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During his first year as prime minister, Menachem Begin, who died 10 years ago this week, achieved a historical breakthrough in the peace process. Sharon, in contrast, is winding up his first year with the country in a state of regression in the spheres of defense, economy, politics and social welfare. Begin had a program for how and what he would do to put an end to the war with Egypt, the most daunting and dangerous of our enemies. Sharon has no program beyond the eight o'clock news.

Begin, father and mother of the Greater Land of Israel, did not hesitate to evacuate settlements and affix his signature to a document recognizing "the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and their just demands" when this was necessary for drawing up a peace treaty. Sharon, holier than the pope, has become a tool in the hands of the extremist wing of the government.

Begin knew how to say "I can't go on," when he lost control. Sharon is focused wholly on his political survival, violating every budget commitment he made in order to maintain his coalition. Begin knew how to rise above himself in matters of state and law. Sharon has demonstrated that the job is just too big for him. The most massive government we have ever had is busy treading water. A close look at the recent surveys shows that Sharon's time is running out.

Unfortunately, in the leadership department we are looking at scorched earth. The reservoir of future leaders is like the Kinneret - way below the red line. Let's say Sharon and Peres fall. Is there any leader or leadership on the horizon that can pull us out of the mud?

Once upon a time, there was a certain order in handing over the reins of government. People knew that after Ben-Gurion, there would be Sharett, and after Sharett - Eshkol, and after Eshkol - Golda. Not that every heir improved on his predecessor, but at least we had a reservoir that insured continuity and change, for good or for bad.

And we always had some kind of De Gaulle around, like a fire extinguisher on the wall. For 29 years, this virtual role was held by Yigal Yadin. His mistake, and our misfortune, was the day he unhooked himself from the wall. He and the Democratic Movement for Change as a third political force turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

The next attempt to bypass the political system was the Center party, starring such luminaries as Yitzhak Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who did great in the surveys but deflated in no time, like balloons pricked with a pin. Direct elections for prime minister proved that the knack for getting elected has no relation to the ability to do the job. Worthy politicians like Dan Meridor and Yossi Beilin will never reach the top because they can't get themselves elected.

Today, when new, creative leadership is so badly needed, there is no decent cadre to choose from, not in the Likud and not in Labor. Peres cultivated some talented young people, but he blocked their way with his dedication to staying in government - any government. Sharon has not singled out even one minister as a possible heir, for the same reason. Ami Ayalon, thrust into the race by concerned citizens, told Ma'ariv that he doesn't have the personal qualifications to mobilize coalitions in Israeli society today. And he is right, of course. The generals have lost their appeal. Meteors like Barak and Netanyahu will not be accepted with open arms anymore.

When they asked Pinhas Sapir, Mapai's annointer of kings, who would be the next prime minister, he would say: "I know of five or six candidates for the job." He wouldn't give names, but the idea was that the constellation of events would produce the right man. Israel has a pool of respected figures in the economic sector, in the academic world and in public life who have watched in dismay as the government has flung away the political option and led us down the path of military and financial catastrophe.

However unattractive politics may be, it is not possible that a person, or persons, cannot be found who is willing to jump in with both feet. In this country, boiling with anger, frustration and despair, the time has come to initiate and found protest movements that will challenge a government prepared to mortgage the country's future for the sake of its leaders' survival. Nations are not built by sitting in the living room and grumbling that "things can't go on this way."