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Like a huge oil spill in the ocean, the realization is spreading of the failure of the military option that was pursued for three years almost exclusively, with unprecedented operational leeway by a group of serving and retired army officers. True, opinion surveys still show that the public, in its desperation, continues to support every new force-driven option that is supplied by the army and Ariel Sharon.

However, with every new round of the escalation spiral - the terrorist attack, the retaliation, the "targeted preemption" and the bloodbaths that follow - an abiding sense of the bitter failure is beginning to slowly trickle in. "You do not come dramatically," the English poet Philip Larkin wrote in "To Failure," "It is these sunless afternoons, I find / Install you at my elbow like a bore./ You have been here some time."

Indeed, as the third anniversary (!) of the war with the Palestinians approaches, it is already difficult to repress the gravity of its interim balance sheet. The criterion is simple: as in that rolling war in Lebanon - which, not by chance, was also fomented, escalated and prosecuted by Ariel Sharon - our situation today is immeasurably worse than it was at the outset. After hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded we have regressed far back - far past square one - with Arafat still pulling the strings, terrorism "more terrible than anything we have known" still ahead of us, the fire that motivates the Palestinians' terrorism has become a forest fire, and they haven't even begun to make concessions on the "right of return." They at least received the promise of a state, whereas our situation - security, economic, moral and morale - has plummeted into the depths. What achievement can Sharon and his officers point to after three years of bloodshed, apart from something of a postponement in the American pressure to evacuate outposts and settlements (or is this actually the only goal Sharon aimed for)?

As though to underscore the dimensions of the failure, we now get the pathetic attempt to prettify and cover it up with illusions and home-grown lies - something like the method of the information minister of defeated Iraq, Mohammed al-Sahaf. "There is a surprise for the good! Very much for the good!" the occasional "national explainer," Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, exclaimed last Friday, referring to the "success" of the failure to assassinate Sheikh Yassin - just before we were hammered by the redoubled revenge terrorism that came in its wake: "The always qualitative activity by the army has made Hamas suddenly start doing some mental stock-taking and it has reached the conclusion that it would be in its interest to stop. And that is success ... We have here a dramatic success!" And Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, not to be outdone, added: "From our point of view, I believe that the results of the attack are good ... Although we didn't hit the target, the achievement is astonishing!" And in reference to another failed assassination effort, this one against Hamas spokesman al-Zahar, Major General (Res.) Eitan Ben Eliahu, a former commander of the Air Force, said: "Even if the liquidation didn't succeed ... it was a good performance by the army ..."

One's ears refuse to believe: In what hallucinatory barracks are these guys floating around? In what conceptual quagmire are they immersed? What's "good" here, what's the "astonishing achievement" - when the failure is so sharp and obvious at both the operational and the utilitarian level? What sort of "dramatic success" is this when terrorism only ratchets itself up another notch and the blood of its victims is spilled like water after every "preemption?" (And from this point of view, whether it "failed" or "succeeded," either way the result is failure.)

Never has Clemenceau's quip - "War is too serious a matter to be left to the generals" - seemed truer or more melancholy. For three full years every political channel has been dry and the military level has been allowed "to win" - to kick down all the gates of hell, to apply every trick, to play out every capricious conception to its limit. And at every stage, Sharon, Mofaz, Ya'alon & Co. were sincerely convinced that the patent to extinguish terrorism has at last been found. Just give us five minutes to play with the new toy - the siege, the targeted liquidation - and we'll reach the holy grail known as "consciousness burning" (that is, the admission of failure by the entire Palestinian people).

On the eve of the hudna (cease-fire), for example, our officers became enamored of the idea of liquidating the leaders of Hamas; and they didn't rest until the cease-fire was niftily booted aside and the brave new conception was joyously implemented. For a moment it seemed to be working; but, as usual, they lost no time in overdoing it - the usual lowbrow, thought-forsaken overkill, which isn't even capable of the minimal refinement of resorting to warnings or ultimatums - and so this conception,too, blew up in our faces, in every sense of the term.

Showing too much generosity and for too long a time, the public has granted Ariel Sharon and the exclusive military option credit. But for how long? Until what level of blood? Until what depths of failure - economic, political, security failure? What else has to happen before the public says - as it said in the past, and rightly so, to Shamir, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak: Enough. You have finished doing what you had to offer. Thanks for the effort, but you failed. You have overdone it. Go home.