Friday, June 06, 2008

Another bad deal

How astute is it to trade an unreconstructed killer for what, it is now increasingly feared, are the remains of two IDF fallen? When that killer continues to swear loyalty to the blood-soaked path of jihad? And when the exchange would further bolster Hassan Nasrallah's stranglehold on Lebanon?

This is the dilemma facing Israeli policymakers: whether to trade Samir Kuntar for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Hizbullah has provided no sign of life from the soldiers since they were abducted on June 26, 2006 in the cross-border aggression that ignited the Second Lebanon War.

On Sunday, amid rumors of a far broader deal, Israel released Nissim Nasser after he completed a six-year espionage sentence and shipped him back to Lebanon. Nasser is a small fish, who did no irreparable harm.

At roughly the same time, in a step arranged via German mediation - but which both Israel and the Red Cross claim surprised them - Hizbullah released some of the assorted IDF body parts it had ghoulishly harvested from the battlefields of the war.

Nasser's release and the handover of body parts, plus recent statements by Nasrallah that Kuntar would soon be brought home all heightened speculation that a prisoner swap involving Goldwasser and Regev was in the offing.

Then Der Spiegel OnLine published the shattering report, based on German intelligence sources, that Regev and Goldwasser "are believed to be dead." The paper described the outlines of a deal proposed to the Israeli government: Jerusalem would release the last four Hizbullah terrorists in its custody - Kuntar included. It would hand over the remains of all other Lebanese from previous wars and provide maps detailing the location of minefields in southern Lebanon. After a suitable interval, it would also release dozens of Palestinian prisoners.

In return, Hizbullah would turn over the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev and provide unspecified data on Ron Arad. How this arrangement would impact ongoing efforts to free Gilad Schalit from Hamas captivity is unclear.

KUNTAR, a Lebanese Druse, is serving four life sentences for the 1979 deaths of Danny Haran, 28, his two daughters, four-year-old Einat and two-year old Yael, and the killing of police officer Eliahu Shahar in Nahariya. Some reports say Kuntar bashed Einat's head in with a rifle butt, or smashed her against a rock before her father's eyes, before shooting him dead at close-range.
Kuntar's actions are rendered even more monstrous by the way little Yael met her end. Haran's wife, Smadar, hid herself and the toddler from Kuntar and his gang in a crawl space above the couple's bedroom. In an effort to muffle Yael's cries, Smadar smothered the child.

Even if Goldwasser and Regev are alive, releasing this soulless unrepentant in exchange for their safe return would hardly be an easy decision. For he may represent Israel's last leverage in obtaining information about our other missing soldiers.

The enemy had claimed it had no more information about IAF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared over Lebanon in 1986. Now it is reportedly offering such information. And next week marks the 26th anniversary of the battle of Sultan Yakoub, where Yehuda Katz, Tzvi Feldman and Zachary Baumel went missing. Eleven summers ago this August, Guy Hever disappeared near the Syrian border.

One senses that the enemy is not telling all it knows about these men. But beyond that, Israeli policymakers need to reevaluate their willingness to engage in lopsided prisoner exchanges. We recoil at them, and at the history of released captives returning to carry out further attacks. Yet such deals occur not infrequently. It is not only the exchanges themselves that are so trouble, but Israel's bargaining ineptitude: Too many living terrorists are being exchanged for dead bodies.

ARGUABLY the most egregious of the "crazy" exchanges so castigated by the Winograd Committee earlier this year was the May 1985 "Jibril deal," which traded 1,150 Palestinians for three live IDF soldiers. Granted, not all exchanges have been as lopsided: In 1998, Israel obtained the bodies of three naval commandos for 60 Shi'ite prisoners and 40 corpses, including Nasrallah's son. Other deals remain acutely hard to fathom. In 2004, 400 enemy combatants were exchanged for renegade IDF colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three IDF soldiers.

Israel's enemies know that Judaism attaches the highest priority to freeing captives and bringing closure to the families of fallen fighters. Isn't it time they also learned that Jews understand a thing or two about bargaining?

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