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There is something sublime - but tragicomic as well - in the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a week ago, to the effect that "it's best that this generation (namely, his generation), which witnessed the greatest victories, the worst catastrophes and Israel's political struggles throughout its history - bear the solution on its shoulders." Sublime because these words were said in that ostensible metamorphosis, in which the perpetual enfant terrible of Zionism turned into a kind of responsible and farseeing elder. Tragicomic because that same "enlightenment that comes with age" tends, by its very nature, to be both too late and somewhat short-lived, especially since the members of the aforementioned generation, who are supposed to roll up their sleeves and repair the damage they caused and to begin constructive action for change, are people who are approximately in their eighties.

True, it's better late than never. Nevertheless - how can we say this tactfully? - how much time for a "solution" do they have left? Sharon wasted most of his public life on sabotaging and torpedoing moves, and during his four years as prime minister, he has raised postponement, delay, evasion and foot-dragging to a virtuoso level.

In his defense it should be said that the limbo of the four years of crushing and being crushed at least had an inner logic, because it was attributed to the anticipation of the disappearance of the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who really was an impossible partner. But with the death of his opponent, the black magic has run out for Sharon, whether for lack of choice and due to external constraints, or out of insight: The clock of history has resumed ticking with frightening insistence.

The disappearance of veteran leaders is also a kind of memento mori for their enemies - the political equivalent of the warning "Remember that you must die," which in ancient Rome was customarily whispered into the ears of generals who were drunk with victory, or rendered artistically in the guise of skulls, clocks or wilting flowers. Their death is supposed to teach modesty to those who remain, and to remind them that their time, too, is limited.

The lesson of Arafat's death is particularly blatant, since it is difficult to remember any single individual in recent decades whose death released such a sigh of relief - locally, regionally and internationally - accompanied by the fresh air of optimism and a sense of change. Who in the entire universe honestly mourned him, with real hot tears, aside from a handful of Israeli leftists?

That should be a frightening lesson for veteran leaders who are talented only at stopping time, and whose main interest is personal survival: Who will mourn them? Even Sharon's insights and belated changes in policy can perhaps be explained not only by external constraints, but also in light of a sudden sense of urgency for one faced with the fact that time is running out.

Strangely, alongside the sense of urgency and the tremendous decisiveness that Sharon has been broadcasting rhetorically for over a year on the issue of the disengagement, he continues at the same to radiate a strange sense of delayed time: Somehow, everything is always in the future; everything will definitely be happening very soon, but not yet: in May, in a year from now, two years, five. It depends. And meanwhile, nothing is happening on the ground except for a continued "thickening" of the settlements and the outposts in Judea and Samaria. But just wait.

In a paradoxical antithesis to the hasty, suicidal freneticism of his young predecessor, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Sharon behaves as though his entire life lies before him: Nothing is urgent. Not in terms of years, and not even in terms of decades. His promise to run for the premiership for the next term and the one following, is not a joke. And if we take his adviser, Dov Weisglass, at his word, we will understand that the real purpose of the disengagement was somehow to freeze time for another 30 to 40 years (after which Sharon will consider his steps regarding the final status agreements).

Even the convoluted understandings, up to the end of the next millennium, that he is cooking up with Labor leader Shimon Peres - another perpetual arch-survivor, who laughs time in the face - imply that these two phenomenal old men aren't even dreaming of internalizing the fact of their impermanence.

Like conductor Leopold Stokowski, who at the age of 94 signed a six-year recording contract, and nobody was more surprised than he when he died a year later, so too are these two old men making five-year plans several terms into the future, plans that are based, of course, mainly on their continued personal survival. As though they will live forever. And who will whisper to them "memento mori"? Who will get them to hurry up? And somebody is probably saying the same thing about us, who are holding on to those very people who wasted half a century and let it fall from their hands, in the hope that they are the only ones capable of seizing the day.