Seldom can Israeli Cabinet ministers have faced a more acute moral and political dilemma than the current prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah.
That proposal, which the 23-member Cabinet approved Sunday by a one-vote margin, forced ministers to weigh the conflicting interests of several Israeli families, put a price on the life of a kidnapped Israeli citizen and consider the long-term price that all Israelis may yet have to pay.
Now the government may have another decision to make: Hezbollah is demanding that those released include Samir Kuntar, the terrorist from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who murdered an Israeli family in a 1979 attack that shocked Israel.
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, claimed Israel promised to release Kuntar and that without him, the deal is off. Israeli officials said they never promised to free Kuntar — and that despite their eagerness for a deal, Israel, too, has red lines that it won’t cross.
"Regarding Kuntar, who killed an Israeli family, from our standpoint this is a principle: We have not freed Palestinians or nationals of other countries with blood on their hands," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.
Regardless of whether Kuntar ends up scuttling the deal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expended a tremendous amount of political capital for a deal that involved complex moral considerations and provides insight into the Israeli leader’s core values.
Citing the principle that you don’t leave dead or wounded soldiers in the field, some ministers backed the deal, which includes kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Others, making the same argument, opposed the deal, because it doesn’t include captured air force navigator Ron Arad or even information on Arad’s fate.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel will release 400 Palestinians and 20 Lebanese prisoners and hand over the remains of dozens of Lebanese militiamen in return for Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in October 2000.
Arad went missing in action when his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. The deal calls on German mediators and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to set up a joint committee to find out what happened to Arad after his Lebanese captors allegedly handed him over to Iran — but few in Israel expect Hezbollah to take that commitment seriously.
The Cabinet debate pitted two cardinal principles against each other: Part of the raison d’etre of a Jewish state is that it serve as a guardian of the Jewish people and, as such, does all it can to bring back captured Israelis alive. On the other hand, with the state engaged in a relentless struggle against terrorism, most Israelis strongly believe that they shouldn’t give in to terrorists because it will only encourage more attacks.
Ministers arguing against the deal emphasized its disproportionality, with Israel releasing more than 400 prisoners for just one living Israeli. They said that would encourage hostile organizations to kidnap more Israelis and make further demands. It also would give Hezbollah, a terrorist group, a great deal of regional prestige as the one Arab organization that repeatedly has proven its ability to make Israel bend.
Then there was the question of Arad, who has become a national icon. Tannenbaum, the one live Israeli in the deal, is said to be an inveterate gambler who was lured into captivity under dubious circumstances regarding a possibly shady business deal.
Moreover, ministers complained about the fact that Mustafa Dirani, the man who allegedly tortured Arad before handing him over to the Iranians, is one of the men to be freed. Israel captured Dirani from southern Lebanon in 1994 specifically to be used as a bargaining chip to win Arad’s release.
So why is Sharon intent on going through with a deal so obviously flawed?
For one, he is not holding out for Arad because he apparently believes the airman is dead. There has been no reliable information on Arad since 1988, and Sharon is convinced that, were he alive, his captors would long since have made demands of Israel in return for his release.
A government-appointed committee, under retired Justice Eliyahu Winograd, declared recently that there was no concrete evidence that Arad had died in captivity, but it stopped short of saying he was alive. Sharon decided not to harm the chances of saving Tannenbaum by holding out for the presumably dead Arad.
"You must vote for this deal to save a living Israeli," Sharon told the Cabinet. "To leave him there is to let him die."
Tannenbaum’s character, in Sharon’s view, is immaterial. If it turns out that Tannenbaum broke the law, Sharon believes that he should be punished upon his return to Israel, not by Hezbollah.
In Sharon’s determination to save a Jew in distress, one gets a glimpse of core values that go back to his formative years. One of Sharon’s lesser-known exploits was the extrication of his platoon, pinned down by heavy enemy fire, in the War of Independence.
Bleeding badly from a severe stomach wound, the 19-year-old Sharon doggedly led his men out of an almost impossible situation. His courage then and his determination now stem from the same guiding principle: That he must do all he can to save and protect Jews.
Sharon remains determined to press ahead, even though his readiness to free hundreds of prisoners has cost him dearly in terms of credibility with the Palestinians and the Americans. If he is so ready to give prisoners to Nasrallah, they ask, why was he reluctant to release jailed Palestinians when former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas demanded a gesture to build support on the Palestinian street?
Sharon confidants rejected the comparison. The Nasrallah case, they said, is a question of saving an Israeli life. By contrast, the Abbas case was a question of political tactics, choosing not to make wholesale prisoner releases until Abbas began fulfilling his commitment to act against terrorists. In any case, Israel ended up releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to appease Abbas — though the Palestinians dismissed the move as insufficient.
Still, in weighing the two guiding principles — saving Jews and not capitulating to terrorists — Sharon is prepared to go only so far. He draws the line at releasing terrorists with civilian blood on their hands. Those who take Jewish lives must be made to pay.
That’s why he is so insistent on not releasing Kuntar, even if it means leaving Tannenbaum in Hezbollah hands.
The question now is who will blink first on the Kuntar issue: Sharon or Nasrallah? Those who know Sharon say it won’t be the prime minister.