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One can understand looking forward to a music festival, or even an international dentistry convention that gets dentists flying in from all over the world, to hear others and be heard.

But the annual spectacle known as the "Herzliya Conference," with all the excitement and anticipation it stirs up, has got to be the strangest show on earth. As you watch the parade of ministers and government officials getting up on the podium, one after another, you'd think they were prospective grooms on the "Take Me Sharon" television dating show.

Say the head of the Shin Bet disagrees with the official line, or the prime minister's stand-in wants to make a change in government policy. What's stopping them from appearing before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, or the Knesset, or the cabinet? What about a plain old television show?

Strangest of all is how everyone waits with bated breath to hear Prime Minister Sharon deliver the equivalent of a royal proclamation or a state-of-the-union address. If he has something dramatic to say, why doesn't he get up and say it then and there, rather than afflicting himself with voluntary constipation until the Herzliya Conference rolls around?

And let's say the conference was postponed for another month. In that case the prime minister wouldn't have anything to say to the nation?

According to the indexes drawn up by the Herzliya Conference itself in preparation for the event, the state of the nation has grown worse over the past year and gone downhill in every one of the chosen parameters. Prof. Rafi Melnick, the organizer of the survey, found that Israel is suffering from a multi-systemic problem: Trust in the institutions of the state has declined, the level of patriotism has dropped, and the clincher - national stamina is not what it used to be. Pollster Mina Tsemach couldn't have put it better.

The low point we have reached is not a topic for symposia. It is a problem that can be dealt with in one of two ways: Either the government takes a different line or the public sends the government packing in the next elections. Forget the academic debates.

After the chief of staff came out against the government's harmful policies and expressed concern that "even if we win the Palestinians in the end, we won't be able to look at ourselves in the mirror," the four ex-Shin Bet security service chiefs took the government to task. "When the government has no political direction," said Yaakov Peri, "the top people in the defense ministry are lost, too."

Avi Dichter's astonishing performance turned the quartet into a quintet. To be honest, he said, presenting his credo, the defense establishment did not provide the kind of protective gear that the people of Israel deserved during the three years of intifada.

If anyone was left unmoved by the figure of 901 victims, Dichter made it clear that in relative terms, this would be equivalent to 63,000 dead and half-a-million wounded in America. Suicide bombings, said Dichter, pose a strategic threat to the State of Israel.

One might have expected this brave man to say that the solution to the problem of terror was political - not military. Instead, he remained loyal to the prime minister and plugged the fence as the magic solution. One could write a dozen books about fences and walls that never made the grade, from the wall built in Vietnam and the Maginot Line on the French border, to the Morice Line constructed by France on the Algerian-Tunisian frontier.

To build a fence in these parts that doesn't follow the Green Line is to dare every Arab to climb over it, or under it, or around it, just to prove that if Allah wants, brooms can also shoot.

At the Herzliya Conference we saw a government that is befuddled and confused: a minister calling upon Abu Ala to negotiate; a minister calling for unilateral action; a minister against unilateral action; a minister against the road map, but committed to it; a minister who supports dismantling outposts; a minister who supports withdrawal from isolated settlements; and a minister who says they should stay.

What hasn't been articulated at this conference is that the U.S. administration, the media and American public opinion are showing signs of fatigue. They are getting tired of Sharon, of his double talk, of the fact that he is not helping President Bush by making gestures to the Palestinians.

As a person who promised peace and security, but hasn't brought it, as a person who promised painful concessions, but hasn't made any, as a person who shoved us down the hill, but won't accept responsibility for it - it doesn't matter what Sharon said last night and how nicely he said it. It's his actions that will talk.