It is still hard to believe that Ehud Olmert will put his flower pot under his right arm and a cardboard box with personal items under his left, and make his way to the elevator of the Prime Minister's Bureau. The glue is just too strong, as old glue usually is. But somewhere between the preparations for legal defense and passing thoughts of vengeance, Olmert still has two debts to pay. The first is to the Shalit family and the other to the Regev and Goldwasser families.
These are not old debts he interited from his predecessors, like the case of Ron Arad, but debts that are directly attributed to him. All three were abducted on his watch. Olmert embarked on war in order to release Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. He did not even wait a single day to try and negotiate with Hezbollah, use mediators or offer a deal for an exchange of prisoners. The war, he said, will bring them home.
The war ended as is did, and Olmert went back to the negotiating table with Hezbollah. He went back to the mediators who waited on the side until the war was over, and back to the exchange deal that could have taken place before the two were abducted and would have prevented the abduction and the war.
Now the debate over what we should give in return for bodies, and what we should give in return for the living, is picking up once more. Samir Kuntar - yes or no? In favor of a deal only for the living or also for the dead? If Kuntar is worth only living Israeli prisoners, why was he not given up long ago, when he was still not an excuse for the abduction, while the previous negotiations were going on - and when he was worth "only" reliable information on Ron Arad?
In theory, it makes sense to set up a new price list for negotiating for the release of the abducted soldiers. Bodies, according to this price list, will be at the bottom of the list. Nothing will be given in return for them, or at least no "quality" prisoners will be released. For those abducted soldiers who are alive, that is an entirely different matter. For the living, the price should be fitting. Really? Let them tell the Shalit family this. Compared to Regev and Goldwasser, whose fate is unknown, Gilad Shalit is alive. According to the price list, arranging an exchange will require a fitting price for a worthy return. There are even those willing to negotiate for him under conditions that until several weeks ago were quite clear and defined: approximately 1,500 prisoners in exchange for his release. No opening of the crossings, no tahadiyeh (truce) - just prisoners in exchange for the abducted soldier. That's it. But the prime minister says the price is too high. Too many dangerous prisoners, with too much blood on their hands. The balance is tilted too much in the favor of Hamas.
So what is a "reasonable" price? Ten? One hundred? Five Hundred? However, now Israel is offering a different sort of price. If Hamas wants a cease-fire and an opening of crossings, let them release Shalit. Now Shalit is not merely a prisoner, he is policy. Through him Olmert is holding Sderot by the collar. "Because of him" he is imprisoning the 1.5 million civilians of the Gaza Strip under an unbearable siege. Shalit is the secret weapon of the Israel Defense forces, an alternative to a "major operation" in the Gaza Strip. And what if Shalit will not be released on the basis of Israel's conditions? Will Israel go to war in the Gaza Strip as it did during the Second Lebanon War for the two abducted reservists? Hamas appears to be ready to show flexibility in its stance, and put forth a different list of prisoners for release - one that is easier for Israel to accept. Egypt will guarantee his release, so long as Israel pays the basic price Hamas is asking.
But Israel continues to bargain, because it is no longer a matter of an exchange that is too costly, but about the prestige of a country. Suddenly the actual assault and kidnapping is not the worst blow to this prestige; the cost the state is being asked to pay to end this episode has become the issue. And this is an entirely different matter. Because if the release of an abducted soldier had a known price list (anybody who forgot could check with Hassan Nasrallah what he got for the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum for example), what then is the price list for prestige?
And look who is talking about prestige. The person who is calculating the cost of the life of an abducted soldier is the same person who has made the State of Israel the butt of jokes. Notwithstanding Olmert having his pants on fire, he continues to exhibit national determination and a staunch stance on national prestige. Despite the torrent of investigations, he is even offering peace with Syria and talks with the Palestinians. How brave. But this time, it is better to start with smaller things, like taking care of things on his desk: two soldiers in Lebanon, one in the Gaza Strip, and a truce. We also deserve to put something in the small box when we part ways with Olmert.
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