A seemingly minor item published two weeks ago could herald an important turning point in Israel's foreign relations: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed support for transferring four Jordanians jailed in Israel to Jordan. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter also reportedly back the idea.
Olmert being Olmert, this does not mean that the transfer will actually happen. But if it does, it would constitute a start on reversing a long-standing Israeli policy of scorning friends while rewarding enemies.
The Jordanians were convicted of killing an Israeli soldier in 1990, four years before Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty. King Abdullah II of Jordan, like his predecessor, King Hussein, has repeatedly asked that the four be freed, or at least transferred to Jordan, where relatives and friends could visit them more easily; the issue has particular resonance in Amman because one of the four has a brother in parliament. Nevertheless, successive Israeli prime ministers have refused, saying they will not release prisoners with "blood on their hands."
This refusal is puzzling even on legal grounds, since the killing took place while Israel and Jordan were technically at war, and the victim was a soldier, not a civilian. Granted, there was no hot war at the time, but a state of war essentially makes the other side's soldiers fair game. Had the victim been a civilian, the situation would be different, since deliberately killing civilians is unacceptable even in wartime. The same is true had the killing occurred after the peace treaty was signed; during peacetime, killing soldiers is also a crime. But killing soldiers in wartime is standard practice, which is why most peace treaties include prisoner exchanges. Legally speaking, therefore, Jordan's request is unexceptionable.
What makes Israel's refusal truly absurd, however, is the foreign relations dimension of the case. Standard foreign policy goals usually include trying to make other countries into friends rather than enemies. But this requires demonstrating that friendship pays better dividends than enmity: If the reverse were true, any rational country would prefer enmity.
Israel, however, consistently does the exact opposite: It makes concessions to its enemies while denying these same concessions to its friends. And nothing better illustrates this destructive habit than its policy on prisoner releases.
For decades, Israel has periodically released large numbers of prisoners to its worst enemies as a reward for their success in kidnapping Israelis. Three years ago, for instance, it freed some 400 prisoners to Hizbullah, an organization sworn to its destruction, in exchange for one kidnapped drug dealer and the dead bodies of three kidnapped soldiers. Currently, it is negotiating the release of several hundred prisoners to Hamas, another organization sworn to its destruction, in exchange for one kidnapped soldier.
JORDAN, IN contrast, has been a good neighbor. Not only is it formally at peace with Israel, but - unlike Egypt, with whom Israel also has a peace treaty - it has faithfully executed its main responsibility under this treaty: preventing cross-border attacks and arms smuggling. Consequently, Israel's border with Jordan has been quiet for years.
Yet in the 13 years since the peace treaty was signed, Israel has consistently rejected Amman's pleas that it release a few dozen Jordanian prisoners, with one insulting exception: When it released 400 prisoners to Hizbullah in 2004, Israel simultaneously gave Abdullah a measly 10 Jordanians.
The message could not be clearer: What Jordan could not obtain by making peace, Hizbullah obtained by making war. And under those circumstances, any rational person would have to question the value of peace.
Nor, unfortunately, is Israel's policy on prisoners an aberration: It is part of a consistent pattern of treating enemies better than friends, both at home and abroad.
DOMESTICALLY, the outstanding example is Israel's treatment of its Druse citizens. The Druse have been loyal allies of the Jewish state since its inception. They serve in the army, at an even higher rate than Jews do, and have integrated fully into Israeli political life: Druse can be found in almost every Zionist party, and their MKs are no less concerned with the state's welfare than their Jewish counterparts.
In contrast, other Arabs (aside from a few Beduin) do not serve in the army; their politicians and media organs consistently and publicly side with Israel's enemies; and their leaders repeatedly declare that they will satisfied with nothing less than Israel's elimination as a Jewish state and replacement by a binational entity.
Under those circumstances, a sane policy would reward the Druse for their loyalty, thereby creating an incentive for other Arabs to change their behavior. Instead, the Druse suffer even worse budgetary discrimination than do other Arabs - because they are already our friends, and can therefore be ignored, whereas the Arabs, being hostile, must be appeased.
Consequently, many Druse towns are bankrupt; the Druse unemployment rate stood at 38 percent in 2004; and only 26 percent of Druse high-school graduates qualify for university entrance.
The result is that Druse society has lately been questioning the value of its alliance with the state - as any rational person would. "The Arabs are constantly telling us that the Druse give everything, yet the state of Druse villages is even worse than that of Arab villages," said Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, a community leader, explaining this increasing disillusionment in 2004.
Sheikh Ali Fellah, honorary president of the Druse Zionist Movement (yes, there is such a thing), echoed this message in 2005: "You have to remember that a deprived Druse is oxygen for Israel's enemies," he said. And indeed it is - because, like the affair of the Jordanian prisoners, it leads friends to question their friendship and discourages enemies from abandoning their enmity.
Regrettably, Olmert's declared support for releasing the Jordanians does not appear to herald any broader rethinking of this destructive behavior pattern. But by shattering a decades-old tradition of irrationality, it might nevertheless open the door to change. And that is urgently needed - because if Israel continues abusing its friends while rewarding its enemies, it will soon have no friends left.