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The U.S. Navy's Postgraduate College in Monterey, California, specializes in research on thwarting nuclear proliferation. Last year one of its students, an officer in the U.S. Air Force, chose to write his thesis on Israel's bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, in an effort to determine whether the same tactic could be usefully employed against Iran.

The student, Peter Scott Ford, spoke with Israeli combat pilots, including Major General (reserve) David Ivri, the commander of the Air Force at the time of the operation; Brigadier General (reserve) Avi Barber, commander of a Phantom wing that had trained for an attack on Baghdad (however, the Phantom's range proved too short, so the plan was frozen until the F-16 arrived); and Colonel (reserve) Dubi Yaffe, one of the eight pilots who bombed the reactor. Ford's conclusion: A preventive strike against nuclear installations is of limited value. It can buy time and attract international attention to the problem, but a nation or leader determined to go nuclear will find other ways to do so, by dispersing and fortifying nuclear installations.

One of the issues that Ford discussed was Israeli politics at the time of the decision to bomb, on the eve of the 1981 elections. He says that he heard from Yaffe and his wife, Michal, the daughter of Ezer Weizman - who, as defense minister, oversaw the start of preparations for the bombing, but opposed the decision to carry it out - that Weizman's resignation as defense minister in spring 1980 stemmed from his assessment that the bombing would result in the fall of Menachem Begin's government and his, Weizman's, rise to the premiership. Weizman had by that point despaired of his earlier hope that Begin would resign after making peace with Egypt. But he erred both in overestimating his own strength and in underestimating Begin's ability to devise moves that mixed national strategy with political tactics.

Thanks to the reactor bombing - and perhaps also due to the economic largess distributed by then-finance minister Yoram Aridor - Begin turned a loss in the preelection polls into a ballot box victory over the Labor Party, headed by Shimon Peres. This campaign, which took place against the background of tensions with Syria and was followed by the annexation of the Golan Heights and the Lebanon War, has been exhaustively analyzed, but one important lesson of continuing relevance has been forgotten: It turns out that, politically speaking, peace does not pay. Begin's greatest diplomatic and security achievement, the peace treaty with Egypt, was not a winning card. Despite this peace, Begin was poised to lose power. The ungrateful public lacked the patience of a historian. It wanted instant gratification - cheap color television sets and a bombed Iraqi reactor (and Begin, contrary to his usual policy, was quick to boast of Israel's responsibility for this attack).

Begin's predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, came close to peace with Egypt in the second interim agreement in Sinai in August 1975, but earned no gratitude for it. His rivals - including those in his own party, such as Peres - focused on the territorial price of this move. Begin's heir, Yitzhak Shamir, advanced toward peace on other fronts when he went, albeit unhappily, to the Madrid Conference and the Washington talks in late 1991. He was punished for this by a loss to Rabin in the 1992 elections: The public proved apathetic or hostile to Shamir's tentative moves in the right direction. This loss had an element of poetic justice, since in the previous elections, in 1988, which took place against the background of the first intifada, Shamir won despite his role in foiling the London Agreement between Peres and King Hussein of Jordan.

The 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and the Oslo process were not enough to give Peres the victory in the 1996 elections, and the Wye Agreement, another point on the Oslo continuum, failed to save Benjamin Netanyahu from losing to Ehud Barak - who himself was then unable to leverage the withdrawal from South Lebanon into a victory over Ariel Sharon.

The conclusion that Sharon cannot help drawing from this balance sheet is, if his government survives the upcoming budget vote, if he implements the planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, and if he then runs again in the elections - whether at the head of the Likud, his old Shlomzion Party or any other list - history will be against him. His chances of winning will be reduced, even though many voters who never supported him in the past are currently swearing that next time they will vote for him, due to his precedent-setting evacuation of settlements and their expectation of additional withdrawals in the West Bank.

In practice, circumstances at the moment of the elections will be the deciding factor, and these will not necessarily be favorable to Sharon.

Sharon (and the legitimacy of the disengagement) requires elections before the withdrawal, not afterward, so that the public can be asked - and will apparently agree - to give him credit, rather than to pay a debt. But Sharon is bound by his promise to President Bush to adhere to the timetable of a summer withdrawal. Only Bush can release him from this promise, in exchange for Sharon's commitment to make additional progress toward the final-status agreement that Bush wants to achieve within three years. That could make an interesting topic of conversation for the Bush-Sharon talks in Crawford, Texas - either before or after they coordinate on the Iranian nuclear issue.