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Many TV viewers were sure the prime minister's speech to the nation was cut off in the middle because of some technical mishap. It took them a few seconds to register that the speech wasn't cut off. It stopped because that was the end. That was all Sharon had to tell the people of Israel as tanks roll into PA territory, reserve soldiers receive emergency call-ups for the first time in 20 years, and war is rumbling on the northern border. It was a night of cliches about the "war on terror," and "weeding out the roots of terror" and, of course, "winning, in the end." Just the sort of speech Golda Meir might have described as "not as good as keeping one's mouth shut."

Sharon has always been thought of as better at doing than talking. This speech also exposed his weakness in the action department. The man who promised to bring peace and security sat in front of the microphone, powdered and stiff, and not one word of substance came out of his mouth.

What does "winning" mean? What will happen after we "win"? What kind of plan does he have for the day after? This performance of Arik, King of Israel, was like shouting: Remember the emperor without clothes? That's me!

In his first speech to the nation, on February 21, Sharon promised to "wipe out terrorist infrastructure." In the interval between his two speeches, 123 Israelis were killed. It was the deadliest month Israel has ever known, apart from wartime. In this month between one speech and the other, Sharon also ruined the favorite argument of the right-wing about more people being killed in car accidents than in terrorist attacks. This month, the fatality statistics went the other way: More people died in terrorist attacks than on the road.

A free translation of the subliminal message in this week's speech is as follows: My answer to your question about what will be is that I haven't got a clue.

Serious ministers at the top of the heap, who feel they've been dragged to where they are now, have begun to admit that they don't really know what Sharon's aims are. How does a military force destroy suicide bombing infrastructure? What exactly is Sharon is trying to achieve by isolating and humiliating Arafat, or trying to deport or assassinate him? True, Arafat is the bad guy and the brains behind the strategy of terror. So what else is new? Did anyone ever say he was a sweetheart? We're not the only ones who hate him. He's known as a barrel of trouble all over whole Arab world. Even so, the entire world says he's the boss and he's our partner.

It's primitive to think that a whole movement will disappear the moment its historical leader is mowed down. And don't be fooled by that depressed, sickly look. An isolated, humiliated Arafat is an Arafat full of adrenaline - a dangerous man. Notice how he manages, with that sad-sack demeanor, to get the whole world jumping down our necks. Look at the wave of demonstrations, or how every time the Americans think we are about to expel him, we get rapped on the knuckles with a ruler.

Sharon is like a chess player who is a pro at starting the game but not so good at calculating his final move. That's why he gets himself tangled up in so many messes. He began his speech, for example, by saying that "Israel, under my leadership, made every effort to reach a cease-fire." That is not entirely accurate. Sharon's forceful retaliation contributed quite a bit to the escalation of terror.

As someone who promised peace and security, what he should have done in coming to power was make every effort to negotiate with Arafat. As the stronger party and the one with the goods, he could have offered a way out of the cycle of bloodshed by proposing direct talks. A cease-fire in itself is not a political objective, but the outcome of political dialogue.

If Sharon were the leader he thinks he is, he would have delivered the other half of that unfinished speech. He would have appealed to the citizens of Israel and told them in the plainest language that neither Palestinian aspirations for independence, nor suicide bombings, can be eradicated by brute force. He would say that he was immediately convening talks, in the course of which there would be no choice but to return territories and evacuate settlements, and that it would henceforth be the duty of the new Palestinian state to put an end to terror.

But without courage, and without thinking 10 steps ahead, our leader's speech to the nation sounded not like a message of hope but like a military briefing to an army going out to fight a war. Maybe that's the man, and that's all he knows how to do.