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Would someone today agree to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison? Would it even occur to anyone to ask this question? The answer depends on which button is pressed in the time machine.

About 10 years ago, when Yassin was released from prison, the test of "blood on the hands" - the self-righteous litmus test that changes colors whenever Israel has to release prisoners - was less stringent. Yassin was released in exchange for two Mossad agents who were incarcerated in Jordan after the operational failure to kill Khaled Meshal. How much blood on his hands did he have then? How much did he have afterward? How much blood was on the hands of the prisoners Israel released in the Taba agreement, known as Oslo B, in 1995? At that time, a ministerial committee determined that the criteria for releasing prisoners with "blood on the hands" would be the completion of two-thirds of their sentence and the signing of a commitment to support the peace accords. Haaretz wrote in an editorial at the time that despite the enormous difficulty and pain involved in the release, "there is no other way."

The blood test accompanied the Jibril deal in which 1,150 prisoners were released, the Tennenbaum deal and the question of releasing Marwan Barghouti. It arose again last week when Israel agreed to release four prisoners with very red blood on their hands - but "old blood" that was shed before the Jordan peace treaty in 1994.

It turns out that not only the identity of the prisoners, captives or Israeli abductees dictates the nature of the exchange deals. The date of the crime, the perpetrators' identity and in particular the identity of their patrons constitute criteria. And not only them. It also depends on who supports the deal in Israel and who opposes. Thus, for example, regarding the release of Barghouti, who was sentenced to several life sentences for "blood on the hands," it depends on whether one listens to Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, who is in favor, or Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who is opposed. Both should ostensibly be stating an identical, Shin Bet view, but it turns out they also realize that the criteria for releasing prisoners are carved in the stone of soft, political sand.

The ironclad argument always raised against releasing prisoners in general, and prisoners with blood on their hands in particular, is that the personal security of each citizen or soldier is secondary to national security. If terrorists know that their imprisonment will be shortened by their organization's next abduction, this will greatly encourage abductions, posing a threat to the state's standing. However, it is hard for this argument to find a basis in reality. Israel's national security does not depend on the number of Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners it holds; the terror acts against Israel do not increase or decrease in direct relation to the level of punishment. It depends on the reality of the occupation that operates as a natural and relentless generator of violent struggle against it. The hundreds of thousands of prisoners and detainees who have entered and exited Israel's jails will attest to this. And if Israel's security depends on its steadfastness vis-a-vis the terrorists' demands, what does this test of blood have to do with it? Isn't the release of "regular" prisoners also capitulation?

But this is not a matter of logic, justice or morality. The issue is sanctimoniousness. Gilad Shalit, for example, finds himself in a situation in which the Israeli government that was prepared a month ago to make a deal with Hamas is now punishing them through political means. This is the stage in which Mahmoud Abbas is nourished with national vitamins by the release of Fatah prisoners. Shalit, unfortunately for him, is not part of the deal, because Israel views him as an "asset" of Hamas.

This is also the period in which negotiations with Hezbollah are politically acceptable after Israel failed to prevent the abduction and then win the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by means of war. Here also, Shalit is, unluckily, outside the frame. Shalit, in short, did not know how to choose the arena and date of his abduction. He also failed to prevent the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Shalit will have to wait, at least until Hamas and Fatah reconcile, because he is now a symbol of Olmert's resolute stand.