105 Weeks Later / No Happy End

The exchange: Barely an hour passed between when Lebanese television showed the first glimpse of the coffins of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and the festival of depression and regret got underway here in Israel. Middle East experts warned about the long-term consequences of Hezbollah's victory parades; commentators lamented the national sense of mourning; citizens in the street were up in arms over the last dirty trick that Hezbollah tried to play, when a senior member of the organization, Wafiq Safa, kept the suspense alive until the very last moment by refusing to reveal - with a look of smug self-satisfaction on his face - whether the soldiers were alive or dead.

Israelis, or at least an unrepresentative sample of them, sounded yesterday as if someone had hoodwinked them. We released a child-killer and got coffins in return. And where did the slim hope that one of the soldiers was still alive disappear to? Not enough has been said about the fact that this was such a predictable ending to an affair that - it has been clear for ages - could not have an artificial happy-ending tacked on. No one mentioned that in the past, too, we paid with live terrorists in exchange for a dead Israeli, in the deal for the body of First Sergeant Itamar Ilya in 1998, for example. Perhaps it has not been sufficiently explained that Hezbollah got a relatively modest return for the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev, after negotiator Ofer Dekel maneuvered them into a position that Israel found acceptable.

After we have finished wiping Nasrallah's spit from our faces, we should also bear in mind that Israel, too, gained something from this exchange: the reinforcement of the basic commitment that exists between a nation and its soldiers. This commitment was severely undermined by the Ron Arad affair, by the case of Madhat Yosef (the border policeman who was left to bleed to death at Joseph's Tomb) and the Gilad Shalit case.

There is also great importance to the realization, by Israel and by its neighbors, that Israel really is different and that it will do everything to get its missing men home, even when it is sure they are dead. Many commentators have expressed their concern about Hezbollah's celebrations, about the damage that may be caused to our national resilience. But a nation's resilience is also measured in terms of the IDF's fighting spirit. A soldier who knows that he will not be abandoned in the battlefield will act differently in the heat of war.

The media manipulation: If we needed any further proof, Hezbollah once again demonstrated that it is a wizard when it comes to psychologically tormenting the enemy. Zvi Regev watched, as did we all, the televised images of the black coffin that confirmed his son would not be coming home alive. Hezbollah conducted a circus of extortion and forced the Red Cross to collaborate. In retrospect, it is possible that Israel's preparations were sorely lacking and that we could have avoided this shameful display by Wafiq Safa.

But there was another partner to this horror show, perhaps an unwitting one: the Israeli media. When the best-selling newspaper in the country opts to lead its Wednesday edition with a headline that says 'Perhaps they are all wrong,' it is guilty of encouraging unrealistic expectations. That was tantamount to squeezing one more drop of emotion out of an exhausted people, and it made some of those who watched the exchange on television believe - quite falsely - that there was still room for some surprise. In practice, anyone who has eyes in his head knew several weeks ago that Hezbollah's agreement to return the soldiers in exchange for just five living prisoners - rather than hundreds - was the best evidence that Goldwasser and Regev were dead.

And nonetheless, it seems that when the coffins first appeared on our screens at 9:39 A.M. yesterday morning, the viewers let out a collective groan of disappointment. A senior member of the defense establishment claimed yesterday that this behavior reveals a worrying side of the Israeli national psyche. "We held our breath, as if we were watching the duel scene from 'High Noon,' he said. Perhaps that was evidence that we really do live in a movie, that we have not fully internalized everything that is going on around us, from the total collapse of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, to the rearmament of Hezbollah and the shaky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The war: Exactly 105 weeks have elapsed from one Wednesday morning to another Wednesday morning, from the kidnap to the return. The soldiers who were on patrol with the Yeshomon 4 unit on that fateful morning have returned home - two years too late. This was the final chord of a failed war, a reminder of the difference between the goals that were set at the start of the war (getting the kidnapped soldiers back without negotiations) and the deal that was finally hatched. It is reasonable to ask whether the price - Samir Kuntar in exchange for two coffins - does not prove that we could have gotten rid of Kuntar as part of the Tennenbaum deal in 2004 and perhaps spared ourselves 161 fatalities and one failed war.

This was a good opportunity here to remind ourselves of the key lessons of the Second Lebanon War: that a responsible leadership should count to 10, rather than responding rashly, should not tie itself down to unrealistic goals and should certainly understand the significance of its decision to go to war. One member of the Winograd Committee was asked this week whether, in retrospect, the final report on the Second Lebanon War should not have been even harsher. He was surprised by the very question. "We wrote two of the harshest reports that have ever been written about the Israeli government," he said. "It should have been up to the public to finish the job and oust Olmert from office."

Perhaps the final chord of the war is something else entirely: the almost comical report about the accident that Brig.-Gen Guy Tzur caused - the same Guy Tzur who was the failed commander of Unit 162 during the war and who is now commander of a training base - when, as a passenger in the back seat of an F-16 fighter, he managed to crash the plane. This is another image in a long and depressing series - which also includes Amir Peretz's binoculars and the two black coffins. A man lacking almost all relevant experience pulls the wrong handle and causes a catastrophe, wrecking a machine in which Israel has invested a fortune. Somehow, this also sounds like the sort of anecdote we are quite used to in Israel.