Analyze This: Deal or no deal?

Why it's well past time for the PM to decide.

olmert very sad 224.88 (photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
olmert very sad 224.88
(photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
It's been five years since the cabinet last sat down to vote on a deal that would free Israeli hostages held by Hizbullah in exchange for the release of a far larger number of imprisoned terrorists. There are a number of key differences between the exchange that freed Elhanan Tannenbaum and returned the bodies of three IDF soldiers, and the one now on the table for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both in the circumstances of the hostages involved, and the price to be paid to free them. But one of the most striking variations involves the role of the prime ministers who oversaw the execution of these deals - a difference that perhaps says something worth noting about both men, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Back in November 2003, there was no doubt where Sharon stood on the hostage deal that freed Tannenbaum, well before the cabinet vote was taken. Sharon not only made his approval for it known, he lobbied ministers to also vote in favor. Immediately prior to that vote, he told the cabinet: "There is no reason to explain in words the importance of the decision the cabinet must make today. We have to support this deal because we can save a living Israeli citizen. Leaving him [Tannenbaum] there would be abandoning him to his death." Sharon's determination to see the deal through - which squeaked by the cabinet in a 12:11 vote due, in no small part, to his tactics of persuasion - also brought him no small amount of criticism, especially when it was later charged that he had a personal connection to the Tannenbaum family. But he was undeterred before the vote, and remained unapologetic afterward. Olmert's stance toward the Regev/Goldwasser deal expected to be voted on in the cabinet Sunday could not be more different. Although the terms have been worked out in full coordination between him and the PMO's chief hostage negotiator, Ofer Dekel, as late as the night before the scheduled vote Olmert had still not made up his mind, or at least had not publicized his decision. This is despite the fact that a majority of ministers have publicly indicated their intention to support the exchange. Not surprisingly, Goldwasser's articulate spouse Karnit, in an interview broadcast Saturday night on Channel 2, expressed surprise and frustration at the prime minister's seeming down-to-the-wire deliberation. Asked what was the one thing she still wanted from Olmert in this matter, she simply said, "To make up his mind." The prime minister's advisers have painted Olmert's indecision as the result of a thoughtful, careful and cautious methodology necessitated by the gravity of the matter. They have pointed out that he is planning before the vote to consult once again with the family of Ron Arad, given the fact that the deal would include the release of Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese terrorist described as Israel's last real card to play in any exchange that could also extract information concerning Arad's fate. This is certainly a legitimate consideration, as is an approach that allows cabinet members sufficient space to decide on this crucial issue on the basis of objective criteria, without bringing into it the factors of political loyalty or influence that could be in play if their party or coalition head personally lobbies them in a particular direction. Still, regardless of the circumstances and the consequences of the 2003 exchange, Sharon left no doubt that in this crucial matter, the buck stopped with him. That position is certainly justified by the fact that the prime minister is not just another member of the cabinet - he is its leader. And any prime minister, in allowing such a deal as negotiated by his government to even reach the cabinet for a vote, already shares no small degree of responsibility for the terms of that agreement, whether or not it passes. Olmert seems to think differently, and that is his right. But Karnit Goldwasser is surely not the only one who expects something more in this matter than such last-minute indecision from the one person expected to be the most decisive. [email protected]