The government grapples with a heart-wrenching quandary

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Nov. 27, 2003

JERUSALEM - Every Sunday morning, government ministers converge on the Prime Minster's Office in Jerusalem for the weekly cabinet meeting. Under the watchful eye of journalists and TV cameras, they arrive in state-issued white Volvos, enter a non-descript building, and climb a flight of stairs, all the while doing their best to look very serious and purposeful.

Once the photo-op is over, the 23 ministers meet behind closed doors. The sessions usually last a few hours during which ministers tackle issues of state, later providing waiting reporters fresh fodder for the evening news.

Earlier this month, the cabinet endured one of the longest, most emotionally charged and heart-wrenching debates in recent years. The business at hand: a proposed German-mediated prisoner swap with the Iranian-backed, Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorist organization. By all accounts, it was the most anguishing meeting of the Sharon government since it took office in 2001.

The issue is an excruciating one. One that most countries never have to grapple with. Ministers had to decide whether to accept a deal that would gain the freedom of one kidnapped Israeli (Elhanan Tannenbaum) and the bodies of three IDF soldiers (Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Sawayid) killed by Hezbollah in 2000. In exchange, Israel would have to pay dearly, releasing 425 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. All this without Jerusalem receiving even a shred of information on the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad who was captured in Lebanon in 1986.

In the end, after eight hours of intense non-partisan debate and strong pressure from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the cabinet narrowly approved the prisoner swap 12-11. The division among the ministers reflected a similarly charged debate among the public.

There is no debate about the desire to bring home all those held (alive or dead) in Lebanon. Their continued absence gnaws at the hearts of Israelis who know it could just as easily have been their relatives or friends captured by Hezbollah. Given the deeply rooted Israeli doctrine of getting all its citizens home and the importance attached to the traditional Jewish value of giving each person a proper burial, the prisoner swap is a highly sensitive issue.

The dispute centers on the price and security consequences of this deal. Opponents argue that: Israel is yielding to extortion that rewards terrorists and will only encourage future kidnappings; acquiescing to such a grossly uneven exchange will boost the standing and strength of Hezbollah in the Arab world; in making such a deal Israel sends a signal of weakness; based on past experience, many of those released will carry out murderous attacks against Israelis; by including in the swap Musafa Dirani, a Lebanese terrorist leader who held Ron Arad for more than a year after his capture, the government is effectively abandoning Arad. (In 1994, Israel seized Dirani to be used as a bargaining chip.) These arguments are not easily dismissed.

Yet there are strong humanitarian factors behind the transaction. The pain of the families of the dead soldiers and Elhanan Tannenbaum has had a strong influence on ministers.

Nevertheless, the deal is perplexing. The most emotional point concerns Ron Arad. Since his capture 17 years ago, he has become a folk hero for Israelis. A brave soldier lost in action in defense of the country, his continued absence and unknown fate haunt the nation.

It's surprising the government would accept a deal that doesn't involve Arad. In the late 1980s, he was reportedly transferred to Iranian officials. Hezbollah claims it knows nothing of his whereabouts. This seems highly unlikely. With one phone call to their paymasters in Tehran, Hezbollah leaders could surely ascertain the fate of Arad, if it were made important enough.

Equally mystifying is the deal's arithmetic. The numbers just don't add up. In all the extensive coverage, I've yet to see any explanation of how the two sides arrived at such hugely lopsided terms: Israel frees 425 prisoners (including many terrorists) for one live civilian and three dead soldiers.

True, Israel has made similar outrageously imbalanced prisoner exchanges in the past, based on its readiness to sacrifice more than others to obtain the release of its citizens. But how many Israelis were later murdered at the hands of many of these freed prisoners?

For all the inconsolable grief of the families of those held by the enemy, the government owes it to all Israelis to hang tougher in any future negotiations. It's high time Hezbollah came clean on the fate of Ron Arad. The cabinet must demand no less. Like all Israelis, I pray he is still alive and will come home soon.

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