Text size

It is the summer of 2010. In Tehran, the leadership is accelerating the pace of its efforts to acquire nuclear arms and worrying about an Israeli strike. Among those at a conference with spiritual leader Ali Khamenei are intelligence and military personnel and leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, including some who took part in seizing the American Embassy in 1979 and holding 54 of its staff hostage for a year and nearly three months.

"Remember Saddam Hussein's idea of arresting thousands of foreigners who were in Iraq at the time and placing them at strategic installations as human shields? Saddam held back from doing it, but we have nothing to lose," one senior official will say. "In one fell swoop, on a single day, from western Europe to South America to the Far East, using our own resources and some help from our friends in various organizations, we can try to kidnap 10 Israelis - officials, tourists, whatever, they all serve in the army - and bring them to Iran. Not all the attempts will succeed, but seven or even five will be enough. We will try them for espionage, sentence them to death, and announce that we will execute them if the Israelis attack. Let's see how the government and the public in Israel respond."

A fictitious scenario, but not a fantastic one - especially not if Israel has by then surrendered to the dictates of an emerging deal to exchange Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Hamas prisoners. The deal that Benjamin Netanyahu's government is now contemplating approving will be one of the greatest defeats ever inflicted on this country.

The handful of people involved in the bargaining have become too deeply immersed in minor details that might create the illusion of an achievement: Three mass murderers have been excluded, 20 others will be banished to Zambia instead of Gambia. These fine points have no real importance, and any improvement in the terms will be illusory.

The very existence of the deal would be an unambiguous victory for Hamas, and for the concept of violent, open-ended resistance that, even if it takes a long time, will ultimately force the Zionist enemy to bow to its Islamist will. For this purpose, it makes no difference whether 450 Palestinians are freed or only 300, and whether they go straight home that same day or only after an interim stay somewhere else.

Netanyahu is a weak leader, although it is not yet clear whether he is weak enough to give in all along the line, from freezing settlements and evacuating outposts to the Shalit deal. On the first two issues, retreat would at least jibe with Israel's interests, though not with his ideology. But Netanyahu will not be there alone: Going along with the surrender will be Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya'alon and all of their cabinet colleagues who do not resign.

The original sin was committed by Ehud Olmert's government, which did not insist on conditioning the entire bargaining process on regular visits to Shalit by the Red Cross. That turned his captivity - which is difficult and unpleasant for any soldier, but tolerable if his welfare is ensured and supervised - into an oppressive mystery that required an urgent solution.

Furthermore, the negotiations for Shalit's release would have been justified only as part of a broader deal that would include a halt to terror and to Hamas' rearmament, as suggested at the outset by the GOC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, and the chief of staff at the time of the abduction, Dan Halutz.

Olmert, followed by Netanyahu, and their mutual defense minister, Barak, never managed to create the intelligence and operational conditions for freeing Shalit. Nor did they find a lever with which to make it intolerable for Hamas to continue holding him captive.

"Make no mistake," a top-level Israeli source familiar with the details of the talks on a prisoner exchange said over the weekend. "If there is a deal, its final scene will be a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel." But despite the expectations that have been built up, it is still not too late to reexamine the slippery slope Israel is sliding down.