(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is understood to have decided in favor of "relaxing" the criteria that qualify Palestinian terrorist convicts to be swapped for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
His decision is geared to loosen definitions of which convicts have "blood on their hands," a category of convicts that it has been longstanding Israeli policy not to release. The shift wouldn't openly deviate from official guiding principles, but would effectively change the classifications of which prisoners pose security threats.
The prime minister is understood to have overruled explicit opposition from Yuval Diskin. Based on bitter precedent, the Shin Bet head has reportedly warned of the dangers that some of those who may go free would return to terrorism, potentially imperiling numerous Israelis. There is also concern at the message this relaxation sends: extremist fanaticism is rewarded, whereas relative moderation doesn't pay off.
Thus the Olmert government, though acting for the entirely laudable cause of bringing home a kidnapped soldier, potentially escalates the risk of more terrorism to Israel's civilian population (whose defense is the government's primary obligation), boosts some of Israel's worst enemies and simultaneously diminishes the credibility of these enemies' potentially more moderate political rivals.
What is striking is that Olmert's reported decision comes mere days after the Winograd Committee published its final report into the failures of the Second Lebanon War - a report whose devastating critique the prime minister insists he takes with the utmost seriousness and whose recommendations he insists he is uniquely positioned to implement.
Yet not only is Olmert, in overruling Diskin, disregarding a serious professional opinion that is based on sober long-term strategic assessments - and so risks making precisely the kind of misguided tactical judgment so characteristic of the war's failures. He is also disregarding the Committee's earnest and specific recommendations on the very issue of prisoner exchanges.
The Winograd report devotes an entire chapter to the issue, in which it warns starkly against what it terms "crazy deals" to secure the exchange of kidnapped soldiers. Such deals, the Winograd authors stress, only whet enemy appetites and enhance the motivation to abduct more soldiers and/or Israeli noncombatants.
The report censures Israel's governments for having "never formulated a clear policy on how to handle abduction cases." This, it protests, "constitutes a strategic error which weakens Israel. By appearing vulnerable, Israel raises the price for returning the soldier and increases the incentives for further kidnappings."
The Winograd report further approvingly notes American resolve not to negotiate with terrorists, "a factor which makes the kidnapping of Americans unprofitable." The fact that Olmert seems to be acting in direct and unequivocal contravention of the conclusions of the very report he ceremoniously undertook to accept and implement casts heavy doubts on his credibility and prudence. But he should have known better even without the report.
Last month, terrorists who had been released from Israeli prisons merely two weeks earlier as a "gesture of good will," mounted an attack on a Kfar Etzion school (where fortunately they were thwarted). This was only the most recent confirmation of the fact that ill-considered releases constitute an affront to the families of terror victims and to those members of the security forces who put their lives on the line to capture armed and dangerous terrorists, and that, once released, these convicts pose a grave menace to other Israelis.
Hamas's own progenitor, Ahmed Yassin, was first released under the ultra-controversial 1985 "Jibril deal" (1,150 convicts involved in terrorism for three abducted soldiers). That deal flung open the floodgates to a deluge that still engulfs Israel: Over a third of all Jibril deal alumni renewed their terrorist activity within the year. Eventually Jibril crowed, justly, that his deal sowed the seeds of the intifada.
We are well aware of the terrible suffering of the Schalit family, fully recognize the responsibility of the nation to share that suffering as its own, and support this nation's tradition of placing an extremely high value on the return of any soldier taken captive. But Israel knows all too well that the price of reckless prisoner deals is the loss of many civilian lives, more kidnappings and more suffering. A truly responsible and reformed premier cannot overlook such experience.
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