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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 3

HEADLINE: Exchange rates


Sometime soon, some number of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners now held in Israeli jails - it's not yet know if it's in the hundreds or over one thousand - are likely to be released in a prisoner exchange.

In return, Israel hopes to retrieve one living Israeli, the corpses of three dead Israelis, and information regarding a fourth Israeli, who is not known to be living or dead.

The question now widely discussed is whether this is a worthwhile exchange. In this issue of Up Front, Bar-Ilan University's Gerald Steinberg explores the strategic dilemmas posed by such exchanges; Hebrew University's Shalom Rosenberg explores the moral ones; and the Post's Erik Schechter looks at the mechanics of the process.

Our own feeling is that such a lopsided prisoner exchange would be a mistake. As Steinberg notes, it would give Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah a political boost just as Hizbullah is beginning to lose popular support in Lebanon. It follows the dreadful precedent set in 1986 with the Ahmed Jibril swap, in which three Israelis were exchanged for 1,100 prisoners, many of whom were later involved in the killing of Israelis.

Most seriously, it invites future kidnappings. Today we speak about Elhanan Tannenbaum and Ron Arad and our thoughts are with their families. Who will we speak of next?

It is true that the return of Tannenbaum and - if he is alive - Arad, would be a boost to national morale. And even if the government sends the wrong signal to our enemies with this prisoner exchange, it sends the right signal to Israelis. The Jewish state is nothing if it will not go to extraordinary lengths for the safety of its soldiers and citizens.

But whatever view one takes on the matter, what's really extraordinary is the debate itself. Here we are, about to exchange many hundreds of potentially dangerous men so that one or two Israelis will come back to us alive. If this is a testament to Israeli foolishness, it is also a testament to Israeli goodness.

So here's another question we'd like answered: How is it that this society is the world's most pilloried? "Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in the world," wrote Eric Hoffer in 1968. Perhaps it's as well, or would be if anyone took notice. As it is, the presumption of goodness counts against Israel twice: first, by setting Israel in a moral category all its own; second, by the additional penalties imposed for every failure to meet exaggerated expectations.

Consider the difference with the Palestinians, many of whose religious spokesmen actually boast they hold life cheap. Morally speaking, the world expects little of the Palestinians: To ask them to denounce suicide bombings, and to ask their government to act against terrorist groups, is considered an extravagant request. As for demanding that Palestinians ought to justify their state by abiding by the civilized norms of governance - democracy, respect for human rights, that kind of thing - that's the sort of thing only George W. Bush does.

We hardly have the space here to explore the reasons for this odd inversion of moral perception. But one point bears mentioning.

In the most fundamental way, a prisoner swap places an exact figure on the question of how much a human life is worth. So Tannenbaum's freedom is worth 1,000 Arab prisoners? Fine. But consider the other side of the equation: One Arab prisoner is worth 1/1000 of Tannenbaum. That's a proposition a man like Nasrallah may be willing to accept. We should think carefully whether it's one we are willing to accept, too.

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