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The prime minister's helicopter was near the West Bank when suddenly Ariel Sharon ordered the pilot to fly much lower. The pilot objected. It's forbidden, he said. Sharon insisted, the pilot gave in, and the chopper closed in on an old, historic target: Kibiya. "You see," Sharon told the other passenger on board, Binyamin Brigade Commander Col. Ilan Paz, "that's the oldest tree in the country."

It was typical of Sharon. Anyone else would have stayed away from the scene of the crime. (In 1953, as commanding officer of Unit 101, Sharon led a retaliatory raid into the village of Kibiya, which was then under Jordanian rule. After the dust cleared, it was discovered that 69 civilians were killed during the IDF unit's demolition of 45 buildings.) Sharon, defying his bad reputation, enjoys displaying his intimate knowledge of the terrain and its history. If he makes it to the elections in October 2003, he'll be able to mark 50 years since Kibiya and 30 years in politics. He's survived everything. Now he's the tallest tree in the political forest and almost the oldest, second only to Shimon Peres.

With all the brouhaha marking the 20th anniversary of the Lebanon War, it's been forgotten that after Sharon was thrown out of the Defense Ministry, Peres rewrote Sharon from a footnote of history into a headline. The pilots - Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin - changed, but Peres, the navigator, remains. The alliance between Peres and Sharon, formed after the 1984 elections in the home of their mutual friend Azriel Einav in Savyon, still holds. It may also hold in the next elections, as a two-headed plug, good for any socket, one side right, the other left: They will yet promise each other to rotate the prime ministership between them after the next Knesset elections.

American TV journalist Diane Sawyer once asked Menachem Begin how he planned to get to the prime minister's job. Planned? Begin explained to Sawyer that political life is a long corridor in which one goes from door to door trying to open them, in the hope that one will open. Sharon, from Peres' school, understood that to preserve his chances, as dim as they appeared, to be in front of the right door at the right time, he had to make every effort possible to stay in the corridor. Not to despair, not to be insulted, not to quit: maybe the day will come, and by the grace of Yasser Arafat who opened fire, and Yossi Beilin, who deterred Ehud Barak from adding Sharon to the government, he'd get to run in early elections and sit in Barak's seat.

All the angry charges against Sharon about the Lebanon affair are basically correct, but that doesn't mean Begin should be praised in order to bury Sharon. Begin is presented as a kind of Patricia Hearst, a kidnapped goody two-shoes, who was tempted, indeed, mesmerized, into joining the kidnappers' adventures. But in effect they share the guilt of Lebanon equally, along with then chief of staff Rafael Eitan, like three men in a tub. If Sharon was condemned because he should have realized how the Phalange would behave, Begin certainly should have known how Sharon, his own Phalange, would behave.

With the hindsight of years, and some compassion for Begin's self-imposed imprisonment at home, his role in the war has been cast in much too soft a light. The great praise - indeed, the only praise - he deserves, is for responding to Anwar Sadat's initiative and signing a peace treaty with Egypt. His other actions over six years in office - in statesmanship, security and economics - were bad, manic, depressing.

Helped by Sharon, Begin trampled every barrier in the matter of the settlements. He fouled the autonomy talks. He chose the timing of the bombing of the Iraqi reactor - and making it public - for purely political reasons. He provoked the Syrians by aiding Christian attacks in Lebanon. He was defense minister for more than a year without having a clue what Eitan was using the army for across the border in Lebanon, annexed the Golan, and failed - despite his supervisory role over the Mossad - to understand Bashir Gemayel. He misread Ronald Reagan, ignored an American initiative in 1981 to achieve an agreement in Lebanon that would have avoided a war, and invented a miserable doctrine known as "wars of choice."

Religions and cultures make hay with contrasts of positive and negative, God and the devil, Cain and Abel. Happy are the believers. There was no good and bad in the Begin-Sharon government, just bad and very bad. The pair running the Sharon-Peres government can be described the same way.