For the good of the many
The headline in Sunday's mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot caught my eye: "800 prisoners to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit."
Shalit was taken captive, and two IDF soldiers were killed, during a daring Hamas attack launched via a tunnel into Israel from Gaza on June 25.
While the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denies it, there are reasons to believe that Jerusalem is planning to trade 800-1,000 Palestinian prisoners (excluding Marwan Barghouti, say some reports, including him, say others) for Shalit. The proposed exchange would take place over a period of three months. It's a deal being brokered by Fatah elements close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt, acting as go-betweens for Hamas.
There are some 9,000 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. I'm sure a handful are as pure as the driven snow, but most are heartless killers (or their facilitators). People like Amana Muna, who lured a naive Israeli teenager named Ofir Rahum via the Internet to a rendezvous with death in Ramallah; or Ahlam Tamimi, the guide of the suicide bomber who blew up Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, murdering 15 Israelis.
Days after Shalit's kidnapping, the prime minister said something that made me proud I voted for his Kadima Party: "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations. We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit, and for returning him safe and sound to Israel."
With that as a basis, Israel launched Operation Summer Rain, a series of military incursions into Gaza - the first since disengagement. In roughly three months the IDF has justifiably taken a heavy toll on Palestinian infrastructure (a power station, bridges, training camps and government offices - not to mention more than 200 Palestinians killed; mostly gunmen but, regrettably, civilians too).
True, the IDF has failed to track down Shalit - but we've made them pay dearly for the kidnapping and killings. The Hamas government is hurting; so is the Palestinian polity which elected it.
THEN, ON July 12, Hizbullah attacked across the Lebanese border, killing eight IDF soldiers and capturing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Once again Olmert made me proud when, in a seminal speech before the Knesset on July 17, he declared: "Citizens of Israel, there are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality, and say: No more! And I say to everyone: No more! Israel will not be held hostage - not by terror gangs, or by a terrorist authority, or by any sovereign state."
What ensued was a month of difficult war in which 117 IDF soldiers were killed. Because we took a justifiably tough stance, Hizbullah launched 4,000 rockets against northern Israel. Forty-two civilians were killed and over 4,000 wounded. It will take the North years to recover from the damage to homes, farms and forests.
Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut and south Lebanon were decimated. Enemy reports claim that some 1,000 Lebanese non-combatants died in the war. Hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen were reportedly killed. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah remains in hiding.
BUT NOW it turns out that negotiations are also under way, via a German intermediary, to ransom Regev and Goldwasser in return for 27 Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails, plus the bodies of a number of Hizbullah fighters killed in the war.
The Jerusalem Post reported on Monday that the government is not ruling out freeing Samir Kuntar - responsible for the brutal 1979 murders of three members of the Haran family in Nahariya, as well as policeman Eliahu Shahar - as part of the deal.
Shlomo Goldwasser argues that "anything is justified" to get his son released. That's an understandable position for a father. But it's not the position a prime minister should take.
How does Olmert plan to explain his about-face to the parents of the soldiers killed trying to free Goldwasser and Regev? What will he tell the Terror Victims Association, which has warned against a prisoner swap?
We've been down this road before. In 1985 Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC traded three Israeli soldiers captured in the 1982 Lebanon war for over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists. One of them was Ahmed Yassin. Many analysts believe that the Jibril release helped set the stage for the first intifada in 1988.
In 2004, in one of the murkier exchanges conducted, some 400 Arab terrorists (and the remains of 59 others) were exchanged for "businessman" Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers.
IF OLMERT'S pledge that Israel would not be held hostage doesn't preclude ransoming our soldiers for terrorists - what exactly did it mean?
One could argue that an Israeli military retaliation (against Hamas and Hizbullah) was called for even if we planned to trade prisoners for kidnapped soldiers all along. In that case, however, our actions should have been more carefully calibrated. Instead we acted as if a new-found principle was at stake: that Kadima, unlike Likud and Labor, wouldn't cave in to terrorists. And on the basis of that principle a million Israelis stoically accepted a hellish summer.
One might also argue that both Hizbullah and Hamas have learned that although Israel does eventually cave in when faced with a ransom demand, Jerusalem will exact a heavy price before throwing in the towel. But couldn't such a deterrent message have been sent - especially on the northern front - with greater dexterity?
I have no problem with trading "fresh" Palestinian prisoners - taken since Gilad Shalit's capture, like members of the Hamas-led Palestine National Council; or Lebanese and Hizbullah POWs (and corpses) taken during the war itself. But anything beyond that would be a clear reversal of Olmert's principled, indeed revolutionary, stand.
THIS IS not one of those grey areas. Either we went to war because a principle was at stake, or it wasn't. Either we trade hostages for prisoners, or we don't.
History shows that every time we free killers, at least some of them go back to their line of work. And giving terrorists their liberty lifts the enemy's spirits. Arab society can more easily tolerate "martyrs" than the lengthy incarceration of husbands, sons, brothers and daughters.
Don't we want to undermine enemy morale - not bolster it?
Granted, we've meted out sufficient punishment to make Hizbullah and Hamas think twice before embarking on further cross-border hostage-taking attacks. But at the end of the day, the temptation to try again remains.
There's another principle at stake: Palestinians convicted of killing Israeli civilians are criminals. They should not be exchanged as prisoners of war.
It makes sense that Palestinians and Hizbullah Shi'ites want their kinfolk released. That desire should serve as an incentive for them to negotiate an end to the conflict. But releasing under duress Arab prisoners while the war is in progress only encourages the Palestinian "resistance."
As for the families of the captured IDF soldiers, they should be made to understand that the good of the many must outweigh the need - no matter how heartfelt and understandable - of the few.