Hot Iron 2009

Netanyahu does not need a lesson on the serious security and political implications of the deal he is cooking up, and how they may encourage the Iranians and their helpers in the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to release 20 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a video of Gilad Shalit is worrying - because of the decision made and because of the decision makers.

It's a 2009 version of the Western Wall Tunnel riots that occurred 13 years ago. The only difference is that in 1996 Netanyahu backed down after the Palestinians killed Israelis, showing he was pliable, fragile and susceptible to extortion. Now he's pursuing a similar path, but in the opposite order.

The Israel Defense Forces dubbed the crisis of September 1996 "Hot Iron." It seems Netanyahu's pattern of decision making then and now is worthier of the title "Quivering Rubber."

The "assertion of Hamas' responsibility" for Shalit's fate, to quote the announcement by Netanyahu's office on Friday, is a laughable achievement. The Israeli government, unlike the Shalit family, had no need to demand that Hamas prove Gilad Shalit - for whose release his abductors have vowed to deliver a mass release of Palestinian prisoners - is alive and well. It was beneficial for Hamas to deliver the Shalit tape and distribute it free of charge, as leverage to spur the Israeli public to pressure its government.

When Netanyahu bargains to release prisoners in exchange for a videotape, he relieves Hamas of its obligation to allow the Red Cross regular visits with Shalit. He concedes that Israeli intelligence is groping in the dark. This could contain an element of deception, but also a lot of truth. The fact remains that Shalit was not sprung out of jail in a rescue operation during the taping, though he was clearly not rigged to an explosive vest either.

Furthermore, Netanyahu's bargaining gives precedence to political considerations. Essentially, if the prime minister has decided to release hundreds of killers and other prisoners, he must first clinch a deal that would then put him in a somewhat defensive posture vis-a-vis the public, even if most Israelis and ministers support the deal.

This is the same Netanyahu we came to know during the failed assassination of Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, which resulted in the release of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, who was responsible before and after his release for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis.

This same Meshal now taunts Netanyahu, promising more and more bargaining-chip abductions. Haggling with Hamas gives Meshal and his Gaza colleagues the same status as Israel - to the point where they can demand a simultaneous release of prisoners for the video, as though Israel were the party suspected of deceit. The definition of the deal as a move meant to foster trust is equally ridiculous, as though we were expected to be grateful that the abductors are gradually deigning to trust the government of the abducted.

Haggai Hadas was appointed to his position as chief negotiator for Shalit's release with no experience in bargaining. His relative advantage was in special operations. Six months later, the balance sheet shows zero operations and one problematic bargain. The German mediator is not supposed to be, nor can he be, pro-Israel. He is pro-deal - for Hamas as much as for Israel. The deal on Friday cemented Netanyahu's surrender. The rest is a matter of price.

The prime minister relies on the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who always speaks of the Middle East as a place where the weak receive no mercy, while actually helping create an impression of a weakling asking for mercy, thus inviting further attacks.

But Netanyahu must still overcome the objection of the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin. The latter opposes the release of "master butchers" and the return of dangerous prisoners to the West Bank, while overlooking the danger of exiling these people to distant countries where they would team up with Iran. If Netanyahu does not succeed in softening Diskin up, he will have to wait four or five months. Then, before he decides on Diskin's replacement in May, he could delicately find out whether the three candidates - and perhaps external candidates as well - would be amenable to adopting a more flexible position.

Netanyahu does not need a lesson on the serious security and political implications of the deal he is cooking up, and how they may encourage the Iranians and their helpers in the region. If he were not in government, he would have surely been the most vociferous of the deal's critics. But, as usual with Netanyahu, ideology makes way for videology. And heftier decisions than the one about Shalit lie in wait.

In his first government, Netanyahu faced resentment and hostility from many Israelis. This time he must contend with a gloating attitude on the part of those who take pleasure in watching him handle the problems that come with the title he so desired. But this is not actually an accurate description, because these problems belong to the whole of Israel.