Secondhand Leadership

Ehud Barak is like a person who declares he is on a strict diet after having just ordered a rich meal from the waiter.

Ehud Barak is like a person who declares he is on a strict diet after having just ordered a rich meal from the waiter. He announces he has learned a lesson and has completely changed his political conduct, but the way he chose to announce the deep metamorphosis shows it is the same Ehud Barak that we knew in the Prime Minister's Bureau only six years ago.

He orchestrated a low-key performance: He made do with a fax sent to Eitan Cabel, informing Cabel of his decision to run for the job of defense minister. In the same breath, he hastened to pledge he would not support the ousting of Amir Peretz. Barak dropped a powerful political bombshell, but chose to report it with affected modesty: He messaged it to reporters' beepers.

He has declared there are no shortcuts in political life, but his last move is nothing but an attempt to reach the peak by a trampoline held for him by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon. He has conceded that, in the past, he did not understand the importance of teamwork, but his last move reveals the temperment of a spoiled soloist expecting others to do his dirty work.

Does all this mean that Barak is not worthy of being defense minister? The answer is not unequivocal. Israel is a country that allows its leaders to fail at its expense. It gave a second chance to Yitzhak Rabin - and was not sorry. Shimon Peres, the eternal loser, asked for the voters' confidence time after time and in most of his operational posts he did not disappoint. Benjamin Netanyahu was a failure as prime minister, but considered successful as foreign and finance minister. When Sharon was prime minister, he was the darling of the people despite his destructive spate at the Defense Ministry. These examples show that Barak's pretension to return to lead the country should not be rejected out of hand, even though the suit sewn for him this week by his PR people screams that the emperor has no clothes.

To formulate a single rule in this matter: Not every politician unsuccessful at a ministerial post should be disqualified from returning to public life. Failure in one job does not necessarily mean a person is unable to fill another function. Shlomo Ben-Ami was not in his natural element when Barak made him public security minister; he was like a fish in water for the short time he was deputy foreign minister.

Amir Peretz is a pathetic defense minister; he has the makings of a successful minister in the area of social affairs. The Foreign Ministry did not suit David Levy; but he did a fair job at the helm of Housing and Construction.

The litmus test is in the candidate's personality, credibility and way of behaving. When Netanyahu returned to political life, he announced he had changed his ways, but his problematic morality over payments returned and has aroused the interest of the police over the past few weeks. Barak said he had learned lessons about his own conduct, but the way he is challenging Peretz's leadership belies his words.

Indeed, far-reaching personality changes are not to be expected in people of Netanyahu and Barak's ages. Netanyahu is remembered as a prime minister who could be pressured, and was deceptive and panicky; Barak is burned into our consciousness as an arrogant zigzagger with terrible interpersonal relationship skills. They are not suitable as prime ministers, but that does not mean that the former could not be a senior minister, and the latter should be banned from the defense minister's chair. Moreover, the debate over their candidacy is not being held in a laboratory, but in a complex and even dangerous reality, where an appalling vacuum of leadership is crying out for people of stature.

When the aspiration of Ehud Barak to be defense minister is examined in and of itself and the residue of the past is ignored, the necessary conclusion is, first, he must present an agenda and prove he has learned how to act in the political arena.