If, like in the case of revolutions, wars should be judged only after time has past, then the prisoner exchange deal in the works between Israel and Hezbollah suggests that Nasrallah won the Second Lebanon War. This despite the fact that in the balance of losses - in terms of lives, destruction suffered, political and security capital - he lost. If Israel releases Samir Kuntar for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, without receiving Ron Arad or at least information about his whereabouts, the war was pointless and its cost was for naught. This does not necessarily mean that a decision to carry out such a deal would be mistaken, but we should not evade the meaning of the decision. The whole affair deserves to be seriously addressed in the report of the Winograd Committee.
Kuntar is a murderer who is serving a life sentence. The difference between a 25- or a 28-year sentence is insignificant from the point of view of one who wishes to avenge his horrific crimes, unless the difference lay in the hope that he would die in prison over the coming years (which may actually weaken, not bolster, Israel's bargaining power). His release in return for IDF prisoners, not Elhanan Tannenbaum, is a reasonable price to pay. Even three or four years ago, this was a reasonable price to pay.
Back then, the government of Ariel Sharon, his vice premier Ehud Olmert, defense minister Shaul Mofaz, with the agreement of chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, agreed to split the deal into two parts. In the first, Israel released Hezbollah associates it held in order to receive Tannenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed during the kidnapping at Har Dov. During the second part, Kuntar was supposed to be released in exchange for substantive evidence about the fate of Arad. Nasrallah did not keep his end of the bargain. Israel, as a trader who had already given up the best it had to offer, insisted on holding on to Kuntar. In a civil suit, Israel would win; in practice, it lost.
Nasrallah promised the families of the Lebanese prisoners he would secure the release of their loved ones and has persistently worked toward fulfilling that commitment. The Sharon government, which failed to stop the efforts of Hezbollah to close in on the border area, and did not change the IDF rules of engagement in the North, allowed him to do so. One of the effects of the series of successes in preventing abductions was to lose intelligence sources. The defense establishment was unable to raise the tens of millions of shekels necessary to restore surveillance and early-warning capabilities in the north. The accumulated result of these mistakes was the abduction of Regev and Goldwasser on July 12, 2006, near Zar'it. Nasrallah was just waiting for the right opportunity; he had given the abduction operation the title "promise kept" even before it was carried out.
It was clear to all, even without an ongoing operation that turned into war, that by July 13, 2006, it would have been possible to gain the release of Regev and Goldwasser in return for Kuntar, without the release of Palestinian prisoners, an initial demand of Nasrallah from which everyone expected him to back down. This would have allowed greater chances for expert medical treatment for the abducted soldiers, if they survived after being wounded. Now, the Olmert government is back to the same 2004 starting point, and once more without Arad.
This is a major and continuous failure of the IDF, the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the rest of the defense and intelligence organizations, who have not created a military alternative to the deal. Such an alternative means reaching the points where Regev and Goldwasser are hidden and where Gilad Shalit is kept in the Gaza Strip, and extricating them from there. Without such option, the government is stuck with having to make a decision.
Israel really lost Ron Arad in 1991, when a series of deals with Hezbollah, and other proxies of Iran for the release of western hostages they held, ended without the inclusion of Arad. Every American administration, in that case headed by George Bush Sr., would in the end of the day focus on the release of its own citizens and would not condition that to the release of the Israeli navigator. Israel would probably behave the same way in a similar situation.
It would be curious to know whether in light of the dilemma between bringing Regev and Goldwasser back without Arad, or continuing the suffering of two out of three families [Shalit being the third], Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the commander of all three missing soldiers, will write to his subordinate officers that he has "ethical" reservations about the deal.
At this time, without saying it clearly, the cruel decision is being passed on to the Arad family - his wife, daughter, and brother. Those responsible for this are Sharon and Olmert; and this too, unfortunately, is part of Nasrallah's victory.