Our Mona Lisa

There are now probably many Israelis who sleep soundly at night knowing Barak is at the defense ministry's helm. You cannot deny his sharp mind, personal daring and ability to analyze the Israeli reality with a sober-minded ruthlessness.

During Ehud Barak's brief term of office as prime minister, the idea was momentarily floated that Ariel Sharon and the Likud should be brought into the government. Haaretz published a caricature by Ze'ev (Yaakov Farkash) that expressed the mood of many at the time: Barak was depicted as the owner of a china shop who was inviting a bull-like Sharon to come in and become a partner.

In retrospect, when we see what efforts the two unpopular Ehuds (Barak and Prime Minister Olmert) are expending today to gather for themselves just a bit of the public standing, authority and power Sharon enjoyed as prime minister, it is difficult to believe there was once a time when Sharon was considered the enfant terrible and Barak the "responsible adult" - that people once felt they could sleep soundly at night with Barak managing the shop. This just goes to prove that political images can be reversed overnight.

There are now probably many Israelis who sleep soundly at night knowing Barak is at the defense ministry's helm. You cannot deny his sharp mind, personal daring and ability to analyze the Israeli reality with a sober-minded ruthlessness. However, when we think about how political images can be transformed, we should also remember that his return to politics was followed by considerable trepidation, was achieved by a sliver-thin majority and constituted in effect an "emergency appointment" following the trauma of the Second Lebanon War and Amir Peretz' term of office as defense minister.

Yet it is almost tradition in Israeli politics to cut loose thieves from the gallows if they are sorely needed - or, in other words, to rescue from political oblivion "brilliant geniuses" and suspend during the hour of emergency our memory of their controversial track records and eccentricities, idiosyncrasies and even perils associated with their personality.

That was the kind of emergency patchwork that launched Sharon's political resurrection as prime minister and Dayan's as defense minister; these were fateful appointments that changed the course of Israeli history.

On the eve of Barak's hasty appointment as defense minister, there were those who remembered and reminded others of the traumas he himself had produced; however, you cannot be fastidious in a state of emergency because you want to feel safe (as opposed to being safe). When Barak said this week that the "situation in Sderot is very complex" and "we have a long way to go before we can stop the Qassam rockets," the message sounded different than when Peretz conveyed it, although the words are the same, Sderot is still the same Sderot and these are still the same Qassam rockets.

If, nonetheless, many Israelis sleep soundly with Barak at the wheel, it is due more to the things that they do not know he is doing than the things that they know he is doing. Their hope is that, in the dark of night, he is conducting the country's defense matters wisely, responsibly and intelligently - which is almost the opposite of the clumsy, crafty, bumbling manner in which he conducts himself before the television cameras, in his party and in Israeli politics in general.

The way he conducts himself - his utilitarian self-awareness that never lets up for a moment, his carefully calculated and constantly twisting minuet (in which Barak, the dancer, crudely steps on and trips over his own pant cuffs) has always been part and parcel of who he is.

In the context of his conduct, he has seemingly learned lessons from what he sees as the successful performance of others: Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu's sound bites, Sharon's taciturnity and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's toughness. In his bizarre behavior, Barak maintained a long silence, talking (on those rare occasions that he broke his silence) like the Oracle of Delphi and wearing the fixed smile of the Mona Lisa, La Gioconda.

You could pass all this off with a shrug of your shoulders if this conduct served some solid, coherent vision or helped implement a carefully defined ideology, instead of appearing to be an end in itself.

However, when it appears that Barak's policies (on the Supreme Court's status, Annapolis, the settlers) are improvised, in accordance with the newspaper articles he read that morning, and when his party's electoral strength continues to plummet in surveys, along with fragments of the party itself, the result is the feeling of a vacuum.

Israel needs a leadership that is more than the sum total of the "eccentricities of genius" (to quote Mr. Pickwick in Charles Dickens' "The Pickwick Papers," when he hears that someone who devoured oysters then threw the shells at one of his friends).