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After a year in which the fall of the Barak administration does not seem to have sunk in, even in the minds of those who served in it, it was a mind-boggling experience to watch the "best and the brightest" up on center stage again, testifying before the Or Commission, mobilizing all their intellectual shtick, noble ideas and exalted rhetoric, this time to save their own skins. Unsurprisingly, the deliberations this week sounded less like an investigation of the bloody events in October 2000 than a play by Edward Albee in which the eloquent, high-brow characters are scarcely able to conceal their seething passions and egotistical natures.

It was fascinating, but also painful, to listen to Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of the more articulate and interesting intellectuals to have stumbled into politics (and wouldn't you know it, straight into the clubs and rubber bullets of the police), as he tried to suppress the traces of ego and conceit bubbling up in every sentence like Hercules lopping off the heads of Hydra, waving the sword of particularistic generalization and abstruse abstraction. It was also mesmerizing to watch Ehud Barak in action again - using his brainpower to get through another commission of inquiry, his left hand pumping up and down like a threshing machine, the sharp blade of his words mowing down everything around him like a lawn mower from hell.

The efforts of these two to extricate themselves are especially poignant if one considers that both are identified with the almost suicidal persistence involved in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians - to the brink and beyond. On the other hand, admiration for this act of self-sacrifice cooled off long ago, in the wake of the arrogant preening, blaming of others and aggressive apologetics engaged in by Barak and his associates over the past year. Preoccupied with themselves and their good name, they do not grasp the magnitude of the tragedy, disappointment and sense of missed opportunity that they engender.

But this spectacle unfolding before us in the courtroom is only one subtle manifestation of a broader phenomenon that is usually much less subtle: the emergence of an egotistical oligarchy. We now have public figures and elected officials spanning the entire political spectrum - from leftist infra-red to Moledet ultra-violet - who, at this difficult time, are more concerned about upgrading and self-preservation than they are with Israel's national survival. In a period that demands political fortitude, this echelon is busy taking care of itself, pursuing an agenda that is different from the rest of the country.

Personal survival, in the simplest and most instinctive sense of the word, is the name of the game. Crude examples have been piling up in recent weeks and months. Lately, we witnessed it in the personal example set by Minister Danny Naveh, a guy who "eats Arabs for breakfast" on TV, a patron of the settlements, who abandoned his own home out of fear of real Arabs.

We have seen it in the Knesset, as MKs dip into the grab-bag for pension benefits, better working conditions, chauffeured cars, longer vacations, VIP security and bigger offices (their vote this week to "freeze" their salaries at their current Olympian height seems more like mockery of the poor than noble self-sacrifice). We see it in the wasteful channeling of funds with the sole purpose of preserving Sharon's giant coalition. But even worse, we see it in the government's strategic policies, which in thousands of sly ways are more focused on political survival than on leading us toward a clearer horizon.

The problem is that one oligarchy learns from another. Tragically, the Palestinian Authority is focused on the very same goal: the personal survival of its leadership. The cruel, surrealistic spectacle, looming for more than a year now, of the blood of two peoples being spilled like water, with no hope in sight, is very much the product of the same double-billed acrobatic performance: two governments that are busy looking out for themselves. Two wretched peoples are now headed by two egocentric old men who have surrounded themselves with a survival-bent oligarchy. The one thing they want is for nothing to happen. The "situation," as insufferable as it is for the people, must never end. Things must stay as they are.

Everyone knows, or thinks they know, why people go into politics. No one deludes himself that the goal is sainthood or martyrdom. But what about a little sacrifice, a little risk to the ego for the sake of an idea? This demand, which is part of the definition of leadership, has been seen as detached from reality, even crazy, since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Over the past year, in which the "peace of the brave" has been replaced by the "war of the cowards" it has begun to sound even crazier.