ITS HIGH COURT has done Israel proud by ruling out the routine violent interrogation of terrorism suspects, even as the court acknowledges what diverse sectors of the public feel -- that the ruling may undercut defenses against continuing terrorism. It is a difficult and principled step the court has unanimously taken. As Israel is a democracy, the chief justice said, "not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it."

Since Israel's capture of the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians have mounted violent protests, including acts of terrorism. Israelis have mounted countermeasures with a heavy element of physical pain -- acts of torture. From a practice known as violent shaking, some 20 Palestinians reportedly have died, and some thousands have been hospitalized in the decades of Israeli occupation. Israelis across the political spectrum have condoned the action as a necessary emergency response to the sometimes real ticking of a terrorist's bomb.

Now the court says there is no basis in Israeli law for such routine abuse of prisoners and orders the government to stop. But at the same time, the court noted a possible, legislative way to make space for true, ticking-bomb emergencies -- as if these could be fairly culled. This, if it materialized, would be a mistake. Torture, whether it is or is not efficient, is a form of corruption and an invitation to abuse. To authorize it even under circumstances meant to be few and controlled is to put the state beyond the law. If torture were unequivocally proscribed, there might still be occasions of reversion. These would have to be dealt with, severely, through the appropriate disciplinary procedures.

The fight against terrorism goes on on many fronts. One is the political: A peace settlement would remove much of the impetus for this dread conduct. It is no accident that the supreme court suddenly takes up the long-neglected issue of torture. The court read Israel's election returns.