The Time to Put Principles Aside

The conflict with the Palestinians is perceived as an ailment that is part of the scenery - a troubling phenomenon we have to put up with. It is not given the status of a major problem that must be urgently resolved.

The dispute taking place between the various forms of Judaism over the shmita law exemplifies how basic principles can be relative. A way to bypass the ban on using land on the seventh year, which comes from the Torah, has been found in the ruling by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook early in the 20th century, which strict adherents of the law oppose. Nonetheless, the compromise has been used for decades and has been acceptable for most of the public. This sort of flexibility is not unusual: Reality dictated to the leaders of each generation to adjust halakha to the people's ability to meet its demands.

Paying ransom for prisoners is also considered an important obligation, and it reflects the common sense inherent in Judaism. Despite the fundamental ban on trading in human life, halakha says that ransom must be paid to free prisoners from captivity. Historically, this law justified religious parties' support for prisoner exchanges in Israel's coalition governments, and for ignoring the condition that limits the price paid for releasing prisoners, which aims to dissuade Israel's enemies from further kidnappings.

Israel's governments since 1985 (the Jibril deal) follow the rules of halakha: They have relinquished their principles and agreed to negotiate with the country's most bitter enemies to bring home the sons, alive or dead. They have shown a willingness to pay tremendous prices to achieve this. The current government has exhibited similar behavior: It has agreed to negotiate with Satan Nasrallah and with the pariahs Hamas to bring the three abducted soldiers back. The government is doing this in direct opposition to its basic view of not recognizing Hamas or considering Hassan Nasrallah a partner in dialogue.

As such, the question emerges: Since this government sees fit to have contact with the demon Asmodeus to release three prisoners, why does it not do this to avoid the next war, in which many more will be lost? And if to bring home the three captives it agrees to pay a huge price in terms of releasing prisoners, why does it refuse to give up the territory needed to reach a settlement that will end the conflict with the Palestinians? This question should be directed not only at the government but at the entire Israeli society: In the name of what values does it push its leaders to do everything to gain the release of a handful of imprisoned soldiers and why does it not urge them to implement these principles for settling relations with the country's neighbors?

In other words, why is the prime minister tormented by the dilemma of whether to release Samir Kuntar for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, or to hold on to him as a bargaining chip for further discussions on bringing Ron Arad back? Why does this dilemma, with all its intensity, not trouble the political leaders each day when they have to consider their stance toward the Palestinians?

After all, the personal fate of the prisoners and the missing, and the horrendous hardship experienced by their families are only a random illustration to the suffering and injustice the conflict has caused to thousands of people on both sides. When the suffering manifests itself in a single, individual case, the decision makers are overwhelmed by misgivings and ethical considerations. Why are these elements not expressed in their daily handling of the conflict?

A hundred years of a chronic conflict, with many bloody outbursts, especially 40 years of violent confrontation, has dulled the Israeli public and its leaders to the human cost of the struggle with the Palestinians. The conflict is perceived as an ailment that is part of the scenery - a troubling phenomenon we have to put up with. It is not given the status of a major problem that must be urgently resolved.