ANALYSIS / Prisoner Swap Is Capitulation to Blackmail by Terrorists

Cabinet accepted Amos Gilad's argument that Kuntar is a burden, not an asset, from Israel's standpoint.

At bottom, it was another painful lesson in the limits of power. The same government that on July 12, 2006 embarked, without fully thinking it through, on a war in which it vowed to bring back the hostages (three ministers have since quit; five joined) on Sunday voted with a heavy heart for the deal that will finally put the war Second Lebanon War to rest. We cannot overlook the gap between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declaration, a few hours after the abduction ("We will not give in to blackmail and will not negotiate with terrorists when it comes to the lives of Israel Defense Forces soldiers") and the deal with Hezbollah approved on Sunday. Much ground has been covered from the early arrogant pronouncements to the current hard reality.

The truth needs to be said: Israel did indeed capitulate to blackmail by a terror organization, after conducting lengthy negotiations with it. It is releasing five live prisoners, in return for (almost certainly) the bodies of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. But we should also admit that this is what Israel has always done, under similar circumstances. When hostages could not be freed by force, negotiations were held and concessions made, in many previous deals. Moreover, the price this time is lower than we paid in the past.

The deal secured by the government's coordinator of hostage talks, Ofer Dekel, appears to be the most reasonable deal one could be obtained under the present circumstances. Hezbollah would not sign a deal that did not include murderer Samir Kuntar's release.

Despite last week's embarrassing events, a deal was finally approved. A vast majority of ministers (22, including the prime minister, versus three) concluded there is no getting around it. Olmert's surprising and highly-publicized vacillating, up to the last minute, made no real difference; nor did the farce surrounding the peculiar directive for the chief military rabbi to consider declaring the hostages dead.

In the end, the ministers listened mainly to a harsh debate between two people: Mossad chief Meir Dagan and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Many of them could see the logic in the gloomy warnings by Dagan and his colleague, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, about the expected victory celebrations in Lebanon. But Ashkenazi was evidently more persuasive in his steadfast argument for bringing his soldiers home, alive or dead. And the ministers doubtless had ringing in their ears the tough sentiments of the hostages' families, who spent last week lobbying every last minister to go through with the deal.

The cabinet meeting was yet more proof of the American political observation that you stand where you sit. While Diskin opposed the deal, three ministers - his former commanders in the Shin Bet - supported it: Avi Dicter, Ami Ayalon and Gideon Ezra. In the background, of course, there is the Ron Arad affair. The ministers apparently accepted the argument Major General (Res.) Amos Gilad made on this matter: Kuntar is a burden, not an asset, from Israel's standpoint. The real concession on Arad was made in the [Elhanan] Tennenbaum deal, with the release of the real "bargaining chips," Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Obeid. Leaving Kuntar in jail won't bring salvation. All Israel can expect is a relatively detailed report of Hezbollah's failed efforts to discover what happened to Arad.

We still need to wait for the deal to go through, maybe close to the second anniversary of the kidnapping. It's not over till it's over, but the satisfaction radiating from Beirut on Sunday indicates that Hezbollah does not plan to torpedo what it has already achieved.