The Profligate Son

Ariel Sharon conducted the coalition negotiations like one of T.S. Eliot's "practical cats" - in this case, a vast, fat cat, amusing himself at his leisure with mice whose fate has been sealed.

Ariel Sharon conducted the coalition negotiations like one of T.S. Eliot's "practical cats" - in this case, a vast, fat cat, amusing himself at his leisure with mice whose fate has been sealed. He crushed Silvan Shalom and let him be; pawed Olmert and Netanyahu; alternately tore apart and reconstructed Jacob Frenkel, Yaakov Neeman and central bank governor David Klein; and finally, as usual, tied himself in a knot. That's the man and that's his style: he toyed with his "partners" in the previous government, flattened Arafat and abused all the political options that presented themselves in the past two years, until they died natural deaths.

Sharon, though, cannot be understood separately from his distinctive sense of the comic, the dark and private humor of the depths that drives him to invest much time and energy in a good joke - a joke in which he, Sharon, always laughs last, and which is always on someone else, who then laughs heartily with the jokester.

Connoisseurs of comedy will thus be able to appreciate the superbly crafted scenes, which could have come straight out of a film by Ernst Lubitsch, in which Sharon conducted negotiations "in a cordial atmosphere" with Labor leader Amram Mitzna: the long hours during which the ascetic, saturnine guest, who vowed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, listened to his jesting host's lectures on the strategic and historical importance of Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Hebron; or the "rain scene," in which Sharon reviewed for his bearded interlocutor the history of the office in the government compound and invited him to come over and observe the raindrops pattering on the window - this, after he had decided to establish a right-wing government of the settlers with the participation of the National Religious Party and the National Union and to kick his "partner" out into the cold and to the dogs.

The events of this week showed once again that if there is anything that can compare to Sharon's phenomenal manipulative and deceptive skills, it is his genius in the realm of wastefulness, in all its senses: waste of time, waste of opportunities, waste of resources, "waste" of his rivals using the same old comic-macabre methods that might have come out of a piece by Damon Runyon.

This week, though, was only a kind of illustration of the way Sharon has conducted himself, not only in the past two years, but throughout his entire public career, which covers most of the history of Israel.

It is truly amazing how a country with such meager resources - a country in which the "windows of opportunity' are slammed shut so fast, where the prospect of better things is so elusive and where the arena of action is so urgent and short - produced an important public figure who behaves so profligately: as though holding an inexhaustible cornucopia of time and resources. Sharon's controversial activity when he was in the army and as a junior minister was always astounding in its wastefulness: the unnecessary operations, the projects that were scattered about mainly for the purpose of being torpedoed, delayed, thwarted and blocked - from the reprisal raids to the Potemkin villages in the Rafah Salient. But it's doubtful whether the human imagination is capable of grasping - in statistical terms of time, resources and funds - the colossal, abysmal waste that is integral to Ariel Sharon's two life projects: the Lebanon War and the "settlement momentum" in the territories. The two projects that effectively wasted the life and resources of at least one whole generation.

It is still not clear whether it is ironic or tragic that Sharon was re-elected, by a huge majority, just when awareness of the fateful waste of the 18 years in Lebanon and the 35 years of "settlement momentum" became part of the consensus. Still, the public now appears to be pinning everything on an irony of history: on the hope that only Sharon can disavow Sharon's life work; that only Sharon, in a kind of retroactive trick, can restore the years and the money he wasted so diligently. As one of the Likud grassroots activists, Shimshon Deri, summed it up, "If Sharon doesn't return us forward, we won't vote for him!"

That this is a pathetic hope is attested to by the two years of his first term as prime minister, in which he did what he does better than anyone: he wasted them, of course. Despite the partnership with Labor, despite the convenient political conditions, he displayed waste of a truly artistic caliber, virtuoso waste. He rejected every initiative, evaded every "crucial date," slammed shut every window of opportunity, froze all movement, except of the military variety, and even dissolved the Knesset. What didn't he do for the only apple of his eye - the settlements? Like a farmer who dangles a carrot in front of a mule, Sharon led everyone by the nose, promising great things: after the holidays, after the next operation, after the decision, after the Muqata, after the war, after the elections ... Yes, that's right, now is "after the elections." But here's a joke: even if he really, really wants to promote a peace settlement, he simply cannot, because of the Eitam-Lieberman-settlers government that he himself formed. Funny, eh? Okay, so another year, or two, or four, or thirty will be wasted. Never mind. In the meantime, come look at the rain that's beating down on the window of opportunity that is sealed tight.