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The mourners' wails of agony on Friday at Beit She'an's cemetery, during the funerals of victims of the attack on the town's Likud headquarters, poignantly reflected the mood of the country for the past two years. The cries of helplessness and despair responded to murderous Palestinian terrorists, and their cruel, random attacks. Similarly poignant were the appearances made by the prime minister and the defense minister at the special press conference held last Thursday with the aim of urging Likud members to cast ballots at party precincts: the brutal success of terrorists in Beit She'an and Mombasa stirred rage, and the calls to respond with steadfast fortitude seemed fatuous.

Likud leaders Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, who this morning begin their election campaign against Amram Mitzna and his Labor party colleagues, failed to present a practical plan for lifting the country out of its current, grave muddle. Both on Thursday, and in their official duties during the past two years, they have failed to offer a solution.

Since being elected prime minister, Ariel Sharon has upheld the political-diplomatic status quo; his sole goal has been to play for time, and to survive in power. He has devoted all his talent and initiative to the effort to respond forcibly to Palestinian terror, and in this sense, he has followed an approach different from that of his predecessor. Yet the result of his effort has not altered circumstances: though the public believes that somebody has finally stood up and dished out to Arafat what the Palestinians have delivered to us, the fact is that the state's security situation has not improved, and its citizens, both in Israel and overseas, have become yet more vulnerable.

The same story holds true for Mofaz. As Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, he prepared the army for a Palestinian uprising, but he failed to provide a comprehensive strategic solution to the political leadership. As the violent Palestinian rebellion carried on, it became clear that the IDF's responses were tactical, and short-term in nature. The conflict's overall result is a stalemate in which each side licks its wounds, and refuses to accept the other's dictates.

Mofaz's predecessor as defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, turned preserving the status quo into an ideology: he viewed his job as "maintenance" (as he put it), and not as a search for a fundamental solution to the problem.

In his previous role as IDF chief of staff, Mofaz believed that he presented some building blocks upon which a diplomatic process might be based. Today, as defense minister, Mofaz speaks about trying a new approach: he says that he intends to resolve the crisis, yet he also concedes that it's impossible to wipe out terror solely by using military means. A combination of military and diplomatic measures are needed to bring an end to the dispute, Mofaz admits.

Neither Sharon nor Mofaz proposes a change that might fundamentally alter the situation. In this respect, they differ sharply from Mitzna, whose views and bearing point to innovation, and refusal to become reconciled with the status quo (assuming that his current leaning toward the moderate political center does not eradicate his original viewpoint). When they allude to formulas that might end the state's current distress, Likud leaders pin their hopes on outside factors and forces. They talk about the major transformation which will occur in the Middle East, and the world, as a result of the American attack on Saddam Hussein's regime. And they refer to internal processes in the Palestinian leadership which will, they claim, take root during the coming year, and lead to Arafat's demise. They wait for the establishment of an international coalition, led by U.S. President George Bush, which will uproot Arab-Islamic terror, and whose imposing status will have an immediate, direct impact on Arafat's standing and the Palestinian Authority's positions.

The common denominator in all these scenarios is that each relieves the Likud leaders of the responsibility to take the initiative, revise positions and work to change current circumstances. Sharon and Mofaz strike poses resembling the two inert protagonists of "Waiting for Godot": They are waiting for some external deus ex machina to change their fate. Unlike the situation in Beckett's play, however, the Likud leaders are far from miserable: there has never been a prime minister in Israel who has enjoyed his job more than Sharon does.