Not at Any Price

The obligation to bring back a hostage alive never ends. The problem does not lie in the goal, but in the implementation.

A few months ago I wrote a column here entitled "Yes, at any price," which discussed the release of Gilad Shalit. Today I know that the article was written from my gut rather than my head. The writer was influenced by public opinion, by the parents' restrained behavior, by the moving photo of Gilad who still looked wet behind the ears.

The country, which has suffered innumerable murderous terror attacks, found it easier to cope with the large numbers of dead than with the situation of the living Gilad. Hamas members are experts at this horrific game of driving a family to distraction. But as opposed to the parents' fear, the precedent of missing pilot Ron Arad will not repeat itself here, because Hamas is guarding Gilad like an asset worth its weight in gold.

Operation Cast Lead, whose success or failure is still being debated, is what raised the ante of public reaction regarding Shalit, as though an opportunity to rescue him by force had been missed. The family that's been a model of restraint set up a protest tent in front of the Prime Minister's Residence, as though he's the one preventing their son's rescue. The site quickly turned into a battleground between the parents of the kidnapped soldier and the parents of victims of terror attacks, who oppose the release of prisoners serving hundreds of years behind bars. As though we were talking about two rival camps.

What were the feelings of the parents of the two soldiers killed in the raid in which Gilad was kidnapped? What did they say when they saw the public's identification with the Shalits? It's a shame we're not in their place in the same situation, with our children in the hands of Hamas, but at least alive?

If we can understand Gilad's parents, the visits by politicians, ministers and VIPs to the protest tent took on the dimensions of a farce. Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and others are making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to shake hands, like they were from the United Nations. After all, they are the elected officials whose vote and judgment will determine what happens - who will be released and how many will be released to bring Shalit home. They are the people who decide on operations in which soldiers are killed or become disabled for life. And one of the parents rightfully shouted at the ministers: "Where have you been and what have you done since July 25, 2006?"

In one of the media leaks, Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying that "this festival will kill us." And he's right. There are also families in Gaza, and it pains them as well that their sons or fathers have been imprisoned for many years in Israel. But they are simply stronger than us and perhaps believe more strongly in their case.

Attorney Uri Slonim, who has handled hostage exchanges, says the term "at any price" does not appear in his lexicon. Any price is good only if it is reached through negotiations. When we say "at any price" we mean that we are willing to give everything in exchange for nothing. Tomorrow they'll ask us for the Western Wall. When we say not at any price, we are in effect negotiating. But the other side has named the price and is not budging from it. It was a dictate rather than negotiations. In the Middle East bazaar, if you pay the first asking price they laugh at you.

The obligation to bring back a hostage alive never ends. The problem does not lie in the goal, but in the implementation. The Americans in Iraq, for example, don't negotiate with kidnappers of their soldiers. Maybe that's why there has been a significant decline in kidnappings. The obligation to bring the son home will never end for us. But wisdom, patience and the art of negotiation will determine the result in the end.

Between compassion and emotion there is also the matter of common sense. In terms of compassion, they are holding a captive we long to rescue. And in this mission we must distinguish between two things: Are the negotiations being conducted in the best possible way with the best people? And did the government adhere to red lines above and beyond what is reasonable?

There was a time when we adhered to the principle that we don't release prisoners with blood on their hands. This slogan was overturned in the 1985 Jibril deal, when 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for three captive Israeli soldiers; then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin explained it by saying he couldn't bear the looks he got from the family members. Recently the country released Samir Kuntar, the murderer of the Haran family in Nahariya in 1978, who was welcomed in Lebanon as a national hero. And that was after generations of prime ministers declared that he would never see the light of day. The decision makers determine the "red lines" because if there is no red line, the current negotiations will be significantly damaged, not to mention the coming ones.

In any case, the prime minister and cabinet are the ones who decide how much they are willing to pay to achieve their goal and what risks their concessions impose on the country. The fear of losses is paralyzing the army. The decision to publish the names and deeds of the leading murderers whom Israel agreed and did not agree to release in exchange for Shalit was no coincidence. Among the general public, emotion is stronger than common sense, but the country's leader must not accept the precedent that he can be blackmailed and is willing to submit to the dictates of the cruel enemy at any price.