Forever Young

To rub your eyes in amazement at historic changes, you don't have to be Rip Van Winkle and sleep for 20 years. In Israel, it's enough to nod off for a couple of days.

To rub your eyes in amazement at historic changes, you don't have to be Rip Van Winkle and sleep for 20 years. In Israel, it's enough to nod off for a couple of days. Think about it: if we had fallen asleep on the eve of the Labor party primaries held all of two weeks ago, and woken up today, we wouldn't believe our eyes.

When we lay down for a nap, the political landscape was familiar, almost idyllic. The sleepy-looking farmer was watching his herd of sheep out of a half-closed eye; his son was off in the tool shed, puttering around; the fat Labor party cows were in the meadow chewing their cud, lazily shooing off a pesky Histadrut fly with a flick of their tails; the Likud rebels were buzzing like a swarm of bees; trusty Mofaz was on guard near the fence; Bibi, his feathers plucked and cockscomb askew, was pecking in the yard. In short - everything on the farm was shipshape, following patterns that had solidified and jelled over at least for the past five years.

And then, within days, everything went topsy-turvy. The pastoral landscape became a battlefield. The farmer took off, leaving the farm in the hands of a gang of horse-traders. His son was led away in handcuffs. The fat cows were chased out of the meadow. The quiet was shattered by the piercing cries of a megaphone. The silence of the lambs turned into the roar of "social animals." A dozen fighting cocks flew into the ring, pecking each other until blood flowed - Olmert versus Bibi; Peretz versus Bibi, Olmert and Ramon; Shalom versus Bibi and Peretz; Bibi versus Sharon and the whole world. Mofaz bit the hand that caressed him and joined the fray. Pastoral green became tabloid yellow. National blue became socialist red.

What's going on here? Seemingly, changes were brewing slowly and suddenly erupted. But a private eye trying to track down the "trigger" for these events would focus, in the finest detective tradition, not on those present, but on someone who is conspicuously absent. In fact, conspicuously absent for the first time.

No, Shimon Peres is not personally responsible. What did it was his stepping down from the Labor Party leadership. For decades, Peres was the great diffuser, stuck in the middle of the political arena like a giant filter - blurring the differences, koshering the unkosher, rounding the corners, and burying the battleaxes. If he had remained a Labor leader, we would have had more of the same - for another half a term, another winter, another half century. But the moment he moved from his spot, it was like a dam burst.

Like the National Lottery ad where the joy of one winner sets off a domino effect that ripples within seconds all over town, the election of Amir Peretz has produced a chain reaction that has spread with lightning speed. It has roused Labor with a crack of the whip, sharpened the party's differences with the right, gotten Sharon off his haunches, kicked over the Likud bucket, shaken the earth under the whole political arena, and triggered countless aftershocks, the effects of which are not yet known. Suddenly, overnight, the fear of change, which also has padded Sharon's administration for years, has been replaced by the thrill of the unknown - with the same old Sharon still in the driver's seat.

Some have tried to make light of the "big bang" orchestrated by Sharon this week. They said we've seen this sort of thing before. People come, people go, parties split. But the sensation here is that the star of the show is nearing 80, and the man has chalked up a few adventures in his life. Yet every time someone tries to sum up his biography, Sharon has the knack for surprising us with a new chapter, even more gripping than the previous one. Chapter? A whole volume is more like it.

The unknown always passes for the marvelous, said the Roman historian Tacitus. In this respect, Sharon has done a great job of juggling, scheming, mesmerizing and pulling us by the nose for the last 50 years. From the days when he and the state were young, he always seems to have had something up his sleeve - something untried, and hence, marvelous. Some karate chop or jaw-dropping maneuver that would cut the Gordian knot in one fell swoop.

It's no wonder that the specter of a "new party" has aroused the same quiver of excitement that ran through people over the idea of disengagement - which is the same quiver they felt when Sharon declared "I have found a solution to terror," as well as a throwback to the odd thrill that accompanied the early days of the Lebanon War, the founding of the Likud, and Israeli reprisal attacks.

Sharon's magic lies chiefly in the fact that he has remained eternally young. The scent of youth hangs in the air. There is something a bit scary about it, something reckless, like a kid who takes risks when no adult is around. But the energy is always there.

And that, of course, says something about us and our willingness to accept Sharon, even in the eighth decade of his life, as our permanent default option. When we're sick of yes-men and greasy palms. When we're disgusted with Bibi, Barak and other young stars. When we've had our fill of Peres and other assorted seniors. When we're tired of Mapainiks and Likudniks.