In prisoner swaps, price is never right

When negotiations are in their final stage, no prime minister will tell parents their son has to remain captive.

shalit 88 (photo credit: )
shalit 88
(photo credit: )
ANALYSIS The basic and inescapable fact about prisoner exchanges is that every time Israel has gone down that path, it has been forced to pay exorbitant prices to release its captured servicemen and abducted citizens. This is a result of two facts: 1) Israel in all the conflicts in which it has been involved has captured many times more prisoners than its enemies have; and 2) Israeli society attaches great importance to releasing its incarcerated sons and is usually willing to accept the price. Now let's look at some other facts. Palestinian prisoners released in previous deals were involved in terrorist attacks and made devastating use of knowledge and contacts garnered in prison. In other words, in each prisoner exchange Israel got back a handful of prisoners and bodies, but as a result dozens of citizens and soldiers lost their lives. Another important fact is that Cpl. Gilad Schalit was abducted by a team that had launched an illegal and murderous raid on an IDF position within the Green Line. The price of his freedom is the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who were found guilty of taking part in mass murder. But the ultimate fact is that when the negotiations are down to their final stage there is a take-it-or-leave-it list of murderers' names. No prime minister will be able to look the parents in their eyes and tell them their son has to remain in captivity because the price is too high. Premiers from Right and Left were aware of all the considerations, but at the moment of truth they quailed before the mothers' eyes. Perhaps 20 years ago the politicians could rely on some of the families to grin and bear it. Ron Arad's family kept to the official line for years before speaking out and criticizing the successive governments that had failed to secure his release. In the first year of his captivity, the accepted wisdom was that a deal could always be made with his Amal captors - reasonable rivals, everyone thought. There was no rush, especially as the government didn't want a rerun of the bitter criticism that had greeted the 1985 Jibril deal in which three IDF prisoners were exchanged in return for 1,150 terrorists, many notorious murderers. In hindsight, who would not have been willing to pay almost any price to release Arad during that first year - before he was abducted by a rival Shi'ite group and spirited away, probably to Iran. Arad's trail is over a decade cold, and the Schalit family is not prepared to make the same mistake. They are using every opportunity to draw media attention, not shying away from implied criticism of the government's actions. The families of Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser are doing the same. But this isn't only a personal tragedy, it is a deeply political issue, with the Right insisting that paying an exorbitant price is capitulation to terrorism and moral bankruptcy. The Left is in favor of reaching a deal, in the hope that it might also advance other concerns. In the middle is the government, any government - with a decision that can never be the right one. Three years ago, Ariel Sharon pushed through a highly controversial deal with Hizbullah for the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers killed on Mount Dov in 2000. Unlike Schalit, Tannenbaum was a venal businessman who had been enticed to Beirut with promises of a lucrative drug deal. Sharon still took it upon himself to get the deal authorized and market it to the public. Ehud Olmert has nothing similar to Sharon's credibility. Any decision will be a joint one, probably made by a ministerial committee, with full public consultation on all professional levels. The rejection on Tuesday of the first list of Palestinian prisoners passed on by the Egyptians is merely the first round of open negotiations. The list is outrageously packed with murderers, but its rejection doesn't mean that murderers won't eventually go free in exchange for Schalit. The government just needs a list that can be a bit more palatable to the public. It might be tempting to call such public relations concerns over the prisoner swaps cynical political calculating, but the PR aspect is of value. Not only the prisoner and his family pay a price. And not only the relatives of terror victims, about to see the murderers of their loved ones go free, suffer emotional trauma. The entire public are guarantors of the deal. Anyone of us could be the victim in an attack launched by a newly released terrorist. On the other hand, every soldier knows he or she is a candidate for capture and would like to believe that the country will make every sacrifice to free them. Nine months ago, before the meager results of the Second Lebanon War became evident, the great majority of Israelis wholeheartedly backed a wide-scale military operation to rescue Regev and Goldwasser. That operation ended up costing 160 lives - and still no sign of the two reservists. So what is the price of one young soldier's freedom?