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Once Israel had leaders that were salt of the earth, men of vision and ideology, brimming with self-assurance. Little by little, they have disappeared from the land, by dint of old age, fatigue or losing elections.

Their virtue lay in realizing that they had failed and respecting the word of voter. They didn't wake up one morning, after a long absence, announce to world that they had learned from their mistakes, and try to regain the public's confidence. This "I have changed" trick, and begging the voting public for another chance, were invented by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu, Meteor No. 1, heir of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, made every mistake in the book when he was in office. He suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak, Meteor No. 2. Barak, who was considered not only a meteor, but also a prodigy, was trounced a year and a half later by Ariel Sharon, by an unprecedented majority of 1.7 million voters.

Barak and Netanyahu reached their bitter end through the same trajectory of arrogance, leaving behind a trail of political resentment. Both left their parties stuck in the muck, saddled with the failures and huge financial debts they had run up. Both flew off to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and take care of themselves, while the two remaining vestiges of the 1948-generation, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, tried to rehabilitate their parties.

Netanyahu was the first to return to politics, spouting the "I've changed" mantra. In practice, he remained the same Netanyahu, personally and politically. He undermined Sharon with his old tricks, to the point where the party split, Kadima was born, and Ehud Olmert became prime minister under tragic circumstances that had a lot to do with chance.

Barak's return to Labor took much longer, but as a brilliant strategist, his timing was perfect, just as Amir Peretz messed up as defense minister and Labor was urgently looking for someone to replace him. In a letter to the secretary general of the party in January, announcing his decision to run for chairman in the Labor primaries, Barak incorporated a touching confession. He said that leadership was not a one-man job, he had changed and so on.

In this letter, Barak also wrote about his desire to be defense minister, on the assumption that if he wins the primaries, Peretz will have to give up the defense portfolio. According to the rumor mill, Barak and Olmert even reached a deal on this issue.

In the meantime, Olmert's situation has gone downhill. Not only because of the war fiasco, but because the state comptroller and the police are lying in wait for him. On television, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz even wondered aloud if Olmert could go on running the country when he had private affairs to take care of. "He needs to be at peace with himself in order to function properly," he said.

In any case, no MK seems very anxious to rock the boat with early elections. When Peretz loses the Labor chairmanship, which seems pretty certain, that doesn't necessarily mean that Kadima will fall apart, and Likud will rise to power. If Olmert goes, Tzipi Livni could lead Kadima and remain in a coalition with Labor, headed by Barak as defense minister.

Amram Mitzna once told the New Yorker that Barak wasn't a decent person. Now he is Barak's gung-ho supporter - one, because he believes the man has learned something from his mistakes in interpersonal relations, and two, because of his clear stand on national defense. Which is something that can't be said for Netanyahu, who proved by his efforts to undermine Sharon that he has learned nothing and changed nothing.

Barak says he messed up as prime minister and he knows better now. But has he changed? I'm not sure. At 65, people don't change. At most, they realize how things ought to be done. And besides, personality doesn't matter as long as he performs as he should.

Many people hold a grudge against Barak for running around the world and making money while the country burned, as if he were hawking goods on the street. What Barak was really doing was marketing macro geopolitical models, performing systems analysis for large corporations and banks and advising governments and political organizations. Henry Kissinger has been doing this kind of work for years.

So yes, he made money, but he is returning to the political arena with much broader horizons and a coherent national defense policy. If the two comeback kids, Netanyahu and Barak, end up in the race, which seems to be the way things are going, Barak is the better choice.