Has He Changed?

The prediction in this column that Bibi and Barak would be back one day is coming true much faster than I ever thought.

The prediction in this column that Bibi and Barak would be back one day is coming true much faster than I ever thought. The two meteors that landed in the political arena in a flash of blinding light, inspiring hope for a new kind of leadership, burned out very quickly in the flames of their failed policies and flawed personalities.

So Bibi beat Peres, Barak beat Bibi, and Sharon beat Barak by 800,000 votes in an all-time landslide victory. Lloyd George once said that politics is like a love affair: Any fool can start one. To end it takes skill.

Bibi and Barak ended badly, in terms of the opportunities missed and how they left the stage. Both left their parties shattered and bankrupt, running off to take care of their own business. They did a heck of a lot better at that than in running the state. But both got the itch to return to power. How did Ariel Sharon put it? The pull of those deerskin seats in the cabinet is pretty irresistible, huh?

In democratic countries, politicians who have screwed up big-time rarely, if ever, get a second chance, the way Benjamin Netanyahu did and Ehud Barak would like to. But around here, people come and people go, mainly because of the leadership vacuum.

The similarity between Bibi and Barak, both in their exits and their comebacks, is extraordinary. Take their arrogance and poor judgment, for starters. Bibi was reckless and full of himself. He deceived and he incited ("The left has forgotten how to be Jews"). He promised and went back on his word. It reached the point where world leaders refused to meet with "that liar."

Barak, the "most decorated soldier in the Israeli Army," charmed world leaders with his brilliant analyses from his first month in office. Yeltsin, Blair, Abdullah, Clinton and others lapped up his words. He promised Israel to end the conflict and to establish permanent borders by February 2000. Not only did he misread the political map, but he didn't have a clue how to do it.

He failed at the Arafat-Clinton summit in Camp David because he had not done his homework and planned the desired outcome in advance. On top of that, he backpedaled on his willingness to make concessions in exchange for peace with Syria, which embarrassed Clinton.

The higher the expectations, the greater the fall: A few days after Yasser Arafat dined with the Baraks (in their earlier configuration), the al-Aqsa Intifada erupted. As head of the Likud, Bibi spread incitement with his gangs of fanatics and his participation in the infamous demonstration in Jerusalem's Zion Square, not long before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Barak worked alone, ignoring his government and ministers. No kitchen, no cabinet. What was it Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, his current supporter, used to say? "Ehud has too much brains."

Bibi spread hatred for the Labor party and the rule of law. Barak, with all his brilliance, had an interpersonal relations problem. It got so bad that his closest advisers went ballistic in interviews with the press. The Likud forgave Netanyahu, but Labor still harbors a deep grudge against Barak.

These two stars, who rose big-time and fell big-time, are now using the same comeback tactic. Both have solemnly admitted to making mistakes. They have learned their lesson, they say, and they have changed.

In the letter Barak wrote, announcing his desire to compete in the primaries, he says: "I made mistakes. My inexperience did me in. Today I know that there are no shortcuts, and that leadership is not a one-man show. I believe I have the experience and maturity to be the next defense minister."

Hello? Is that Barak? The little guy with the Napoleon complex?

Who knows if he and Ehud Olmert didn't sit together and cook up that line about having the maturity and experience to be defense minister with an eye toward getting rid of Amir Peretz and his social agenda. With Israel's military deterrence seriously eroded and war looming on the horizon, maybe the time has indeed come for Barak to make the switchover from politician to professional, and become a defense minister. In any case, sitting in his posh digs in Tel Aviv, handling social problems and fighting poverty would be kind of hard.