As Ariel Sharon battled for life through Shabbat, comatose and desperately ill on the seventh floor of Hadassah Ein Kerem, his nation, our nation, had lapsed into a strange and terrible kind of grief. There had been no death - indeed on Saturday night for the first time there was even some optimism that the end might yet be staved off - but much of Israel has been in deep mourning. Our politicians have, for the most part, laudably maintained a sense of decency, sometimes nastily debating the viability of the Kadima Party in Sharon's absence but refraining from excessive argument over the contribution of the man himself and his policies. Such restraint has not, however understandably, entirely characterized the medical community, some of which has engaged in open dispute as to whether different treatments and different hospitals might have served the prime minister better. While such disputes will inevitably escalate in the days and weeks ahead, nobody should lose sight of the fact that, at root, it was Sharon's job that brought about his incapacitation; nobody should lose sight of the relentless and extraordinary pressure-cooker environment in which an Israeli prime minister must work. Sharon's mild stroke of three weeks ago was, in bitter hindsight, almost inevitably followed by his major collapse last week because he had been unable to do what anybody else would have done when those first warning intimations of mortality made themselves felt: rest. I don't know whether Sharon's doctors told him he would be putting his life at dire risk if he returned to work so rapidly after the first breakdown. But even had they issued the starkest warnings, I doubt that Sharon would have heeded them. He must have calculated, after all, that to have allowed himself what all the rest of us ordinary folk would have required and been granted - a couple of weeks off, maybe even a month, to recuperate - would have been to commit political suicide. He must have felt that he simply had to come out of the hospital waving, smiling and on his own two feet, and that he could afford to shutter himself at home for only the briefest period before resuming prime ministerial activities. Otherwise, the vultures would have gathered. However delicately they might have put it, rivals and commentators would have argued that Israel cannot afford an infirm prime minister, that when maintaining our very national existence is a daily challenge, no prime minister can let go the steering wheel for long. The irony is that, in retrospect, many who would have criticized him for taking a longer break after the first stroke, for giving that strained body time to heal, must wish that he had taken a time-out nonetheless, delegated authority, risked the political damage. And been better able to campaign another day. Certainly many of those Israelis who spent the weekend hoping and praying for his recovery, and if not that for the maintenance of his dignity, Israelis who have come to regard this most divisive of warrior-leaders as a paternal and all-but-irreplaceable figure, will have wished that, somehow, it hadn't come to this.