Analysis: The high price of releasing prisoners

Freeing Palestinian prisoners would prove Zahar right, and all but politically bury Abbas.

ehud olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ehud olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Considering the unequivocal way Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the top military brass have ruled out any talk of releasing Palestinian prisoners to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, it would indeed be a remarkable turn of events were Israel to suddenly accede to Shalit's captors' ultimatum. "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations," said a Prime Minister's Office statement released Monday, following the Palestinian ultimatum demanding the release of prisoners by 6 a.m. Tuesday. "We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners," the statement read. "The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit and for returning him safe and sound to Israel." Olmert has made it clear since the beginning of this saga last week that he has no intention of negotiating for Shalit's release. "Everyone knows that capitulating to terrorism today means inviting the next act of terrorism," he told the cabinet Sunday. "We will not do this." And he has received backing for this position by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, by the head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and by the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Yuval Diskin. Everybody was watching how this saga would turn out, Yadlin said at Sunday's cabinet meeting, and Israel must impress upon the Palestinians that they did not gain anything at all by kidnapping Israelis. Indeed, Israel's current policy is to try to impress on the Palestinians and Hamas that not only will they not gain, but that they stand to lose a great deal as a result of these actions. Yadlin said ominously that every kidnapping bred three to four other attempts. His message was clear - releasing prisoners to free Shalit would ultimately endanger other Israelis. Diskin, who agreed with Yadlin and said freeing Palestinian prisoners would only encourage more kidnapping attempts, said that from Hamas's point of view, Shalit was a much more valuable asset if he remained alive. "They know that if any harm comes to him, we will chase after anyone who was involved, to the last of their leaders and activists," he told the cabinet. OC Operations Directorate Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizencot said at the same meeting that one of the goals of the current military action was to free Shalit in a manner that would prevent further kidnappings in the future. Releasing Palestinian prisoners would obviously run contrary to that goal. But there is another reason, beyond the obvious fear of whetting the terrorist appetite to conduct more abductions, that is weighing heavy on the minds of the policy makers: concern about what a prisoner release would do to the future of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Last March, PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar was asked in an interview with the Dubai-based satellite channel Al Arabiya how Hamas would be different from Fatah, and he replied that while Abbas failed to win the release of Palestinian prisoners, Hamas would do it by kidnapping soldiers and then negotiating for their release. If Israel was unwilling to release prisoners to Abbas, being forced to do so by Hamas would confirm what groups like Hamas have long said: there is no use talking to Israel, because the only language it understands is force. As the days wear on in this crisis, Israeli officials have expanded the goals of Operation Summer Rains to more than just freeing Shalit, although this is the overriding objective. The government is also trying to deal a mighty blow to Hamas - to its military infrastructure, to its political leadership, and even to its network of charitable organizations (Dawa), long a prime source of Hamas support in the territories. Over the last week, the IDF has targeted Hamas military installations, has arrested scores of their political leaders and - on Sunday night - closed the offices of some Hams-affiliated charitable organizations in Hebron and Nablus. Releasing prisoners, however, would have exactly the opposite effect - it would serve only to strengthen Hamas. Olmert said Sunday that before Shalit had been kidnapped, and he had been planning his long-anticipated meeting with Abbas, he had considered recommending - as a way of improving the overall atmosphere - the releasing of some Palestinian prisoners, including those Israel would not release in the past. However, to do so now, he said, would be the end for Abbas. In other words, freeing Palestinian prisoners would prove Zahar right, and all but politically bury Abbas.