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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 29

HEADLINE: Don't release any more prisoners


We are constantly being told by our leaders that the price demanded by Hizbullah in exchange for the one Israeli civilian they hold and the three bodies of our kidnapped soldiers whom they murdered entails "heart-wrenching dilemmas."

Philosophers may permit themselves to mull over the intellectual esthetics of dilemmas without daring to impale themselves on one or the other horn and coming up with a reasonable solution. But political and military leaders cannot afford such a luxury.

On the eve of the forthcoming prisoner exchange with Hizbullah I have a bad smell in my nostrils. It comes from the suspicion that our leaders have decided to ignore Israel's long-term interests for an extremely short-term and ephemeral gain.

First of all, the term "prisoner exchange" is a euphemism. Hizbullah is proposing to exchange one Israeli civilian, Elhanan Tennenbaum, whom they kidnapped after luring him to an Arab country, and the bodies of three kidnapped soldiers, Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid, and Adi Avitan, whom they murdered in cold blood. The quid pro quo is supposed to be the release of hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists Israel is holding. This is eerily reminiscent of the misguided 1986 swap in which 1,100 terrorists of the Ahmed Jibril terrorist organization held by Israel were exchanged for three Israeli prisoners captured in the 1982 Lebanon War.

An 11th-hour development over Rosh Hashana that should remind us how futile such exchanges are was the report that the Islamic Jihad terrorist who murdered a seven-month-old baby and a civilian adult in the settlement of Negohot had been released from Israeli custody only two months earlier. It was a ghastly reminder of how many of the Jibril terrorists released in 1986 went back to perpetrate murderous acts of anti-Israeli terror.

Politics may not be an exact science. But even if it is only a matter of trial and error, shouldn't our leaders be capable of learning from their own and their predecessors' mistakes?

But, say the supporters of the Hizbullah deal at any price, doesn't the redeeming of captured or kidnapped Jews rank among the highest of Jewish religious and secular mitzvot? As politically incorrect as it may be, the answer is, "No not necessarily; and certainly not at any price."

Already in the Talmud our sages ruled that Jewish captives should be ransomed, "but not above their worth." While the exact "worth" of a human being is moot, the wise inference is that there are limits on how much the Jewish collective should be prepared to pay for the redeeming of a fellow Jew.

IN MODERN, war-beset Israel we have very correctly adopted the value of going to very great lengths to free IDF prisoners. Asserting this value is essential both for army morale and for the confidence of soldiers' families.

It is also understandable that we do not trumpet the equally crucial limitations on that principle. "Great lengths" should indeed mean that, but should not extend to the probable sacrificing of the life of a potential rescuer to save a captive.

In the present situation we are dealing with a civilian prisoner who, on his own volition, traveled to an Arab country out of profit-oriented motives. We as a collective owe him and his family very little in the degree of peril we should assume in releasing murderers in exchange for his freedom.

It should be recalled that in the 1950s and '60s our leaders exhibited great patience until they could free the Egyptian Jews imprisoned following the 1954 Israeli espionage affair (esek habish) in exchange for thousands of Egyptian prisoners, including generals and many officers, from the 1967 war.

In exchange for the bodies of our three murdered soldiers we should pay nothing beyond a grudging and temporary desisting from killing their murderers. This admittedly flies in the face of the importance Jewish tradition has always accorded to giving all Jews Jewish burials. But in a new reality this tradition must be curtailed, even more than the far more crucial one of redeeming captives and saving lives.

In order to adopt such an approach, which emphasizes not imperilling the security of the many for the rescue of a few, it is essential that our leaders those who must confront the dilemmas involved and take the heartrending decisions be insulated as much as possible from pressure by captives' families, especially highly connected ones. Here a responsible media has an important role to play in not squeezing every last drop of emotion from the anguished families and then splashing it all over our papers and TV screens.

Our leaders should stop all the present prisoner exchange negotiations and wait for a more propitious time to free Tennenbaum. In the meantime, we must insist on monthly proof from the Red Cross as well as other international bodies and individual go-betweens that he is alive and relatively well. The absence of such proof should lead to immediate retaliation against the family members of the Hizbullah leadership.

The writer is a retired lecturer in political science and a veteran journalist.

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