The onus has always been on kidnappers to prove that their hostages are alive and well. Yet this week, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu paid Hamas to do just that.
Rather than tell Hamas that unless it could prove Gilad Schalit was in good condition there was nothing to negotiate, Israel agreed to release 20 Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for a recent video of the captive soldier.
The official spin is that these Palestinian ladies are not accomplished terrorists. Yet each and every one of them tried to kill, or help someone else try to kill Israeli soldiers or civilians. They are members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Some, like the knife-wielding Bara'a Malki, are juveniles serving short terms. Others such as the 47-year-old Zohar Hamdan, were caught smuggling suicide bomb belts.
Forget those stereotypes about Jewish business acumen. This was a bad bargain.
In paying for this "sign-of-life," Israel has also certified that Hamas's counterintelligence operation is superb. Clearly, our intelligence agencies don't have a handle on where Schalit is being kept - even though it's probably a relatively short drive from the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
Discharging the women inmates is phase one of a deal that could see the staged release of 1,000 terrorists, including key operatives behind some of the most heinous bloodbaths carried out by the Palestinian "resistance." If things go smoothly for Hamas, it will have essentially achieved the objectives put forth the very first week Schalit was taken prisoner three years ago.
The main stumbling block to total Israeli capitulation is, apparently, the security establishment's insistence that the 1,000 terrorists be confined to the Gaza Strip. Assuming further elasticity of Israeli principles, a steadfast Hamas politburo will have triumphed over two consecutive Israeli cabinets loaded with savvy ex-generals.
WHILE PAYING Hamas's price will end the Schalit family's ordeal, it will also have two perilous repercussions: Some of Hamas's most able "engineers" and tacticians will resume their careers; and the movement's standing within the Palestinian polity - and in the international arena - will further solidify.
Palestinians assert that Israel is holding 9,000 prisoners. If one Israeli soldier can buy 1,000 prisoners, how many will it take to deliver the other 8,000?
From Hamas's vantage point, all this could not come at a better time. The Islamists, under Egyptian auspices, may soon sign a "national unity" pact with Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, paving the way for West Bank and Gaza elections in 2010. Hamas will then reasonably campaign as the "resistance" faction that can "deliver" Israeli concessions.
It is true that the Abbas "moderates" have shown no sign of wanting to come to an agreement with Israel - not with the Olmert-Livni government, and not with Netanyahu's. Fatah refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state; Abbas's maximalist negotiating demands would have a militarized Palestine face a truncated Israel confined behind the 1949 Armistice Lines. Strategic settlement blocs would have to be abandoned. The cost of making peace on Abbas's terms would be acceding to the demand for millions of Palestinians to "return" to Israel proper.
Nor has Abbas prepared his people for the idea of coexistence. In fact, though he egged Israel on to rout Hamas during Operation Cast Lead, now he's exploiting the Goldstone Mission's findings, leading the bandwagon to have Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin labeled "war criminals."
With all that, Abbas does proclaim his backing for a two-state solution. He does not advocate portraying the Palestinian conflict with Israel as part of the global jihad. Hamas, in contrast, will not even entertain the prospect of Israel's right to exist. And its theoreticians are unregenerate anti-Semites.
WE DO not presume to know the depth of suffering felt by Gilad Schalit and his parents, Noam and Aviva, dignified and indefatigable advocates for their son's freedom. But the government's responsibility extends to the entire House of Israel.
Much as we Israelis welcome a sign of life from the soldier whose fate is so much in our hearts, it is the government's duty to pursue his freedom mindful of the many other lives at stake down the road.