Bargaining for the Living and the Dead

The impression given by the government that agreeing to a cease-fire with the terrorists was part and parcel of a deal for the release of Shalit was nothing less than a cheap political manipulation.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 30, 2008.)

There was a time, not so many years ago, when the policy of Israeli governments, when one of its citizens or soldiers was abducted by a terrorist organization, was to send the Israel Defense Forces to free the hostages. It was clear that negotiating with the terrorists and agreeing to their outrageous demands was simply setting the stage for further kidnappings and higher demands in the future. It was a good policy, even though it involved risking the lives of the hostages and of those sent to free them.

When in past years a policy of negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages was adopted, it only proved the original premise. The terrorists’ demands continued to escalate, and each “deal” with them only provided an incentive for further kidnappings and for ever more outrageous demands before the hostages would be released. The terrorists may have released the hostages – dead or alive – but each surrender to their demands only provided an incentive for additional kidnappings of Israelis and escalating demands, and put at risk Israelis, as yet unnamed, whom the terrorists would abduct in the future. In other words, they served as an incentive for the further abduction of Israelis.

In June 2004, under then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz, a deal was struck with Hezbollah for the return of three dead Israeli soldiers – Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suad – and the release of Elhanan Tennenbaum, in return for  about 450 convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons. Whereas the three soldiers had been kidnapped while on duty in the IDF, Tennenbaum had been kidnapped while on an illegal trip in Abu Dhabi in pursuit of what he thought would be a profitable drug deal. There was no justification for the arrangement Sharon’s government made in this case. One might have hoped that it would serve as a benchmark not to be exceeded in the future, and as a lesson in how not to negotiate with terrorists.

Making decisions in negotiating with terrorists for the release of Israeli hostages is an agonizing matter, and ministers are not to be envied the responsibility they carry on their shoulders. However, certain principles that need to be applied are almost self-evident: 1. Whatever deal is to be struck, it should be done immediately after the kidnapping. (Remember Ron Arad.)

2. The price to be paid for the return of the living is not to be the same as the price for the dead.

3. Remember the Israelis who are being put at risk in the future as a result of giving in to the demands of the terrorists.

It is clear that in the case of the negotiations for the return of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, these principles have not been observed. In full knowledge that they have been murdered by Hezbollah, the price that Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak now seem prepared to pay is scandalous. Samir Kuntar is not just a terrorist “with blood on his hands,” but a cold-blooded murderer who killed a small child and her father. If anything, this deal is worse than the Tennenbaum deal.

And now Gilad Shalit. Any fool understands that the Israeli government held one significant lever on Hamas in this case – the continued blockade of Gaza and the continuation of IDF attacks on Hamas and  Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The impression given by the government that agreeing to a cease-fire with the terrorists was part and parcel of a deal for the release of Shalit was nothing less than a cheap political manipulation. One can only imagine the price that the terrorists are asking now that they are holding not only Shalit hostage, but also the residents of Sderot, Ashkelon and the settlements in the area. The Olmert government has completely mishandled a most important security matter.

Now that the Olmert government is tottering and seems to about to topple, its spokesmen are insisting that in view of the many dangers Israel is facing, this is no time to change governments. In other words, don’t change horses midstream. But Olmert has provided additional proof, as if additional proof were needed after the fiasco of the Second Lebanon War, that his government cannot be trusted to deal with the dangers on the horizon. The sooner they go the better.

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