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Copyright 2004 Haaretz
January 29

HEADLINE: Background / The mother of all prisoner exchange deals

BYLINE: Yossi Melman

In May 1985, the national unity government freed 1,150 Palestinian terrorists for three soldiers taken prisoner by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Ahmed Jibril.

The deal sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment and there was a feeling that such a thing would not be allowed to happen again. But the only one who tried three years later to learn the lesson of the surrender to Palestinian terrorism was then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. Tragically, his firm stand backfired. Rabin did not approve the price, which he considered exorbitant, of releasing a large number of terrorists in exchange for navigator Ron Arad. The negotiations stalemated, Arad was sold to the Iranians and all trace of him was lost.

Unlike Rabin's bitter experience, Israel's governments did not try to to formulate a strategy about the appropriate price for bringing prisoners home and those who died in battle to burial.

In fact, already from the first incident - the 1968 hijacking of an El Al plane to Algiers - a huge gap opened between talk and action, gut feeling and head. Israeli governments always stated loftily that they would not give in to terror and time and again caved in, under the families' pressure. All the prime ministers, even right-wingers with hawkish uncompromising images like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and now Ariel Sharon, could not stand firm.

The lack of a clear position and a firm stand was exploited by the Palestinian terror organizations, who took advantage of Israeli democracy's vulnerability to the suffering of families to conduct cynical, merciless negotiations. The Hezbollah and the Iranians perfected the process. They obstinately refused to admit their responsibility for Arad's fate for fear of Israel's revenge. At the same time they acted to get bargaining chips against Israel. Their ace was Elhanan Tennenbaum, a businessman.

But this case is an exception. Israel agreed to pay an especially high price for a civilian, who although he is a colonel in the reserves, was on private business.

The problem is that the worst is still to come. Hassan Nasrallah, who rightly sees himself as Israel's humiliator, is planning, with Iran's encouragement, the next move. For Arad, Nasrallah will demand a price that is hard to fathom. Hundreds of Palestinian terrorists, including those that have "blood on their hands." As far as Nasrallah is concerned, this will be the mother of all prisoner exchange deals.

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