Lessons of the Swap

Now that the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser have been returned to Israel, perhaps it is possible to conduct an intelligent discussion of the many issues surrounding the deal with Hezbollah.

Now that the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser have been returned to Israel, perhaps it is possible to conduct an intelligent discussion of the many issues surrounding the deal with Hezbollah. On the one hand, the government declared it would "do everything" to return the abducted soldiers. On the other, it said it would not negotiate with the captors. Both declarations were irresponsible and handcuffed the government. On the one hand, it is impossible to say - and should not be said - that "everything" will be done, since everything includes measures that are best not even considered. On the other hand, it is obvious that sooner or later negotiations will be held with the abductors, as was done in the past.

Anyone with even a little experience conducting kidnapping negotiations knows how hard it is to set iron-clad rules. Each case is different, the political circumstances and immediate context are not easily categorized, and it is impossible to lay down "red lines."

That said, it is clear that there are a few general principles that apply to these types of negotiations, and that Israel did not observe them. The main principle is the need for knowledge about the victims' condition. Throughout the negotiations, Israel did not know whether the two abductees were alive or dead, and conducted the talks without knowing what it would receive in exchange for the Lebanese prisoners. That situation is inconceivable, and all the talk about "bringing the boys home" only blurred that.

In any future case, Israel must announce that it will not begin negotiations without knowing whether the captives or abductees are dead or alive. At the same time, Israel must insist that representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross be permitted to see the captives and submit an official report on their condition. This principle can be adopted now in the case of Gilad Shalit: It is not acceptable for the kidnappers to give his family a letter, as an act of kindness, without a transparent report on his condition. Both demands are backed up by international law.

One of the arguments against this position is that the government must also contend with public pressure. This is true, but public opinion is not an autonomous entity detached from reality, or from the way the government deals with it. In this case, the government made a grave mistake when it allowed itself to follow public opinion, which treated the abducted soldiers like little Jewish boys kidnapped by Cossacks rather than soldiers in the army of the Jewish state. The government must tell the public and the families with total conviction that it will do everything in its power to free the soldiers within the boundaries of Israel's overall interests - but not "everything." Just as the government has the right to send soldiers into battle, and perhaps to their deaths, so too does it have the right to view the abductees' fate in the framework of the state's broader strategic interests.

There is another conversation in the public debate, one that ties the issue to the religious mitzvah of redeeming captives. This commandment is an understandable, human response by the Jewish public in the Diaspora, which represents a weak, vulnerable minority lacking military or governmental power. In this situation, there is no choice but to give in to extortion. In today's reality, in which there is a Jewish sovereign entity, there is a wide variety of options available based on the state's power. This argument does not rule out the possibility that in a particular situation there may be no choice but to submit and pay ransom, but this is the last choice rather than the supreme commandment.

Last of all, the role played by the media in this matter is scary. It turned a difficult human tragedy and serious strategic dilemma into something akin to a soap opera. Sometimes it is possible to approach the grieving families and ask for their opinions and their feelings: It is precisely those who feel their pain who must restrain themselves and not see their troubles as a tool for raising ratings. Some people in the media must look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are ashamed of their role in this story.

It is not always easy to balance considerations of the general good and the private good. But it is precisely in such complex situations that this consideration must guide the leaders, the public and the media.

Shlomo Avineri was director general of the Foreign Ministry during the Entebbe rescue mission.