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An Israeli View: Rethinking the issue

Last June 25, when IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by Palestinians from Israeli territory, Israelis knowledgeable about the history of prisoner exchanges between the two sides remarked that either Shalit would be returned within weeks--or the process would take years. A similar prognosis was offered immediately after the July 12, 2006 abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah in Lebanon...

by Yossi Alpher

Israel chose to respond to the abductions militarily. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert also proclaimed that Israel would not buy its soldiers' freedom by releasing Arab prisoners. This sealed the fate of the abducted soldiers to spend prolonged periods of time in enemy captivity. It was perfectly clear then, as now, that being blackmailed into releasing terrorists from Israeli prisons in order to repatriate abducted Israeli soldiers would weaken Israel's overall deterrent profile and encourage more attempts to abduct Israelis.

It was also clear, Olmert's remarks notwithstanding, that eventually we would "pay" for the soldiers' release. It was almost as if the entire affair had been choreographed in advance: Israeli resolve not to release prisoners; Israeli military retaliation that ends inconclusively; Israeli acceptance of the need to negotiate a prisoner exchange; prolonged negotiations during which Israel initially rejects the Arab demand to release large numbers of Arab prisoners but eventually accedes; difficulty in formulating an agreed list of prisoners among diverse Palestinian factions; more prolonged negotiations.

The most painful example of this ritual gone awry concerns Israel Air Force aviator Ron Arad. We turned down an initial deal because the price seemed too high. By the time we came around to accepting a higher price, Arad had disappeared in the hands of Lebanese Shi'ite extremists and/or Iranians.

We are currently stuck somewhere in the middle of this process. Negotiations over an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange are nowhere near conclusion. The recent optimistic media spin that accompanied the delivery to Israel of a list of several hundred Palestinian prisoners reflects the Palestinians' need to signal the international community that they are making progress toward a prisoner exchange that will, they hope, open the gates to financial support and diplomatic contacts. It also reflects Olmert's need to be perceived by the Israeli public as "delivering".

But realities on the ground are harsher. Israel quickly reviewed the Palestinian list and expressed "disappointment and reservations" because it comprised so many senior terrorist commanders and others with "blood on their hands" whose deeds were carried out in recent years. At the same time, there were hints that Israel may agree to release those incarcerated since before the Oslo process began, however heinous their deeds. We will almost certainly now encounter a negotiating pause while Israel registers its objections via Egyptian mediators and the Palestinians discuss among their various factions the identity of alternative candidates for the list.

From the Israeli standpoint, there are a number of lessons to be learned from the latest repetition of this ritual. First, no Israeli government can withstand the social, political and military pressures within Israel to pay ransom in the form of prisoner exchange in order to repatriate imprisoned Israelis. This is especially true regarding soldiers; it is critical for morale and motivation that serving troops and their families know that the government will invest huge efforts to rescue them if they fall into enemy captivity. Hence there is something to be said for avoiding non-credible statements about refusing to negotiate, and getting involved in prisoner exchange talks from the start.

Second--and to his credit, Olmert appears to have recognized this reality before the Shalit abduction but had no time to act on his insight--keeping thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons based on draconian sentences that would never have been applied to Israeli Jews who commit capital offenses merely feeds Palestinian determination to go to any lengths and accept any degree of suffering in order to get them out. Once the current prisoner exchange drama is over, and before another one can begin, the government must readjust its approach to the incarceration of Palestinians so that even the worst Palestinian terrorist offenders have a realistic chance of being released through legal procedures sometime in their lifetime, just as do Israeli rapists and murderers.

If we are honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that as long as we insist on never releasing Arab terrorists through institutionalized procedures, they will be released in prisoner exchanges. Better to institutionalize the process: this will reduce the danger of additional Israelis being abducted while constituting a realistic trust-building measure with Palestinians. But if more abductions do take place, this will also strengthen our resolve not to release young terrorists early in their sentences, most of whom invariably return to the path of terror. This has been the pattern in most recent prisoner exchanges, with devastating consequences for Israeli security.

Finally, for political purposes--i.e., to mute criticism from the right and from the families of Israeli victims of terrorism--but also in terms of fairness and balance, when a prisoner exchange occurs or, preferably, when veteran Palestinian terrorist prisoners are released by Israel voluntarily, the government can and should release Israeli terrorists incarcerated for prolonged periods for attacking Palestinians.

The prisoner issue will only end when there is a permanent and comprehensive political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That appears far away. Hence we must rethink this highly emotional issue in the most rational way possible, the sooner the better.- Published 16/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Posted 04/17/07 by: admin


06/01/07 09:44:42

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2. Return bronse soldier to old place.
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4. Remove PRO from europe.
06/06/07 12:37:27

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10/18/07 09:21:07

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10/31/07 09:57:51

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