Analyze This: Gov't held hostage over hostage negotiating

It'll be hard for cabinet to resist pleas of captives' families.

"No one can judge the families of the kidnapped hostages, that for them the essential goal - and maybe the only one - is the rescue of their loved ones. But national leaders must take responsibility, not just for the hostages and their families, but for the general public. We believe that the Israeli public will understand and accept this, and its consequences - if it is presented in a principled, responsible and compassionate manner." Those words may sound familiar to those who managed to get past page 500 of the final Winograd Committee Report on the Second Lebanon War and arrive at the brief section that deals with kidnapped hostages. Though just a few pages long, the committee identifies this section as containing one of its key conclusions, and rightly so; not only did Hizbullah's snatching of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12, 2006, trigger the war, but obtaining their return or determining their fate is its major unresolved issue. Winograd, though, went beyond the parameters of this specific situation to more fundamentally address the hostage negotiation issue, as it also applies to such cases as that of Gilad Schalit in Gaza, and the inevitable future attempts by our enemies to use kidnapping as an essential weapon in their arsenal. So it's worth noting the ways in which the committee's conclusions relate to the dilemmas facing the government this very week regarding the fate of all three hostages - and why once again, in failing to heed the recommendations, this country is once again finding itself held hostage by a failure to craft a coherent policy on hostages. The report's key conclusion is relatively simple in concept and difficult in execution - establishing a set of criteria by which Israel will abide in any negotiations with its enemies over the return of prisoners of war and hostages; making sure those parameters are clearly defined and sufficiently publicized; and standing by those criteria no matter what public pressure is brought forth to compromise them for humanitarian reasons. The result, the committee resolved, will make such negotiations both easier to conclude, and easier to sell to the Israeli public. It would also be likely, asserted Winograd, to discourage future kidnappings, once the possible benefits for the kidnappers are clearly limited. The latter point is arguable. The report noted, for example, that the American occupying authorities in Iraq have refused to negotiate with terrorist kidnappers. But that hasn't discourage the snatching of many American soldiers and civilians there - the only difference being that unlike their European and Asian counterparts, whose governments do make deals for the return of their hostages, the Americans usually end up summarily executed, often in front of a video camera. There is no disputing, though, the former point, that setting criteria would make negotiations easier to conclude - especially as the Olmert government is now facing a public campaign from the Regev and Goldwasser families (with an assist from Tami Arad), and a legal challenge from Gilad Schalit's parents. If the government had already set in place clearly defined criteria on what it was willing to concede for the return of the hostages - or had at least done a better job of making it clear what those were - it would surely be in a better position to defend, both judicially, and as a matter of policy, the limits it is trying to place on the price it is willing to pay for Udi, Eldad and Gilad's release. The petition to the High Court of Justice by Gilad Schalit's parents asking that the court strike down the recently negotiated cease-fire with Hamas because of its failure to include their son's freedom represents an unprecedented judicial upping-of-the-stakes by a family of an Israeli hostage. Not only is a government being challenged on the basis of its failure to take sufficient initiative to free a captive, but it stands accused of endangering that release in the pursuit of national policy goals. While the court will decide whether the Schalits' petition has merit, the linkage between a specific hostage negotiation and a broader security issue such as a cease-fire - a connection the Olmert government itself unwisely made in trying to make the truce more palatable - represents a very problematic precedent. Who's to say now that the next time Hamas or Hizbullah carries out a kidnapping that their demands will also not end up including a cease-fire or similar security policy decision? As for Regev and Goldwasser, previous governments have already failed to place limits on the number of enemy prisoners released in exchanges, or sufficiently take into account the severity of the offenses they committed (so-called "blood on their hands" prisoners). This government is at least trying to keep the release of Palestinian prisoners out of the deal for the hostages held in Lebanon, a stance that Hizbullah is now reportedly citing as a deal-breaker. However, with the Prime Minister's Office having done a poor job of making clear the rationale for this condition, it will be that much more difficult for the cabinet to resist the understandably passionate pleas of the Regev and Goldwasser families to finally resolve their tortuous situation, even at this price. One of the recommendations in the Winograd Report concerned the importance of a sufficient period of time between when the government announces its general criteria for a hostage/prisoner exchange, and the point at which it takes effect, so that all sides (including the public) understand well in advance the red-lines for such deals. Unfortunately, the Olmert government has failed to follow up on this suggestion, either as regards the current situation, or by establishing any precedent beyond it. "Naturally, we do not see it as one of our functions to recommend the policy criteria to the government of Israel that it needs to adopt to correctly contend with the threat, and actuality, of kidnappings," the Winograd Committee modestly concluded. Six months later, though, those criteria are still waiting to be set - for the sake not just of the hostages now in the hands of Hizbullah and Hamas, but also for every Israeli soldier and citizen who lives with the risk of one day finding themselves in enemy hands. [email protected]