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Former heads of the Shin Bet security service undergo a strange phenomenon once they finish their terms. They stop regarding catching Palestinians and putting them behind bars as their raison d'etre, and develop a broad-minded awareness that views the Palestinians as partners for peace talks.

It might also happen to Yuval Diskin, the current Shin Bet head, but so far he is proving to be the main critic of allowing laxer criteria when it comes to prisoner release. Diskin's statements at the ministerial forum entrusted with discussing the issue reveal his resistance to the prospect. The problem is that we can't wait for Diskin to finish his term.

The prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit is looming and the prisoners issue is casting dark shadows on negotiations with the Palestinians. The ministerial forum, which is scheduled to convene today, needs to reach conclusions as soon as possible.

No doubt Diskin has compelling reasons for adopting this stance. No one is more aware of the effort that goes into catching terrorists and the danger in releasing them - not to mention how the release would compromise the interests of the victims' families.

But the Shin Bet's considerations and the emotional reasons for keeping the terrorists in prison are dwarved in comparison with the genuine national interest. The forum members would do well to listen to what Brigadier General (res.) Shmuel Zakai, former commander of the Gaza Regional Division, recently said in an interview on Army Radio.

"Any combat soldier knows that when he goes on a mission, he has an extraction force to back him up," Zakai said. "Gilad Shalit is rotting in the dungeon, and his extraction force is the government of Israel." Zakai also said: "As a soldier who went out to arrest terrorists, I knew I was putting myself and my troops in danger for this precise purpose, so that when one of our soldiers is in a bind, we can swap him for these very same terrorists that we were putting away."

Zakai's priorities are in the right order. Retrieving an Israel Defense Forces soldier from captivity supersedes the interest of keeping terrorists behind bars. The soldiers who went out to capture them knew they were risking their lives to obtain bargaining chips for a rainy day. They and their families need to know that preserving their lives and liberty is a superior interest for their country. Sending out that message is more vital than all the campaigns for combat service and against draft-dodging.

Granted, there is a risk that some of the prisoners will once again engage in terrorism if they are released. But the facts show that this risk is exaggerated. Eight-seven percent of the 6,912 terrorists who were released until 2003 did not target Israel again.

Moreover, experience has shown that overall, the prisoners' leadership is relatively moderate. The prisoners incorporate much of the values of Israeli society, and are accepted by all the various camps of the Palestinian population. If anything, releasing these people could help reduce terror, promote negotiations and assist in selling such discussions on the Palestinian street.

In this matter, it makes more sense to foster the approach championed by Ami Ayalon, whose experience as the head of the Shin Bet is as comprehensive as Diskin's. Ayalon argues that the relevant criterion is not whether the terrorists have blood on their hands, but the degree to which they pose a future danger.

A killer who has abandoned terrorism and does not, according to assessments, plan to return to his former ways, is more worthy of release than a terrorist who was caught before he could kill, who according to all indications might try again in the future.

The need to allow for laxer criteria for releasing terrorists is necessary not only for Shalit's release, but as a means to advance peace talks with the Palestinians.

The members of the ministerial forum would be wise to read a document formulated by the former head of the Civil Administration of the Occupied Territories, Brigadier General (res.) Ilan Paz - who knows a thing or two about combating Palestinian terrorism.

This document, whose main points were published in Haaretz by Akiva Eldar ("Clearing out the jails," December 25), includes a plan for a gradual release of prisoners over time as "an incentive for attaining and preserving a cease-fire." Paz stresses the crucial importance Palestinian society gives to the release of its tens of thousands of prisoners.

As hard as it may be for Israelis to fathom, Palestinians regard the terrorists as freedom fighters who acted for their nation's sake. In this respect, the prisoners are a tremendous strategic asset for Israel - assuming that Jerusalem is sincere in its desire to reach a settlement.

Instead of wasting this asset on gestures that carry no genuine return, it is wiser to spend it as a means for changing the security situation, and for creating a supportive atmosphere for negotiations and for lowering the incentive to abduct Israelis.

The Israeli public, as polls suggest, is now more ready than ever for a brave decision by its leaders, a decision devoid of populist considerations, whose first stage would bring Shalit back home.

Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman might leave the government and go home, but that's an affordable price, if not a real bonus.