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A senior Palestinian Authority official offered Israelis an original solution to the riddle of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts on behalf of Elhanan Tennenbaum. His imagination worked overtime on this one. Tennenbaum was involved in gambling, said the Palestinian, and everyone knows that the casino in Jericho was a magnet for compulsive gamblers. The main partner in the casino is Sharon's Austrian friend Martin Schlaff, a client of attorney Dov Weisglass, who is the prime minister's bureau chief. And one does not abandon a friend, or the friend of a friend, when he is in trouble.

But there is no need to accept any tendentious conjecture, whether innocent or biased, in order to wonder what prompted the prime minister of Israel to exert himself so for a drug dealer, or perhaps even a spy.

Tennenbaum - who, according to his own statements, was so cut off from the news that he did not even know that Ehud Barak was no longer prime minister (even Barak still has trouble digesting that fact) - nevertheless arrived at the same conclusion as Sharon's son, Gilad: Silence is the best bet. People might denounce you or berate you, but that's no so terrible; the important thing is to keep quiet, to exhaust the interrogators, to get the file closed due to the helplessness of the law enforcers and to protest the way the case has dragged on.

The value taught by the school of life in Israel - by the education system, the Israel Defense Forces, the justice system, and all the way to the political system - is quite simple: Shut up, idiot, because if you open your mouth, if you want to help uncover the truth and play by the rules, you will incriminate yourself and will not get any marks for good behavior.

Just look at attorney Liora Glatt-Berkovich, who is responsible for voters finding out on the eve of the elections that their prime minister was also suspected of bribery (and not only of campaign finance violations). She gave up the option of remaining in France and mocking her colleagues cum investigators, of forcing them to consider the insufficient circumstantial evidence against her. In her decency she confessed - and was crucified. A professional criminal, or Sharon, would not act as she did.

Sharon is more cautious and calculating than former president Ezer Weizmann, who explained to his interrogators that his acquaintance, French millionaire Edward Seroussi, did not give him money just because of the color of his eyes. Sharon does not usually make any incriminating slips of the tongue (although during his latest questioning session, he did lose his temper and accuse police investigators of harassment; afterward, he calmed down and tried to placate them). In Sharon's taped conversation with David Appel, when Appel told him that Gilad would be receiving a lot of money from him, Sharon ignored this rare piece of news and held his peace. The justice system will yet determine whether his silence indicated knowledge or a hearing impairment.

Even when there is external corroboration, nothing compares to comments that indicate intent, because in the absence of criminal intent, the attorney general will hesitate to put a senior official on trial, or may be happy to use this to explain his hesitation. If there is no conviction, there is also no punishment. The rule that someone who confesses and resigns will receive mercy was canceled long ago. The new rule is that he who does not confess will receive mercy - and will not have to resign.

Among those who failed to coax open Tennenbaum's closed mouth were Shin Bet security service interrogators and the head of the police's International Investigations unit, Deputy Commander Yohanan Danino (who is also investigating Sharon). When Danino met Tennenbaum, one of them left empty-handed, while the other got the deal of his life, without repaying his debt to society - and it is a real debt, not only a moral one. In addition to the Defense Ministry grants to the Tennenbaum family, the Foreign Ministry has provided NIS 50,000 a year during each of the last three years for the family's journeys abroad. A hasty tourist who leaps off the top of a cliff into a deep crevasse and has to call in a rescue team has to repay the costs out of his own pocket. But not Tennenbaum - someone above is taking care of him.

Now that the whole world knows what Tennenbaum knows, the state will have to prevent him from leaving the country, in case he gets kidnapped again and his kidnappers try to squeeze out of him what they forgot the first time, if they forgot anything. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is quite capable, after releasing Tennenbaum a second time, of broadcasting all the tapes of Tennenbaum's interrogation on his Al-Manar television station, with all their secrets, and not only the names of commanders and division numbers.

Sharon's failure in this affair, innocent or otherwise, merits having the terms applied to Tennenbaum applied to him as well: that the three and a quarter years of his rule be considered a punishment that should not be extended, and that he be sent home.