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During the nerve-racking week that followed the hijacking of an Air France jet to Entebbe, when he recommended that his cabinet accept the hijackers' demands, Yitzhak Rabin laid down the military option test: In principle, it is wrong to give in to hostage-taking attacks, but theory and practice are separated by the military option.

Mounting an operation to rescue the hostages, even at the risk of causing harm to the rescuers or the captives, is preferable to giving in, which would encourage additional kidnappings; but if there is no such option, the kidnappers must be paid in order to free the Israelis they hold.

Rabin said this prior to the arrival of the intelligence data that changed the picture and led to the planning of the Entebbe operation. The Rabin rule should have been applied to the dispute over the prisoner swap that was discussed by the cabinet yesterday. In this case, however, the military option is complicated by two questions: Would Israel be willing to endanger Israel Defense Forces soldiers in an attempt to free Elhanan Tannenbaum, and - if and only if the answer to this is affirmative - is there any possibility of a military operation to rescue Tannenbaum from his Hezbollah jail.

This is not the case with regard to Ron Arad. All Israelis would evidently support a decision to use military force to free Arad, if there were any reliable information as to where he is, even if such an operation would endanger both Arad and his rescuers - as was the case in the operation to rescue soldier Nachshon Wachsman, in which both Wachsman and Nir Poraz, an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, were killed. The different circumstances that brought Arad and Tannenbaum to their jails in Iran or one of its clients is responsible for this difference in attitude.

The connection between Iran and Hezbollah requires no proof, and it is therefore surprising that those who are abandoning the effort to extract information about Arad from Iran are citing Hezbollah's inability to do so as justification. FBI Director Robert Mueller was recently asked by Congress whether he worries about the possibility of Hezbollah attacks against American targets. Yes, Mueller replied, but only in response to an American military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon - or against Iran. The organization led by Hassan Nasrallah is yet another tool in Tehran's tool kit. Nasrallah is eager to conclude the prisoner exchange, and if the return of the Lebanese prisoners, together with the release of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners, is so important to him, he knows who could bridge the gap. The Iranians, who, through Hezbollah's agency, repaid Israel for killing Nasrallah's predecessor, Abbas Moussawi, with the attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, could help Nasrallah to clinch the deal he so desires.

Although Israel has no reliable information about Arad's fate, or even whether he is alive, in Iran, it would be possible to reconstruct the "chain of custody" - to go, link by link, from person to person, following the trail of those who have held Arad since Mustafa Dirani turned him over to the Iranians. The Winograd Committee report contains no information unknown to the establishment that supplied it to the committee. The panel resembled a police investigation squad that examines with fresh eyes the well-known material a previous team failed to crack. The solution to the riddle does not lie with the Winograd Committee, but it can most certainly be found in Khomeinigrad, in Tehran.

Retrieving the bodies of the three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah for burial in Israel is important, but less so. The families of those who went down with the submarine Dakar made do with a sea burial, because they understood that the State of Israel should not spend hundreds of millions of shekels in an effort to dredge up the remains of their loved ones.

In choosing "Tannenbaum or Arad," Israel must act like a combat medic who is obligated to decide which wounded man to treat first, or like someone planning a targeted killing, in which the person in the sights is not an anonymous enemy, but a known figure. War involves danger to the multitudes, but this deal involves specific individuals with names and faces. Yet, even in a case like this, focused judgment enables countries to set limits to the price they will pay. Ariel Sharon waxes eloquent about the need to free Tannenbaum immediately, but he would not return an inch of territory for him or evacuate a single settlement. Sharon, in one of his lowest moments, has dragged the government into releasing too many prisoners for a misguided purpose, and has abandoned Arad.