Is It Easier to Divide Jerusalem or Free Terrorists?

The theoretical answer: Decisions about war, peace more important than exchange of prisoners.

What is more important for Israel's security? Bombing a nuclear reactor, or bringing home a single soldier being held prisoner? Going to war, or the future address of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for a prisoner? Setting the borders of the state, or the imprisonment of senior terrorists?

The theoretical answer is clear: Decisions about war and peace are more important than the exchange of prisoners. But in reality the attitude is precisely the opposite. It is much easier for a prime minister to divide Jerusalem or destroy Beirut than agree to the release of 10 serious Palestinian terrorists to the West Bank in exchange for the return of Gilad Shalit from the Gaza Strip. More than for any other political or security-related decision, the discussions on prisoner exchange deals lead politicians to share their troubles with the public, as if they were elected to whine, not to lead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considered a leader who has a hard time making decisions, who often includes others in the process and reads the results of public opinion polls before making up his mind. It is not surprising that he has been meeting with the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers day and night to debate the Shalit deal. But his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who prided himself on being a fast decision maker, suffered the same sort of hesitation over Shalit. Olmert embarked on the Second Lebanon War, offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a permanent agreement and resumed talks with Syria, almost without consulting anyone. But he bequeathed to his successor the matter of bringing back Shalit.

Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, found it easier to decide in favor of prisoner exchanges. He championed the principle that an imprisoned Jew must not remain in Arab hands. But even he had to work very hard to convince his cabinet to support the January 2004 deal with Hezbollah, in which around 430 Arab prisoners and the bodies of 60 Lebanese soldiers were released in exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers who had been abducted in October 2000. (The road map and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were approved with a larger majority.)

Like his successor, Sharon wrapped his decisions in sentimental schmaltz: "Few are the times when a government deals with such ethical and moral dilemmas." Six years later, Tennenbaum is forgotten and no one cares about the hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese released in the deal. The names change but the dilemmas remain the same.

The politicians are hard-pressed to commit themselves on the Shalit deal because it has a face - both our prisoner and their prisoners. The minute the debate moves from the general to the personal, it turns into an emotional issue. Everyone can put themselves, or their child, in Shalit's place and imagine his terrible suffering, just as it is much easier to raise money for a specific child who needs a bone marrow transplant than for 1,000 anonymous recipients.

Vague language makes discussions on security easier. Terms such as "restoring deterrence" or "striking at terrorist infrastructure" insulate the cabinet conference room from the human suffering that their decisions cause. The ministers who one year ago authorized Operation Cast Lead in order to "restore life in the south to normalcy" would certainly have considered their decision more thoroughly had they seen pictures of the three daughters of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, the Gazan physician, in the knowledge that their decision would endanger their lives.

Golda Meir, too, would probably have reconsidered her refusal to hold peace talks with Egypt prior to the Yom Kippur War had she been asked, "What would you do to prevent a war in which thousands of soldiers will die?" or been shown high-school graduation photographs with black frames around the former students who would never return. But the discussion in Golda's kitchen was in abstract, almost semaphoric language and focused on how to deceive the cabinet, the public and the Americans and to camouflage the real decision.

The same thing is happening with the Shalit deal. The negotiations moved quickly so long as they were about numbers, and stalled when they moved on to names. The politicians yearn to establish principles for such exchange deals in order to free themselves from personal dilemmas and move the discussion back from names and faces to more abstract terms. This will not do them any good: Even after the current deal is completed and Gilad Shalit is back home this debate will repeat itself if another Israeli is taken prisoner. Then too, public opinion and the prime minister will be occupied much more with his return than with the fundamental strategic issues.