A visit to the Ayalon jail, adjacent to the Prisons Service headquarters in Ramle, makes for a highly effective deterrent to a life of crime. Or at least you'd think it would. A legacy of British Mandatory rule, much of the prison dates back to the 1920s. Within a sequence of well-guarded perimeter fences and heavy metal doors - there hasn't been a successful escape bid here for years - hundreds of prisoners live in excruciating proximity to each other, many serving life or lengthy terms for violent and sex crimes, their blank expressions and broken postures a silent testament to their own misused and wasted lives. Even for the non-claustrophobic, the briefest sojourn on the wrong side of all those fences and doors produces a profound sense of unease. Which of these mild-looking elderly gentlemen sewing tablecloths or stuffing cuddly toys in the textile factory are the rapists and the killers? Why is it taking that jailer so long to buzz us out of here and into the courtyard? Yet Israel's prisons are a growth industry. The "clients," as Prisons Service Chief Ya'acov Ganot calls them with grand sarcasm, just can't seem to stay away from his "hotels." Recidivism is hovering around the 60 percent mark, and some 2,000 prisoners around the country are inside for their fifth or sixth term. Nationwide, the incarcerated population - two-thirds criminals and the rest Palestinian security prisoners - now numbers 20,000. "Every time we build a new jail, to the highest standards," confides one of the Prisons Service officers accompanying us on this appalling tour, "the idea is to close one of these older facilities. But we never can. The demand just keeps rising." In many of Ganot's 25 jails, indeed, prisoners are sleeping on mattresses on the floor for lack of bed space. And still he worries that the "chain" of arrest, conviction and punishment is broken - that the cop on the beat knows it's just not worth pursuing that suspect, because the prosecutor won't push the case, because the judge won't hand down the appropriate jail term, because there's simply nowhere to house the convicted offender. Ayalon is home to 700-plus largely unfamiliar faces - unfamiliar, that is, to those not directly affected by the actions that brought them here - and two lifers well known to all of us: Marwan Barghouti and Yigal Amir. Convicted in 2004 of involvement in a series of terrorist murders, Barghouti, Yasser Arafat's Tanzim chief, self-styled intifada leader and elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, spends 23 hours a day in his cell as a rule, with an hour in the exercise area. He reads a lot, says Prisons Service spokesman Ofer Lefler, most recently Gadi Blum and Nir Hefetz's Hebrew biography of Ariel Sharon, The Shepherd. Lately, though, Ganot and Lefler confirm, he's had a more diverse schedule, as coordination ahead of next week's PLC elections, in which Barghouti is running at the head of the Fatah list, moves into high gear. There have been visits from key Palestinian Authority personnel, along with Barghouti's wife-lawyer and numerous non-wife lawyers. There was a phone call from PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, anxious to confirm that all was now smoothed over between them, after Barghouti withdrew his decision to run at the head of a separate list. There may even be an interview today (Friday) with the Al-Jazeera Arabic cable TV network: the Prisons Service has approved it; the only question, says Lefler, is whether Barghouti wants to give it. Ganot says it is he, and he alone, who decides which freedoms to grant to prisoners, including Barghouti. He claims that he's giving this inmate these privileges because he knows he'd lose in court if he tried to block them. Yet the prisons chief, whose formidable career includes a term as head of the Border Police, is plainly no pushover. He recalls with relish how he prevailed in the recent 18-day hunger strike by 4,000 security prisoners seeking better conditions: the breaking point was when he had Barghouti, who hadn't joined the protest, photographed mid-mouthful and distributed the snaps; the return to eating began the next day. A similar strike in Turkey ended with the government sending tanks into the jails, Ganot notes. Here, Sufian Abu Zaidah, charged by the PA with responsibility for the security prisoners, was reduced to "claiming that he and I had made a deal. I never even talked to him." Yitzhak Rabin's assassin is held in a sub-wing of his own - the same area, incidentally, where John Demjanjuk was incarcerated before he was acquitted of being Treblinka's "Ivan the Terrible." Amir reads plenty too, says Lefler, mostly holy texts. He, too, has his visitors - mainly wife and family. Neither man has been allowed to make the short walk from the jail to the squat building set aside for conjugal visits. Barghouti, as a security prisoner, is denied that privilege, says Lefler. But for Amir, the spokesman reckons, "it's only a matter of time." Many official spokespeople, that title notwithstanding, are anything but garrulous, battered by bitter experience into a minimalist wariness when interacting with the journalists they are formally charged with keeping informed. But Lefler comes from the maximalist school - friendly and transparent. He notes that more than a dozen documentary crews have filmed the security prisoners here in the past year or so for movies and TV shows, given generous access "because we have nothing to hide." Lefler has strong views on many subjects, and shares them cheerfully and candidly during our prison tour and over lunch after we emerge. Although the proportion of jailed criminals in Israel is far lower than, say, the US - 170 per 100,000 people, compared to 700 - and although ours is a society that features an uncommon accessibility to weapons and has to grapple with the constant threat of Palestinian attack, he laments what he sees as a loss of fundamental values and disciplines in today's Israel. It's a breakdown that begins at home, he says. "Parents don't have control; their children don't respect them." The absent respect for authority continues into schools, he goes on. "There's no police to speak of," he continues scathingly. "Most crimes go uninvestigated. And there's no 'third strike and you're out' rule to ensure that, if convicted, offenders pay the appropriate price." At the same time, Lefler provides one striking figure that Ganot, in what had been a statistics-packed slide-show presentation at the start of the day, left out when discussing his clients: leaving the security prisoners aside, a full 50 percent of the criminals in Israeli jails are Arabs. Lefler says Israel has failed to understand the Arab mentality - with implications both domestically and, especially, in its dealing with the Palestinians. The failure, he says, is emblemized by Israelis' general disinclination to learn Arabic, while the likes of Barghouti, over there reading The Shepherd, have made themselves thoroughly familiar with the Israeli mentality. Speaking of Barghouti, Lefler, a dovish-sounding former spokesman for Likud hawk Uzi Landau, asserts that, had Ariel Sharon's prime ministership not been interrupted, "I'm betting a deal was in the works to free him ahead of the next US elections, with the Americans letting Jonathan Pollard go" as a sweetener. Israel, he goes on, has an interest in releasing Barghouti, a man who straddles the generation between the corrupt Tunis "old guard" and the younger leaders, has credibility because of all his years in Israeli jails, and is capable of calming the Palestinian street. "He's a moderating influence. You'd see how he would calm things down. The sooner we let him go, the better. And we will, within two years at most." Lefler says. But the man is in jail for murder. Lefler looks at me a little pityingly. "This is the Middle East," he says. Then he adds, for the second time today, "It's only a matter of time." UZI DAYAN knows full well that this is the Middle East. Moshe Dayan's nephew was born in the same year as the country, rose up through the army ranks to the post of deputy chief of General Staff, and served for two years as Sharon's national security adviser. He has no doubt that Israel is strong enough to repel external threats, but worries about internal deterioration - specifically the economic equalities which mean that "even a man working hard, full-time, can be poor" and a culture of dishonesty that led him, a few days before the prime minister's second stroke, to refer to Sharon as "the father of the corrupt." Now venturing into politics as the head of what he calls the "extremely centrist" Tafnit (Turning Point) party, Dayan, who came into The Jerusalem Post soon after we got out of jail, asserts that one of his main assets is integrity, while so many of those currying voters' favor are far from straight. Yes, he was an early advocate of separation from the Palestinians in order to guarantee a Jewish, democratic Israel - "I spent two years failing to persuade Sharon to do exactly what he ended up doing." And, yes, he favors further unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank if it proves impossible to negotiate territorial compromise. But Kadima will do just the same, less expertly, and having misled its voters with the "fraud" that it has ruled out a Disengagement 2. Furthermore, just as Dayan would have held on to the three northern Gaza settlements of Nisanit, Elei Sinai and Dugit, and to the Philadelphi route - because pulling back to the international border set a dangerous precedent, and there was no demographic imperative to do so - his West Bank map envisages Israel retaining some 30 percent of the territory, including a wide swath along the Jordan Valley where there is, again, no demographic consideration. "It is immoral and impractical" to uproot the 250,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank, he says; his map would involve the removal of "only" 32 settlements, and 21,000 Israeli residents. Ehud Olmert, by contrast, he asserts, believes that if he relinquishes yet more territory and aspires to set final borders, he'll get American endorsement. "That's not going to happen." Dayan has followed his own principles in staying out of public life for the more than the three-year "cooling off" period he advocates for ex-defense establishment-types seeking a second career in politics. But our latest would-be Mr. Clean certainly dishes the dirt: Apart from slinging that "fraud" epithet at Kadima, Dayan disses Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz for lacking security expertise, says even Kadima's ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter has too narrow a security background, claims Labor's massive debts have prevented Peretz from trying to tame the banks, savages finance minister Netanyahu for "taking care of the engine and forgetting the passengers" with his economic policies, and lambastes Tzipi Livni - "though someone of absolute personal integrity" - for failing as justice minister to tackle "the corruption all around her." Although Kadima sources have claimed he was rebuffed when seeking to join their party, Dayan insists there have been no contacts whatsoever, and that he "couldn't stand the corruption" there. "Not all ends justify the means," he says. He knows that getting the 70,000 votes to clear the Knesset threshold is a tall order, but he's determinedly building a party machine. He hopes to be able to present an attractive list selected by a 23-member founding council in early February. And he asserts that all he needs is one survey showing Tafnit might make it to the Knesset in order to open the floodgates and persuade "the vast majority" of Israelis who support his outlook that they won't be wasting a vote in backing him. Days after a series of TV appearances in which he cited Iranian contacts telling him that Teheran was hell-bent on going nuclear, Dayan says he hopes that an oil embargo and other economic sanctions might yet prove effective, and that the international community ought to "make life unpleasant" for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - preventing him from traveling, and ensuring angry protests wherever he does manage to go. But if all else fails, he says, the next Israeli government "may have to consider military strikes" against Iran's nuclear facilities - even though it might prove impossible to hit them all. The prospect of "two nuclear missiles hitting Tel Aviv and Haifa" represents "an intolerable threat." And there is the added concern that a nuclear Iran would mean nuclear-armed terror groups and 10 more nuclear regimes within just a few years. It simply cannot be allowed to happen, he says. A military strike would, of course, have potential repercussions. For one thing, Iran would try to attack Israel via south Lebanon. So Israel "needs to toughen its position there," Dayan urges - to counter Hizbullah, constrain the Syrians, force out the Iranian influence. "Only the strong survive here," he says. This, after all, is the Middle East. Apropos of which, I ask him: What would you do with Marwan Barghouti? "Murder is murder is murder in my book," he replies without missing a beat. So I tell him about our visit to Ayalon jail earlier in the day, and Prisons Service spokesman Lefler's comments about Barghouti's freedom being only a matter of time. Dayan sounds horrified. "Release him? We'd make ourselves a laughing stock. And what a terrible precedent. Believe me, the clamor to free Yigal Amir would begin the very same day."