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When the prime minister was head of the opposition, he made generous use of the phrase "not serious." Oslo was "not serious;" Rabin was "not serious;" Peres was "not serious;" Begin was "not serious;" the chief of staff was "not serious;" Bibi was "not serious."

In those easy-going times, Ariel Sharon liked nothing more than to sit in his comfy chair, to wrinkle up his nose and to explain that the only Israeli leader who was serious was Ariel Sharon, and that the State of Israel without him at the helm was not a serious country, making irresponsible decisions and taking ill-advised risks. Back then, Israel was being run like some Jewish township, not like a sovereign, ordered country. We are not like France or Britain, Sharon would grumble. We are "not serious."

Since being elected to his current position, some three years ago, the prime minister has proved to be, in certain areas, a serious statesman. Sharon extricated Israel from a position of near-defeat in the spring of 2001, and led us out of a near-fatal tailspin in the spring of the following year. Halfway through 2003, Sharon lead Israel onto an irreversible diplomatic path; and at the start of 2004, he vowed to get us out of Gaza, to uproot the settlements and to start ending the occupation.

Being such a "serious" leader, Sharon did more than any of his predecessors to stabilize the strategic situation and to divide the land in a careful and ordered manner. Being such a "serious" leader, Sharon has led Israel to a historic crossroads - to a moment of Ben-Gurionness.

But now, with Israel standing at the intersection, the full extent of the prime minister's weakness has been laid bare. He has put his cart before his horses; his binding declarations came before considered thought. Sharon approached his Ben-Gurion moment in a quintessentially non-Ben-Gurion manner. His staff work is not staff work; the planning is not planning; and the statesmanship is piecemeal.

As a result, Sharon is degrading himself before the Americans. His treatment of the Israel Defense Forces is unfair and non-statesmanlike. Day after day, the phrase that the former opposition leader loved so much is brought to mind - not serious. Under Sharon's leadership, Israel is not being run like a sovereign, ordered country, but like some godforsaken township - some sweaty, confused township, wallowing up to its ears in corruption.

At the end of last summer, the former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, issued a warning about how the Sharon government was conducting itself. Now, many other people who have come into contact with the Prime Minister's Office have expressed similar views. Israelis and foreigners alike, officers and civilians, public servants and businessmen all stand amazed at the way things are being run in the State of Israel's control room. Reporting is not reporting; a vow is not a vow; a document is not a document. This is not the way to run a country. This is not the way that historic deeds are done.

As far as the fundamental strategic idea is concerned, Sharon is right. His determination to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip is impressive. His intention to open the Gaza-Egypt border is creative and interesting. His thoughts of a complementary evacuation of parts of the West Bank are brave and far-reaching. It seems that Sharon has finally - and belatedly - internalized the fact that the main threat facing Israel is demographic, not terrorist. He understands that perpetuating the occupation is more dangerous for Israel than Hamas growing stronger. Given this, the prime minister is willing to take significant security risks to forge a new diplomatic environment - an environment of partition.

But the manner in which Sharon is promoting his strategic idea is intolerable. There has still not been any concrete proposal regarding the reality that will be created in Gaza after the withdrawal. There is no serious proposal for a legitimate border in the West Bank. There is not even the start of an understanding with the Americans regarding the stabilizing mechanism that will be introduced to absorb the massive jolts that will accompany the withdrawal. Professional military and security officers have good reason to be worried: Sharon's good idea could degenerate into chaos.

The next few months will be critical. The way in which the withdrawal plan is formulated over the coming months will determine whether Israel finally disengages itself from the kiss of death that is a binational existence. It will determine whether, after 37 years of folly, Israel is able to withdraw back into its own borders and to take its destiny in its own hands. The way in which Sharon's bureau handles the withdrawal has generated some very serious questions. It has also generated a growing concern that the current Israeli leadership is not able to run the nation's affairs in a fitting manner.