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People are strangely forgiving when it comes to Ariel Sharon's failings as a prime minister, although one shudders at the thought of how he would rate his own performance, considering all the poisonous barbs he used to hurl at his predecessors. What has he given us, even compared to them? No creativity, as in the days of Barak. No decrease in terror as in the days of Netanyahu. No hope of peace as in the days of Rabin and Peres. No relative calm and restraint as in the days of Shamir. No political daring as in the days of Begin. And it goes without saying, no power of deterrence, understandings with America, or sense of strength and purpose, as in the days before them.

To grasp the full scope of Sharon's failure, all one needs is a little rewording of the "Dayenu" ("It Would Suffice") song from the Passover Haggadah: Had he shot down the peace process but at least given us security - it would suffice. Had he ravaged security but opened an aperture to peace - it would suffice. Had he torpedoed relations with America but boosted stamina and morale - it would suffice. Had he turned Israel into a global leper, a caricature, an occupying bully rolling tanks back and forth, but kept our streets terror-free - it would suffice. Had he turned Israel into an "insane country" (one of his visions) but used this to deter our enemies - it would suffice. Had he failed to bring about peace and security but improved society and the economy - it would suffice.

Look around and what do you see? Not just failure, but failure multiplied: no hope, no prospects, no security, no peace, no economic growth, no nothing. Only blood, flowing like water, in our streets and their streets, as it hasn't flowed since the days of Beirut and Jouniyeh.

If today Sharon enjoys broad public support nonetheless, it is because, first of all, Arafat is Arafat. And second of all, Sharon may lack the virtues of his predecessors, but he also lacks their flaws. He has none of the arrogance of Barak, the fickleness and charlatanism of Netanyahu, the naivete of Rabin, the phantasmagoria of Peres, the woodenness of Shamir, or the combativeness of Begin. In our pitiful situation today, what can we ask of a prime minister? If he can't help, at least let him do none of the harm of those who went before him.

But there is another reason for the relative immunity enjoyed by Sharon: In the final analysis, he is the first prime minister in many long years who is not being attacked and battered by the interminable reproaches, conspiracies, pressures and provocation of Ariel Sharon. Not only that, but with the help of a cunning personality split, Sharon pretends to badmouth his own performance: He weeps for the real Arik, bound by the constraints of time, the conditions of his job, his age, the state of the world. He does this, as he has always done, by using the magic word "if."

If there were no Oslo accord, Arafat wouldn't be able to violate it. If there were no Arafat, maybe we could talk to someone else (Bashir Gemayel, for instance, if he hadn't been assassinated). If the Lebanon War had been allowed to go on, there would be no Palestinian problem. If Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon in time, there would be no Syrian problem. If there were no terror, we wouldn't have reoccupied Gaza. If we hadn't withdrawn from Gaza, we wouldn't be facing a new wave of terror. If there were a cease-fire, we could sit and talk about a cease-fire agreement. If there were no unity government, we could begin the political process. If the political process had begun, we would not have a unity government ...

When Sharon was in the opposition - inside or outside the government - his "ifs" were strong, earthy and concrete. Since becoming prime minister himself, his "ifs" have become amorphous, soft, generalized. "If I had paratroopers like we used to, maybe the tough problems we face today could be resolved more quickly," Sharon said this week, in a typical burst of nostalgia.

Ah, if only time would stop. "If only we had the kind of perseverance and steadfastness that we had back then," lamented the old soldier, crying for his youth, ignoring the fact that beyond a certain echelon, the point is not "keeping one's eye on the target" but defining what that target is.

If, if, if. If pigs had wings ... "What I'm missing is what the prime ministers of old, like Ben-Gurion, had," Sharon added narcissistically, meaning another army, another time, another people, even another Arik. As if these things could be reconstructed. What he is missing, and other prime ministers like Ben-Gurion had, is a different personality. Or a vision that can soar higher than a yellowing topographical map, into the political and historical horizon.