A portentous decision on whether to trade Gilad Schalit - who has been in Hamas captivity for an excruciating 1,275 days - for a thousand imprisoned Arab terrorists is now being finalized. The raw anguish of Gilad's parents, Noam and Aviva, has been imprinted on the Israeli consciousness since their son fell into enemy hands on June 25, 2006.
Our hearts tell us to pay Hamas's price.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his top ministers, however, have the terrifying responsibility of acting with both their hearts and minds. Their deliberations cut to the essence of what it means to be Israeli.
Israelis do not want a second Ron Arad affair; Gilad is now so close to freedom, he's virtually touchable. For him to slip away now would be devastating.
Paying Hamas's price, though, would constitute a second "Jibril Deal." That 1983 prisoner swap with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine saw 1,150 Arabs exchanged for three Israeli soldiers. One of those Arabs was Ahmed Yassin; others would become his lieutenants. Together they created Hamas.
There are doubtlessly men of Yassin's "caliber" among the 1,000 Hamas seeks. After his release, Yassin was re-arrested, only to be released in 1997 by Binyamin Netanyahu - during his first term as premier - in yet another prisoner exchange.
Beyond the moral bankruptcy of rewarding past evil, with history as our guide - and with heavy hearts - we assert that Israelis will die if the government obtains Gilad's freedom by acting only with its heart.
Things were not supposed to get this far. Days after our Gilad was taken, Hamas demanded the 1,000 prisoners. Ehud Olmert responded: "We won't let anyone believe that kidnapping is a tool to bring Israel to its knees." Privately, however, the then-premier gave Egypt the green light to commence bargaining. Those talks are culminating now under Netanyahu.
Israel concurrently tried pressuring Hamas. The IDF quickly rounded up 64 Hamas "parliamentarians" in the West Bank; it launched Operation Summer Rains sending tanks and commandos into Gaza in search of Gilad. (When this affair is over, Israelis deserve to know why a soldier held within driving distance of the Ministry of Defense could not be rescued.)
By early July 2006, dozens of Palestinian gunmen had been killed, others taken prisoner, to exact a price for Schalit's continued captivity. Israel temporarily re-took parts of Gaza - for the first time since the 2005 disengagement. Hamas absorbed these blows and responded with intensified shelling against Sderot and Ashkelon.
Relentless Hamas rocket attacks ultimately led to Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. All in all, since Schalit was taken, Hamas's recklessness has cost the lives of well over a thousand Palestinians and left a trail of devastation in Gaza. Yet Hamas remained steadfast in its demands certain that Israel would ultimately capitulate. Indeed, within days of Schalit's capture, then-internal security minister Avi Dichter said publicly what Hamas wanted to hear: that Palestinian prisoners should be released for Schalit's freedom.
NOW, Israelis will be assured that the most lethal of the freed prisoners will be confined to Gaza or exiled abroad; as if there is no two-way traffic in Gaza's tunnels.
And with the absolute sincerity of an alcoholic having one final drink before going cold turkey, the government will assert that the Schalit deal will be Israel's last lop-sided prisoner exchange.
A deal will buttress what Palestinians already believe, that Israelis understand only force. Tomorrow's Palestinian leaders, therefore, will be that much more obdurate. It will become still harder for a credible Palestinian leader - no matter how ostensibly moderate - to abjure violence.
Stopping on a dime will mean that the pundits and politicians who orchestrated the campaign that took matters this far will have some explaining to do. If Netanyahu does pull back, it will be because Israelis were bluffing ourselves as much as we were bluffing Hamas.
A "no" now would take Hamas down a peg. Netanyahu could directly address the Islamists' disappointed constituents, emphasizing that meeting Hamas's rapacious demands would have dishonored him and caused Israel to lose face. Palestinians will understand that. So will Israelis.
He should frankly acknowledge that he was ready for an honorable deal. Indeed, he must stress that he remains ready for an honorable deal.
THE HARROWING ordeal of Gilad's selfless parents touches us all. Their son has become our son.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu must reverse course. The killers should remain incarcerated; if they don't, more Israelis will surely die.