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The pop-political media circus that gleefully sprang into action the moment the election gong sounded, is trying to convince us that this whole politics business, and especially the election campaign, boils down to a clown show. Arik slipped on the primaries banana and fell over Bibi's shtick. Fuad did a barrel-roll toward Lieberman and stuck out a leg to trip Sharon. Ramon tried to tug Miztna's beard but slid down the survey ladder. And you ain't seen nothin' yet.

As perverted and cynical as this spectacle may be, a moment of seriousness crept in: the moment of truth, in which the fate of the Sharon government was ultimately sealed. It was when Ariel Sharon made it clear that under no circumstances would he (or could he) agree even to the mention of the word "settlements" in the proposed budget compromise - a meager compromise, pathetically laden with symbolism for the Labor Party.

For Mr. Painful Concessions, compromise, however slight and roundabout, fizzles out the moment it is put to the test. Even the idea of monitoring the obsessive flow of cash to the settlements in some way, or establishing some kind of balance or parity (heaven help us) with other sectors, was turned down flat. Who would dare to suggest a cutback of even two cents, let alone a budget freeze, who would even breath the words "dismantle" or "evacuate" in the presence of Prime Minister Sharon?

Remember the I.L. Peretz story about the rich Jew who didn't bat an eyelash when all his property was stolen, but was willing to die the moment the robber made a move toward his most precious treasure - a little bundle of earth from the Land of Israel? That's how Sharon feels about the settlements - the apple of his eye, light of his life, fire of his loins, his sin, his soul.

Now we have proof: Even if a thousand surveys say that the majority of Israelis, even on the right, are ready for far-reaching concessions, Ariel Sharon is not about to part from a single grain of sand in any of the settlements. The settlements are not "a matter close to his heart," or a theoretical bargaining chip at some utopian negotiating table. They are a cause he is prepared to die for - politically, nationally and personally. You can be impressed, or you can be shocked, but Sharon's hard-as-granite position (or obsession) on this issue cannot be denied.

For that reason, and with all due disrespect for a bumbling oaf like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, at least you've got to appreciate his political timing and the gut-feelings that told him now was the time to grab Sharon by the collar and make him face the music: Outpost - or give up the ghost. Even if Fuad's stubbornness on this point was far from naive, he unintentionally touched the hard inner core (albeit hidden and suppressed) of this election campaign - and every election campaign over the last 35 years, namely: "What to do on the "seventh day of the Six-Day War?" (as Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz laconically put it).

The one-sided utopian axiom, symmetrical to the point of ridiculousness, of "Peace for Land" and "The Measure of Peace is the Measure of Retreat," may have collapsed, but the question has never died, even if it has never been answered in the form of a coherent election platform put forward by a major party, or never decided by the voting public.

If anything, the opposite is true: Before elections, the Likud has always played down its pro-annexation stance, in the same way that Labor has played down its dovishness. If the scale appeared to tip in any direction, it was out of political constraints, or on the understanding that it had nothing whatsoever to do with campaign promises. No one cast their ballot in advance for Yitzhak Rabin's Oslo Accords, Bibi Netanyahu's Hebron accords, or the war and reoccupation of the territories of Ehud ("New Dawn") Barak and Ariel ("Peacemonger") Sharon.

It is hard to say that Fuad's mumbled cries about the need for "equality between the sectors - between the settlers and the pensioners" define the ideological gulf between the Likud and Labor with any kind of intellectual lucidity, or offer a solid, put-together vision of Israel that might present an alternative to the communal-messianic, border-defying, normalization-defying, Israeliness-defying "Am-Yisrael" paradigm that the settlements only symbolize. But what Labor candidate has ever put forward this kind of coherent vision? And what Likud candidate (with the exception, perhaps, of Moshe Feiglin and his people) has ever spoken publicly (or even privately) about the full metaphysical significance of the settlement enterprise?

It's strange how all the issues get fuzzy before election time - especially the important issues, and especially before "fateful" elections. But is it true that "all is vanity"? Is the current election campaign just a Vanity Fair, home to jugglers and clowns and sword-swallowers, devoid of meaning or any real difference between the political poles?

This time, at least, we know for sure that the vision of one of the candidates is serious: Ariel Sharon's answer to the hypothetical question "Get a life - or get thee to the settlements?" is already up front and clear, and he has the receipts to prove it.