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In ancient Rome, a slave would stand behind a general and whisper "memento mori" ("remember, you will die") in his ear at the height of a victory parade. He whispered this to remind the triumphant general that he was mortal, just like everyone else. Today doctors do the same - but not necessarily in times of victory and in more indirect ways. As Samuel Johnson said, "when a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

It isn't that such a sentence, heaven forefend, is hovering over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's head, may he live long and well. Nevertheless, when his illness became public knowledge this week, all of the speculations and calculations about his struggles for power and political survival were cast, at least momentarily, in a new light. For a moment, both Olmert and his associates were able to think differently about what is important in leadership and what kind of legacy they are likely to leave, if at all.

The "legacy" concept has eroded in recent years, especially when it comes to Yitzhak Rabin. Everything that was said and should have been said in the past 12 years has already been said; and a rally in his memory will be held on Saturday evening, two weeks after the official Hebrew-calendar memorial day. But the ritual rally has become a kind of fetish, like the phantom pain felt in a limb that has been amputated, to reconstruct "that" rally, in the mystical hope that it will end differently this time.

The sense of barrenness and impotence is only growing from year to year, especially since the intifada. The acts of terror and the failed attempts to disengage have proven that solemn recitations or singing the word "peace" are not enough. Even the term "Rabin's legacy" sounds somewhat hollow when one realizes that what is being discussed are the goals the assassinated prime minister wanted to accomplish (peace, non-violence) - not his tangible achievements (prioritizing education, bolstering development towns, advancing transportation infrastructures, etc.).

We have grown accustomed to prime ministers not leaving behind anything except torpedoed intentions or intentional torpedoing: political handcuffs with which they shackled themselves, doors they slammed shut in their own faces and the faces of their successors, declarations with no basis and the waste of their own time on the minutiae of survival. Not to mention the frenetic outbursts and grandiose shortcuts politicians take to try to make the most of things, largely at the last minute: troop withdrawals, uncalculated attacks and irresponsible concessions.

We lack the tendency of well-established cultures of governance to deem the leader a link between past and future generations. The humility of leaders, which has seen the construction of cathedrals, parks and national infrastructures over the course of centuries and through innumerable terms of leaders who have come and gone, is not for us. In Israel, the wishy-washy system prevails even in the highest offices, including the Prime Minister's Office and mayoral offices: The first half of the term is passed in personal buttressing and the second half, in an attempt to make a successful exit. Most of the time, the result is neither here nor there. There are, of course, exceptions, which only prove the rule.

Perhaps the only example of humble public service is the legacy the late mayor of Tel Aviv, Yehoshua Rabinowitz, left behind in the form of Hayarkon Park. He knew he would not reap the fruits of his efforts, but walkers, runners, families and lovers are grateful for his legacy every single day.

Is there a similar legacy at the top governmental level? Also, is it possible that the only legacy former prime minister Ariel Sharon will leave behind - after a career of damage - will be the gigantic Hiriya Park, at the site of a former garbage dump, that was named for him this week? The last four prime ministers can at least bear witness: No one has ever entered the Pantheon and been remembered well for merely surviving his term. This is not what is considered a legacy. This is not something future generations can take to the bank.