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Even the most impressive of Israel's leaders left behind situations in which their swings between the sublime and the ridiculous tended toward the latter: from Ben-Gurion's speech about "the third Israeli kingdom," through Menachem Begin's hollow rhetoric, to Yitzhak Rabin's advocacy of clubs to "break their bones." In that gallery of grotesqueries and absurdities, a special place should be set aside for Ariel Sharon, going back to the days when the mere idea of him being elected prime minister was considered a bad joke: from his endless false warnings, through the "virtual towers" in Rafah, to that unforgettable "night of the microphones" in the Likud Central Committee, when - as if in stereophonic putsch - he shouted down Yitzhak Shamir with cries of "Whoever is for eliminating terror - raise your hand!"

This week, and maybe it wasn't coincidence that it was Purim week, Sharon carved out a new niche in the halls of folly, at that fateful government session to discuss the strategic-existential question of whether, and how much, should the leash be loosened on that man, whom Sharon and his associates refer to (say the reports) as "the dog in the kennel." In other words, should Yasser Arafat be allowed to run around in Ramallah only up to the fence, or beyond?

It was, to say the least, surrealistic to see the prime minister of Israel reading from a prepared statement on the fateful decision: One might have thought it was Winston Churchill reading his "blood, sweat, and tears" speech, or Thomas Jefferson reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence, and not the verdict of a clumsy warden on the silly question of the length of chain on his imprisoned enemy - a situation right out of Monty Python. "Five million Jews are looking to us right now," he said. And who was sitting next to him, if not the eternal Shimon Peres, this time with his "stone faced" expression - when it is impossible to tell if he is hiding ridicule under the serious visage or opportunism behind a disgusted gaze (that riddle was solved quite quickly when it turned out Peres supported the decision to lengthen Arafat's leash by a meter, explained its advantages, and said it wasn't to his liking. That was nothing, of course, compared to the typical Purimspiels of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.)

How did we reach this existentially stupid situation? After a year of terrible bloodshed and zero achievements in every area - the national unity government's "strategic debate" has been reduced to the question of the conditions of Arafat's house arrest, and the ongoing childish pretense that we are America and the territories are Afghanistan. It's already not clear which of the two tooth-gnashing, inertia-seeking old-timers - Arafat or Sharon - is the one who has reached the end of his tether.

But precisely at this low point, when the two sides are close to a state of mutual strangulation - the crack in the sky called the "Saudi initiative" suddenly breaks open. Even if its seriousness has yet to be clarified, it has to create some dynamic by virtue of breaking into a political vacuum. At the very least it brings close the moment of truth, whose evasion has been a lifelong career not only for Arafat and Sharon, but especially for Sharon's meek apprentices - the ministers from "Labor."

From the start, Sharon was elected on the basis of two assumptions or hopes: the first was that with his old bullying manner, familiar from the days of the retaliations against the fedayeen, he would find some kind of solution to the terror and security problem; the other was that out of some kind of historical irony he would go through a metamorphosis, and like Begin and Rabin, do the hoped-for unexpected: create a new breakthrough, totally opposed to everything he had done and represented until then.

But a year after taking office, it's clear the first hope has been proven to be folly: the old, brutal methods, the sieges and vengeance of "the Sharon we knew" have failed miserably. Now the moment of truth is coming on the second issue - the hope for "the Sharon we didn't know": Will he be reborn? Will he know how to make use of the opportunity, carpe the diem, a moment before darkness descends on him and his government? Will he demonstrate, for a change, some constructive creativity a moment before his administration becomes remembered as a bitter and ridiculous episode?

After a miserable year, failed and barren in every area, Sharon is now in a twilight zone. The few remaining optimists among us can remember that Begin and Rabin (in his second term) were in just such twilights long months after they were elected, before the daring breakthroughs at Camp David, Oslo, and the peace with Jordan. It is not totally up to Sharon; but it is enormously dependent on him (and no less on the Labor Party rags, cleaning up their act), whether he - and we - are in the twilight zone before darkness or dawn.