The government has known for nearly three years which terrorists Hamas wanted freed in return for Gilad Schalit. Hamas hasn't changed the list more than slightly in all this time - it's been basically the same number, the same names. Now all of a sudden Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says the deal is impossible, out of the question, no government could release so many mass murderers. So why didn't he say this at the beginning, nearly three years ago, after Schalit was captured and the negotiations began? Why didn't he walk away then, rather than just this week? Did he think Hamas was going to soften, when it hadn't softened before? Did he think Hamas wasn't going to demand the release of its heaviest hitters - the planners of the Park Hotel bombing, the Dolphinarium bombing, the bus bombings and the other, most infamous attacks? Furthermore, did he think Hamas would agree to the expulsion of nearly 150 of these prisoners? After the cabinet decision, Olmert reportedly told the Schalit family: "We've been dealing with a cruel, inhuman, murderous, merciless entity, but we didn't slam the door and we haven't closed it." Did he just discover Hamas's true face? Did he believe all along that he was dealing with a reasonable, flexible, pragmatic, fair-minded bunch of guys, and only now learned the bitter truth? In all this time that Hamas was refusing to budge, why did Olmert believe it would ultimately meet him halfway, or any part of the way? I don't think he ever genuinely believed it. I think he talked himself into believing it because he didn't have the guts to tell the Schalit family and the public the truth - that in his view, leaving Gilad Schalit in captivity indefinitely was a lesser evil than freeing hundreds of accomplished, acclaimed Palestinian terrorists. I'm sure he was trying to be easy on the Schalits as well as on himself. But he's ended up being so unimaginably cruel to that family. For nearly three years, he's held out what just revealed itself to have been a false hope. He was never ready to make a deal with Hamas unless it took some very long steps toward Israel, and Hamas was never ready to do that. It's not the way cruel, inhuman, murderous, merciless entities negotiate. As if Olmert didn't know this. As if everyone didn't know it. NOW THAT EVERYONE is just shocked to find out the sort of people Hamas was demanding in return for Schalit, the backlash has begun. Now the pressure is not on the government to release prisoners, but rather to turn the screws on them until Hamas cries uncle. Since carrots didn't work, it's time for the stick. Let's make the prisoners' lives miserable; let's tighten the blockade on Gaza; let's bomb them; let's kill their leaders until they give us Gilad. We've tried it all, and none of it worked. Israel used to torture Palestinian prisoners until the Supreme Court outlawed it, and torture never led the Palestinians, Hizbullah or anyone else to release a single Israeli hostage. I only hope that whoever argues for an iron fist policy to bring Schalit home will at least mention the possibility that his jailers would respond in kind. (On second thought, that's also a false hope.) In retrospect, we should have called off the negotiations as soon as we heard what Hamas was asking, which was very soon after Schalit was captured on June 25, 2006. But after negotiating with Hamas for nearly three years, after stringing the Schalit family and the public along like that, and after agreeing to release some 325 of the 450 killers Hamas was demanding, I thought, as I wrote last week, that since we'd already gone most of the way, we might as well go all the way. What is the difference, morally or practically, between releasing someone who planned an operation that killed two Israelis and someone who planned an operation that killed 20? Not enough of a difference to justify letting Gilad Schalit rot, to inflict extreme psychological torture on his family and to make this country even more schizophrenic than it already is. WE NEVER SHOULD have gotten into this negotiation, but once we did, we should have settled it. We should have dealt with the risks and vowed never to do it again. Instead, not only have we doomed Gilad Schalit and done the unforgivable to his family, we've also deepened the mutual loathing and vengefulness between Israelis and Palestinians. That's a risk, too - one we're going to have to deal with now. At this point, I think the government - if not the outgoing government, then the incoming one as soon as it takes office - should declare the Gilad Schalit affair to be over. There should be no more negotiations with Hamas for his release. If Hamas wants to remove those hundreds of killers from its list, let them inform the government and I'm sure the deal will be made. Otherwise, there's nothing to talk about. We should mark the Schalit file "inactive." For once, we would be telling it like it is. Binyamin Netanyahu isn't going to give Hamas what Olmert wouldn't, and Hamas isn't going to give Netanyahu what it adamantly refused to give Olmert over the course of nearly three years. As far as we know now, Gilad Schalit is gone. That's a hard truth to tell his family. But as much as it would hurt, it would hurt less than this lie we've been telling them, and ourselves, for so long.