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A few months ago, members of the Shas faction were invited to dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and officials of his bureau at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. Over the course of the evening, Olmert let his guests in on state secrets, and briefed them on efforts being made to recover the kidnapped soldiers. When he mentioned the kidnappers' demand that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including some with "blood on their hands," be released in exchange, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai responded that the rightist opposition factions could be expected to object vociferously. In order to soften these objections, Yishai suggested that Jewish prisoners convicted of terror attacks against Arabs also be released.

Last week, Shas' political leader reiterated this suggestion publicly: The ultra-Orthodox weekly Bakehila quoted him as urging that Jewish prisoners be freed alongside the 250 Palestinian prisoners whose release Olmert promised to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Yishai even held a conversation with the prime minister on this issue a few days ago. His associates say that he and Olmert have an understanding that such a release will indeed occur, and that while the list of 250 Palestinian prisoners is being finalized, the list of Jewish prisoners who attacked Arabs will also be combed to determine which of them should be freed.

Senior Shas officials say the list of those to be released will mainly comprise prisoners who have embarked on a process of rehabilitation - for instance, those who have expressed remorse for their acts - as well as a few special humanitarian cases, such as Ami Popper, whose wife and son recently died in a car accident. Therefore, Yishai is working to rescue Jewish criminals, including murderers with blood on their hands, from prison, when the only point in their favor is the fact that their victims were Arabs.

Yishai does not understand the moral atrocity he is committing by distinguishing between Jewish victims killed or wounded by Jewish criminals and Arab victims killed or wounded by Jewish criminals.

He also does not understand the difference between being compelled by the country's enemies to release prisoners in order to rescue captive soldiers whose lives are in danger and the choice he is making, of his own free will, to release Jewish murderers and terrorists from prison.

Moreover, Yishai is ignoring the context that produced the deal to release Palestinian prisoners: This is one stage in a bloody struggle in which the enemy views the released prisoners as prisoners of war. The Jewish murderers and criminals that Yishai would like to remove from their cells, in contrast, are considered criminal offenders in every respect by our country's law enforcement agencies. The equation in such prisoner exchanges is freed Arab prisoners on the one hand and soldiers taken captive during clashes with the enemy on the other. Tying Jewish murderers into this deal is like mixing oil and water.

Aside from the members of the Jewish underground, who targeted Palestinian individuals and institutions in the early 1980s, members of the Bat Ayin underground have also been convicted and jailed, after being arrested at the height of practical preparations for a mass terror attack on a Palestinian school in East Jerusalem. Some members of this underground were also suspected of murdering seven Palestinians, but the police and prosecution were unable to translate the evidence they found in the underground members' possession (namely, the weapons that killed these Palestinians) into a solid legal case.

In addition to the members of these two undergrounds, some 25 Jews have been tried and sentenced to lengthy jail terms for a wide variety of aggressive acts against Arabs, including manslaughter and murder. The most well-known is Popper, who, in May 1990, shot and killed seven Palestinian laborers who were waiting for a ride to their job in Rishon Letzion. The most recent is Julian Soufir, who murdered Palestinian taxi driver Taysir Karaki of Beit Hanina about six weeks ago and was declared unfit to be tried.

Israel's law enforcement agencies have more than once demonstrated a forgiving attitude toward Jewish ideological criminals, generally due to political pressure exerted on the prime minister and the president; the latter has the power to pardon or commute sentences. Now, Eli Yishai is exerting all of his political power to perpetrate a moral injustice that will also have harmful diplomatic, societal and political ramifications.