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Anyone trying to understand Israel only by observing its political and media-related behavior in recent years could get the impression that this is not a state but a communal organization whose main purpose and preoccupation is redeeming captives, returning the kidnapped, locating missing persons and bringing back bones for burial; and moreover, an organization that is not particularly successful at what it does. The observer might be impressed that these important mitzvot (religious commandments) top the national agenda, in spite of ¬ or perhaps due to ¬ the fact that the region is undergoing political shake-ups with historical ramifications.

On the eve of the prime minister's visit to Turkey this week, for example, Ehud Olmert created the impression that the purpose of his trip was not to promote peace in the region (a marginal issue that is apparently a lost cause as far as he and we are concerned), but to promote the issue of bringing the bones of Israeli intelligence operative Eli Cohen from Syria for burial in Israel. For years, this issue has been presented to us as being of strategic significance, almost equal in importance to the return of the Golan. But there is nothing new about that: It's a kind of political and media tradition among us to dismiss important political developments out of hand, and instead to become engrossed once again with the fate of the individual, whether dead or alive.

And thus even when a regional summit meeting is forming, and the Palestinian entity is fighting for its political identity, and an agreement between Fatah and Hamas was signed in Saudi Arabia, political Israel shrugs its shoulders in contempt and indifference. If it does, nevertheless, see any significance in the establishment of a Palestinian unity government, it is only because of this: A government that includes ministers from Fatah can further the contacts for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

For our part, that's all.

A strange order of priorities? Not in a country where for three days the news broadcasts have opened with a rumor about the fate of a soldier who disappeared 10 years ago, while marginalizing political developments. Not in a country where the coverage of the inauguration of a new chief of staff begins not with his agenda, but with a message addressed to him by the father of a kidnapped soldier. That's how it is in a country capable of going to war and sacrificing the lives of dozens of its citizens as payback for the kidnapping of two of its soldiers.

There is of course something heartwarming, intimate, Jewish-family oriented, in this focus on the fate of the individual; and of course we should not relinquish this national trait. But when this focus is a substitute for political thinking and serves as an excuse for total inaction and for avoiding strategic decisions, it symbolizes all the anomalies evident in Israel's conduct as a state. Especially when the focus is, for the most part, rhetorical and lacking in influence.

Moreover: Sometimes it seems that this permanent existence of "captives and missing persons" ¬ surrounding whom Israeli governments make sure to nurture a halo of mystery and existential strategic significance, while neglecting the major steps that could bring them back and save other lives ¬ serves a hidden interest. It is a type of alibi for a permanent and paradoxical diversionary tactic: We don't talk with the enemy, ostensibly until the mystery of our missing and kidnapped soldiers is solved; but because we don't talk, the enemy continues to hold them. All this is similar to the logical loop according to which we don't make peace with supporters of terror, and because of the absence of peace the terror continues, and so forth.

It's a kind of permanent, and even nurtured, political attention-deficit disorder of Israeli governments, which refuse to concentrate on the main thing. It seems that since the failure of the Oslo Accords, Israel has given up and has despaired of any mutual diplomatic step with our neighbors. Our diplomatic and political talents have atrophied like an unused muscle: As a country, we have despaired of steps and initiatives. As a community, all we have left are sighs, expectations and excuses.