The Bitter Politics of Prisoner Exchanges

For Israelis, the angst over paying a high price for the return of captured soldiers, alive or dead.

An Israeli hangs posters of the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev (R) and Ehud Goldwasser (L), held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, during a demonstration outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office in Jerusalem. The Israeli cabinet gave its green light today for a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, even though two soldiers captured by the Lebanese militia two years ago are known to be dead. The agreement was approved by 22 votes to three at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet, government officials said.

An Israeli hangs posters of the two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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JERUSALEM—After agreeing to release a notorious terrorist to Hezbollah in exchange for the remains of two POWs, Israel is in a resentful mood, vowing not to give in again to enemy "blackmail" out of sympathy for the families of captured soldiers.

Yet Israel has one remaining POW exchange in the works. And while the country is loath to be extorted a second time, the enemy in this second round, Hamas, sees the deal Israel just struck with Hezbollah as an encouraging precedent.

"Something important has happened," Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar was reported saying in Gaza this week. "Israel has agreed to release prisoners who it says have blood on their hands. We must therefore seize the opportunity and seek the release of our prisoners." (Refusing to release prisoners directly involved in fatal attacks has been a long-held Israeli principle, though it has been overridden several times in the past.)

In the negotiations being conducted through an Egyptian mediator in Cairo, Hamas seeks the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many who orchestrated major terrorist attacks, while Israel aims to secure the release of one soldier, Army Sgt. Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian guerrillas in June 2006 and believed to be hidden in Gaza.

These negotiations are certain to be affected by Sunday's Israeli cabinet agreement to release Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese member of the Palestine Liberation Front who bludgeoned to death a 4-year-old Israeli girl after shooting and drowning her father in the sea in 1979. In return, Israel is to receive the remains of soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose capture by Hezbollah nearly two years ago set off a month-long war between the two sides in Lebanon.

With the Goldwasser and Regev families making a protracted, emotional case for the two soldiers' return, Israeli public opinion came around strongly behind them—even after security officials made it clear in the last couple of weeks that the pair were almost certainly dead.

However, in the aftermath of the cabinet vote, and in anticipation of the hero's welcome Kuntar is expected to receive after the actual switch is made, probably within a week or two, the Israeli body politic is today being led more by its spleen than by its heart.

"This cruel horse-trading, exploiting the sensitivity of Israelis to the preciousness of human life, is a wake-up call to Israel to toughen its stance," wrote Ha'aretz's Yoel Marcus, the dean of Israeli columnists. "The current deal must be the last in the Israeli government's decades of bargaining to bring home its boys."

This shift in public opinion comes at the worst time for the campaign to gain freedom for Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian militants near Gaza three weeks before Regev and Goldwasser were taken. Just as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his cabinet were under enormous public pressure to pay Hezbollah's price and release the two soldiers' families from their long nightmare of uncertainty, the morning-after realization that Israel freed a savage murderer in exchange for body parts puts the government under growing pressure to turn down Hamas's demands.

In Gaza, though, the belief is that Shalit's value as a bargaining chip for Palestinian prisoners has shot up. "The Zionist enemy must learn the lesson: If they want to see the soldier again, they must accept all our demands as they did with Hezbollah," went a reported statement from Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the groups claiming responsibility for Shalit's capture.

The thinking among the Israeli leadership was that the recently brokered cease-fire with Gaza's militants might lead Hamas to soften its demands in the exchange talks. Instead, the two sides now seem to have hardened their positions, which could end up shortening the life of the already shaky truce.

For Israelis as for Palestinians, this is no time for yellow ribbons.