Israeli escapism knows no bounds. A thousand of our compatriots have actually purchased plots (obviously sight unseen) on the moon. The more this world's affairs frustrate and discourage, the more attractive it all looks out there - a substitute reality to which folks can flee when this one becomes too dispiriting to contend with. The fact that it's not a very practical alternative doesn't dim the allure. Self-delusion defies empirical yardsticks. That's why the single most unparalleled failure ever produced by Israeli politics - before Ehud Olmert's ascent - is back as the new great Jewish hope. Yes, ex-prime minister Ehud Barak is mind-bogglingly attempting yet another grab for the national helm. The incontrovertible flunky who once already took us on a white-knuckle ride to the moon proposes to take us for yet another ride, and all too many among us - from fair-weather political allies to fickle followers-of-fads and memory-impaired rank-and-filers - are unbelievably lining up to buy tickets and boost his dodgy venture. It's no coincidence that one of Barak's first moves as prime minister in 1999 was to announce, with one of his broadest self-satisfied grins, that he had revived Bill Clinton's solemn undertaking (a reward for expected Israeli territorial concessions?) to have NASA train a sabra space cadet and take him for a cosmic spin. Thereby Barak was sure to put a proud lump in our collective throat and hopefully get us to overlook more earthly existential anxieties - like buses which exploded everywhere around us on his watch. After all, the Americans had already hosted a Saudi at the final frontier, so Barak was set to rectify the insufferable blow to our national ego, while publicly massaging his own. The Israeli-astronaut carrot was first solicited from Clinton by Barak's predecessor, the indefatigable visionary Shimon Peres, but it was left to Barak - whose electoral campaign was unabashedly abetted by Clinton - to wax triumphant about dispatching the ill-fated Ilan Ramon to Houston. The Trekkie-generation plebeians' role was to be awed by Barak launching us into a new era, just as he promised. AND, TRUE to since-repudiated form, unrepentant Barak keeps promising again. What's most astounding is that the most ardent sponsor of Barak's return to the Defense Ministry is none other than Olmert, Barak's most serious competitor for the "most-incompetent premier" title. Why is Barak so urgently needed as Israel's defense chief? Because of the mess Amir Peretz made of last summer's conflict in Lebanon (as if Olmert weren't every bit as culpable for the fiasco). But the original sin for the ignominy and damage to Israel's military deterrence cannot in all fairness be attributed to either Olmert or Peretz. The flop was triggered by our very own intergalactic hero himself, Barak Skywalker. His midnight flight from Lebanon in May 2000 awarded Hizbullah its first claim to victory. The perception that terror can defeat "the Zionist entity" was primarily what scotched even Barak's egregious (if not obsequious) territorial generosity and ignited the October 2000 intifada. Barak's reckless retreat emboldened Hizbullah to stockpile rockets with which to hold at least the entire northern third of Israel hostage. It began while Barak was in office, but rather than admit the danger, he pulled the wool over his increasingly vulnerable nation's eyes to enable him to boast about one single achievement - extricating Israel from Lebanon's mire. Fate left it to Olmert and Peretz to foot Barak's bill. The fact that they reentered Lebanon in the clumsiest and most vacillating manner imaginable doesn't reduce Barak's initial responsibility. Worst of all is that Barak knew full well he was gambling with the nation's most vital security interests, and all for nothing but image enhancement. It was just another instance of his penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth and saying what his media cheerleading squad hankered to resonate. For years said cheerleaders loudly amplified left-wing agitation to abandon the Lebanese front to Hizbullah's moderation and goodwill. Skewed press coverage made the Four Mothers' and Women in Black's cant trendily de rigueur. Before he threw his hat in the ring, Barak was amazingly able to discern the folly of unilateral withdrawal. On TV (Popolitika, February 3, 1997) he branded all talk of such pullback as "grossly irresponsible. It'll strengthen Hizbullah, cause us more causalities and send more Israelis to their graves... Clearly, without an agreement - one to which Syria acquiesces - there are no terms and no withdrawal!" How well we now know how undeniably right the 1997 Barak was. By the 1999 campaign, however, he vowed to "take the IDF out of Lebanon - with or without a deal - within a year." That was what his patron Clinton wanted to hear, what Clinton's spin-docs advised Barak to proclaim and what the court-journalists applauded. This of course was only one of the messages which Barak disingenuously custom-designed for specific audiences that election season. He had loads of such messages, each as cynical as the next. Indeed, as state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg later judged, Barak's was the most corrupt campaign to date, featuring what Goldberg called the "greatest political scam ever." He fined Labor a whopping NIS 13.8 million ($3.2 million) for an unprecedented network of bogus NGOs used to funnel cash illicitly into Barak's campaign coffers. Barak never cooperated with the police but incredibly got away unscathed. He now tells us he's a changed man. Though he had the prominent mole on his face removed, it would serve us to suspect any additional changes, and particularly distrust his renascent pledges to boldly beam us where no Israeli has gone before. His assurances are better regarded as threats - incomparably more menacing than Ralph Kramden's "bang, zoom, straight to the moon."