Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, March 28, 2011. Photo by AP
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They say no normal country would release more than 1,000 prisoners, including arch-terrorists, to free one soldier, Gilad Shalit.

I asked former U.S. President Jimmy Carter how he would have conducted himself if he had been in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's position.

In a telephone interview with Haaretz, Carter said that national leaders must act according to the individual circumstances of each case, and he believes he would have acted as Netanyahu did in the Shalit case.

The former American president said that as far as he knew from following negotiations in the case closely, Netanyahu could have reached a similar deal on Shalit's release two years ago. He said he was not being critical of the Israeli prime minister, however, explaining that it was in the nature of negotiations.

Carter is very familiar with the Shalit case. He attempted to assist in efforts to free him, and convinced Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal to allow an exchange of letters between Shalit and his family.

In a letter from Gilad Shalit that the former U.S. president sent to the Shalit family in June 2008, the captive soldier begged for his life. Carter said at the time that Hamas officials told him that Shalit was being held under better conditions than Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Carter said he hoped this month's prisoner exchange would further efforts toward reconciliation between Palestinian factions, an apparent reference to the split between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. He also said he hoped it would lead to Palestinian elections and bring Hamas closer to the peace process.

In a case involving somewhat similar circumstances to Shalit's, Carter was confronted with the task of how to handle demands by the Iranian Islamic government for the extradition of the deposed shah of Iran in exchange for the release of 52 Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital in 1979. Instead, Carter decided to attempt a hostage rescue mission, which ended in failure.

Carter was unaware of a swap that Israel had proposed in the 1960s to Syria in exchange for the return of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who managed to infiltrate high levels of the Syrian regime at the time and sent back a treasure trove of intelligence information to Israel before his identity was uncovered.

This week Haaretz learned from a senior diplomat that the Israeli government of Levi Eshkol at the time had offered Syria $53 million ($370 million in 2011 dollars terms ) to buy Cohen's freedom. The offer was not accepted and Cohen was hanged in Damascus in 1965. Efforts to have his body returned to Israel have failed ever since.