Whether or not Hamas agrees to free Gilad Schalit, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made them the right offer this week. He made the right decision on where to concede and where to draw the red line.
Israel has to be prepared to go many, many extra miles to bring Schalit home, but there's one place it can't go: It can't place Israelis-at-large at high risk of getting killed in the not-too-distant future. And that's what would happen if 100-odd accomplished, committed political killers were released to the West Bank as Hamas demands.
To those who say there are already so many terrorists and potential terrorists loose in the West Bank that another 100 or so won't make a difference, I say that's being willfully blind. With the West Bank more peaceful now than it's been in over 20 years, it's unreasonable to say that throwing 100-plus triumphant mass killers onto the streets would make no difference to the Israeli public's near-term security. It would make a very big difference. It would risk a return to the days of bus bombings, of another bloody destabilization of life in Israel and the West Bank.
That can't happen. No prime minister has the right to take such a gamble with the public's basic safety, not even for the sake of freeing a soldier who's already spent three-and-a-half years in a Hamas cell.
YET THE danger would be largely neutralized if, as Netanyahu insists, the most dangerous prisoners were deported to the Gaza Strip or elsewhere. You don't need accomplished terrorists to fire rockets at Israel, which is the threat coming from Gaza now, and if we get into another full-scale war over there, another 100 or so experienced killers on the battlefield really wouldn't make that much of a difference. At any rate, it wouldn't make enough of a difference - in a war that may not happen anyway - to pass up the chance of getting Schalit back now.
To those who say deportation is futile, that these seasoned, well-connected operators will find ways to infiltrate back into the West Bank, I say it's about time Israelis learned that the West Bank is not what it used to be. Between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has been all but broken as a terrorist organization over there. Whatever the attitude of the Palestinian man on the street, the attitude and actions of the IDF and PA have turned the West Bank into hostile territory for killers who won't put down their weapons. Thousands of Hamasniks have been killed or arrested there over the past two and a half years; it's pretty safe to assume that the released prisoners whom Israel wants to keep out of the West Bank would be kept out.
This is the condition Netanyahu demanded in return for the release of close to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, nearly half of whom have "blood on their hands," and this is what persuaded some high-level opponents of the deal, such as Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, to support it.
Not to put myself on that level, of course, but it was the deportation clause demand that persuaded me, too. Like a lot of people, I've been going back and forth on the Schalit dilemma. I've always thought Israel should do just about anything to win his release, except put the lives of innocent Israelis in proximate danger.
But over the past year, when it seemed that the main sticking point was the number of killers to be freed, and that Israel was ready to release about 75% of the names on Hamas's list - even to the West Bank - I figured that since the country's leadership was already tacitly committed to risking Israeli lives to get Schalit back, there was little left to lose. So why not just give Hamas their 100% and gain Schalit's freedom before it's too late and he becomes another Ron Arad?
And then I changed my mind again - commitment or no, three-and-a-half years of negotiations or no, national hysteria or no, nothing justified endangering Israeli lives like this deal was going to do.
BUT THIS week, when Netanyahu agreed to release the killers, but not to the West Bank, he cut the Gordian knot.
He told an organization of terror victims: "I'm faced with two vital principles: the desire to redeem captives and the desire to defend Israeli citizens from future attacks." I'd say he's balanced those two principles about as well as they can be in this terrible affair, and that earns him a tremendous amount of credit.
There are, of course, many people who don't want to release imprisoned killers no matter where they're sent to. They say it will provide incentive for more kidnappings, will be a great "victory for terror."
I don't think these arguments stand up. If Palestinian guerrillas see no point in holding Israeli prisoners, they'll stop trying to capture them and just kill them instead, like they did two of Schalit's IDF comrades in the attack on June 25, 2006. Would that be an improvement?
And as far as victories for terror go, yes, this will be one, but it's a small battle in a huge, long war that Israel is fighting full-time. This war has seen countless Israeli victories and will see countless more. We can afford to concede a small victory for the sake of freeing the one Israeli captive we know is still alive.
But let's be honest - if Hamas turns down Netanyahu's offer and the deal falls apart, that could be the end for Schalit. The insistence that Israel can have it both ways - that it can rescue him Entebbe-style or turn the screws on Gaza until Hamas coughs him up - is just a pipe dream. If the IDF could have rescued Schalit, it would have. And believe it or not, Israel has been turning the screws on Gaza really tight for three-and-a-half years and it's done no good.
If Hamas stands by its refusal to accept the deportation of so many "VIPs," Netanyahu should tell them "no deal." That may well doom Schalit to disappear into the darkness, and doom his family to a permanent hell of their own. Such consequences are evil, but they're a lesser evil than the violent deaths and maimings of untold numbers of Israelis, which could very well be the consequence of releasing so many legendary terrorists into the West Bank.
And in the matter at hand, choosing the lesser of two evils is the most any Israeli prime minister can be expected to do.