The anguish caused by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's words on Monday to the families of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev is totally understandable, bereft as they are of any official information on their loved ones' fate since the day of their capture five months ago.
Olmert expressing doubt that the abducted reservists are alive certainly struck them as callous and tactless, to say the least. But Olmert was only saying in public that which security and government circles have been concerned about for months: On the basis of the information we have, or more correctly, on the lack of it, it is highly questionable whether Regev or Goldwasser are alive now, or even survived the attack on their patrol that sparked the second Lebanon war.
There were question marks from the very beginning. The missile attack killed four soldiers whose bodies were found at the scene; it is almost impossible to imagine two others emerging unscathed. The lack of any definite information, Hizbullah's total refusal to release any details on the condition of their prisoners, the ease with which their fighters melted away, evading the airlifted cordon on southern Lebanon - all this caused those question marks to grow.
Intelligence gathering operations, especially the August 2 raid by elite commandos - the General Staff's Sayeret Matkal and the IAF's Shaldag - on a Hizbullah hospital in Baalbek, where the two soldiers were supposedly held, added significantly to the IDF's intelligence but failed to provide definitive proof either way.
The IDF has strict rules governing the forensic evidence needed to prove a soldier's death, partly due to halachic considerations, which in this case are especially stringent because Goldwasser is married. Women, whose husbands have disappeared cannot remarry according to halacha unless the husband has been declared dead.
Over the years, there have been calls within the IDF and among senior rabbis to pronounce missing IAF navigator Ron Arad dead, allowing his wife, Tami, to remarry if she so wishes. The last thing anyone wants now is another version of the two decades-long Arad saga, still with no end in sight.
But that is exactly the way Hizbullah is playing it, and they've done it before. In 1986, two Givati infantrymen were captured in an ambush. They were probably killed on the spot or died shortly afterwards from their wounds, but Hizbullah kept us guessing for a decade, finally handing over their bodies in a prisoner exchange.
More recently, the same tactic was used with the three soldiers captured on Mount Dov in October 2000 - Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Swayed. The families were kept waiting for four years.
Yes, Regev and Goldwasser might still be alive and their families will continue holding on to every glimmer of hope, but experience and the available information point to Hizbullah being up to its usual cruel tricks.
Over the years, cabinets and prime ministers have insisted that Israel would act as if its missing soldiers were alive as long as conclusive evidence to the contrary was not received. Olmert now appears to be departing from this policy.
There could be a number of reasons for doing this. The first is that there are no signs that negotiations with Hizbullah will take place through third parties in the foreseeable future. Hassan Nasrallah and his cohorts are much too busy fomenting civil war in Lebanon and when that dies down, the chances of another confrontation with Israel will be high.
Anyway, Hizbullah will make no major moves without authorization from its Iranian masters, and as long as there is a significant possibility of an Israeli attack on its nuclear installations, Teheran is not going to let go of valuable assets. In such a situation, it is in Israel's interest to minimize Hizbullah's bargaining power. If it believes that the soldiers are probably dead, then it certainly makes sense to call the Islamists' bluff.
Another consideration is the third captive soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is being held by Hamas. They have passed on clear signs of life from him as part of an advanced negotiation process. Various parties have tried to throw a monkey wrench in the works by linking the release of all three soldiers. Olmert's word were part of an ongoing effort to stop Hizbullah from obstructing Shalit's return.
In previous cases, the media knew less and could be relied on to keep quiet about what it did know. This time there have been very broad hints in the Israeli press that Regev and Goldwasser are believed to be dead, and Olmert might have been trying to preempt further disclosures by his semi-official admission.
There is also a political angle here. Originally, the release of Regev and Goldwasser was one of the primary objectives of the war in Lebanon. In the end, it featured as a small item in Security Council Resolution 1701, which led to the cease-fire. Israel's acceptance of the resolution was another indication of the growing skepticism whether we'll ever see the two soldiers alive again. Ever since, Olmert has come in for intense criticism for failing to bring them home and calling the war off prematurely.
Monday's remarks were about as frank as he has been in answering these critics.
All this has been going on within the wider debate over the price the nation should be willing to pay to free individual soldiers and the extent to which the national interest should be sacrificed to rescue them.
If what Olmert had to say to a group of high school students on Monday was part of a new, coherent strategy and not just a slip of a tongue, then it has to be accompanied by a much more comprehensive public dialogue aimed at strengthening national consensus, rebuilding soldiers' - and especially reservists' - confidence in the leadership and, above all, coming clean with the captive soldiers' families.