In the coming days, people all over Israel will be debating the relative value and price of two prisoner exchanges, with Hezbollah and Hamas. Is this a desirable expression of moral might and the extended mutual responsibility that Jews feel for one another? Or does it reflect a weakness that is being exploited to attain unreasonable concessions? In Israel there is widespread support for legislation that would constrain future governments from yielding to extortion, yet this approach ignores the specific timing and political context of each situation.
Historically, we have the example of Entebbe, where the Israeli government preferred a military option to releasing terrorists. However, Israel has also negotiated and paid different prices for hostages as well, such as Samuel Rosenwasser who was kidnapped in 1970 by Fatah and exchanged for a single terrorist.
The details should be understood in the two deals Israel is facing. The Hezbollah exchange of Samir Kuntar for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, would release a criminal who has already served 30 years, and remove the uncertainty faced by the Goldwasser and Regev families. In contrast, the release of Gilad Shalit is tied to a list of prisoners who have committed heinous crimes, have yet to serve much of their sentences, and are likely to return to their hostile roles.
After these deals are concluded, the question will remain--can Israel make prisoner release part of a comprehensive attempt to solve political issues?