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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 23

HEADLINE: The pity of Tannenbaum


This week, the Supreme Court upheld the decision by Tel Aviv District Court Judge Uri Shoham to lift a government gag order concerning details of Elhanan Tannenbaum's kidnapping - provided, the court said, that Tannenbaum's privacy not be violated.

So now all Israel "knows" is that Col. Tannenbaum - who until recently was widely presumed to have been a Mossad agent - was probably no more than a failed businessman with a gambling habit; that he had close dealings with an Arab-Israeli crime family; and that he was lured to Abu Dhabi for a business deal worth $150,000, though whether it was for guns or drugs remains unclear.

Those details aside, the court says, his privacy must remain inviolate. Right.

Last week in this space, we argued that the gag order should be lifted "in order to facilitate an intelligent and balanced discussion" about the wisdom of a prisoner swap. But what we have so far learned about Tannenbaum does not advance such a discussion. Rather, it confuses issues that ought to be separate.

The first of these issues is the wisdom of a swap. Opponents note that by exchanging hundreds of Palestinian, Lebanese and Pakistani prisoners for Tannenbaum, Israel encourages more kidnapping. Furthermore, freed prisoners are likely to commit acts of war or terror against Israelis in future, as Israel learned with the 1985 Ahmed Jibril deal. Finally, the emotions of bereaved family members should not cloud the picture for Israeli decision makers.

The contrary view runs roughly like this. First, that Hizbullah needs no encouragement to kidnap Israelis. And second, that Tannenbaum's return (along with the corpses of three Israeli soldiers killed on Mount Dov in October 2000) is worth more to Israel than even 1,000 Arab prisoners.

It is, says Ariel Sharon, "a matter of principle" that a country such as Israel leaves no man behind. So that's one debate. A second debate is whether this man, Tannenbaum, is worth 1,000 Arab prisoners - or 200, or 20, or two. Here an argument can be made that goes like this: For those Israelis taken hostage in the line of duty, the government must bend every effort. This is the category into which IAF navigator Ron Arad belongs. For our "innocents abroad" who are taken hostage in places like Colombia, some efforts must be made, but not maximal ones: these are (young) adults who should have known better.

Finally, there is Tannenbaum, about whom we now think we know so much. And the question is asked, Why should we lift a finger for him?

Tannenbaum's apparent unsavoriness has added weight to the view that a prisoner swap ought to be rejected. But the merits of a swap should not be weighed according to the merits of a man. Although we incline to the view that exchanging so many prisoners for Tannenbaum is a mistake, we appreciate the opposite argument. What we reject categorically is a triage approach to hostages, in which the price Israel pays for a given hostage is determined by the moral worth he is assigned in absentia.

The problems here should be obvious. First, do we really know that Tannenbaum was kidnapped during the commission of a crime? That's something that needs to be determined by an Israeli court of law, which in turn requires Tannenbaum's release.

Second, whose business is it anyway to judge Tannenbaum's moral worth? Surely not a public that is at best partially informed, much less a handful of newspaper columnists. Third, whether or not Tannenbaum is a crook, what's certain is that he has already suffered grievously for his alleged crimes, misjudgments and bad luck.

The prime minister insists that "you can't leave a human being in enemy hands." That is not, in our view, the best basis for strategy. But it expresses a decent moral impulse. As we think of the Tannenbaum family - which having been deprived of Elhanan has now been deprived of its honor, too - we say they deserve better.

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