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At the pastry shop on Jerusalem's Gaza Street, people were glad to hear that Ehud Barak is getting back into politics. As prime minister, he was an avid customer for the various breads and cakes offered by the shop. Netanyahu had no need of its services when he lives in the Prime Minister's Residence nor today, even though he is virtually a neighbor. And Sharon? Sharon has other culinary amours: he continues to scarf down piles of steaks. The lesson is that people don't change. Traditions dating back to antiquity have held that a man's nature is formed at the moment of creation.

So when Ehud Barak, who five days ago announced his intention to contend for the Labor party chairmanship and run for prime minister, declares that he has drawn lessons from his previous period of tenure, exceedingly high expectations are not in order. And when Benjamin Netanyahu, who has just two days left to deliberate on how to get himself out of the ultimatum he gave Sharon, promises that he has changed his ways since leading the country between 1996-99, he should not be believed.

And the same goes for Ariel Sharon: the dramatic about-face in his approach to the future of the settlements is undisputable proof of his innate lack of inhibition and of his phenomenal ability to say one thing and its opposite and to change positions without batting an eye.

Barak, who bumbled around the political arena like a rookie who finds himself by mistake at the school for senior officers, has returned to ask for the trust of voters in the impoverished towns from the height of the upscale tower in which he resides, all the while exuding the same arrogance and obliviousness that marked him in the past. Netanyahu, whose tenure as prime minister was a pathetic display of personal scandals and loss of control, challenged Sharon's leadership two weeks ago on an awkward Knesset occasion that recycled his wretched ability to function under pressure. Barak's glad-handed backslapping are acquired mannerisms, not authentic love for mankind; the decisive expression on Netanyahu's face is a cardboard mask, not a real reflection of his feelings and mood.

This does not mean that the two men should not contend once again for voters' affections. Their failures in heading the government are an historic record, which the public must judge; their failures are not an injunction barring the two from asking for its trust once more. And that's why the protestations at Barak's mere positioning himself on the race course from those who consider themselves worthy candidates to lead the Labor Party (and the country) is empty whining.

Barak is entitled to expose himself once again to the electorate's scrutiny. The same applies to Netanyahu. There are countless precedents for this: nine times Menachem Begin fell and got back on his feet until he won the premiership; his party did not eschew him, even though time and again he brought it to the brink of disaster. Shimon Peres is contending even now, at his advanced age, for the party leadership and the prime minister's post, even though he elicited jeers when he asked the members of the Labor Central Committee: "I'm a loser?" Moshe Dayan got the Foreign Ministry (in the Begin cabinet) despite his ministerial responsibility for the Yom Kippur War fiasco. Yitzhak Rabin, who was a disgraceful prime minister between 1974-77, got a second chance in 1992. And whoever puts stock in examples from enlightened countries is invited to think back on Richard Nixon, who lost to John Kennedy in 1960 and wasn't dissuaded from facing Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and winning the presidency.

The citizens of the state justly feel that Barak and Netanyahu take dangerous chances at their expense, but a glance around reveals, unfortunately, that they have almost no challengers. Most of their opponents lack the fervor, charisma, ambition or the political chance of reaching the finish line. Infuriating as this is, these two apparently will be the central candidates competing for the premiership when the Sharon era ends.