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Gen. James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, briefed reporters at the Pentagon this month on the image the Marines seek to project to the population of Iraq and Afghanistan: that they are "the strongest tribe," willing to go anywhere to do battle with their enemies, whom Conway praised for their determination and daring.

In the greater Middle East, countries are still artificial implants. The basic structure, just as in days of old, is tribal. A person's first loyalty is to his family, then his clan, and finally his tribe - not to the artificial entity that holds membership in the United Nations.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was brutally ruled by his own tribe, based in Tikrit. Iran is ruled by the Persian tribe, but about half its population belongs to other tribes, including the Kurds, whose militia, the Pejak, is sometimes cited (including in yesterday's New York Times) as receiving aid from the Mossad and the CIA in its subversive activities against the Iranian regime. In Syria, the Alawi tribe has controlled the government for 40 years now. Lebanon is a state with four tribes - Maronite, Sunni, Druze and Shi'ite - that fight among themselves, mainly along clan and family lines, with Hezbollah representing the strongest tribe.

The Palestinians are not, will not be, and perhaps do not even want to be a state. They are a collection of tribes - Nablus, Hebron and Gaza. The idea of territorial exchanges on both sides of the Green Line is fundamentally sound, but is it really wise to ask the Fatah-ruled West Bank to make territorial concessions for which Hamas-ruled Gaza will receive the quid pro quo?

On June 10, 1967, the nation that dwells in Zion was the strongest tribe in the region. In fact, it was even a regional power. That was the peak moment of Israel power and the start of its decline. Now the Israeli tribe is acting like the weakest tribe in the region, thereby inviting threats like those voiced by Hassan Nasrallah, who vowed to wage a "60-day war" against Israel - a war of attrition that would be the inverse of the lighting campaigns in which the Israel Defense Forces excelled.

The most depressing manifestation of Israel's weakness is the Gilad Shalit deal. The ambassador of one unreservedly friendly Western country (there are still a few left) shook his head this week as he looked on from Tel Aviv at the government's contortions over the Shalit case. "You're talking with a terrorist organization, you're discussing paying ransom to it while capitulating to extortion, and you're about to cave in to its demands to release murderers whom you caught and convicted," he said. "In your eyes, this is compassion for Shalit and his family. To dispassionate foreign eyes, this is weakness."

The details - who will ultimately be released and to where - are of only tactical importance. It matters to Israel's intelligence community that those released not escape its eyes and ears. But the strategic importance lies in Israel's acceptance - and not for the first time - of the dictates of a terrorist organization that denies its right to exist and rejects any possibility of coexistence with it.

The bargaining with Hamas over Shalit is no different in essence from a prison revolt: If security prisoners were to overpower three prison guards - among them a Druze and a woman - and threaten to murder them unless Israel released hundreds of prisoners, or perhaps even all its prisoners, how would the government justify taking a harder line than it did in the Shalit deal?

Israel has switched from being a society that invests in its future to a society that buys on credit for immediate gratification, with no possibility of repaying the ballooning debt - and from a society willing to sacrifice to one that is decaying. The Declaration of Independence cannot be compressed into a tweet. Behind all the abstract discussions of "existential threats" and "weapons of mass destruction" lies the knowledge that in order to knock Israel completely off-balance, there is no need for an Iranian bomb to cause a million casualties on the home front, or even for 10,000 battlefield casualties, as Israel suffered in 1973. All that is needed is a single captive.

It is the tribe's great misfortune that the principal traits of the person who heads it are boastfulness and panic. Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to enter a unity government headed by Tzipi Livni some 15 months ago, is not really basing himself on the precedent of May 1967 today. What is he saying? That Israel will be going to war in another five days, but that, like Levi Eshkol, he is too weak to make such a decision with his current government? That he is giving up half his power, as Eshkol did when he was forced to turn the Defense Ministry over to Moshe Dayan? That he is as ill as Eshkol, who died less than two years later? Woe to the tribe who has a man like this as its chief.