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In the same way that the citizens of Israel, startled by the earthquake this week, prayed for everything to stop shaking and stay put, this is how the political system behaves each time the administration of Ariel Sharon hits a bump. It reacted this way to the police investigations, to the Likud referendum, and to this week's no-confidence vote in the Knesset that ended, for the first time, in a tie. The same goes for the High Court decision to hold the elections a year earlier. The new Yosef Paritzky scandal will probably be measured by the very same parameters: if and how much it will shorten the bizarre era known as the Sharon period - an era in which e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e, including those who talk about toppling it, are praying silently in their hearts that it will never end.

True, this week there was an amusing contradiction between reports of how the political system was in a "frenzy" over the High Court's decision to push up the elections, and the body language of the political players themselves. They certainly didn't look like they were anxious to move anywhere. They didn't look like they wanted to go to the polls or topple the government, let alone oust Sharon - the mythological Atlas upon whose broad shoulders rests the entire political universe (albeit a crippled one, looking for ways to buy time, focused only on day-to-day survival).

After the no-confidence vote that nearly brought Sharon down this week, the Labor and National Religious Party MKs who voted against him almost heaved a sigh of relief when they lost the battle. Particularly absurd is the dissonance of Labor Party "oppositionists" seemingly torn between joy at the thought of shortening the days of this evil government, and the dull, putrefying lethargy from which they awaken only when there's a chance to settle their behinds into a unity government chair.

"The sooner this government comes to an end the better," declared Dalia Itzik, and in the same breath expressed the hope that "from now on, our price goes up." And who can compare to Shimon Peres - that walking anthology of self-righteousness, cunning and craving for power - who plies the Sharon administration with an endless stream of platitudes, rhetoric and contradiction. "Nothing would make me happier than seeing Silvan Shalom in charge of the campaign to evacuate Gaza," he says one moment. "If the government makes an offer, we will bring it before the party institutions for discussion," he says the next. First he says: "The High Court decision is an important achievement for democracy. What we need is a law-abiding government with the right policy - not aimless foot-dragging." Then he says: "But November 2006 is also a long way off."

But the Labor Party is just one illustration of Sharon's prime accomplishment as prime minister: making the sun stand still at Givon and the moon over the Valley of Ayalon. The man has managed to get a broad coalition, whose members change according to the circumstances, to rally around him for the sake of his personal survival, using hopes and promises in carefully measured doses: eliminating terror, expelling Yasser Arafat, a Likud referendum, disengagement, evacuation of settlements. All these things are meant to happen, although somehow they don't, while time slowly creeps by. In the meantime, a kind of damp mist envelops our brains, fogging our senses to the point where no one knows where the ship is heading. The main thing is that it doesn't sink. Even members of the National Union seem sad at the thought of moving anywhere in the heat of summer, let alone walking out on the government.

Ostensibly, we are looking at a minority government hanging by a thread, battered from all sides, sinking in corruption and discord, surrounded right and left by wolves waiting with bated breath for its downfall. Yet somehow, it is still alive - sitting like a spider on a web, reinforced by millions of filaments that are reluctant to see it fall. Somehow, even the settlers' threats of a "nation torn in two," even Sharon's attempt to drum up support through self-pity and talking about his physical vulnerability ("how sad that now I need protection from the Jews," says the man who sneered at the death threats received by Yitzhak Rabin, calling them a "Bolshevist conspiracy"), and recently, even his promise to run in the next elections - all these seem to add to the surrealism of the "Sharon era." It is an era that hangs in a kind of time limbo, without a beginning, middle and end, without moving, as if hanging in there were a goal in itself.

What is the secret of this era, whose benefits and achievements no one can list and yet few (apart from the settlers) really want to end? Maybe it's Sharon's special gift for playing on our fears and despair. Maybe it's fatigue. Maybe it's fear of the alternative, fear of moving, of change. But maybe there's a simpler explanation, based in part on the laws of engineering: This strange universe does not sit only on the shoulders of Ariel (aka Atlas) Sharon. It is being held up by four giant turtles - Sharon, Peres, Yosef Lapid and Arafat. Four restless ancients, greedy for power, devoted to the pursuit of their own good. Our universe rests on the back of their self-interest - heavy, solid and going nowhere.