(photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
Ever since her husband Ehud was kidnapped along with Eldad Regev by Hizbullah in July 2006, Karnit Goldwasser has had an admirable knack for saying the right thing even when put (or putting herself in) difficult situations.
And so it was yesterday, when being interviewed live on-air by Channel 2's Oded Ben-Ami about the latest rumors of a possible prisoner exchange with Hizbullah that could conceivably free or provide information about her husband and Regev.
Ben-Ami, like any good journalist, brought up the latest reports that such a deal might now exclude any information on the fate of aviator Ron Arad, missing for 21 years, and asked Goldwasser if despite her own concerns she could identify with the dilemma of Arad's wife, Yael, in this scenario. Goldwasser expressed sympathy for the plight of Arad, and added, "I'm just glad I'm not the one who would have to make that decision."
If Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah was watching that broadcast, he would no doubt take sadistic satisfaction in having achieved at least one of his aims in carrying out the exchange earlier this week of one Lebanese prisoner in Israel and the corpses of two Hizbullah fighters buried here, for the body of Israeli drowning victim Gavriel Daweet.
In carrying out that swap, as well as in his speech Tuesday night on Al-Manar television claiming "positive progress in the main negotiations over the two soldiers and prisoners," the cunning Hizbullah leader has sparked a problematic public debate within Israeli society about the price that should be paid for getting its missing soldiers back.
The main price, and most difficult to pay, would be the release of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, currently serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison for leading a raid on Nahariya in 1979 in which five Israelis were killed. Until now, the government has had an official policy that Kuntar would not be released for anything short of definitive proof as to the fate of Arad.
But now Hizbullah has reportedly handed over documents to Israel claiming that it has done all it can to determine the fate of Arad, but is unable to provide any further information regarding his whereabouts. Instead, Nasrallah made clear in his speech that he would like to move ahead with a deal for Goldwasser and Regev in a swap that would include Kuntar.
This position raises several difficult issues on the Israeli side, especially for all those with personal interests in such a deal. This includes the family of Danny Haran, who along with his four-year-old daughter Einat was brutally murdered by Kuntar on the Nahariya shorefront (another daughter, Yael, died accidentally of suffocation while hiding from the terrorists).
Members of the Haran family made clear yesterday in several media interviews they would strongly object to any swap that freed Kuntar, short of one that included the release of a live Goldwasser and/or Regev. The problem is that there have been no signs of life for either since their IDF convoy was assaulted by Hizbullah last year. It cannot be discounted that neither survived the attack or their subsequent imprisonment in Lebanon, and that what Nasrallah will offer up is simply proof of their fate in return for Kuntar's release.
Is that a deal the government should reject, as the Haran family insists? In the so-called "phase two" of the Elhanan Tannenbaum swap three years ago, the previous government seemed prepared to accept those conditions as applied to Ron Arad - so why should it be different for Goldwasser and Regev?
For that matter, can the government accept Hizbullah's claims that it has nothing more to offer regarding Arad? Even if it could, there is a serious problem with the conditions Nasrallah laid out on Tuesday.
His speech specifically mentioned four Iranians who went missing in Lebanon in 1982 after they were stopped at a Phalangist roadblock. It is still widely assumed in Lebanon that the Iranians - diplomats or intelligence agents, depending on whom you believe - ended up in Israeli hands.
Conversely, it is believed on the Israeli side that Arad was passed on to the Iranians by his Lebanese captors sometime in the late 1980s. So even if Israel knew the fate of those missing Iranians, how could it meet Nasrallah's demands - even if it believed his claims of ignorance on Arad - without getting something more from the Iranians about the missing pilot?
Nor should one forget in this equation about Gilad Schalit, still being held by Hamas and its allies in Gaza after more than 15 months. The Olmert government has refused thus far to meet his captors' demands for the release of Palestinian terrorists with "blood on their hands." Yet any release of Kuntar would violate this rule and dramatically up the pressure on the government to move forward on a similar deal to free Schalit, for whom there is at least significant evidence that he is still alive.
The obligation to do everything possible to retrieve our soldiers, or their remains, from the hands of our enemies is considered one of the most highly-held principles of the Israeli security establishment. But the truth is that the country has never quite gotten over the shock of the Lebanon deal of 1985, when Israel released 1,150 prisoners for just three Israeli soldiers. That several of those prisoners were later implicated in terror acts only raised further doubts on the wisdom of that arrangement. Similar and even greater misgivings were voiced about the release of more than 430 Arab prisoners in 2004 in return for shady businessman Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers killed in a Hizbullah cross-border raid in 2000.
Ariel Sharon was politically strong enough to weather the criticism of the Tannenbaum deal; the same can't be said for sure of his successor, if Hizbullah insists on conditions for Goldwasser and Regev that are politically problematic. It may well be that the negotiations never reach the point where Ehud Olmert has to face that dilemma. But simply by sparking this discussion within Israel, without even giving any information about Goldwasser and Regev, Nasrallah has already gained an advantage.