Why does the public feel an almost instinctive, and justified, sense of ridicule every time people like Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu try to compare themselves to the leaders of the past, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, and even including Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin? On the face of it, the comparison shouldn't seem so unfounded. Netanyahu and Barak are of an age when their predecessors were deemed responsible "elders." As for formal education or quantifiable IQ, they are possibly superior to their predecessors. Even in terms of political integrity, we should not idealize the leaders of the past - they were capable of outbursts of demagogy, cynicism and dirty tricks that might make both Barak and Netanyahu pale. So what still stimulates the glands of ridicule at every mention of this sort?

It all possibly boils down to one word - maturity.

Uncivilized tribes hold initiation rites that are meant to "kill the child" in the adolescent - a cruel, highly significant and irreversible strike marks him and transforms him into a responsible adult - without sympathy, pampering and indulgence. In Israel, it is accepted that combat service in the Israel Defense Forces, especially in an elite unit, serves as an initiation rite. We were accustomed to believing that the very act of belonging to such an elite group automatically marks its members as possessing quality, maturity and even the potential for leadership. Is this so? Sometimes, that sense of belonging to a patently elitist group reinforces the eternal adolescent, puts a halo over his head and exempts him from some of the twisting paths that lead to maturity as an individual and a citizen.

The founding fathers (to whom their successors try to cling ) did not achieve their status through age or deeds. They revolted against their ancestors and tradition; without a protective covering, they were forced to become adults when they were still youths, to take the place of their own fathers. There was no one else, except them, to be the "responsible adult," no one else on whom to place responsibility, no one under whose guidance they could fool around and no one to emulate. Ben-Gurion did not have a Ben-Gurion. He also did not fancy himself to be like Winston Churchill. For better or worse, he and his colleagues were the originals.

Today, all we see is printed versions, if not faked copies: Barak, who would like to be like Moshe Dayan; Netanyahu, who would like to be like his father or Churchill; while both of them aspire to be like Yitzhak Shamir - at least for length of term of office. Though growing gray, they are still in the frivolity of youth, still part of the hijinks of the army unit. They are children playing with firefighting planes and "I capture the flag" and will "surprise" people and will bomb Iran "like a man," never mind the warnings. If they get applause for that, it is not merely they who lack maturity.

A country with maturity makes other kinds of demands of its leaders. People who are level-headed and moderate, like Isaac Herzog and Dan Meridor, are not dismissed nor mocked for being "responsible" and serious. When Ariel Sharon spoke about "things one can see from here," he was not referring to the position; he was speaking about the late maturity - very late, too late - he had achieved only during the closing chapters of his public life. That was true, too, of Rabin. For decades, they used our necks to practice shaving until they became responsible adults. As we look now at the wunderkinds Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, it is difficult not to ponder: We know already that the wunder has been lost, but when will the child finally depart?