Israel has a rather peculiar record when it comes to freeing Palestinian prisoners. By the standard of prevailing Israeli cultural and political values, its approach is understandable, even laudable. But by any objective standard of realpolitik, the Israeli approach is counterproductive.
Israeli governments all too frequently refuse to free imprisoned Palestinian terrorists as confidence-building gestures aimed at relatively moderate Palestinian leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). They cite legitimate reasons like the Israeli "blood on the hands" of the terrorists and the reaction of the families of those killed by the prisoners. Then they release terrorists by the hundreds in return for small numbers of Israeli prisoners. When that happens, Israel’s decision-makers once again cite as justification public pressures, this time by the families of the Israeli prisoners, along with the IDF’s admirable ethos of returning every lost soldier.
The Palestinian prisoners not released as gestures in accordance with requests by the more moderate Palestinian leadership are usually the old and the ill, including those sentenced before the Oslo process began 13 years ago. The prisoners released in return for captured Israeli soldiers and civilians are those demanded by the terrorist organizations holding the Israelis, and are often young and active enough to return to their terrorist activities and kill more Israelis.
The most important "missed" deal of this nature concerns the failure to ransom Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who parachuted into Lebanon in 1986. Israel wouldn’t meet his captors’ price in prisoners when a deal was possible; Arad subsequently disappeared. The Arad case is held up as the exception that proves the rule: pay the price. So is the death of Nachshon Waxman, a captured IDF soldier killed in an abortive rescue attempt near Jerusalem in 1994. The most controversial successful ransom deal, involving Elhanan Tanenboim, a crook ransomed from Hizballah in return for hundreds of prisoners in 2004, was sufficiently acceptable to the public that it did not cost PM Ariel Sharon politically in any way.
Every thinking Israeli understands that ransoming captured Israelis with hundreds of Palestinian prisoners runs completely counter to the logic of deterrence and encourages the abduction of additional Israelis. Yet most Israelis refuse to punish their leadership for doing this, because bringing home Israelis who have been captured and imprisoned simply because they are Israelis is a very high-value national principle. Besides, the ongoing conflict seems to provide Israel with an endless supply of new Palestinian prisoners–more than half a million (!) Palestinians have at one time or another been imprisoned by Israel–who will be available as ransom payment when the time comes.
Thus public pressures justify paying a high price in Palestinian and other prisoners to ransom captured Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, but prevent releasing less valuable Palestinian prisoners to buy good will and catalyze the political process with the Palestinian leadership. Put differently, the Israeli political leadership frequently doesn’t dare to release relatively harmless Palestinian prisoners as a gesture, despite the undoubted diplomatic advantage this would generate- -but also does not dare, sometimes after months and even years of bickering, to refuse to release far more dangerous prisoners when it comes to ransoming a captured Israeli.
In the current crisis over the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Olmert government–which insists it will not release prisoners this time–nevertheless appears to be considering a deal that would condition a delayed release of Palestinian prisoners not only on Shalit’s prior release, but on Hamas’ agreement to a more effective ceasefire that ceases Qassam rocket firings. Hamas, for its part, appears to be demanding prisoners that are relatively easy for the government of Israel to release in terms of public opinion: women, the very young and very veteran prisoners (in addition to the recently jailed Hamas legislators and other politicians). Success in negotiating such a deal would be a positive step forward for Olmert compared to what his predecessors gave up in previous deals.
An alternative might be to challenge the assumption, implicit in the repeated release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a handful of Israelis or even a single Israeli, that individual Palestinian prisoners are somehow worth less than individual Israeli prisoners. Suppose Olmert offered to release one Palestinian, Marwan Barghouti, in exchange for Corporal Shalit. . . .