouth disease of a possible alternative government has been exacerbated by the strange crash of the center. The chance of a political center in days of national cholera is to funnel support into it from people who abandon the right and the left. Shinui did this, but blended into the murky wave of anti-conception. With a resounding electoral success, it began to erode most of its principles. Shinui is marching vigorously to a bad place in the center, joining that same channel of lack of direction. The extreme right has afforded the phenomenon a surrealistic dimension. These margins are striking terror into Sharon's heart, precisely at a time when the notion of the greater land of Israel - one of the most rooted conceptions ever in the history of political thought in Israel - has evaporated. Even Sharon, in what used to be the exclusive province of the lexicon of the left, has begun to talk against "the occupation." But his actions and his inactions have only underlined the new nullity of conceptual discourse: He said no to the occupation. So what?

This matter of non-conception has to do not only with formulations, of course. In a very important way, it is connected to the process of producing native leaders. Thus far, not a single one of them, with the exception of the late Yitzhak Rabin (and in a partial way Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, who never became prime minister) ever managed to perform as a leader with a firm, clear and comprehensive outlook toward resolving the conflict. This failure is the public elites' betrayal of their destiny. Therefore, Sharon, Ehud Barak, Netanyahu (and Yigal Allon, as is chillingly shown in the new biography by Anita Shapira) were such huge failures. And Sharon more than all the rest, because of his special potential for advancing a solution with the help of the right.

Israel under Sharon has become a sick country. It is gradually losing most of the promises that were borne by the Zionist movement before and after the establishment of the state, and especially so when the sand in the national hourglass is trickling away at a most alarming rate. Therefore, a question like whether it was correct to assassinate Yassin is dwarfed compared to several profound and frightening fundamental questions that go beyond this or that intifada - no matter how excruciating its contribution to the national anxiety. Without a change of direction, will the state be able to continue this way without collapsing? Has a rooted flaw in the national conduct come to light, some kind of extensive systems malfunction that is bringing down an almost existential danger on us? In short, is this national business approaching the threshold of an even graver crisis than is apparent, to a crumbling of the sort that has afflicted even great powers in a vortex of fatal mistakes? This is the context - and nothing less - in which it is necessary to view the worst and most dangerous period of leadership we have ever had here.