On May 21, 1985, when soldiers Hezi Shai, Nissim Salem and Yosef Grof returned home, after having been taken captive by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during the Lebanon War, the land was filled with bitterness: The deal was considered a terrible one.
Slurs and accusations were hurled at then prime minister Shimon Peres and his defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin. They were perceived as weak leaders, incapable of withstanding pressure from the three families whose sons had been redeemed from captivity, and as people who did not know how to bargain effectively with the Palestinian terror organization.
That is also what happened when Elhanan Tennenbaum was returned home four and a half years ago: Then prime minister Ariel Sharon was harshly criticized, and his judgment was called into question. The redemption of captives does not cause rejoicing in Israel. And disapproval is presumably what Ehud Olmert can expect as well if he indeed concludes a deal to return Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev to Israel in exchange for the release of Samir Kuntar.
Nevertheless, the prime minister should be encouraged to conclude the deal, and in so doing, to put an end to the suffering of the two families whose loved ones are being held captive by Hezbollah.
This deal is mandated by the circumstances: Following one war and two years of nerve-racking negotiations, all other options for bringing the two soldiers home have been exhausted. Their families are entitled to know what has become of them. And the price is known: releasing both the man who murdered the Haran family and four Hezbollah members taken captive by Israel during the Second Lebanon War, as well as returning the bodies of a few dozen slain Lebanese.
The other prices are also known: the prestige the deal will give Hassan Nasrallah and his organization; the impact that Israel's willingness to redeem its captives will have on its enemies' behavior; and the incentive the deal will give Hamas to stand firm on the price it has set for Gilad Shalit's release. The apparent absurdity of the deal is well-known, too: If Israel has reached the conclusion that it ought to release Samir Kuntar to neutralize Hezbollah's incentive to kidnap other soldiers, why did it not act in accordance with this conclusion previously? Had this lesson been applied in June 2006, we might have been spared the Second Lebanon War.
But with political issues, just as in other areas of life, a distinction must be made between positions adopted before a given event and those adopted afterward. Positions that look reasonable or even vital at one point in time may look mistaken or even stupid later. Only rarely is it justified to judge the conduct of state affairs according to hindsight. In most cases, it is necessary to examine the performance of our leaders, who operate under serious constraints of uncertainty, according to the test of reasonability. It was reasonable not to launch a preemptive strike against Hezbollah's missiles in the six years before June 2006, while it was less reasonable to launch a ground operation in the final two days of the Second Lebanon War, and these assessments were presented to Israel's leaders in real time, not only after the fact.
But the decision to leave Samir Kuntar behind bars for 30 years was also reasonable, as long as he was considered a valuable bargaining chip in Israel's efforts to discover what happened to Ron Arad. Today, when all available options for solving this mystery have been exhausted, it is reasonable to return Kuntar to Lebanon in exchange for the two kidnapped soldiers, even though this decision will pain the missing navigator's family.
Peres and Rabin were surprised and offended by the public's vehement rejection of the Jibril deal. They thought they were acceding to the majority's wishes when they agreed to release 1,150 Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the three soldiers. Every minister in the national unity government in place at that time supported the deal (other than Yitzhak Navon). Sharon was also upset by the arrows slung at him once information emerged about who this Tennenbaum was, for whose return (together with the bodies of Adi Avitan, Omar Suweid and Benny Avraham), Israel had released more than 400 prisoners, including Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Obeid.
Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak are now operating in less comfortable political circumstances than did their predecessors, and they are certain to encounter opposition, especially from the right. But they should not be deterred: This deal is an unimpeachable necessity.
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